Being a Ship Captain Floats My ADHD Boat
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Being a ship captain floats my ADHD boat

Ship captain Dave Gugliotti has ADHD — and a love for the ocean. Full of energy, yet calm under pressure, Dave’s strengths help him flourish on open water. As the seasons change, so does his work. Every day is different, with varied activities and constant repairs to keep Dave’s bouncing mind happily engaged. 

Dave’s never been one to sit still, and he works best with his hands. He tried to sit at a desk for an office job, but he left after a week and never looked back. In this week’s episode of How’d You Get THAT Job?!, we discuss how the sea called to Dave from a young age, and what you can do to explore a sailing career.

Listen in to hear how Dave shaped his daily life to fit his tactile ADHD brain, and other flotsam and jetsam.

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Episode transcript

Dave: Stop the panic, throw it away, get rid of it, get over it, because the quicker you can get rid of it and get rid of the panic, the quicker you can go back to thinking about what's wrong, what's my problem? And the way I always start is, "Is the boat on fire? Nope. Boats not on fire. Cool. Are we sinking? Nope, we're not sinking. Perfect. Then everything's fine. Let's grab a coffee and figure out what's the problem."

Eleni: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a podcast that explores the unique and often unexpected career paths of people with learning and thinking differences. My name is Eleni Matheou, and I'm a user researcher here at Understood. That means I spent a lot of time thinking about how we find jobs we love that reflect how we learn and who we are. I'll be your host. 

No day looks the same for our next guest, Captain Dave Gugliotti. He might be leading a chartered tour from his home base of Charleston, South Carolina. Or he might be teaching navigation skills or using his mechanical talents to fix the motor of one of his boats. The only constant is the water. 

A traditional office job is often not a good fit for people with learning and thinking differences. So that's why I really wanted to talk to someone like Dave, who has ADHD and chose a very different path. Welcome to the show, Captain Dave. 

Dave: Thank you so much. 

Eleni: When we approached you for this interview, you mentioned that scheduling might be a little bit difficult because of how varied your days are. And I thought it would be nice to start there and just talk a little bit about how much a typical day varies for you. And why does that work for you, or what do you like about that or enjoy about that? 

Dave: Well, I typically don't have a schedule except for I work seven days a week, about 14 hours a day. So it is extremely fluid. The only schedule that I have is for our charters, which I keep on a calendar, or if I'm doing a yacht delivery or something like that, that's the only hard-and-fast data that I have in my calendar. Everything else, I wake up in the morning, I don't know what I'm doing, where I'm going, or what's gonna happen.

I own a fleet of three boats that we charter. And so you'll call me up and say, "Hey, Dave, we're coming to Charleston. We want to go out on the water and do a sunset tour. I want to propose to my fiancée." Or, "We're coming in for a bachelorette party. We've got 16 girls. We want to go out." Cool. So I say, "When do you want to go out?" And we schedule a time and a date, and then we put it on the calendar. So then I sort of work around that. 

I ping-pong off the wall and do 8 million different things. You know, recently I bought a scooter because I've got so many boats and they’re all at the other ends of every dock, and everything else, and one of our docks, it’s a quarter of a mile long, so it’s a half a mile there and back. I was talking to a couple of the dock hands today, and they could have sworn that the scooter was motorized. And I said, "No, it's not motorized." And another one of the girls that works there, she also works for me a little bit, she goes, "No, no, no, no, no. That's, that's Dave. That's how fast he goes." You know, just even doing this interview, I came back to my office two hours early, and it forced me to sit down at the computer and do all my paperwork. But for the most part I'm out running around.

Eleni: That gives me a really good sense of all of the things that could possibly happen in your day. And when you say a yacht delivery, is that you're doing that on behalf of others that have just purchased boats? How does that work?

Dave: So, both. So this person that I'm flying up to Virginia to pick up their boat, they just literally purchased the boat. It's sitting up there, they need to hire a qualified captain to then bring it back to wherever their home port is going to be. So they call me and say, "Can you go get it?" I'll say, "Yep, sure," and I will set up the delivery profile of that and say, "This is what we're going to do," and I'll go up and get it. 

And then there's other boats that are in my fleet that I manage, and I work with them on a monthly basis, and they'll say, "We want to be in the Bahamas," or "We want to go to Florida," or "We're in Florida; we want to go back up to Newport." And so we have to schedule all that stuff out. So we're starting to get into our delivery season right now. And so all the boats that we brought down to Florida now all want to go back up to New England. So within the next two months, that's what we're going to do. 

