21 May

Stern tie Shenanigans

So a couple of nights ago we were stern-tied in Smuggler Cove, only one of three boats. Calm, peaceful and quiet. Then three more boats show up. Then another. Then a south wind starts to blow right on the beam and three more show up. And all of them attempt to tie up south of us.


At one point we had the cove pretty much to ourselves


We had left Nanaimo behind a couple of days earlier and crossed the Strait. We managed to sail for about an hour before the winds died down, then motored the rest of the way. Unusual for this time of year, the winds were coming from the north and showed no sign of change for at least five or six days. We spent a night at Secret Cove Marina to top up the water and batteries and enjoyed a half-price pre-season discount. The next morning we did the short motor to Smuggler Cove to relax and start settling into cruising mode.

I deliberately tied up on the north end of the cove as last time we were here it was also a north wind and I, and everyone trying to tie up, had been blown south, which made it difficult to stern tie upwind of another boat. Well, best-laid plans and all that — it didn’t work out so well.

The first three boats in tied up at the far south end of the first cove, well away from us. The next boat in, a Hunter from a charter company, thankfully also attempted a ring well away us, but later gave up and moved because they couldn’t get their anchor to hold (they eventually moved again and may even have left, but I was too busy to notice).

They were replaced by the first of two boats that came in at the same time. The skipper bravely tried to keep control of the stern but eventually the boat swung in a 360° circle and managed to wrap the as-yet-untied stern line around the boat. They got it straightened out, but the poor fellow with shore duty somehow set off his inflatable and was fighting the wind, the dinghy painter and the stern line with this big yellow doughnut around his neck. Eventually they did get tied up, but their anchor started to drag and their stern crept precariously close to the shore. They eventually gave up, raised the anchor and left altogether. I noticed they left their line behind — although they were back bright and early the next morning to retrieve it — so I am not sure what prompted the exit.

But I barely noticed any of this at the time. Because, and please forgive my hyperbolic judgementalism, the “sailors without a plan” had arrived at the same time and proceeded to keep me distracted for the next hour. It was obvious from the beginning they had no plan, very little clue and an old, cantankerous boat with a helmsman who, as far as I could tell, was so decrepit, he didn’t stand up once throughout the whole debacle.

They initially dropped their anchor in the middle of the cove and looked like they were going to tie up off our bow, nose into the wind, 90° to us, alongside a lovely Bayfield ketch. They did drop their anchor a bit far out for that, though. I remember saying to Leslie, “I wonder what their plan is?” Plan… Ha!

They launched their dinghy with an engine that wouldn’t start and only one oar. The fellow in the dinghy had instructions, but obviously was not an experienced cruiser so really didn’t know what was going on. The skipper of the ketch was out on his deck giving him advice and, it turns out, offering to take the stern line while they got things straightened out. That was the first time of many that I thought I might go help. He eventually made it to shore. But now for some reason, he (or they) gave up on that idea.

Meanwhile their boat is not anchored well and is threatening my neighbour’s bow as the helmsman fails to gain any stability in the situation and the boat is running back and forth over the anchor. At this point I am still fairly sympathetic, as I have done much worse and provided even more hilarious entertainment. Still, a banged-up old boat with literally shredded sails and three aged crew — the sole seemingly competent person was a woman who wasn’t doing any of the jobs requiring competence — doesn’t leave me with high hopes for success.

Someone decides to shift tactics and the dingy heads to the rings just upwind of us. They had a reel of 1000-plus feet of stern line, so the fellow in the dinghy was able to put out a lot of line, leaving most of it floating in swirls off our bow. Now I’m starting to get a bit concerned as their plan would swing their boat from being nose into the wind to beam on, immediately upwind of us. I know from experience that this is not an easy task in calm water and virtually impossible in any sort of wind without a lot of muscling, and the boat did not look like it backed up well. Still, I remain hopeful and we continue to keep an eye on them, tempted once again to go lend a hand.

There they are with hundreds of feet of line in the water, the boat motoring back and forth over its anchor and the fellow in the dinghy looking lost on shore until I point out two nearest rings. Of course he chooses the one 20 feet from ours rather than the one further away. Of course he does. He crawls up on the rock and loops his line through the ring, then hops back into the dinghy. Then he discovers his line is tangled around the ring. I grab my jacket. And the boat on the other end of the line starts to do weird circles. I put my shoes on. And his outboard wouldn’t start again. That’s when I hop in our dinghy, fire up the outboard and make a beeline for shore. While he gets his engine restarted, I quickly untangle his line and start to feed it through the ring and he heads back to the boat.

