Boating Adventures | "Missing the Mark" | Article and Photos by Vicki Totten

I can see the mark I am aiming for as I steer our 33' sailboat into our slip in the Rockport Harbor. All I need to do is keep the boat aimed just a little left of my mark in the middle of the slip and let the wind slide me over toward the dock. The wind is low and I have done this before. Ok, so only twice, but still, on a low wind day like today, it should go as planned. The only problem is that I don't trust my driving. Two times is not enough for me to feel confident in my skills. Plus, the other two times I docked the boat, it had only been my husband and me aboard the boat, so there were no other witnesses it if it didn't go as planned.

Looking back toward the entrance into the harbor.

High hopes for a successful docking.

It seemed like trying to dock with friends aboard, would give us extra hands at docking, which would free Stan up to give me guidance needed.   So that was the promise I elicited from him before I took over the helm - that he would be right there and paying attention in case all did not go as planned.  All did not go as planned - with the docking or with the promise.

View of Rockport Harbor

As I was turning to aim for the slip, I looked up and saw that our fenders had not been placed outside the boat to cushion the sides of the boat from scraping against the dock when we were coming in.  That was usually my job as First Mate, but Stan was First Mate this time, and he had forgotten to put them out.  So suddenly, at a crucial point in the docking, instead of Stan noticing whether or not I was coming in too quickly, needed to hit reverse, or was missing my mark, he was looking down and on the bow of the boat untying lines he had tangled in with the fenders, only partly aware of whether I was coming in too fast, too slow, or missing the mark.

Those blue things, called fenders, on the side of the boat
 keep you from losing your paint job when you dock.
And as can happen when we are learning a new skill, before it has become an automatic response, my anxiety started to rise.  And along with my heightened anxiety came a sudden drop in my access to my memory of what I was supposed to do next.  I thought I had it in reverse to slow our entrance, but had I gotten confused about the lever? One of our levers is backward, and am I remembering which lever it is?  Since Stan's head is looking down, dealing with the fenders, I was on my own. And I could tell I was coming in too quickly and was beginning to panic.  Finally, at just the right moment, he looked up in response to my yelling that I needed his help, and ran back to the helm to speed the engine up in reverse in order to back us up and slow us down.  While disaster was averted, the incident put a dent in my confidence and in my belief that I could trust Stan to have my back in that situation.  Knowing that it was not his intention for either of those things to happen, it was helpful to take some deep breaths and re-assess what went wrong.

Experience helps.

Stan has docked the boat so many times that doing so is now an automatic routine for him, one that allowed him to automatically move the throttle as needed and put it into reverse. He no longer needed to consciously think about each step that went into making it work.  So when I had asked him to remind me of the steps I would need to remember when docking, there was one detail left out of the sequence.  That little detail was that if I saw we were coming in too quickly the thing to do is put it in reverse and to throttle up slightly.  Even though in that moment I wanted to aim my anger toward him, I also know it is possible he had included that detail and my anxiety had clouded my memory of his instructions.  Either way, the event was a reminder to how our brain works, or doesn't work, when we are learning a new habit or skill.

Adapted from "The Power of Habit"

What we know about the brain is that once we have created a neural pathway for an activity or habit, we often become unconscious of the many steps involved in doing so.  Think about when you were first learning to drive and the many steps involved in backing out of a parking spot in a crowded parking lot.  First, you had to make sure you could see in your rear view mirror. Second, you had to remember to put the car in reverse. Then you had to look at the cars on both sides, noticing if you were turning too sharp or not sharply enough. And then you had to notice if there were cars or people coming in both directions.  You don't consciously notice all of those things now. You automatically go through the sequence of events without stopping to identify each one separately.  Our brain has "chunked" that activity in order to store it so that we don't have to think it through each time.  We go into automatic mode. 

In the book "The Power of Habit" author Charles Duhigg talks about habits as loops.  We have a cue, a routine, and a reward.  If we want to change a habit, we have to figure out how to change the routine, while keeping the cue and reward.  So if I want to develop a habit of docking the boat without freaking out or destroying the boats next to us, I have to first practice that activity enough times to form a neural pathway for "docking the boat. " Once I have done it enough times, the steps will get chunked together until it becomes automatic. Author Duhigg's research breaks down habits into cues, routine, and reward.  Once you have chunked an activity that involves a cue, routine and reward, you have developed a habit. 

He uses the example of getting up at 3pm every afternoon from his computer and walking over to the cafeteria to get a cookie.  Those cookies are causing him to gain weight, so he wants to change the habit.  In order to do so, he first identifies the cue (getting up from his computer at 3pm) that leads to his routine (going to the cafeteria and getting a cookie) that results in a reward.  The reward is that he feels satisfied and has a burst of energy that enables him to go back to work.  By experimenting with different routines, he is able to pinpoint that when he gets the cookie, he also stops and visits with his co-workers for a few minutes before sitting back down.  So, part of the routine involves having some interaction.  He decides to change the routine by either eating an apple or drinking a cup of coffee before chatting with a co-worker and then settling back down at his computer.  The reward is the feeling of connecting with someone and getting a burst of energy, which he is still able to do with the changed routine.  He says that to change a habit we need to change the routine, but keep the cue and reward, whether it is stopping smoking, exercising, or changing our eating habits.

While his book is primarily focused on breaking habits, it also is about developing new ones.  So if I want to get as good at docking our boat as I am at parking my car, it means I need to do it enough times to burn a "docking the boat" neural pathway.  And it also may mean that the expert docker - aka my husband - might consider finding another First Mate during those times I intend to dock the boat. That might allow him to fulfill his promise to provide me with needed support during the learning phase of that new skill.  I think they call that a win-win, since that would also strengthen the neural pathway called "trusting one's partner."

Our happily docked boat

Vicki and husband, ceramic artist Stan Irvin, are both retired professors who have discovered the joys of Rockport and living part-time on their 33' sailboat, while exploring new sailing destinations and adventures.

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