When first asked to attend a boating school for a story in Boating, I felt cocky. I have been boating since I could walk. My dad gave me a 115 hp runabout at age 12. But decades later, when he offered me the helm of his trawler for a cruise, I suddenly realized how little lake boating had prepared me to handle a big cruiser.
So I e-mailed the staff at Florida Sailing & Cruising School, celebrating 30 years in business in Fort Myers, Florida. I entrusted them to help my niece Emily Campagna and me get schooled in long-range cruising. The school chose Precious, a single-engine Grand Banks 32, for us and assigned Capt. Chris Day, stiff-upper-lip Brit, to teach us.
Is boating school worth it for a lifelong boater? Spit out your gum, grab a seat and stop talking. Class is in session.
First Period: Shop
Day speaks like British CNN journalist Piers Morgan. Rather than spinning yarns or starting the engine, he lifted the hatches. My fantasy of salt air switched to bilge breath.
Recently, aboard my dad’s trawler, I’d pushed the kill switch. It didn’t kill. An hour later, after a call to my husband and the help of a neighbor, I found the fuel valve and shut it off. Bilge breath or not, I needed to learn.
Day is good. He soon had Emily and me debating the value of duplex fuel filters as we switched the fuel supply from one to the other while we changed an element. Day walked us through the boater’s checklist. Cloudy or milky bilge water could mean an oil or lubricant leak. Smell fuel? Check for leaks and don’t start the engine. Smell rubber burning? Shut it down and check the water pump impeller, or belts. Day drew diagrams for us as he went. They came in handy later, while we studied for our final exam. We also learned practical tips, like placing a disposable roasting pan lined with a dog pee pad under the engine so we could easily tell if a leak had occurred.
Hunger pulled us out of the bilge at noon. We quizzed Day more on engines between mouthfuls of sub sandwiches. His methodical approach made learning easy. Now, the marina flags were whipping. Great. Docking lessons were next.
Second Period: Docking Geometry
Day began to school us on how to disembark, or leave the dock. “One of you is the captain,” he said, “and the other does what the captain says. I offered to be captain.
“First rule is that the captain delegates tasks to each person — it may be the task of doing nothing at all. Otherwise chaos sets in. Never assume the crew knows what to do.”
The wind was blowing 15 to 20 miles an hour. I started paying more attention. Then it gusted to 30 mph.
Maybe I was hasty in volunteering.
I was amazed at how seamlessly leaving the dock was with only one person telling everyone else what to do. I put the Grand Banks in gear.
“Here we are,” said Day, directing me to idle down in front of some empty docks. Emily and I breathed sighs of relief. No performance anxiety from onlookers and no boats to break, save our own. Emily went first. Day coached.
“Take it in close,” he said.
“Look at the imaginary line running down the middle of the slip.
“Neutral. Turn the wheel upwind.
“Reverse. Idle speed.
“Forward a moment to adjust.
“Reverse aaaaannnd … neutral. You’re home!”
We each did it three times, improving each time.
Our confidence soared. We gloated all the way back to the marina, where, to our dismay, one of us had to put Precious back into the narrow slip. This time with boats on both sides, and an audience. Day coached me into position. I’d almost nailed it when a bit of overconfidence took over. Another good lesson: Do-overs are OK. I took her around again.
It wasn’t pretty, but we got her in.
Day left us with encouraging words and 14 pages of homework.