Well, that’s when we find out, unbeknownst to dinghy dude and me, that the crew on the boat have pulled up the fricking anchor. So they are motoring around dragging hundreds of feet of floating line while loosely tied to the shore. Just upwind of us. In 15-knot bloody winds!

They circle around to drop their anchor again, but this time 40 or so feet south of our bow. We have 80 feet of rode out so the fact that they are dropping the anchor just in front of us makes me very nervous for what the night will hold. Silly me. As soon as they get the anchor down and let out a little scope, they start drifting right into us. By now I am back in the dinghy and rush over and get between the boats while they drop one — yes, one — fender. Of course they drop it to the waterline where it won’t do any good, and of course the loose line is more likely to foul one of the dinghy props. The fellow in the dinghy follows my example and gets between the two sterns while I position myself just forward of the beams. I tell Leslie to start our engine. Just in case.

So there we are, beam to beam, separated by two dinghies holding the boats apart and the full weight of both boats on my anchor and my stern line. That’s when the person at their wheel decides to drive straight ahead. Which, at the angle we are now at, would be straight over my anchor rode and would likely knock my anchor loose as well. A little firm talk convinces him otherwise, but suddenly he’s taking direction from me, the guy stuck in a dinghy between two boats, rather than paying attention to what the hell is going on. Bugger.

By walking their bow off our boat, we get them fended off and pointed almost upwind, and they start to pull the anchor and move off. And then drop the bloody thing only 10 feet further on, and we do the whole bloody thing again. Seriously. Almost an exact repeat, but this time their stern is farther back and they almost take out our stern line. Once again, I’m stuck being a human fender between the two boats, and we manage to fend them off. Then we did it ONE MORE TIME. Seriously seriously. They did it again, and this time neither of us got the dinghies in between in time and they actually scraped the sides of the boats together (no damage, thankfully — I believe it was rub rail to lifelines).

I have no friggin’ clue what their “plan” was. Plan… Ha! I have no idea what they thought was going to happen. Or if any of them were even thinking by this point.

I wedge the dinghy back in between again and finally manage to get my dinghy bow to their beam and give it some throttle. Doing this, I could now push them away and keep them away while they tried to pull in the copious amounts of stern line floating around.

Oh, and I left out the part where loops of the stern line they had retrieved started to tighten, catch on loose objects in their cockpit and fling objects around the still-seated helmsman. It was one of those moments where you are suspended between fear and hope something bad would happen to him. Luckily for my future peace of mind, fear won out and I desperately wished he wouldn’t lose an eye in the chaos. I also remember almost screaming at the woman reeling in the line as she got her fingers wrapped in it as it started to tighten on their winch. It’s amazing how much gibbering the back of your mind can do while you are concentrating on the job at hand.

Eventually they get the line in and between their winch and me pushing their boat, they get the stern over. The situation settled out with a too-tight stern line, too little rode and boats way too close for comfort on a tide rising another 10 feet. But they were happy; someone even quipped that it hadn’t been as bad a stern tie as some Navy captain had once done. Me? Not so happy and not so confident that we were done with the drama.

Actually, I kept waiting for them to catch their breath and leave; or at least try again (somewhere else) with everything a bit more secure. But nope. They were definitely there for the night.

So we ate dinner (in the cockpit), played some cards (in the cockpit) and watched the sun slowly set (in the cockpit). I eventually decided to tie the dinghy alongside as a fender for when their anchor dragged and they swung their bow into us in the middle of the night. And we confirmed a plan B for loosing our stern line if we should need to escape from their dragging anchor. Then we retired below and listened to the winds climb. I checked again at midnight, right around high tide, and all was still well. Although they had no anchor light showing…sigh.

Elsewhere in the cove one of the first three boats that had looked to be decently anchored further down also must have dragged. It was a 45-foot, almost new charter boat that had a full crew and a speedy little dinghy that had been zipping back and forth. So they tried, sensibly, to tie up beside the Bayfield, nose into the wind, but then abandoned the attempt. I found out the next day they gave the boat too much throttle and pulled their own anchor. So they also, again sensibly, abandoned Smuggler Cove and joined what must have been a growing party at Secret Cove Marina.

Oh — I left out the guy anchoring later in the evening, dropping his anchor just off the neighbouring ketch’s bow with around a 2:1 scope and a gale forecast. There were some words between the two boats until he finally moved. Unfortunately his new spot was closer to us and our uncomfortable neighbours, still with a small scope and still no stern tie. But all the fight was out of me by then.