Once that ends, then we go into our full-blown charter season. So we'll be running charters all the time. And then during the week, if we're not doing that, we're doing all the repairs on the boat. And then once the fall rolls around, we're going back into delivery season. And then once the winter rolls around, we're back into project season. 

Eleni: Yeah, it's interesting that there's like a seasonal rotation and like a cyclical nature to the work.

Dave: At least that's the way I've sort of set it up. I need to be able to move around quite a bit. And that's what keeps me entertained. And that's what keeps it interesting. I get phone calls all the time for, you know, again, how I switch directions. I'll get a phone call. "There's a boat stuck here. Can you come and get it?" "Sure. Tell me about it." "It has one engine, half a propeller, and no rudders and no steering. Can you move it?" "Sure. Why not? Let's see how this thing goes."

Eleni: Well, I think, you know, you having mentioned that you really love that variety because otherwise you'd get bored. I think that's a really good segue to talk a little bit about why that works for you and perhaps how that might relate to some of your differences. So do you want to talk a little bit about your ADHD and how, if there's any connection there with the way that you've kind of set up your — not even your day, your year?

Dave: Yeah, well, you know, when I was young, third grade, I got diagnosed with it, and they didn't know how to handle it. And they knew I was extremely smart, but they didn't know what to do. I didn't, I couldn't do a language; that was very difficult. I did extremely well in college. And then, all of a sudden, I realized I had to graduate, and in order to graduate, I had to take a language. I'm like, "Well, I guess I'm going to be a student the rest of my life, 'cause I'm not going to be able to pass anything." And then I realized in the syllabus that I can do sign language, and sign language is the hand motor skills, like I don't have to spell anything; I don't have to do anything. I can build whatever you want. I mean, you want me to build you a skyscraper, a boat, an engine, rip that whole thing apart? Perfect. You want me to write out something? Not a chance.

Eleni: I think it's all about leaning in to what your strengths are. I think that's actually really interesting that you are able to think about how to address the language component in a way that was aligned with what your strengths were. If you were in a different setting, perhaps you would have needed other ways to cope, but you've actually created an environment for yourself where the way your day is structured is like a way for you to get the most out of your day.

Dave: I couldn't sit in an office. I was a, you know, a stockbroker, financial planner, for a week before I quit. So yeah, I knew I couldn't do something like that. And part of it, too, you know, where I grew up, we grew up in a very affluent area, and it was expected of you to go to high school, graduate, and then go to a four-year college, go sit behind a cubicle, and suffer for the rest of your life. I couldn't do that. And so even like I started my first company when I was 13 years old. I started a lighting and sound company. So by the time I was in high school, I mean, I was making plenty of money, but I just knew that for me, sitting down at a desk or doing homework or whatever was very arduous for me. But I dug going out and doing lighting and sound, and working in the radio business, and, you know, doing theater and doing concerts, and how mobile that was and how dynamic that sort of stuff is.

And so I wished, you know, when I was in high school that, you know, there could have been more direction to say, you know, "There is maritime school." They were out there at the time, but that wasn't necessarily offered to me. I don't think I was presented with that option besides go to college, get a four-year degree, and go sit and push paperwork.

Eleni: I read on your website that no one in your family was a boater or a huge fan of the sea. Where do you think your inspiration came from, essentially given you in an environment where people had pretty rigid ideas of what a career looks like? 

Dave: Again, talking about ADHD and just always constantly thinking. You know, again, you're right. Nobody in my family was into yachts, boating, boats, water. We were not big people about that. And I was fascinated by the Titanic and ships and whatever. And we'd go on vacation to Cape Cod. And I would, I would pedal my bike, ridiculously, 20 miles away to Hyannis Port on a main road, to go to the seaport and watch all of the ships come in, the fishing boats come in. And I was so enamored by them coming in and out and the thought of, you know, you see, and this is like, just like, like, I don't know, pie-in-the-sky stuff. So you see the ship come in and the boat come in, you go, wow. You saw like the last five minutes of that ship's journey. But only they know what happened out there. Only they know what that journey was. And to be as free as that to go and come back as you please, and not know what happened during that time, it was like really kind of cool. 

And I was young enough to still believe in Santa Claus at this point, because I always remember that for Christmas, I asked for radar. Radar is really, really expensive. I knew I could buy the wood to build the boat. That's relatively cheap. I could scrounge that stuff up somewhere and I can clabber the boat together, but I need radar. So I would ask for Santa Claus to bring me the radar, and then it sort of progressed from there. I bought my first boat before I graduated college.

