The cold gray light of dawn is just beginning to turn pink as you arrive at the boat storage building. "Hello, HAL," you say to the blinking eye of the computer. "Hello," it responds, calling you by name after recognizing your voice. "Shall I launch your boat?" You voice your agreement.

The massive doors of the storage building roll open, untouched by any human hand. Inside, a robot fork lift moves silently into position and picks your 35-footer off the fifth rack more than 50 feet in the air. While you watch, the computer controls every movement as your boat is gently lowered into the water.

Sound impossible?

Well, not 300 feet from where I sit, an automated boat rack storage facility is being constructed. Except for the voice recognition computer, it will have the capability of handling boats in and out of the water by robot control. The free-wheeling forklift truck will be gone. A track-mounted robot lift will take its place in this 21st Century facility.

Because the robot will be track-mounted, it can be built to lift its full weight capacity to the top rack of the building. Conventional fork lifts can't do this. Their weight capacity diminishes as their forks raise off the ground. That's a major reason why you have always seen the smaller boats at the top of the rack.

A friend is helping arrange the installation of this precedent-setting rack facility. He told me that while it will be capable of robotic control, it will probably have a man in charge at least until all the bugs are worked out. The man may always run this particular system, but there's little doubt computers are capable of taking over rack storage operation.

For one thing, robots don't guess at clearances and the center of rack slots. A computer-controlled robot should be able to handle the biggest of boats with far less damage than human operators. In addition, robots are willing to work hours that human beings find distasteful.

Rack Storage Considerations

Rack storage is a fast growing trend in boat dockage. It allows a large number of boats to be stored on a limited plot of ground. Racks can actually double or triple the number of boats in a marina. As a result, more dockage is available in popular ports. Like it or not, the trend toward rack storage will continue to grow.

But, is rack storage for you?

There are a number of benefits from rack storage. For most people, they outweigh the disadvantages. Let's start by looking at the benefits:

* Cost — a full year of rack storage often costs less than traditional wet dockage, dry winter storage, hauling and launching.

* Security — a boat stored 20 feet off the ground in a locked building is not likely to be the target of thieves or vandals.

* Weather Protection — boats stored under cover are not subject to gel coat destroying ultra violet light, bird droppings or other potential damage from the outdoor environment.

* No Mooring Cover — tedious covering and uncovering of the boat is not required since it is stored indoors. This means you're on the water with less work.

* No Bottom Paint — boats stored out of the water simply do not grow "grass" on their bottoms. This means expensive antifouling paint is not required.

* Easy Maintenance — since the boat is already out of the water, repairs to shafts, props or outdrives are easy to accomplish.

Not all of these benefits are of equal value to everyone. Fishermen usually like rack storage because they can leave much of their gear ready for the next day. But, if your joy is tinkering with your boat, rack storage may make doing those little jobs a lot more difficult because you have no access to the boat when it is in the rack.

This brings us to the disadvantage of racking.

Wooden boats and rack storage are often a bad mix. The strains of being fork lifted have caused the seams of older boats to open, creating leaks. Traditional double rail racks are fine for fiberglass hulls, but do not support wooden boats properly. This may cause the hull to warp out of shape. Many rack operators simply refuse to handle wooden boats while others limit service to new boats of known construction.

The real disadvantage of racking, however, is that your boat may not be available exactly when you want it. Most racks are operated only during the hours of daylight. This means if you want your boat launched early in the morning or hauled out late at night, you may be out of luck. There are ways to get around this problem. Most require you to plan ahead far enough to call the rack before you want service.

Just not having a dock of your own is another disadvantage. Rack operators always provide a fair number of overnight docks for their customers. These docks usually have water and electricity and many have picnic facilities as well. But, they are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Holiday weekends usually see a rush for the available docks.

Racking of boats up to 35 feet in length is fast becoming a reality. Until recently, rack storage was possible only for runabouts and smaller cabin boats up to about 26 feet. This size limitation still applies to older rack buildings.

Traditional Wet Dockage

Wet docks come in all sizes and are available at all hours of the day and night. You can dock any size boat and use it whenever you wish. Those are the two primary benefits of wet dockage. There's also the psychological benefit of seeing your boat tugging on its mooring lines when you arrive for the weekend instead of stuffed in a rack like an old shoe.

The disadvantages of wet dockage are nearly as many as the advantages of rack storage:

* Weathering — the boat is continuously subjected to harsh ultra violet light, air pollution, bird droppings and other weathering agents.

* Storms & High Water — may require adjusting of mooring lines and fenders to avoid damage. If you're not around to do the work, gel coat damage (or worse) is likely.

* Bottom Paint — boats docked in the water require anti fouling bottom paint to prevent marine growth.

* Difficult, Expensive Repairs — damage to a prop, strut or outdrive may require an expensive haulout to repair.

Wet dockage goes with winter haulout and land storage. Too few marinas offer year 'round floating storage. Generally, the costs involved with hauling the boat, scrubbing the bottom and preparing a winter cover (or renting inside winter storage) are somewhat greater than a yearly rack contract.

Which Is Best?

Whether you choose rack storage or a wet dock depends upon the size of your boat and your personal preference. If you use your boat every day, a wet dock is obviously best for you. But, if you can only get away on weekends, then the rack is probably best. A 22-foot runabout is probably best in a rack while a 40-foot express cruiser must go in a wet dock.

In other words, neither is best. One is simply better for your needs than the other. "Mary had a little lamb..."