D is for Death by Docking

Do I have to keep putting the A to Z badge at the top? I’ve chosen to put it at the bottom from now on. This is a long post. Get some coffee. Make yourself comfortable.

When we owned Moonrise, guess who docked her much of the time? Yours truly. I remember fondly the days when I would “ride cowboy” by standing on the seat behind the wheel and steer her into her little slip. Those days are behind me. Now we have full-keeled, heavy bodied, center cockpit Galapagos. As much as I love our boat, I loathe docking her. That’s because of the nature of traumatic memory and how it seems to live forever in our bodies sometimes, coming back to haunt us at the worst possible times.

Someday, this is not going to be the case.

If you’ve been following along with us for these years, you may remember the first time we took Galapagos out for a sail down in Astoria, Oregon. That was the day that three bad things happened all in a row. In the post I wrote about that day, I used sheer vulgarity. That was a day that got lodged in my psyche and in my body, and most importantly: in my brain in the wrong location.  I haven’t been able to shake it yet. I am determined that I will. But for now, it still lurks around. Amy G. Dala does her utmost to ‘save my life’ with this one, no matter how hard I try to shut her up.

We had taken Galapagos out for the first time with her shiny new engine, on the Columbia River.  We had just pulled over into a quiet area to practice things like turning on her keel, raising sails, you know…all the things that you need to know how to do on a boat. I don’t want to repeat all the things I wrote about in the original article, so suffice to say we were already a bit concerned about what might be going on with the engine and the transmission. Also, the bilge pump kept coming on and Mike couldn’t figure out why. There were enough things to be worried about  that we decided to cut the trip short and return to the marina.

I got cocky and confident and decided I would bring the boat into the marina myself. Well, it was the first time for both of us with this boat, remember? May as well have been me that took the hit. The dock was a straight shot and there was plenty of room if I flubbed it. I knew the current was wicked getting in and I would have to gun the engine to keep from getting swept into the steel wall at the entrance to the marina. I counted on having to use the engine to slow her down once inside.


What I didn’t count on was the transmission sticking in reverse, although one reason we were returning was because we were worried about the transmission. Go figure. Denial is a terrible thing sometimes. I had overshot the dock on the first pass due to current. No harm done, I was backing up to try again and the transmission stuck hard. It was completely jammed and once our girl is moving, she doesn’t stop very well unless you use the engine to stop her. Not being able to put her in forward, she just kept moving back. The dockhand was running down the dock yelling at me to throw the thing into forward, (Really? You think???), the Coast Guard boat at the fuel dock was lined with faces watching the drama unfold. I don’t remember giving a rip about that. But I will never forget the sickening feeling as the rear of my beautiful boat slowly pushed into the steel fishing vessel behind us, bending our starboard steel davit just enough to remind me every time I see it now. It was, in a word, awful, even though it could have been worse. Turns out, this was a traumatic experience for me. And I don’t use that term lightly.

Part of what defines a trauma is how the person experiences it. What separates a traumatic experience from any other kind of bad experience is that by definition it overwhelms the person’s coping mechanisms. People go into a dissociated state of awareness as a protection. They may experience the event as though they are watching it happen to someone else, like it’s a movie, or as though they are watching themselves from outside their body. Time seems to slow down.  Sometimes people will actually be unable to remember the sequence of events later, or they may be missing critical sensory information such as sounds or sights. Some people get tunnel vision. These are signs that the brain is going to be recording this memory differently than a regular daily event. And that’s a bad thing.

There she is. The boat that bent our davit.

Let me give you another example. A few years ago I was doing a Critical Incident Debriefing at a bank that had been robbed. This is where a therapist goes in and helps the staff process the event. There is a specific protocol. In this incident, two robbers came in waving weapons and shouting for everyone to get onto the floor. There was a lot of yelling and the criminals threatened to hurt people if they did not comply. Everyone present that day agreed that it was an extremely frightening event and commented on how much yelling there was. Part of my job was to assess each individual in the group for evidence that they may not integrate this incident very well and need help processing it.

One man clearly would need more help. He had hidden under his desk, eyes squeezed shut, as soon as the robbery began. He expressed to the group his surprise that everyone was reporting how loud the event was. He had heard nothing. To him, the entire episode had happened in complete silence. He didn’t even know it was over until someone found him under the desk.  He had absolutely no memory of any kind of sound. For him, the current memory was one of silence and no visual cues; just one long incident of being scared literally to death.  I referred him for further evaluation.