The morning after.

Well, in the morning I woke up to calm winds and the sight of our pestiferous neighbour’s stern floating serenely 5 feet off our dinghy with lovely little coils of thin yellow line floating alongside. Seems the wind had sawn through their patently insufficient stern line (it looked maybe 3/8″ poly but sure as hell was not 1/2 or 3/4 inch that every other bloody boat I’ve ever been on had — and yes I was, at this point, completely out of patience). Anyway, their line had parted and they had swung stern into us. Thank god their anchor held. Still, I imagine when the line parted and the winds were up, they must have been bouncing off our dinghy.


So I waited with my coffee. My old professor used to say “comedy is excess.” This was bloody hilarious. Eventually around 9 a.m. they poked their heads up. Their heater had been on for an hour but no one had thought to check on their precarious anchor and pathetic line.

“Oh,” she said. “At least we didn’t touch.”

“Oh,” I replied, “I think we probably did.”

“Ah,” she said. “Good thing you put the dinghy there.”


“Well, I think we’ll move the boat and just anchor in the middle while we get ready to go.”

“Ah. Well, then. Good luck,” I rejoined.

So they moved out to where they had dropped anchor the first time, and just swung for a couple of hours. At least there was no wind. It turns out they were part of the larger group of six boats, two of which were the ones who had bailed the day before. I wish these guys had have been that sensible.

The fellow and his wife from the Bayfield ketch that was initially threatened by the shenanigans came by to say he had videos of the whole thing. We watched one later, relived the whole thing, had a beer, toured his boat and made a new friend.


Leslie spotted this little guy on one of our hikes.

Other than that, it was an uneventful visit.

I will post the video later if I can…

15 thoughts on “Stern tie Shenanigans

  1. Wow. You have far more patience than I would have had. After the second attempt I would have politely asked them to move much further away, and if that didn’t work, been a lot more stern. There’s no way I’m going to let some idiot risk my boat and my safety because they can’t figure out how to anchor!

    I’m all for being helpful, and would have done the same things you did in terms of helping them with their stern line, but after so many failed attempts and clear lack of understanding of basic principles and safety, I would have gotten to my limit.

    Glad no damage occurred!

    • You would have had to have been there. The word oblivious just doesn’t do the situation justice. I could have lost my temper, but frankly it probably would have made it worse. They kept trying again the anchor before anyone had a chance to think.

      I really did think they would move on after they had caught their breath.

      • I figured that might be the case. Sometimes things just happen so fast you don’t have time to do anything. I would have also wished they would have left 🙂 and hoped that would have happened….

  2. Jeez Louise.

    The very first time I anchored my sailboat, Sucia Island, with four girlfriends aboard (five waitresses aboard a SJ24: five short good organized friends), I was hit in the middle of the night by a powerboat. His wife, at the helm, backed over my anchor line. I lost all patience and yelled at him to go in the water in the morning and get MY anchor line off HIS prop. When I got up in the morning, he had done it…he only had one leg. I had stood on my boat in my underwear and screamed at an amputee in the middle of the night.

  3. “Pride goeth before the fall.”
    “Judge not, that ye too, may be judged.”
    Etc., etc., etc….
    During my 50 years on the water at the helm of sailboats and powerboats, seems like I remember goofing up a few times myself.
    Cap’n LMK
    Tugboat Scuttlebutt

    • Oh trust me, I’ve been there. I particularly remember being grateful to a large audience of a visiting Yacht Club for their sympathy after a massive cock-up docking one time at Ganges.

      I think the only thing really noteworthy about this incident was their cavalier attitude and the number of times we were put in dangers way by it. Still, I think the whole “Pride goeth…” thing is one of the main reasons I was, and am, more amused than angered by it.

  4. Ahhhhhs! The joys of stern-tying and the head-shaking moments it produces. On a lighter note, it sounds like we’re in the same neighbourhood (en route to Pender Harbour now). If you see us on the water, we’d love to say hi!

    • We’re one of 4 boats in Garden Bay (an other is the famous Emerald Steel). We will be here at least another day 🙂

  5. Love the story! Weirdly I did a stern tie for the first time this Friday and was terrified – I had images of it all going badly wrong (it actually went fine)

    It seems that I had a mighty low bar to clear by the sounds of it anyway!

    • Usually it’s much more of a friendly spectator sport. Eventually we all get into some sort of situation for the viewing pleasure of others. This time, however I got to be a reluctant participant. 🙂

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