This man. I think of this man whenever I think of docking a boat.
He’s middle aged? Maybe a little past that?
He’s wearing khakis, immaculate topsiders, a navy polo-shirt. He’s got on a baseball cap. Eventually I’ll know that it’s got a yacht club burgee embroidered on it, but this first sighting? He’s got his back to me.
I’m turning the corner down an aisle in the store I manage. Never mind the specifics of that- leave it at – it’s a large store that has the word ‘marine’ in its name. That’s enough.
I turn the corner and there he is. The man in the casual yacht club uniform.
I can see that he’s got two fenders in front of him. He’s leaning them out at the end of either hand. Judging them. Eyeballing them. Like a man with two paintings that he’s mulling over. One is a 10x26, the other is a 12x34.
In the parlance of recreational vessels those are what we might call fenders for the larger side of boating things.
I begin walking towards him and say; “Can I help you with those?”
He turns his head and that’s when I see the front of his cap, the burgee.
It all snaps together; the khaki-ed, polo-shirted, topsider-ed, yacht club hatted, choosing between big and bigger fender purchasing- I know this kind of man, aha moment.
This man fancies he has a yachty yacht.
He eyeballs me from over his shoulder.
“If you were talking to me, then, yes, you can help me with these.”
We lock eyes. I smile. He does not. I walk towards him. He turns to face the fenders he’d been studying and nods. Affirms something for himself. He lets the 12x34 drop and turns to face me with the 10x26 in his hand.
He holds it up in front of him.
“I need ten of these.” He looks at me and then at the fender and nods again. “Yes. Ten. Ten should be enough. NO. Make it twelve. Make it a dozen.”
I purse my lips, nod. “Right.” I say, “I’ll just go get a cart or two.”
As I walk away, I consider the way he tossed aside the 12x34 and I’m thinking- maybe not that big of a yachty yacht. Maybe I’d overestimated.
Twelve is a lot of fenders. A lot of fenders to store. Fenders by the dozen equals a pretty big ass locker. Fenders by the dozen equals a formidable array of fender racks.
I return to the man with two carts and we begin stacking fenders. About the time we’ve established a mountain of poly-vinyl between us I casually ask; “What kind of boat?”
I’m shoving a fender into the bottom space of the cart, standing up as I ask the question. His hand is on the top of the pile, keeping his fender accretion in place. He’s looking down. All I can see is the top of his hat, his head shaking back and forth.
When I asked the question, I was ready for a Grand Banks kind of answer. Or maybe some kind of sport fisher whose brand and pedigree I should know. Should know but don’t.
I think I can hear him sigh. “It’s a sailboat.” He finally says.
“Oh.” I say, “What kind?”
He’s still looking down and, again, I think I hear him sigh. “Bristol Channel Cutter.”
There’s a moment with his hand on the pile of fenders, my eyes looking at his hand, then at the fenders. He looks up and locks eyes with me.
“Right.” I say. “A 32?”
He stares at me. “A 28.”
There we are with two carts of fenders. About 26 feet of fenders if we stretched them end to end. A posse of fenders. A gaggle of fenders. If one is in a sassy mood- a murder of fenders.
I smile again. He stares.
“Well,” I say “That boat is what? Another ten feet of bowsprit? Right?” And then I’m stuck with the uncomfortable image of fenders hanging off his bowsprit.
His eyes narrow. “Right” he says.
We stand there for what feels like more than a minute. His hand on his fender mountain. Me staring at his fender mountain. The fact of his 28-foot sailboat between us.
“Look,” he says- his tone defensive, almost argumentative. His tone implying I’d actually said out loud what was inside my head. “I share water with this trawler.”
My eyebrows go up. I nod. I’m not sure what’s being offered in this ‘shared water’ story.
“This trawler that has,” He shakes his head, screws up his face, waves his free hand around, “I don’t know how much teak. So much teak. Do you know what I mean?”
I nod. “Teak,” I say. “It has a lot of teak.”
He nods furiously; “A LOT of teak. And I have teak so I know what I’m saying when I say the boat has teak. Too much teak. Teak everywhere. Teak that just frames his perfect damn gel coat. And I mean a perfect damn gel coat. And its teak that’s covered and so well maintained that when he pulls off those covers?” He stops and stares at me.