Traumatic events are cumulative over time. If you’ve had a number of events that have been pretty hard to take, over time your ability to handle unusual stressors can get eroded.  It may seem like you are able to take things in stride, only getting a little overly concerned about some situations, until suddenly one more thing happens and you’ve hit the end of the line. Then it can be a little like flipping a switch and there’s no turning back without some kind of intervention.

This was not my first rodeo with traumatic events. Even though this event was certainly not in the least life threatening, the conditions under which this happened proved to be a perfect storm that overwhelmed me. All the things that happened that day, being on a new boat in new waters,  and my own personal history all converged  and I experienced this event through the lens of a traumatic experience.

Oh, and the bilge pump thing? Our shaft seal had lost two bolts. It was leaking like a mother f*&^. The third thing? Once the docking debacle had been resolved, Mike discovered water in our brand new engine. Brand. New. Seriously. We were so completely beaten we both could have walked away from the whole project then and there.

Entrance to the Astoria marina. It always felt so small, then when I look at the photo I’m amazed at how much room there actually was.

I long for the days when I had the confidence to pull Moonrise right up into her slip without undue stress. Buying this boat down in Astoria without ever having taken her out on the water was a huge leap of faith. We knew she was a good boat. We never doubted it, and she has proven herself many times already. We actually love our boat. But we had zero experience with a full keeled boat and we also had zero experience with the kinds of currents that are ever present on the Columbia River. Every time we left the dock it was a challenge. Every time we came back, it was a challenge. And there was no one to teach us. Talk about trial by fire. And we chose this… WHY? Oh yes. Because we loved the boat and just decided we would make it work. How did I know that this would be the straw that broke my camel’s back?

That straw broke the camel’s back, and also bent this very sturdy davit, which acted like a shock absorber, protecting the boat. The fishing  boat was scratched, but the owner didn’t care. There was zero damage to the hull and the deck. Whew.

Ever since that day I have been very anxious, in fact sometimes terrified, whenever we are underway in a tight space close to other boats.  I have wanted to avoid taking the boat out because of my fear of bringing her back in. This has been, really, just terrible. I know what has caused these feelings, but knowing what causes post traumatic feelings goes only so far in handling them. To be fair to myself, I have actually docked our boat. If there are no other boats around, and the dock is a straight shot, I can swing that without a worry. When we pulled into Canada and check in at Poet’s Cove, I docked her and was so proud I almost cried.

When there are no other boats around, I’m fine. There is nothing to hit but the dock. I don’t care much about hitting docks.  And this summer, in spite of the fact that I suffered from pretty bad anxiety for almost the entire trip, I got to know the boat better and became more confident and comfortable on her. I have to think that once we are aboard and sailing around as a lifestyle, I’m going to get used to her even more and become more confident over time. I actually do believe that.

Added to my stress was that Mike was learning, too. I didn’t realize how much that mattered to me until he said that out loud; how much he felt responsible, and how much got nervous, too. That actually made a huge difference to me, and it helped calm me down quite a bit. It’s highly possible that the amount of anxiety I was feeling was magnified because part of it actually belonged to him. That was just a really bad, horrible day for us both. I consider it a testament of strength and our probable success as cruisers that we didn’t throw in the towel right there.

Now every time Mike docks the boat successfully I feel better about it, so I’m learning, even if I’m not, yet,  doing. A couple of times last summer, after the trip, I actually thought ‘I’ll bring her in this time’, but then I wouldn’t let myself, because if I rush this and something doesn’t go well, it’s going to set me back considerably and it’s not worth the risk. The fact that Mike is mastering this makes me feel loads better. When he wasn’t confident either, you really wouldn’t want to know what all was going on in my head.

See that area underneath the LL in Michelle? I did that. With my davit.

The last time we were out I handled the docking situation really well. I didn’t worry about it at all in advance, and when we approached the marina, I was pretty calm and cool. I waited until he did his part, then stepped off onto the dock and tied her off as though I’d been doing it all my life. Damn, that felt good.

You know why I handled it well? It wasn’t because I talked myself into it. Like I said, with traumatic memory, that rarely works. I’m glad that I know that. I’m grateful that I have the level of professional knowledge I have. I finally decided I’d had enough of this crappy anxiety and how much suffering it causes me, as well as Mike,  and went on medication. That’s right. I went on Zoloft. And thank God for it. Looking back over a few years I realize I should have done it a long time ago, probably when I hit menopause.  It has calmed Amy G. Dala down enough that I can feel like myself again. I may still be a little afraid, but I can put it in perspective once more and I know that eventually I will learn and it will be fine. This is a true gift because seriously, anxiety can ruin what is otherwise a beautiful thing: being on the boat.

