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Ahoy: Dr. Freud

If you’re a careful reader of PMY (and I’m sure you are), then you’ve probably perused a recent boat test of mine (“Cost Effective,” May 2009) that dwelled in part upon the difficulties I had returning a 50-footer to her slip after a sea trial during the Miami International Boat Show. The episode did not constitute a true horror show by any means, but the events were embarrassing enough. Sure, my self-esteem got hammered, but the boat didn’t—no pilings were pranged, no gelcoat got whacked, and no gears were stripped, other than my own. “And hey,” I exclaimed toward the end of the extravaganza, “Nobody was injured!”

All things have pluses and minuses, of course. And most likely the plus side of my little misadventure was the giant slab of humble pie I had to eat, a bitter but fitting development actually, given my propensity to morph into The Great Bill every now and again, especially during big boat shows where I occasionally run into readers who give me compliments that go to my head faster than a jackass’ll eat an apple. But a vexatious thing happened as well: a lowdown, mind-messing funk settled in and lingered until an eye doctor told me I’d been battling depth-perception problems for months, an excellent and uplifting excuse for my bunglings if ever there was one.

The funk was not a new phenomenon, however. The darn thing’s paid me many a visit over the years and almost always takes hold when some sort of slip-up or shortcoming in the boat-handling realm—even a mild one—suffuses my psyche with gloom, thereby undermining my sense of well-being and confidence as a man. Indeed, let me successfully squeeze a vessel of some type into a difficult slip and I’ll be in fine fettle for months thereafter. But let me experience even a whiff of discombobulation while sidling up to a dock in a rented fifteen-foot canoe and I immediately start spiraling into a black hole, psychologically speaking, and languish there for days, even weeks, all listless, feckless, and funky.

The problem’s not half as mysterious as it used to be, though, thanks to an article on Freudian psychiatry I tapped into recently as I was thumbing through the magazines (and squinting) in the eye doctor’s waiting room. While the theme was disturbingly and deeply informative, I unfortunately can’t quite remember the title and only had time to read about half of the really good parts. But I’m nevertheless feeling a heck of a lot more enlightened. For boat handlers like me who occasionally feel listless, feckless, and funky after screwing up, it helps to know the underlying causes. Takes the edge off, right?

So here’s the Freudian deal. Apparently, my deplorable and long-standing tendency to let boathandling goofs mess with my sense of self-worth stems from a series of soul-shattering events that seriously whomped me during my young and formative years. From what I can tell, there are three of them: The first is such a humdinger I can’t really go into it here (except to say it involved a disastrous encounter with a marine head, a scruffy manual-type installed on a lapstrake Scandinavian Folkboat). The second is pretty bad too, so I’m gonna skip it as well (except to say it involved a disastrous encounter with a young girl named Trudy who I was trying to impress with my handling of an old canvas canoe that I’d regrettably patched with asphalt shingles and roofing cement). But it’s the third event that continues to contaminate the wellsprings of my mind.

The story goes like this. I was a young and exceptionally callow mate working onboard an old and somewhat rumpled 197-foot supply boat, which at the time was docked port-side-to along an industrial stretch of the Atchafalaya River in Morgan City, Louisiana. Both the skipper (a rather sarcastic old guy from the neighboring hamlet of Thibodaux) and I were on the back deck of said vessel overseeing loading preparations when a request came from the crew of an oceangoing tug double-parked on our starboard side. The tug, it seemed, needed to swap places for a bit so she could offload a couple of items and effect a fast departure for the coast of Texas. “Want me to move the boat, Cap?” I asked with such wild enthusiasm I absolutely forgot I’d never done much of anything with a supply boat before, let alone maneuvered one around a crowded dock.

A true, psyche-rattler ensued. While I managed to get away from the dock without doing any harm, I subsequently embroiled our boat in what amounted to an aquatic ballet wherein I chased the tug and her occupants around the river for a while as spectators and commentators gathered to watch. By the time the captain of the tug had finally escaped me and gotten his vessel safely tied up under the appropriate loading crane, I’d discovered that my own captain, the sarcastic guy from Thibodaux, was standing by my side in the wheelhouse as we drifted in open water. He was breathing pretty hard and gesturing toward the tug. “Now you gonna put ‘er alongside de other boat!” he thundered, obviously down with the concept of me finishing what I’d so thoughtlessly started.

I went ahead. And the result was not that awful—in fact, no damages whatsoever were done. But Cap’s comment, uttered shortly after I’d finished laying our vessel alongside the tug with enough authority to actually knock a deckhand off his feet, was something I remember perfectly to this day. Moreover, I figure that, in keeping with my new understanding of Freudian principles, it probably scarred me for life.

“Smooth,” the old boy said in a tone of voice that literally dripped with ego-crunching scorn. “That was some smooth.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.