Panic in the fairway

September 2021

By Pam Humbert

Success! The author and her son Ryan in Morgana’s cockpit after docking. Photo courtesy Pam Humbert

Jim was called to work the day we’d set to take Morgana, our P30, to Huntington from Northport, where she winters on the hard. Drop-off day is a long one. Cars must be dropped off, slip assignments confirmed, and then back to Northport to take the launch to Morgana. The trip to Huntington takes a little over an hour, and once she’s settled in her slip, we pack everything up and take it home to be washed, scrubbed, vacuumed, repacked, and stowed in the “boat closet” until commissioning day in the spring. To make up for the time lost with Jim having to go into work, I recruited our son Ryan for crew. We met at 10 a.m., hoping to arrive at the same time as Jim would, by car, at West Shore Marina at 12:15 p.m.

That day, there was more on my mind than just the usual mixed feelings of gratitude as I relived the summer’s memories and mourned its closure. I’d have to pull Morgana into a slip down a long fairway for the first time ever.

Images of my late Dad’s stinging criticism of any shortcoming or failure instilled more self-doubt atop inexperience. Still, the die had been cast, and I was not only committed but determined.

Giving myself every chance to succeed, I obtained our slip assignment and walked down the expansive docks to see it for myself. The slip assigned was occupied, so there’d been a mix-up. I went back into the office to inquire and was given another slip in a different fairway. I paused and envisioned my approach later by boat. “OK. North branch, second fairway, ¾ of the way down, slip to port, immediate slip unoccupied. Got it. North branch, second fairway…,” I repeated to myself as I climbed into the passenger seat beside Ryan at the wheel. Observing my muttering, he tried to reassure me, “Mom, you’ve got this. Really.”

Unmoved, I felt the self-inflicted pressure growing. I believed Dad was watching from above, Jim wouldn’t be there to talk me through it, I’d likely have an audience, and I’d never pulled her into a bloody slip before!

As Ryan drove us back to Northport, I scolded myself. Why hadn’t I practiced? I’d had any number of chances to do so. Why hadn’t I ever said “Yes” when Jim coaxed me to take the wheel in a marina?

I looked back for the helpful experience I did have to bolster me and found that my only experience docking was that day, years ago, when we did some touch-and-goes at a T-dock perfectly suited for beginners. I recalled Jim coaching me beforehand with some priceless guidance. “Sailboats don’t maneuver like your old Montauk 17’ Pam. It takes several boat lengths before the prop grabs in reverse. With our feathering prop it takes even longer. And, remember – neutral is your friend.” I had done a couple, one to port, and one to starboard. I found neutral was indeed my friend, giving me plenty of time to work with wind and tide. But! Both times I’d turned the wheel the wrong way to pull her transom into the dock, instinctively reverting to my docking in Montauk as a kid.

I recalled my third approach that same day. Jim was standing on the deck forward, serving as crew, when I noticed dark storm clouds building fiercely over the village. “Oh, that’s so cool, Jim, look at that!” I exclaimed, pointing. Jim glanced up and then forward again. “Pam, concentrate. Watch what you’re doing!” I checked the channel for traffic, my distance to the T-dock and finding them both clear, I looked back up to the show developing in the sky. “Pam, you can’t do both at the same time. Which is it going to be, the sky or the dock?” I looked at Jim, his face beginning to twist with frustration. The mooring was nearby, and we could watch the storm cell from there. I turned into the mooring field, and giggling, called forward to Jim, “Abort, Abort!”

When Morgana came into sight, I steeled myself. This was no laughing matter, and there would be no aborting today . . .

Pleasantries shared with others on the launch faded as we climbed aboard. With the engine warmed, I nodded to Ryan to slip the pennants. I heard them splash and thought, “Here we go, the point of no return.” The ride over was sunny, cold, and windy. Some nuisance chop sent spray over the gunwale. This was the easy part. North branch, second fairway… We can sail this; one last sail. A look at Ryan sitting next to me confirmed he was happier steaming. Negative on the last sail. The tide reached slack, and the winds and chop laid down as we approached the harbor’s entrance. High tide, no traffic, excellent!

My phone buzzed with a text from Jim, ETA 12:15. Perfect.

Our trip continued to be uneventful as we passed Gold Star Beach, then all the yacht clubs to starboard, then Huntington Yacht Club to port. It’s not far now. West Shore came into sight, and I nervously checked the time. It was 12:15 p.m. North branch, second fairway… show time.

I turned to starboard to run along the North branch and checked the conditions again; the wind would be behind me in the fairway, and the current seemed to be slack or thereabouts. Neutral is my friend. With my bow just past the center of the second fairway, I turned in and put Morgana in Neutral. Oh, the fairway is so long! I thought with dread. Then looking ahead, all the slips on the port side appeared to be occupied. Am I in the wrong fairway after all? Panicked, I straightened the wheel and put her in reverse, one-two-three. It can take many boat lengths for it to grab. Then hard reverse with some throttle, one-two-three. She’s not grabbing! Has she at least slowed down? Yikes! This is not my old outboard, and I’ll never get her to back out of here without hitting one of these other boats. Better to proceed. I put Morgana back into neutral. “Ryan, where’s Dad? Do you see him?” I scanned all the docks and fingers in sight – no Jim. I felt myself shaking like a tree. “Ryan, w-h-e-r-e is D-a-d?!” At last, I spotted two empty slips to port. Check. I’m in the right fairway. “Rye, there’s Dad!” Better still! We were closing in on the assigned slip. Ok, final approach. She’s still going too fast. A soft turn into the slip, or wait and turn hard to port for a perfect landing? A hard turn will need perfect timing. Can I get it just right? Will the wind push her transom in on a soft turn, or will I need reverse? Better to play it safe. Soft turn it is….

Ryan waited with lines in hand and, turning back to face me, said, “Mom, you really do have this. You’ve got it.” Jim stood on the finger dock, ready to catch them. “Hi, Mums. Looks good. You’re doing fine… Yes, like that.” And caught the bowline from Ryan… I watched, frustrated, as the wind that had been pushing me all this time was now failing to catch and push the stern in. Which way do I turn the wheel in reverse? No. Best not to risk it. Forget reverse. Ryan pulled her in the rest of the way with the stern line and secured it. Jim set spring lines. Relieved, I released my death-grip on the wheel to shut off the engine and locked the wheel. Climbing aboard, Jim smiled and said, “See? You did it! Nicely done, but a little reverse would have brought the stern in.” If he only knew!

Still shaking, I grabbed some water and sat down beside the wheel. Taking an uncharacteristically large draft from the bottle, I took stock of my victory. Morgana was rocking gently in her slip without any new bumps, dings, or worse. I could, and had, docked Morgana in a slip for the first time! I had stayed the course despite my fears, inexperience, and self-doubt.

Pam Humbert a Northport, N.Y. native who’s been boating since she was 7 years old, is a devoted wife and mother of three grown children. She is also the founder of P.K. Services, providing start-ups with the skills and services they need to help keep their sails trimmed.