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3. Learning curves

Most of us were brought up driving cars before we had even the notion, let alone the chance, to try driving a boat.  Well, I’ve got to tell you, there are a lot of unexpected, unknown, insidious and invisible differences in technique that nobody can explain adequately to you before you set off to become a helmsman: after all, you’ve been a good car driver for decades, you know how to steer, and you know that you’ve got no brakes on the boat and you’re prepared for all of that.  Buddy, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

Let’s take just one point of difference between driving a car on the road and driving a boat on the water.  I mean, most of us – unless we’re the legendary ‘lady driver’ – pride ourselves on being able to park the car with both the front and back wheels just kissing the curb.  In urban settings where we have to ease in between other vehicles, we do that with some casual turnings of the steering wheel, and if woe and betide we see that we’re slightly off line, we apply the brakes, make sure nobody is watching, ease back out of the intended space, and do it again.  We don’t scrape the side of our car against an already-parked car, and we don’t often nudge the cars behind and in front of us.

Now let’s take that same scenario on the boat.  We’re approaching a mooring, and we see that there’s a space, a big space even longer than our boat, between two boats already tied up.  We need to moor, so this is the place for us.  Undoubtedly, even from a distance we see that there’s someone on the back boat, eating, frowning, and obviously intent on not-showing any sign of noticing that we are approaching.  So we point the bow in towards our intended space, and take off some speed.  Almost immediately we notice that we don’t seem to be travelling in a straight line – our stern especially seems to be drifting rapidly towards that back boat.  Holy cow!  Better give a boost of speed so that we get past him before we hit him …. Double holy cow, we’re going to smack into the quay with our bow if we don’t turn away from the quay a bit, but as we do, our stern starts to rush at breakneck speed towards the guy who was frowning at his sandwich and is now frowning aggressively at us.  Holy whatever, we’ve bounced off the quay, the crew have lost their footing and are rolling on the deck, and there’s still the boat in front to avoid ….. full reverse!  If we’re really lucky, we don’t hit the guy behind, nor the one in front; and we shout at the crew to ‘for god’s sake get a line on that bollard’.  If we’re not so lucky we will undoubtedly hear the immediate cry of “insurance, insurance!” ringing in our ears from the offended boat-owners.

We’ll feel nervous, a bit ashamed, and we’ll determine to change the angle of our approach, or the speed of our approach, or only to go into bigger spaces.  But that won’t resolve the problem, because we’ve not yet learned the real lesson.

See, a road is rigid, it’s static, it doesn’t move around by itself under our cars, or our feet.  Not so, water.  Be it a river or a canal, there’s movement under the boat.  Elementary, Watson; but not so elementary is the fact that the water doesn’t all move in the same way.  The deeper water near the middle of the river (or canal) pushes on the shallower water near to the banks, and creates a force which pushes boats in the shallower water towards the bank.  At this point we don’t travel in a straight line, we travel in more of a curve.  For this reason, the experienced helmsman leaves a good couple of metres or more in calculating where s/he wants to arrive and the course s/he will steer.  The current pushing towards the shore will take care of the difference.  Go slowly, don’t try to skim by the back boat, leave plenty of space, let the current do its job.  Maybe the guy eating his sandwich won’t look so worried.
We're several years into this, and it's still a learning curve.  Ever wondered why maritime ports have guys called pilots to bring the big ships in to safe moorings?.....  Fundamentally the same principles apply.
(c)2009 Michael Marriott