Yes, I am good at boat driving. I spent 20 years as a yacht broker conducting surveys or sea trials. And the thing about sea trials is, you not only have to get someone else’s pride and joy safely in and out of its berth, you have to make it look easy. No one wants to gain the impression that their new boat is difficult to handle.
So a 26ft Jeanneau should be easy. And largely it is. Plus there’s the ‘get out of jail free’ card of the bow thruster. I always have it switched on just in case, but it’s a matter of personal pride that I very rarely use it. My most difficult manoeuvre is also my most practised – getting into my marina berth. I reverse in as it fits the berth better and makes boarding much easier. Adding to the challenge is a fat yacht in the next berth.
But I’ve become adroit at mooring Smuggler’s single-handed and all was well until the neighbouring yacht disappeared for a month. Suddenly, the challenge was gone. Could I park it? Yes, eventually, but only after bouncing off the fenders or ending up a foot off the berth a couple of times. On one memorable occasion I had seven tries before the bow thruster took over. Cheating! I even had the ignominy of someone shouting “get some driving lessons!” Seasoned boat owners will know that the success or failure of one’s berthing manoeuvre is directly proportional to the number of people watching…
The yacht is now back, and normal service has been restored, but Smuggler’s clearly felt that my adrenaline levels needed a tweak. Picture the scene, two non-boating friends on board and we were stopping at Dartmouth for an hour. The tide was in full flood with a brisk wind also blowing up the river but no problem. I’d positioned myself off the pontoon, level with the gap and was gently ‘ferry gliding’ the boat into the space. Perfect. Just as we were about to touch the pontoon, the engine suddenly stalled and the engine alarm sounded. I had the full force of wind and tide carrying me forward and no drive!
With no knowledge of why the engine had stopped, I raced down the side deck, threw myself onto the peak of the bow and put both feet against the transom of the boat ahead, pressing as hard as possible. I now had another problem: the stern swinging out into the tide! I leapt for the pontoon, grabbing the pulpit rail and yelling for my friend to throw the stern line. She did, it dropped into the widening gap twixt stern and pontoon and the boat began to pivot into the channel, giving wind and tide a greater purchase. I grabbed the front of the pulpit, pulling it upstream for all I was worth. At one point I genuinely believed that I was going to lose it completely and face the prospect of Smuggler’s disappearing upstream without me. Somehow I kept my grip and the wind swung the stern back into the berth, the boat having described a complete 180 degree spin. I got lines and fenders on and waited for my heart rate to drop below 100bpm.
Climbing back on board I restarted the engine and tried a couple of nudges in and out of gear. Perfect. And it has been ever since (but I have had the shift cable replaced, the consensus being that a stiff cable was the most likely cause of the stall).
Nick Burnham: “I pride myself on being good at parking my boat, but a stalled engine on a blowy Dart tested my mettle”