As the date of completion of our new Fountaine-Pajot Helia grows near, I am increasingly aware that Ryan and I are going to have to get this boat off the dock in La Rochelle and take it out to sea.
Which means I’m spending a lot of time staring at the dock, at the sharp edges on the end of the pontoon, at the obstacles in and around the marina and at the current that rips along the stern of Cheeky Monkey in the early afternoon, which I know requires bold motoring skills to penetrate.
Ryan and I share jobs on board, but there are certain jobs that we tend to leave mostly to one or the other because of our individual skills, knowledge, or strength. Ryan is usually the one at the bow when it’s time to drop or weigh anchor, which was not an easy job on our old boat Hideaway, as it didn’t have a windlass for its 44-lb. Rocna and 100 feet of chain. I, on the other hand, am usually at the helm for all docking, mooring, anchoring or any tricky maneuvering. Driving the boat has become my area of expertise.
So whereas Ryan has just gained an electric windlass for his anchor, which he can activate with the press of a button, I feel like my reasonably sized car has been replaced with a tractor trailer, which I have no idea how to drive. I understand how a monohull moves in forward and reverse, but I’m not sure I understand how an extremely large catamaran moves with two engines.
Two weeks ago, when I stepped onto the 44-foot floating penthouse we now call home for the first time, I clapped my hands a little because the living space was overwhelmingly beautiful. And then Ryan mentioned taking the boat out for a test drive, and the smile immediately faded from my face. Because I knew getting the boat off the dock was my job.
“Someone is going to teach me how to drive this thing, right?” I asked Ryan three times in one day. And then three times the next day. And a few times every day following.
“Don’t worry,” Ryan said. “Catamarans are so much easier to drive than monohulls. Everyone says so. It’s like driving a tank.”
“That means nothing to me. I’ve never driven a tank. Or a catamaran.”
Luckily, we were able to track down a coach to help us out. Fountaine-Pajot recommended a guy named Alain, who does boat deliveries for them. “He’s a very good teacher. Very patient. You’ll like him,” they said.
So we give Alain a call and ask if he can spare a Sunday on the water to coach me in driving and docking our new boat. “We’d be happy to pay cash for a few lessons,” we tell him.
“Don’t worry,” says Alain, seeing the nervousness carved into my brow when he steps on board our boat. “I will have you do crab exercises so you learn how to maneuver. No problem.”
“Um. Crab exercises?”
“Yeah, you know,” says Alain in his thick French accent. He is holding his hand flat and moving it around to demonstrate the boat moving forward and backwards while also sliding sideways. “We will move ze boat like zis, and like zis, and zen up to the dock. Like a crab. It’s easy. You will see.” He pats me on the back and smiles.
I nod my head and hope for the best as we prepare to start the engines. Plural. We have two engines now, so we need to start both of them. Already this is a foreign experience.
But just like a good teacher should, before Alain takes the helm, he makes Ryan and I step onto the dock with him and look carefully at the boat.
“Before you go away from the dock, every time, you must first take care to look at the water and the wind to understand your situation,” says Alain. “You can see the current is coming very fast here,” he says pointing to the frothy water at the stern of Cheeky Monkey. “It’s going to be a problem to get off the dock. We need a lot of power in reverse to push the bow away from the dock and then we go.” He demonstrates the motion of the boat with his hand again.
I am concentrating on the water rushing past the hull of Cheeky Monkey as I follow Alain up to the helm station so I can watch him in action.
Ryan is standing on the stern with a fender in hand, ready to fend the boat off the dock as the far corner of the stern gets pressed into the pontoon. The wind is pushing us onto the dock, along with the current, so we release the bow and stern lines and watch Alain as he puts the throttle into reverse, pushing the bow away from the dock. Then he shoves the throttle forward, revving the engines and steaming quickly away from the dock without incident. I’m watching Alain’s face and his hands as he works and I notice he is calm and relaxed the entire time.