20 thoughts on “D is for Death by Docking

  1. Wow! What a great post . . . and so insightful. It’s been 15 years, and I still remember specific events that trigger anxiety when we’re coming in to the dock (I can berth the boat but don’t because of my anxiety). It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

  2. So it’s probably the extremely rare individual that doesn’t have something that gets them, right? [or someone who is very, very, very far beyond the normative?] How do you balance working through it with being too aggressive and ending up magnifying it and never getting it handled? Is the point when anxiety about multiiple traumatic events magnifys and destroys coping where it tumbles into PTSD?
    I’ve been reading about people who are super vigilant about avoiding “triggering” events (of whatever ilk) and commentary that if you never eventually face and deal with the aftermath that it just becomes worse. What’s your take?

    • I would say that 1) yes most people have ‘something’ that frightens them 2) where it tumbles into PTSD has to do with avoidance, triggering events, flashbacks (reliving the event), intrusive and uninvited thoughts and memories of the event, a separation from reality in the here and now, and how much all of that interfers with your own pursuit of happiness. In other words, how much do you have to spend your life ‘managing’ around the fear and trying to reduce exposure? How much suffering is there? It is the incident itself that creates the post traumatic memory by overwhelming the person’s ability to cope during that incident. So, in other words, some people at some times of their lives, for instance, may be able to process and cope well after a car accident that would cause others to have a post-trauma response. How you know when you might be pushing it too hard is certainly a personal thing. I’ve seen people rush in to ‘get it over with’ and then they are not ready and re-traumatize themselves, making healing even more difficult. It’s important to be prepared and to take things slowly, bit by bit in terms of most ‘exposure’ therapies. As a matter of fact, many people avoid those very therapies because just the thought of being ‘exposed’ on any level sets them off. Yet exposure therapies work well, where a person exposes themselves a little at a time to the dreaded experience. Of course, I’ll give a caveat that if you are dealing with a trauma that has severely compromised your ability to cope in your everyday life, getting help by finding a good therapist who is trained in trauma work is a good idea. Many of my clients took months to be able to even talk about a traumatic incident, much less tell the complete story. Even talking about something is a kind of exposure to that incident. You’d be surprised at all the traumas people keep to themselves.

      • I find the way the mind works to be completely fascinating and I’m always interested in understanding it better. I really am enjoying reading your insights about this from both your professional perspectives and how it relates to “ordinary” type experiences-specifically here your boating life.
        Maybe part of the hard part can be finding the way to trust your process and ability to heal (or heal enough, at any rate). Hmm, I’m having trouble getting this thought out clearly…

        • I think you are right about this, Sue. I do realize that I am not the average anxiety sufferer, having been a psychotherapist for 27 years. In terms of trusting your own process, that is extraordinarily helpful with the caveat that you must be able to notice forward momentum. For instance, it’s way too easy to use the excuse of ‘I’m trusting my own process’ as a way of avoiding dealing with the problem. If you can see measurable momentum, then it means you are not ‘stuck’ and you can relax into your process and let it evolve organically. My training is in Jungian Psychotherapy primarily (although I certainly have training in briefer, less process oriented modalities) and trusting the healing process is paramount in that way of thinking. The key word is ‘stuckness’. For instance, I am way less anxious about docking than I was. I have been able to dock the boat, even if it has only been on a free and clear dock without any other boats around. I have considered what it would be like if I were to pull the boat into the marina. This is progress, so I’m trusting myself without going too fast with it. If you’ve lived with a problem and it has not changed over time, you are stuck and trusting your process is unlikely to allow any headway. Get help from a professional.

  3. You knocked this one out of the park! I honestly don’t know what to say except – wow! WOW!! Such a great post and such an insightful series. I think you have the makings of a book here. Seriously, anxiety and cruising go hand in hand. So many people would love to read about it and could benefit from it.