I nod again.
“When he does that, the glare- the shine off his teak blinds birds. The shine off his teak probably causes planes to fly off course.” He pauses, narrows his eyes, “Do you understand the kind of boat I’m talking about?”
I squeeze my lips together and nod. “A well-maintained boat?” I offer.
“Yes. A well-maintained boat. A well-maintained boat that I almost, ALMOST, scraped alongside of the last time I docked.” He looked away. Looked up. Shook his head, the memory almost too much. “Almost, and since then?”
“Since then?” I asked.
“I haven’t used my boat. Been too scared. This was my retirement gift to myself. This was the thing I’d been waiting for.” His words came in a frenzied rush, “This was what I’d promised myself- go sailing every day I could.” He kept trying to take his hand away from the cart piled fenders, slapping it back down to keep the pile from collapsing. The whole thing taking on a performance art vibe. “But I didn’t really think about docking the boat. Didn’t really think it would be that, that” He stopped again, searching the air for the word.
“Hard?” I offered, “Unpredictable? The worst test of your value as a human being you never imagined you’d have to take?”
I raised my eyebrows and smiled. He tilted his head, tapped his fingers on the fenders and then he laughed.
“Maybe not that last one, but not at all like docking a capri 22.”
“No.” I said. “It wouldn’t be, would it?”
“No. The wind’s never right. There’s always some kind of current. I tried hiring this captain to teach me.” He shook his head. “You know he was an asshole so that didn’t work”
My eyebrows went up again.
“Ok” He nodded at me, “Maybe I was an asshole too.” He shrugged, “And then? Then there’s always someone. Always.”
“Right. Someone on the dock with imaginary scorecards.”
“Exactly. You know what I mean. I can tell.”
“Yes. I do know what you mean.”
And so, he had arrived at his plan. His plan to get himself comfortable enough to leave and return to the water he shared with that well-maintained trawler. His plan came down to fenders.
A flotilla of fenders. Enough fenders that he could bounce off whatever he hit. Pinball his way out of the dock without harming anything. Enough fenders to give him the cushion he needed to practice the art he had yet to perfect.
We filled the two carts and I looked at him and nodded.
“How about a red poly ball?” I asked.
He narrowed his eyebrows.
“Put it on the end of the sprit – because that thing can certainly do some damage and then,” I shrugged, “You could also use it for the Christmas Boat parade- dress the boat up as Rudolph- stuff some lights in it, turn the spreaders into antlers.”
He paused and gave me a hard eyeball stare. And then he shrugged. “Right. Get me one of those too.”
As I walked him and his baker’s dozen of fenders out of the store, a red poly ball carefully balanced atop the cart I was pushing, I told him my secret about docking.
“Just go offshore- sail the oceans- don’t come in all that often. Avoid it at all costs.” I gave him my hardest stare, nodding “It IS the crunchy bits that cause all the problems.”
He was shoving fenders into his SUV and stopped to look at me. “Does that work for you?”
“No. Not really. I’m actually liking your mass of fenders solution.” I smiled at him “But it is a different way to avoid the docking problem.”
“I’ll keep it in mind if this doesn’t work out for me.”
At the end of the season, he found me and told me he’d had to make room in his garage for all the fenders he didn’t need anymore.
“These days I can park the boat in a gale without a worry” He smiled, “Not sure what to do with all those fenders now.”
“Pretty sure there’s someone out there who could use them for the same reason you needed them.” I offered. “Maybe start a fender lending library?” I shrugged, “For those who might need an extra cushion until they manage the skill?”
“Maybe you’d like to borrow them yourself?” He asked, laughing and walking away.
Kathleen Tison spends her time in the wilds of Maine watching her husband collect trees to turn into a junk-rig mast for a 22’ sailboat that will never be a sloop again. Between that, two cats and decades spent hawking all sorts of boat products at West Marine and now Hamilton Marine she enjoys running, hiking and trying to come up with the ideal craft to use in the R2AK. Because someday she hopes to bring her sailing awkwardness to bear on that race.