Heading back to the moorings after racing!

I remember so well that first summer when I was working toward my goal of sailing single-handed. It might sound like overkill, but I had given myself a whole summer of practice to work up to it. You see, for me, one of the most unnerving things was getting off and on the mooring, and I felt that I had to conquer that piece before I could go out alone. Without a motor, I’d have to rely on sail power, and that takes a certain amount of trial and error to master.

Earlier that spring, I’d finally gotten a town mooring, which I was really excited about. That is, until I figured out where it was actually located. It had been touted as “well-protected,” and it was (!), since it was way, way down in the inner harbor, nestled in the lee of the town dock. And did I mention that it was in full view of the Harbormaster’s office? In the usual Sou’west wind, it lay in a strange, sometimes windless area, and, to make matters worse, there was a huge rock lurking nearby, on the west side. It was so formidable that it even had its own buoy that said, quite simply: “ROCK.” Honestly, it was enough to scare anyone.

As you probably know, getting on and off a mooring under sail can be a tricky proposition. I sailed a lot that summer with friends, and it seemed as though every time we went out, there was some kind of mooring-related mishap.  We could pretty much depend on it.  On several occasions, almost immediately upon letting go of the mooring line, we found ourselves having to fend off the beautiful Herreshoff “E” boat, which was moored nearby, innocently minding its own business.  Or, other times, on some of those dreaded light-wind days, we drifted perilously close to the town dock, which, luckily for us, had a giant buffer zone of inflatable dinghies. It was always something.

But we never hit the rock. And that’s something I’m really proud of, because I discovered the true depth of its evil nature one morning while I, and my friend Annie, inspected it via rowboat. That rock had a buoy on it for a damn good reason. When you rowed close to it, you could see that the very tip of the rock (which looked bad enough on its own), was only a miniscule portion of its wickedness. From that pointy top, it angled down, just below the surface, resembling something like a barely-submerged rock island. I’m not kidding. The real threat hung just below the surface, kind of like a shark just under its fin. Suddenly, fending off the poor defenseless “E” boat and the rubber dinghies didn’t seem half so bad.

As you might imagine, I discovered all sorts of helpful things that summer, to aid me in what I can only refer to as “ROCK avoidance.”   For example, pulling the mooring line all the way back astern before I let it go, trying to get a little speed up (that is, if you can get a 1500-pound keelboat moving with the yank of a chain) to give myself the glimmer of an option to go off on either tack – which would only work, anyway, if there was enough wind in the lee of the shore! And I learned about back-winding the jib. And that the paddle is on the boat for a very good reason. Also, I learned about the perils of not pulling in the mainsheet fast enough, because with a boom that’s 12 feet long, you really do have to watch where you’re going!

On one occasion, a friend (you know who you are) drew a diagram on the Club’s bar napkins showing me how I could “back” out of my mooring. “Kind of like throwing her in reverse,” he said. “It’s easy!” he said. I never quite worked up to that, unless maybe it happened by accident. I also learned how deadly it is when you run over the mooring line, because my boat has a nasty little place between the rudder and the keel that loves, absolutely LOVES, to hang on to a mooring line and refuse to let it go. Only a jump over the gunwhale, and a dive below can free it. But then you can’t get back on the boat. . .  (Don’t laugh.)

When these things were happening, at first all I could think of was that the guys in the Harbormaster’s office must be getting a good laugh, or that my mooring mishaps were the afternoon’s entertainment for the people having a picnic on the bench by the seawall, not to mention everyone who happened to be at the town dock.  But every sailor has to start somewhere, right? And if someone were going to have their moment of Schadenfreude at my expense, then I guess they weren’t going to be a friend anyway. C’est la vie.

The difficult thing for adult sailors just starting out is that many sailing instructors have no idea what it’s like to learn sailing as an adult, having learned it themselves when they were children. The usual model everyone’s used to is junior sailing, where if you’re a kid, you take a class with a bunch of other kids, and it’s ok because no one is supposed to know what they’re doing yet. It’s perfectly okay to mess up. But when you’re a grown-up, it’s much more difficult not to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others who have been sailing for a lifetime, and for whom anything sailing related is second nature.   And so,  you begin to doubt that you can ever be any good at it. And that’s just not true.  All you need is time on the tiller.

Let’s talk about mindset here – because that was the only thing that kept me going that summer. Luckily, I’ve always believed that with hard work and perseverance, you can succeed at anything. I knew that if I kept at it, maybe I wouldn’t be the “mooring-blooper” entertainment forever, and so I embraced where I was and focused on where I wanted to be. Instead of rewarding myself with a long sail around the outer harbor, we’d practice catching a mooring in the anchorage for a couple of hours.  (In our harbor, this is a great place to do this, because there isn’t much to run into if you can’t catch it on the first try.) I knew I couldn’t go out by myself until I’d mastered this. And truth be told: every day is just a little different, and sometimes if the wind’s really shifty and gusty, it’s hard for any sailor to sail on and off a mooring without some challenges, especially in a crowded harbor.  Don’t let people try to tell you otherwise. I watched many sailors that summer, and it became clear to me that anyone trying to catch a mooring under sail power just does the best he or she can with the given conditions at the time.  Sometimes it takes several attempts.

So what’s the moral of this story? Focus on where you want to be. Believe that with practice and persistence, you can achieve your goals. And be realistic with the time you give yourself to master new skills – a whole summer of mooring practice was what I needed, but everyone will be different.  The important thing is to set reachable goals for yourself, and to believe that you can achieve them.

I’m quite happy to report that my new mooring is far away from that old rock, and is handily close to the Yacht Club.  However, on occasion, I am now officially the “mooring-blooper” entertainment for another venue, the Yacht Club dock,  with all of the launch drivers and Club members gathered there.  It’s always something, right?  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. . .

All I can say, is: “Thank goodness there isn’t a harbor-cam!”

Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

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