So I did that, and then I just sort of progressed, and then I took the boating course, and then I realized that that was not being taught very well. And so I started working for the state, teaching for them. And then the director said, "You know, you are the youngest and best instructor that we have. Why are you doing this, you know, as a volunteer? You should do this as a company." So I started my Connecticut boating education company, and did that for many years until I moved down to South Carolina. So it just progressed from there. And moving down to South Carolina opened up a lot of doors in regards to management and different possibilities.

Eleni: In my research it often comes up that, you know, neurodiverse folks really enjoy ripping things apart or figuring out how things work. So it sounds like fixing things is something that's been part of your life for a really long time and comes really naturally to you. Do you know, like, how did you learn to do that?

Dave: Both my grandfathers were in World War II, and they're both, uh, their jobs were tool and die makers, so they were very hands-on. And I would go to my grandparents' house, and, you know, they would have things in their basement and in their garage that we would probably get arrested for using today. I mean, there's gears and engines on these things that would cut your finger off in a heartbeat.

Well, we put them together, and we built them, and then we used table saws and all kinds of stuff, and we built stuff. I can see something, diagnose it, rip it apart, and put it back together again, kind of like in my head without actually having to do anything. So I can figure out very quickly what's wrong with something and also how to fix it.

You know, I had an instance where I was 20 miles offshore a few months ago, and we lost one engine, and then we lost the other engine. So then I called the Coast Guard, and I said, "Hey, just to let you know, this is what's going on — I've lost both engines, blah, blah, blah." And their response was, well, you know, of course I'm 12, 20 miles offshore, "Maybe you should anchor and call salvage." And my response back to the Coast Guard was, "No, I'm a professional captain. I'll get both engines fired up and I will get back to Charleston." They’re like, "OK, keep us posted." So I figured out how to get one engine started, and then I got the other engine started. And then that shut down.

So just worked both engines back and forth until we got it back to Charleston. And I don't really worry much anymore. I had some clients onboard just even last week. One of the engines went down. And they were all up in arms, "Oh, my God, we lost an engine." Of course, I'm still sitting there, you know, "Oh, OK, no problem. I'll go down there and check it out." I go down in the engine room. "Well, OK. We're not going to figure it out right now because we're almost there, and we'll just be another half an hour. Not a big deal." "Aren't you freaking out, right now?" I'm like, "Nope. Not at all. This happens every single week."

Eleni: It sounds like being able to work under pressure is also really important.

Dave: As a captain, yes. Um, absolutely. And you know, when I teach my clients, I say that there's, there's no, no room for, you know, for stress or for aggravation or for, you know, panic. Stop the panic, throw it away, get it — get rid of it, get over it, because the quicker you can get rid of it and get rid of the panic, the quicker you can go back to thinking about what's wrong, what's my problem? And the way I always start is, "Is the boat on fire? Nope. Boat's not on fire. Cool. Are we sinking? Nope, we're not sinking. Perfect. Then everything's fine. Let's grab a coffee and figure out what's the problem."

Eleni: There's no immediate danger. 

Dave: Exactly. 

Eleni: Yeah. One thing that we talk about a lot at Understood is just, you know, kind of learning to fail and try again, and that it's OK to like not get things right the first time or for things to not always go the way that you expected. It sounds like a career in boating kind of means being pretty comfortable with things not going your way. And being comfortable with failure. 

Dave: Boats are always broken, and if it's not broken, you haven't looked hard enough or you haven't waited long enough. Once you realize that, and once you come to terms with that, your life's great.

Eleni: So is that your main piece of advice to anyone wanting to get into boating, to be like really comfortable knowing that they're going to be dealing with broken things all the time? Or like, what would you tell them? 

Dave: It's pessimistic, right? I don't want to say that that, yes, you're going to have to deal with failure and broken things. But the reality is that's part of the job. We are in an extremely severe environment. Everything's covered in salt. You're running these engines uphill all day, every day, and, you know, like in first gear, so they're going to break. But if you manage it properly, then you can mitigate the big things that are going to break and just deal with the smaller things. And I just don't get worried or upset anymore about things that are broken. I've just resolved to the, to the fact that things are broken and we will fix them in the order that they need to get fixed in. 

Eleni: So it sounds like of the things that you've mentioned today, you know, one of your greatest strengths is being able to like identify and diagnose and problem-solve around whatever kind of challenges pop up and like doing it in a really like calm way, which you kind of related back to your differences a little bit and thinking with your hands and like being able to problem-solve with your hands. Do you have any other strengths that you think might be related to ADHD? Like for example, it looks like from your site that you, you know, interact with people a lot, like, would you consider yourself a people person?

