When my houseboat the Phoenix comes ‘round the bend, the wind comes ‘round to greet her! I think it’s a law.
Since we bought our houseboat, I’ve learned a lot about docking in windy conditions. I won’t say I can do it with my eyes shut, but I admit that my passengers often shut theirs, for it can be a jolting experience.
When I was first learning to handle the Phoenix, the old salts on our dock (can you call freshwater boaters “salts?”) cautioned me, “Never approach the dock faster than you want to hit it.” Of course I didn’t want to hit it at all and said so, resolving that I never would. But I had a lot to learn about docking a houseboat, and as with most things, I learned much of it the hard way – an often-inconvenient distinction of my character.
When it’s windy, docking a single-engine, 40-foot steel-hulled houseboat with no flying bridge requires a confident skipper, with the ability to learn fast. A reliable motor, with the ability to rev high. A lot of practice. And sometimes a little prayer.
Bow thrusters are also a big help. By bow thrusters, I mean steadfast shipmates, helpful dockmates, or even amused onlookers, who stand on the walkways as the boat draws in and shove the bow forcefully one way or the other when it threatens to bang the dock.
The downside of having so much help available is one of the inscrutable principles of Thompson’s Mathenautical Law of Non-Linear Docking, which roughly stipulates, “The more people watching, the more likely the boat will get crooked and smack the dock.” An unfortunate corollary is, “The more friends on board, the harder the smack.” But there are benefits to a steel hull.
The dock never moves, although I once tried to use that as an excuse after “kissing” the slip with particular fervor. The Phoenix is twelve feet wide, and the slip is a generous sixteen. Yet when the wind is blowing, it is a trick to head the boat straight in. And if we are docking, the wind is blowing, that’s as reliable as taxes. I’ve taken to calling it “The Dockwind,” often preceded by a satisfying adjective.
Our slip is the one closest to the bank, requiring cautious navigation through a labyrinth of dock structures. Approaching our space is like threading a needle – with a thread that is 40 feet long and weighs ten tons. The Dockwind pays no mind to that, amusing itself with the Phoenix like it would with any other strand of unattached thread.
Capricious by nature, The Dockwind realizes the delicacy of this so-called threading operation and strives to disrupt it, gusting unpredictably, forever attempting to embarrass the skipper. Understanding the futility of trying to blow the shore into the boat, the fickle wind usually attempts the converse. Meanwhile the rocky shore, mere yards from the Phoenix, has no thought or care for nautical courtesy and would never give way, so it is entirely up to me to avoid it.
In the past I always checked the windsock at the peak of the dock as I made my approach, but I soon learned that the windsock lies. I don’t mean it is inaccurate or misleading. I mean it just lies there, perpetually inert, even in the spirited pre-docking breezes that the Phoenix triggers with her approach. The sock hangs sullenly from its post like a great dead fish, and anyone would wisely fear the gale forces required to stir that useless apparatus to its duty.
In any case, I know which way the wind is blowing – it’s blowing toward the shore, naturally, as it always does when we dock. Toward the shore…the one direction I never want to go accidentally in a boat. (I mean, of course, the one other direction I never want to go accidentally in a boat. Think about it.)
I’m not complaining. It is my opinion that if you own a houseboat, you must be willing and prepared to handle any circumstances. I’m just like the rest of you in that respect. I take what comes along and deal with it, and more expertly as time goes by.
Indeed, guiding the Phoenix into her slip in high winds is partly science and partly art. It is partly experience and partly instinct. It is partly skill, and partly blind luck. But recently, there’s been a new twist.
Due to the orientation of her windows and doors, we decided we prefer our houseboat facing outwards in the slip. So now I usually back her in. That’s right, backwards – one engine, stern first. And my, doesn’t The Dockwind love that?
No problem – I have great stern thrusters, too.