November 19, 2009

It's A Rock!


A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, especially when it comes to navigation.

A certain story has endured in the O Docker household from my early days as a navigator. As circumstances require, my wife uses this story as a lesson, an allegory, a narrative poem, a warning, a chastisement, or a tool of discipline (although, I swear, there are no whips or leather garments involved). The story is always invoked with a signature phrase. When I hear that phrase, I know what is to come. And always, that will be painful and humiliating to me.

The phrase is "It's a rock!". Three simple words that will probably be inscribed on my tombstone - if I go first.

The day had started so well. It was our first trip to the BVI, about 20 years ago, and we had been playing for several days in what is now one of our favorite spots on the planet - a quiet anchorage in North Gorda Sound, far enough from commercial commotion, but an easy dinghy ride from all the barbecued shrimp we could peel. And, if we dinghied the other way, there was a little, deserted beach with the secret grotto where the technicolor fishies swim.

Life was good.

As with all pleasures of the flesh, though, too much can dull the senses. It was time to leave the sedentary life of the anchorage and to sail this little rented pleasure dome of ours. Today, I would show off my mastery of the Sir Francis Drake Channel. Gentleman's sailing - off the wind all the way to Soper's Hole - 24 glorious, sun-soaked miles, riding 18-knot tradewinds and bright blue bathtub water, untroubled by any swells.

Life was good.

We droppped off the mooring, got the sails up, worked our way around the reef, and slid out the entrance in one long reach. Outside, we gybed to turn left, set a preventer so I could let my attention wander, and settled in for a warm summer's nap. In islands known for their easy, line of sight navigation, this was maybe the easiest run of all - straight down the main channel. No reefs, no shoals, and certainly no rocks.

Maybe those who were not fully certificated by the American Sailing Association through the Bareboat Chartering Level with intensive three-hour emphasis on chart reading and interpretation would worry about rocks.

But not I.

Like generations of seasoned mariners before me, I watched the undulating hills of Virgin Gorda slide gently by, off to starboard. Uh no, I mean off to port. There's really not much to do on that run, other than sit back, stay out of the tropical sun under the bimini, and watch for the gybe as the three-foot wind waves rolled under the transom. Navigation? Nah, just keep an eye on the coastline and make sure you don't get in too close. There was nothing to get tripped up on. And there were no rocks.

Spanishtown drifted by after not too long and a little while later, the Baths. I'd closed on the coast a little to get a better look, but nothing to worry about. Did I mention, there were no rocks?

As the Baths disappeared astern, we continued along the coast of the island and my wife was focused on the water ahead.

"There's a rock up ahead and we're headed right for it."

"A rock?" I mocked her. "Can't be."

I reminded her that I was fully certificated by the American Sailing Association through the Bareboat Chartering Level with intensive three-hour emphasis on chart reading and interpretation, and that I had determined there were no rocks anywhere in our vicinity that we need be concerned about.

She told me what she thought of my certification in general, and, in particular, of the part about chart reading and interpretation and announced, "Well, I'm putting on my lifejacket."

She knew how to push my buttons.

"Lifejacket?," I scoffed, don't you know anything? It's not a lifejacket, it's a PFD. Were you fully certificated by the American Sailing Association through the Bareboat Chartering Level with intensive three-hour emphasis on chart reading and interpretation, you would know that.

Her gaze was now fixed on the spot in the water where she imagined there was a rock.

"We're almost on top of it, you'd better do something."

Oh, alright, I'll humor her. Where, I asked is this 'rock' of yours?

"Right ahead, right there!"

Holy crap!

My weekends of intensive training had taught me to recognize rocks and this was, indeed, a rock. A mysterious, obviously misplaced rock, but a rock nonetheless. Some sort of skippering action was called for, and pretty soon.

I seized the wheel, I mean helm, or fell on it, actually, and executed what must have been one of the quickest roundups in the history of the Beneteau 32s5. In a wild scramble, we managed to tack and head off in the opposite direction of the misplaced rock.

But, as any navigator who discovers a misplaced rock will tell you, avoiding that rock is not the worst of it. It's that awful, sick feeling that follows that's worse - the sudden realization that you have no idea where you are and that there might be other misplaced rocks anywhere around you. I started to wonder where my lifejac.., uh, I mean my PFD was.

My normally chatty wife was no longer chatty. Already, I was beginning to sense this tiny, minor, inconsequential event might some day come up in conversation. I casually glanced at the chart I'd stuck under a cushion a few hours ago.

"Just updating our position, dear."

Where the hell were we?

We reached our way back to the safety of the main channel as I started to put the pieces together, but it would be a while before I fully realized the nature of my blunder. Or, blunders, actually, as I had learned many lessons that day.

I learned that most misplaced rocks aren't misplaced at all, they're usually right where the chart says they are. It's the navigator who's usually misplaced.

I learned that memory is a poor navigational tool and that the chart usually remembers much better than I do.

I learned that no matter how lovely the weather and pretty the water, no matter how familiar you might think you are with the depths around you, that Mr. Neptune can jump up and bite you in the buttocks faster than you would ever believe and that the holes he leaves in your underwear are more apparent to those around you than they are to you.

I learned that Mr. Neptune does not give a rat's ass about you being fully certificated by the American Sailing Association through the Bareboat Chartering Level with intensive three-hour emphasis on chart reading and interpretation. And, if he's not impressed by that, maybe you shouldn't be, either.

I learned that, on a boat, four eyes are better than two.

And I learned that, when you least suspect it, your wife may very well be right.



  1. O Docker, this is one of the most brilliant posts I've ever read. How do you do it?

  2. Aha, Tillerman, you've fallen for my little trap.

    I'd started to suspect that you're not actually reading my posts anymore, but have hired someone in India to read them, log on with your profile, and paste in the same comment every time - a comment I could find no quarrel with.

    This is understandable. You seem to read a lot of blogs every day, keep up with the news of the world, and write your own prolific blog posts. I can see how you'd have very little time left to read my incoherent rants.

    So, I decided to write the world's longest blog post - one that no one would possibly wade through who wasn't being paid to do so. But you forgot to alert your Indian employee of this possible ruse and you've fallen...well, actually he or she has fallen for it.

    But I may be on to something here - a new way of generating revenue online - a blog that people will pay not to read.

  3. Now really, that was a perfectly reasonable post, really almost a short one.

    Nothing like the "Environmental Analysis for the Heron Lake Marina Concession Services Request for Proposal" that I might threaten to post next month or so.

  4. O-Dude, that was good, however Master Jedai. You did not fully gasp the lesson...Wives are always right!

  5. Zen, that was 20 years ago.

    Sailing wasn't the only thing I needed more experience with. I like your typo, though. I think I did gasp the essence of the lesson.

    Panda, thanks. I hope you're not using the same offshore blog reader Tillerman is.

  6. I don't like the color... and it's a bit long.

  7. IMHO, this one is definitely in the running.