Post-traumatic stress disorder has likely existed as long as humans have. However, the term PTSD and an understanding of the condition only made its way into the general public’s awareness when veterans returning from the Vietnam War struggled to resume their lives at home. Since then, the condition has been well documented as not only affecting soldiers coping with battlefield experiences, but anyone who has experienced a traumatic event.
Psychotherapy programs have been established to help combat the psychiatric disorder, including at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. The school’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety lists traumatic events ranging from “life-threatening accidents, such as automobile accidents, airplane crashes, or boating accidents, both experienced or witnessed.” Boating accidents? Really? Can we be that seriously affected by a traumatic experience on our boat? Take it from me, the answer is most definitely yes.
It was just past midnight when a loud bang and the subsequent lurching suddenly woke us. My wife Dori and I raced up to the pilothouse of our brand-new Ocean Alexander 50 to discover that we had been dragging our anchor across the small harbor of Solomons, Maryland. As I frantically started the engines to operate the hydraulic windlass, it seemed like the Liberdade was already moving at several knots.
The wind was howling and our hearts racing as we tried to get our bearings in the darkness. By the time we realized where we were, it was too late to just let out more anchor rode; Dori pointed to a catamaran we were about to hit. We miraculously avoided contact with it, and the wind continued to push us around, until we came to a crashing stop against what was thankfully an empty T-head of a marina across the harbor.
It was pitch black at the marina and all through town. With flashlights in-hand, we secured the boat to the pier as best we could and went about inspecting the boat for any signs of water coming in. Once we confirmed that we were not going to sink, we knew we would have to wait until morning light to assess any further damage. We shut everything down and sat in the pilothouse holding each other, knowing we were safe but wondering how much damage we had caused.
On the next morning’s news, we learned that overnight winds were recorded at nearby Patuxent Naval Air Station at 80 mph. The meteorologists described a weather phenomenon heretofore unknown to us, called a “derecho”: A fast-moving, straight-line storm, with the intensity typically associated with tornadoes.
Out on the boat for a long 4th of July vacation, it was going to be a week before we planned on anchoring again. We spent that time rehashing the event and analyzing what we did wrong and what we did right on that stormy night.
On our return trip home, we stopped to anchor in a well-protected harbor on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay. The weather was settled. The anchorage was empty, so we let out a generous amount of scope and had plenty of swinging room.
We knew we were anchored securely, but oddly enough, neither of us had much of an appetite for dinner, and we both grew increasingly uneasy as night fell. We watched the radar intently for any approaching weather. Every sound the boat made had us on edge, and our pulse quickened with the slightest swinging in the anchorage.
Why couldn’t we relax in what we knew was a safe place? We had years of anchoring experience, but that evening, both of us were extremely nervous. After an uneventful night with little sleep, we weighed anchor and made our way safely home.
While out on the boat over the following weeks and months, we realized we were still carrying with us the effects of our experience. We didn’t think we truly had PTSD, but it was clear we were suffering from the trauma of our anchoring disaster. We loved anchoring out in our boat. Our home waters of the Chesapeake Bay are a gunkholing dream, and the thought of losing a life we loved and sinking our vessel was unacceptable. We had to find a way to regain our anchoring confidence.
A little research led us to Dr. Peter Levine, a leading authority in trauma recovery. After a little reading we had found the answer. Levine describes trauma as any unresolved autonomic nervous system response. “It’s about the nervous system’s response to an event, not necessarily the event itself,” he wrote. “In a normal response to trauma, the body reestablishes its equilibrium as a person moves through a process where they can recognize that the stressful event is in the past, however if left unhealed, people can stay stuck in automatic survival responses.”
Our experience during the storm switched on all of the fight, flight or freeze triggers in our nervous system, and we were still partially stuck in this mode. It took some work for us to fully accept how we were affected by our experience, that our nervous system was carrying the memory of that night, and just the thought of reliving it sent us back into a mild state of panic. As we discussed it more between ourselves and through the supportive help of friends, we were able to move past it. The key is acknowledging it and working through it, not dismissing it.
Since our experience, I’ve been more aware of other boaters having traumatic experiences of their own, several of whom stopped using their boats completely and eventually sold them. It’s important to note that trauma doesn’t affect everyone the same. This is especially problematic when it affects just one member of a couple.
The worst thing you can say to a boater—or anyone, for that matter—who’s had a frightening experience is: “Just get over it; it wasn’t that bad” or anything of that nature. The reality is they can’t “just get over it,” because the experience has literally re-wired their brain. According to Bessel van der Kolk, a leader in the field of traumatic experiences, and the author of the New York Times bestseller The Body Keeps the Score, “The impact of trauma is located in the survival portion of the brain, which does not return to a baseline after the threat is over.” His research has shown that traumatized individuals are prone to activate areas in the brain involved in fear perception, which henceforth have trouble filtering out relevant from irrelevant information. They may act normal in every other way, but bringing them close to the source-experience will trigger a predictable set of responses they cannot control.
Boating has enriched our lives more than we ever could have dreamed. We’re grateful we were able to recognize what was happening and resume spending time cruising, which we enjoy so much. If you or someone you know has been affected by a significant scare while boating, take the time to understand the effects of the incident. Remember, not everyone involved may have experienced it as a traumatic event, but for those who did, it must be dealt with correctly for them to move on. Be patient with yourself or loved ones. With the right help, you too can continue to enjoy your boating adventures.