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The Spectator Sport of Docking
September 27th, 2011 @ 07:27 PM EST by admin

from Jonathan Bamberger

With every passing season the average size of boats at the NYC docks is getting larger and larger. This increases the entertainment value of the spectator sport of watching your neighbours bring their boats back to dock while facing a brisk off-dock wind. Happily, it is a yacht club and we all help each other to minimize embarrassment or damage.

I admit that I myself have provided a small degree of yacht club entertainment over the years. While I generally might be embarrassed or annoyed by a fluffed approach, my wife Diane who has to jump down onto the dock is less impressed, and has been known to give the captain a severe performance appraisal.

Last year, we saw the new ‘dock and go’ system now being offered on new Beneteau and Jeanneau yachts. This has a rotating sail drive and bowthruster linked electronically and allowing the helmsman to move the boat in any direction with finger-light moves of a joystick. I am not sure helmsman is the right word for this activity, but anyway Diane immediately saw this as the answer to docking and wanted one installed immediately. However, they are only available on new boats and besides, this would spoil the purity of sailing by taking away the need for one of the key skills we develop as sailors. So the answer was a firm no.

This year, I had the privilege of going through the locks of the Welland Canal on the bridge of a 740 foot long lake freighter. Since the locks are only 750 feet long, this brings new meaning to the term docking skill – as the Captain cannot even see the bow from the bridge. However, the St Lawrence Seaway is currently testing a set of new systems on the Welland locks to make this process easier: Lasers measure the distance of the bow from the lock gate and display it on a large screen on shore for the captain to see. They also have a set of six large pads on the dock wall which, once the ship is roughly in position, move out from the dock wall up to a distance of 2 metres and using large suction pumps attach to the side of the vessel. The suction on these pads is sufficiently strong enough to avoid the need for dock lines as the ship rises or falls with the water in the lock. These six pads alone can hold a 30,000 tonne ship steady in almost any wind conditions and the system is called Hands Free Mooring (HFM). Even professional full-time mariners benefit from and praise this system.

If six HFM pads can hold 30,000 tonnes then surely dealing with our little boats would be an easy task. So now I realise that it is neither my docking skills nor my boat equipment that is the problem but rather it is our docks. I look forward to the installation of a simple laser system counting down the distance to the dock and an HFM suction pad on an extending arm at every dock – a two metre reach will be more than adequate. I hope the dock committee is taking note and I include a photo provided by the St Lawrence Seaway to assist them in their work.

The Seaway management also asked me to point out that they will be using the system in due course for pleasure boats. They won’t use the suction but they will have mooring cleats on the apparatus and allow the yacht to use just its own normal short dock lines to transit the locks of the Welland Canal.