Alain’s confidence in his maneuvers are an inspiration. “I just need to practice and I’ll be fine,” I say to myself, while exhaling a sigh of relief that it wasn’t me who had to get the boat off the dock in that current.
“Don’t worry,” Alain says, seeing the concerned look on my face. “When we come back there will be no current. It will be easy.”
The next three hours are spent doing “crab exercises” in the marina, maneuvering forwards and backwards and sideways with me at the helm, and with Alain there ready to grab the throttle at any moment in case I do something stupid, which only seems to happen when I’m going in reverse.
Alain gives me the most useful tip of the day when he says, “Think of the throttles like your shoulders.” Alain puts his hands on his shoulders and moves his right shoulder forward, then his left shoulder. “If you want to turn left, you move your right side forward. It is the same with the throttle. If you want to go right, you move like zis,” and he moves his left shoulder forward and his right shoulder back. “So when you want to turn, think about your shoulders. It is the same as the throttle.”
Going forward and pulling up to the dock, I am fine. It feels doable and even somewhat comfortable, so long as the dock is always on the starboard side, where the helm station is. I have no idea what to do if I have to dock on the port side, where I have absolutely no visibility from the helm, but I’m hoping we’ll leave that maneuver for another day.
Alain is encouraging, saying often, “Very good, very good, Tisha.” I don’t bother to correct him because I’m amused every time Alain speaks, especially when he yells, “Brian, you must to communicate with Tisha and say things like ‘you are three meters away, one meter away, a little more reverse’, that kind of thing! Communication is very important!”
I start to giggle, but then Alain scolds me for not communicating enough with Ryan from the helm. And I realize I’m terrible at this, too — I have said nothing the whole time I’ve been working on these maneuvers. I’m so fraught with concentration, moving the throttles back and forth, that I forget there is anyone else involved in the process of docking but me.
Ryan is standing dutifully by with a fender at the stern, but I find it hard to tell him out loud what I’m doing while simultaneously working out what the hell it is I’m doing. It requires more multi-tasking than my brain can handle in this moment.
“You must to communicate!” shouts Alain again. “You cannot work together if you do not communicate!”
It feels like we’re in marital counseling all of a sudden, as Alain’s observations probably apply to more than just docking and anchoring. It is a problem that applies to all aspects of living on board as a couple.
Not to mention Ryan and I already know we are terrible at communicating on board, particularly while anchoring, though we have made some progress by talking through what went wrong after each fiasco. When we first started cruising, it seemed like four out of five anchoring maneuvers ended in us not speaking to each other for most of the evening.
This is a habit I would very much like to break.
So, I am keen to follow Alain’s advice to communicate more, but I actually don’t know what to say when my mind is focused on the angle we’re approaching the dock and the nervousness I feel at the speed we’re coming in at. If I were to say out loud the string of words running through my brain at the moment I am pulling up to the dock, it would sound like this:
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Is this too fast? Fuck. Fuck. Oh no. Okay, take it slow. That’s it. A little more to port. Fuck. Fuck. Not that much to port! Reverse? Shit! Too much throttle. Arg. Those fenders are down right? Fuck…”
So I’m just not sure how useful that internal monologue would be if said out loud. But it appears that most of my anxiety in approaching the dock comes from my experience with Hideaway, a typical monohull in that she needs lots of slow coaxing and oodles of room to maneuver up to a pontoon, not to mention the fact that she is completely useless in reverse. So the boat only really has good control when going forward. The motion of Hideaway under motor is what informs all of my fears about docking all 44 feet of Cheeky Monkey.
But Alain assures me that with just a little thrust in the right direction I can bring the boat to a halting stop. So I should stop worrying so much. “But you must speak to Brian about what is happening!” Alain shouts again.
I know this. And I promise to work on it. Once my mind stops running through a string of swear words when docking, perhaps I can regain control of my mouth and actually communicate some useful information. That is what I’m working towards. Baby steps. Driving, docking, then better communication. We’ll get there. We’re making progress.
The first step is growing the balls to leave the dock. The rest will follow.