The Young Couple and the Sea

How To Park a Yacht
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Oct. 22 2009 7:03 AM

The Young Couple and the Sea

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Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. His first book, Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World, will be published in April 2010.

In the late afternoon, it's time to start looking for a place to secure your boat for the night. You have three basic options. 1) You can pull up alongside a dock. 2) You can tie the boat to a mooring ball. 3) You can drop your anchor.

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Dock space is, by its nature, limited—and thus expensive. A dock in a popular harbor will often be crammed with million-dollar cabin cruisers and gorgeous luxury yachts. (Trend I've noticed: The cheesier cabin cruisers now feature neon undercarriage lights. These are much like the undercarriage lights you might find on an SUV in the parking lot of a Tampa strip club. Except, instead of illuminating a patch of pavement, the boat lights cause the water under the dock to glow pastel pink and purple. It's like a retro '80s fish disco down there.)

Dropping your anchor in a suitable spot is free, which is nice. But the problem with anchors, especially if you're a novice, is that you have to hook them into the sea floor just right. If you don't, they might pop out of the sand, or drag through it, and allow your boat to start drifting aimlessly. This can be dangerous if you're asleep when it happens. You might wake up to find your boat has drifted halfway to the Azores. Or three-quarters of the way through the hull of that nearby luxury yacht.

The easiest option is to find an empty mooring ball. Mooring balls float on the surface of a harbor and are chained below to heavy concrete blocks sunk into the seabed. When you tie your boat to a mooring ball, you can feel confident that you're safely secured. You pay for the privilege: A motorboat comes around in the morning and collects the rent—which is about 20 bucks a night in most places we've moored. We're not here in high season, so we haven't had much trouble finding empty moorings. But in a crowded harbor, it can be like searching for a parking space at a shopping mall on a Saturday.

With a few subtle differences. First, puttering around a parking lot in a car is a whole lot easier than weaving your way through a packed harbor in a 40-foot-long boat. (And a fender bender when you're on a boat is a far bigger deal.) Second, when you're in a parking lot, usually the cars that are already parked aren't filled with people sipping piña coladas, watching with rapt fascination as you look for a space.

Mooring's not always a piece of cake for the beginner. The person steering the boat has to approach the mooring ball at a good angle, slowly and under control. Someone at the bow needs to catch the mooring ball with a boathook, lift the ball out of the water, and then tie the boat onto it. Given all the newbie sailors around these parts, the procedure can sometimes go awry. Which is, frankly, terrific entertainment. So long as you're the spectator and not the spectacle.

In fact, a favored pastime once we've moored in a harbor for the evening is to watch, with morbid curiosity, as other people attempt and fail badly to moor. "Oh my," I'll tut-tut to my boat-mates, as I squeeze a wedge of lime into my drink and lean back on a cockpit cushion, "he is not taking a sound approach route. He'll need to circle back around again. There he goes. Aaaaaaaand … still not on target." People on the decks of neighboring boats will also pause to observe the unfolding drama as they coil some rope or hang up their bathing suits to dry. It's like theater in the round—in which the dialogue often involves a husband cussing out his wife for dropping the boathook overboard.

This evening, we happen to have pulled into a harbor with only one other boat and 30 empty mooring balls. This affords us plenty of room to maneuver and fewer eyes upon us. When we manage to tie on (ahem, on our second try), we start contemplating dinner plans. The only thing in sight is a little building with a dock out front on the other side of the cove. Through binoculars, I discern a sign that says "Foxy's Taboo."

We haven't used our VHF radio much, but this seems like a prime opportunity. I hold the microphone up to my mouth, click the talk button, and—remembering the radio protocol we learned during our sailing course last summer—hail the beach bar. "Foxy's Taboo, Foxy's Taboo, this is the sailing vessel Rummy Cat. Over." (Rebecca had urged me to say "meow" instead of "over," because she thought it would be funnier. I decided this was inappropriate behavior on public airwaves.) When the bar answers, we switch over to a less-trafficked radio channel. Once I've confirmed that their kitchen is still open, we lower our dinghy and start buzzing across the harbor toward the dock.

Phil, the British charter company guy who did our checkout sail, terrified us when he instructed us on using the dinghy. "They're horrible things," he said. "If you fall off the back while the propeller's going, the dinghy'll circle round and chop your legs clean off. It'll go on like that forever, all around the harbor, until it runs out of gas. Just horrible, horrible things." I've not been able to shake the image of a rogue dinghy circling the harbor, chopping off limbs left and right, so I've been exceedingly cautious each time we've used this little inflatable boat with its outboard motor.

That said, I must tell you that having a dinghy attached to our catamaran feels kind of badass. I suppose it traces back to that little-boy fantasy of vehicles nested within other vehicles—where every crayon drawing you make involves an 18-wheeler with a helicopter on top of it and a motorcycle inside the helicopter. There's just something empowering about controlling and deploying your own teensy armada. I would note that there are adult men who enjoy keeping snowmobiles in the backs of their pick-up trucks. (Is there a little-girl equivalent to this? Maybe a pony that carries smaller ponies in its saddlebags?)

We order a dinner of fried fish at the bar—we have the place entirely to ourselves—and then check the menu's list of potent tropical drinks. The drinks have colorful names, many of which confirm my theory about the nexus of boating, alcohol, and casual sex. "Can I haaaaaave …" I begin, running my finger down the list, "I guess … a Friggin' in da Riggin'?"

By the time we dinghy back to our boat, it has gotten dark out. We have our headlamps turned on and, as we're clipping along, we notice the beams catching a pair of shiny eyes in the water. The eyes are following along next to our boat. They belong to something alive and not small.

When we're back aboard the cat, we focus our headlamps on the water just off the stern, trying to lure the mysterious beast in for a better look. At first, we see nothing but a tussle of tiny baitfish, attracted by the light. But soon some bigger fish, about 4 inches long, swim in—attracted by the baitfish. This steady escalation continues, with each new round of fish large enough to kill and eat the previous round.

It's at about the five-minute mark that the first gray dorsal fin appears. It's joined by another fin, and then another. In all, we count seven—circling closer and closer to the center of the light. There's a sudden splash, as one of the fins makes a lunge at some prey. When they glide directly beneath us, we see that each shark is about 4 or 5 feet long.

I imagine the protocol for the radio distress call: "Mayday, mayday. This is the sailing vessel Rummy Cat. We have summoned a maelstrom of sharks. Also, I'm concerned that we may not be tied on correctly to our mooring ball. Please advise. Over."