I posted while ago on launching in low tides. The idea was close attention to sail trim. The common mistake is to over-sheet the main leaving the dock, and even with full centerboard you'll drift sideways into the Cal Adventures dock.
Here I want to talk about docking in low tide.
There are several problems. One is recognizing that it's low tide. It's easy going out with a "fresh" boat (you push the centerboard/rudder down and feel the mud, so you bring it up a few inches). But coming back you have to recognize and plan it. My rule of thumb for Bahias is that a tide of under +2.0 means you have to raise the centerboard and/or rudder. Plan for it, and raise both on the way in. When it's all the way down, the centerboard is about a foot lower than the rudder fully down, so you can adjust the two differently. In very low tides, the rudder will be just below the water, horizontal. It will work, but it will be very hard to use, and hard to turn quickly. Also, the stress on the rudder when it's parallel to the water surface is in a direction it's not designed for. So it's best to limit the amount of time you sail with the rudder in that position.
You will find that the boat handles differently with the centerboard up (or raised above the normal, fully down position). An important thing in docking is that the pivot point of the boat is farther aft, which means that where the boat actually turns in the water will also be farther aft.
The dock approach will be different in low tides. You can't use the standard "come in on a beam reach and slow sail to the dock". Your leeway with the centerboard up will be too much. Even if you aim for the south end of the dock, you'll be lucky not to hit the sea-wall (painful personal lesson here).
You can simulate this by docking in normal tides with the centerboard up (I recommend this exercise). I did this a few weeks ago, and discovered that the best approach is to go as far upwind as you can, then sail downwind aiming at the south end of the dock, and doing a quick U-turn into the dock a boat-length or so away from it (the specifics will depend on the wind, but here's a diagram).
The idea is to turn into the wind to stop the boat and (if necessary) to quickly turn up or down the dock to further bleed off speed (you have to make the right choice here, right in a northerly wind, left in a southerly wind - left is better if you're uncertain). Carry more speed than you think necessary. You can bleed off excess speed with the quick turn at the end, but if you can't make the dock, you're toast - hop off into the mud.
Another lesson here. What to do it you miss it completely. You get within a couple of feet of the dock, but can't get closer. You try to accelerate (as you would in slow sailing), but you don't get closer to the dock but closer to the seawall. Unless you're really good, you won't be able to tack without a centerboard a low speed. So gybe away, get out of the dock area, get the centerboard down, head way upwind, and try it again. Missed approach, as pilots say. No big deal.
The specifics of this depend on the wind direction. I was assuming a westerly wind. With a southerly wind, you'd apply the same principles but execute it differently. Come into the dock on a run (or a broad reach on port tack, within a boat-length of the dock. Your U-turn will point you parallel to the dock. With a northerly wind, you want to get as high as you can either east or west of the dock. Come in as close to the end of the dock as you can on a beam reach, and then turn upwind. Try not to run over any windsurfers, who use the end of the dock as a launch/landing pad.
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Alternate technique: Uncleat the rudder, keep your speed up, let the mud raise your centerboard, and plow through the mud! (Note John's aside about jumping into the mud if you get stuck before you reach the dock.)
In a south wind, you'd be toast. Right into the seawall. The centerboard will still be dragging a bit in the mud, preventing you from turning into the dock (let's say I saw this happen to a friend but I (sorry, he) pulled the centerboaqrd up in time to avoid disaster).
That's probably true, but the idea would be to be on a line into the dock before you hit mud. A south wind would help drive you through the mud, no? You'd be coming in a reach, wouldn't you? Anyway, it's kind of a Rambo tactic, although the people I saw doing it are generally a pretty mild-mannered couple.
With the mid-afternoon low tides this weekend, this post came to mind and was very helpful. You're definitely right in that if you don't make it all the way to the dock on the first try, you're pretty screwed. Didn't have the ability to tack, and with the rudder almost all the way out of the water, I didn't trust having enough control to gybe safely between the docks, so as I drifted closer to the sea wall, nothing left to do but hop off and walk it in.
A couple other things I wanted to mention with regards to having the rudder up enough that it's barely in the water. For those who haven't done it before, not only will the boat be harder to steer, but in higher winds the boat's weather helm will have you using quite a bit of strength just keeping the tiller from turning the boat windward. Few things I found to help:
1) If you need to, stand over the tiller and let it press against your leg, so you don't have to have a death grip on it while the boat is trying to turn up into the wind. You can steer with your leg.
2) If you're coming in on a reach, keep the jib out as long as you can. This will counteract some of the windward helm.
3) Get enough of your and/or your crew's weight on the upwind side of the boat to give it some windward heel. This will counteract some of the windward helm as well.
Nice comments on using the tiller with the rudder horizontal, Ryan.
I think you're completely correct not trying to gybe around. With the tide so low, the boat dynamics change considerably, and you can't use your quick-turn-downwind techniques effectively. So the best approach when you don't quite make it is to hop out, slog through the mud, gritting your teeth and thinkiing of CSC.
I applaud your use of rudderless sailing techniques in "normal" situations - keeping the jib out and using crew weight. IMHO the primary benefit of learning to sail without a rudder is that you acquire skills that you can use when you have a rudder (not a new observation, certainly).