An important fine point on Docking in Low Tide

One of the things I love about sailing is that I learn something every time I go out, I'm constantly expanding my knowledge and skills.Talking with several of the very best sailors in the Club recently, I heard the same sentiment.

We're in the season of low tides and early closings, and I learned something about low-tide docking.

I did a blog post a while ago on docking in low tide. I recommend looking at this post, as you need to dock in a completely different way than you normally do. You come in way upwind instead of downwind, and you don't (can't) slow sail (you'll just get pushed sideways into the seawall).

In the present post, I want to amplify a small but important detail, which I discovered recently docking in low tide (wind from the east in this case, but that doesn't matter). I was following more or less the course I recommended in the earlier blog: go upwind, downwind past the dock, and then shoot up:

It pretty much worked, but not quite. I came in a few feet short, and after trying a few things and not wanting to jump into the mud (always an option, sometimes a good one), we paddled in the last few feet.

So why didn't it work? I was in a Quest, by the way, but I don't think that matters too much. It's all about boat dynamics that change when the centerboard is not down.

If you sail this course with the centerboard down in adquate tide, you'll turn toward the dock with reduced speed but still definitely moving toward the dock, possibly too fast. This is the "shoot up" docking maneuver, and you see it done frequently (click on the image to see the animation).

You have to judge how far from the dock you make your turn, or you'll hit the dock hard (if Jennifer Kroon is there, she'll yell to you that you just crushed a puppy). If wind changes at the last moment, it may not work. You could make a tight turn just before you hit the dock, unless there are other boats there. In my view, this is not the best way to dock. Go for precision with slow-sailing and hit a precise point on the dock without crushing the puppy. One of my Senior Testers counseled me to try to pick a nail on the dock to hit precisely every time, and that was good advice.

But in low tides with the centerboard up, maybe all the way, you can't slow sail, the pivot point is different, and you slide in the turn. You have to carry some speed and have to turn really close to the dock. When you're used to doing it with a centerboard, it can be really confusing.

I went out and practiced it at high tide with the centerboard up on the approach to the dock in a Quest. As you turn to shoot up, the boat just spins, and little of the downwind momentum gets translated into upwind momentum. In other words, you end up pointing at the dock, but the boat is still going downwind, albeit much more slowly. You don't shoot up, you barely hold your position upwind, and you look stunned. Here's what it looks like:

From this position with no centerboard, you don't have a lot of sailing options, other than going all the way around upwind and trying it again. If you try to power up, you'll drift sideways. Better to do so pointing south, if you can.

I found that I could do a reasonable docking with no centerboard on the Quest, but I had to turn into the dock before I reached it, so the boat would spin around at the dock without going more downwind.

You can (and should) practice this before you need to do it. One way is to practice a low-tide docking (without centerboard) on a normal day, as I did. Do it when there aren't other boats/windsurfers around. Or do it around a "virtual dock", like the white buoy 100 yards west of the dock. You'll be surprised how close to the target you have to turn to get there. If you miss, you can recover by going around and trying it again. Since the tide is higher, you don't have to go very far, you've got lots of room, and you can put the centerboard down to help you tack and point high.

If you're practicing at the dock, you have less room and fewer options. Without the centerboard, you will find it very hard to tack. You could quickly lower the centerboard and tack around, but you have little time to do that. You might try to backward sail and turn the stern toward the sea wall, just as you do leaving a crowded dock, but lack of a centerboard will make that harder. You can make it easier by hiking out to leeward. Another approach is to gybe around, and to do that you should hike out hard to windward as you turn downwind through the gybe to tighten the turn (another example of why learning rudderless helps you in other situations).

Another tip (from Advanced Dinghy a couple of years ago) is to create a pseudo-centerboard when you're docking by moving the crew to the bow. On some boats (Bahias for certain, I don't know for Quests or JYs), the hull chines will create a sort of centerboard which can work reasonably well.

There is another technique for low tide, but it's hard to practice. Get the centerboard down a little, so it's just dragging a bit, come in really hot, plow through the mud, and hope for the best.

We have low tides often enough throughout the year that it's worth learning how to do it correctly. And practicing it will make you a better sailor overall.



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