    • Thank you so much, Ellen! I do, actually, know quite a bit about this subject on a professional level, and that knowledge helps me a great deal in managing and identifying my own anxieties. I’m writing this series in part because it helps me formulate my own thoughts and awareness of the issues involved, but also because I see all the time how people misunderstand this stuff and also how it interferes in relationships, which i’ll write about more later. For instance, I know there are many people who have had the same kinds of traumatic docking experiences as I have. They have understandable anxiety about it. I would like to normalize, if possible, those kinds of responses so people don’t feel so guilty and broken about having them. We feel as though we just are not ‘brave’ enough , or maybe we aren’t a real ‘salior’, or any of the other marginalizing things people imply but don’t say directly. None of them are true. I can tell you this: if you have bad anxiety about something, and you do it anyhow, you are one of the bravest people out there. Our brains are wired a certain way sometimes. We have to learn to work with that instead of always fighting it. Once people understand that the anxiety may belong to them, but does not define them, they can work with it more effectively.

  4. I wonder now, does my lack of knowledge on the subject of fear and anxiety – and the brain’s responses to stressors – some how help me to cope, or avoid negative associations? Perhaps that’s overly simplistic, but it seems my response to fear and the unknown is consistently to focus, analyze, and problem solve. The more out of my depth I feel, the greater the sense of heightened senses and focus on solutions… That makes me wonder where my overload point is? For sure I must have one, being human. Hmm…
    Great post!

    • Well, I wish it were a case of ‘what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you’, but it doesn’t really work like that. In fact, you are less likely to respond badly in the beginning if you actually know a little something about how this works. But what it sounds like to me is that you are one of the lucky ones. I do think that on the whole, women have a lower threshold of fear, but that is a big generalization with plenty of room on either side of that curve of averages. Everyone has a breaking point, but not everyone reaches it. Remember, it’s generally not just one thing that creates a ‘post traumatic’ response. For instance, even in war veterans those with a history of trauma outside of war are more likely to develop PTSD than those with a ‘clean slate’, as it were. It is doubtful they are thinking very hard about all this academic stuff about anxiety while they are literally trying to survive war. Just consider yourself to be fortunate!

  5. Fantastic post ! And agree with Ellen- cruising and anxiety go hand in hand and these posts are very therapeutic for all of us ! I’ve always thought that cruising was good therapy for the control-freak in me because it has taught me (painfully) that I am, in fact, in control of very little out there. (I love the saying that one never really docks a boat, one just offers it suggestions…) And I’ve had to learn to “get over myself” and loosen up, knowing that I’m going to make mistakes and look like a bleedin idiot from time to time (as well as putting scratches and dings in our shiny new boat, and on occasion, the boats of others, sorry to say…). All of this loosening up has not been easy, and I have resorted on occasion to the comfort of some little homeopathic chill-pills (Euphytose is the European brand name) to take the edge off. A very big THANK YOU for mentioning that you take chill pills as well; I was feeling a bit embarrassed about that !

    • Thanks for reading, Maria. It sounds like you have a much more Generalized Anxiety than I have but I do understand your very valid point that cruising means you simply must learn to be flexible. Going with the flow is critical, isn’t it? I’m pretty good at that most of the time, but when I’m not, I’m REALLY not. Also, I am glad you have found something that gives your brain the support it needs to enable you to learn about stressful situations in a more relaxed state. I think that is a critical part of re-learning – being in a more relaxed state – and the proper use of medications and supplements can go a long way towards alleviating unnecessary and debilitating suffering. Your feelings of guilt at using these are exactly one of the primary reasons for these posts. I strongly affirm your choice to use whatever healthy means are necessary to be more relaxed and in charge of yourself. People do feel embarrassed about taking medications for anxiety (and likewise, depression) and I’m here to say that better living through chemistry is just fine! I mean, when you stop to think about it, how embarrassed are we to take medication for other things? If we have an infection, we are not embarrassed to take antibiotics. I think you can see my point. I’ll be talking a bit more about the use of medications and possibly supplements later in the series. We want to enjoy our time on the water!

  6. OMG, just what I experienced with our 34ft Jeanneau Melody about 10 years ago. Problems with the throttle and gear stick moving together instead of apart. A tiny dinghy full of people looking at me in fear if I would be able to stop the boat in time in the dock. Luckily I only ended up scraping a lot of aluminum from out own protection strip, but I never docked or steered into the marina again. Until last fall, when a group of ladies from our Bavaria sailing club proposed to do a women only boat handling course for mooring and docking etc. I took the wheel again and now look forward to start practising again this spring, as to handle this awful anxiety for all years to come… thanks for your inspiring blogs!!!

    • Oh good for you, Selma! I will consider that my inspiration! I know it would be a good idea for me to take some lessons from a female teacher. I’m girding my loins for that.

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