Dave: Yes. I’m very, very outgoing. 

Eleni: Do you think your outgoing nature relates to your ADHD at all?

Dave: Well, from, from the hyperactivity standpoint, yeah. Bouncing off a wall. You know, I deal with millionaires. I deal with, with billionaires. I tell them, "Look, I'm going to treat you all the same, and you're going to love it. And it's going to be fun and we're going to have a great time." And, and they like that, you know? And so, yeah, that's part of being like outgoing and like witty and the ADHD, where I'm just saying weird stuff just to get a rise and see where things go and just keep everybody sort of on their toes, you know? 

Eleni: Oh yeah. That's really interesting. The bouncing off the walls trait is definitely a bit of a stereotype when it comes to ADHD, and not everyone presents that way, but it seems like it's definitely true for you. You definitely have a lot of energy and keep things interesting with the people you work with. It sounds like a lot of fun.

Dave: You know, when I run charters, a lot of times I've got, you know, 15, 16, 18 girls onboard, and it's just me. So now I’ve got to entertain a bunch of girls, in bikinis, on my boat. It's a terrible life, isn't it? 

Eleni: Sounds awful. 

Dave: We have a lot, I mean, we just have a ton of fun, so it's not just your normal captain, just running around with, we're very engaged, we're very interactive, and they really, really enjoy that. 

Eleni: Oh, that sounds so fun. I need an excuse to ask you to charter a boat. 

Dave: No, you’ve just got to come to Charleston.

Eleni: So if there are any young people listening that are interested in getting into a career in boating, what would you tell them? 

Dave: There's a lot of different ways to go about it. You know, there's the yachting side and then there's the commercial side. So two different ways you can go about it. If they want to go to school, there's a lot of maritime academies. There's Maine Maritime. There's SUNY Maritime. There's a bunch of others. I'm just from New England, so those are where those are from. Or, you can go and literally just get on a boat and be a deckhand. You're not going to get paid anything because there's a million people out there.

I've got an ad up right now for, um, deckhand slash stew. And I always say that the qualification isn't "I want to be on the water. I just want to be on boats." That's not a qualification. That's an aspiration. I don't need aspirations. I need qualifications. Can you turn a wrench? Do you know what a screwdriver is? What's the bow of the boat? So you got to know something in order to get onboard. Otherwise you're going to start really at the bottom. But by going to one of these things, especially like a, uh, a sea school or, or just a generic maritime school and getting a deck license or a captain's license or something like that would probably be a good option to go, unless you want to, you know, do the full maritime school.

Eleni: That's really great, tangible advice. So Captain Dave, how do you feel when you're out in the water? 

Dave: You know, it's very peaceful. You know, when I'm on land, there's a thousand things coming at me. The phone's ringing off the hook, the text messages, the emails, 8 million different boats. When you're out in the water and you're dealing only with one boat and one thing, it's peace. It's calm. And you don't do anything. Like I've learned that, "Oh, let me go bring my laptop. And I'm going to do all of this paperwork, or I'm going to read a book or I'm going to do this." Nothing gets done. And you're out there for hours and days, and you don't do anything. And you just look at the water and you — and I just do my job. I mean, every, every hour we take a log. That's about the most that's going to get done. And I'm looking at my instruments, and I know where I'm going — it's on autopilot. But I'm going to look at my course 8 million times. I'm going to look out and do this. I'm going to look at the dolphins and the sea life and the water and check things, and that's it. And it's just, that's all you're controlling and that's all you're concentrating on, and it's very, very peaceful. And then you get back in, and it's kind of like you get, you're back to civilization and landing and you're getting all this stuff coming at you again. It's like, I kind of want to go back out for a little bit.

So it's interesting. I mean, you could be off shore for five days and never know what's going on. You don't have internet, you don't have satellite. We do in these larger yachts, but as a rule, I don't, I'm not listening to the radio. I'm not watching TV. We're not on satellites. We're not close enough to shore for Wi-Fi.

Some of the boats I have have Wi-Fi, but we just don't turn any of it on. So your world revolves around whatever boat that you're on in the middle of the ocean. And you realize how small and insignificant you are when you're that far out in the ocean and there's nothing there. It's a very humbling experience, kind of, kind of interesting.

Eleni: Well, thank you, Captain Dave for staying on land to talk to us today.

Dave: You're welcome. Thank you so much.

Eleni: This has been "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a part of the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard today, tell someone about it.

"How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Go to u.org/thatjob to share your thoughts and to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G, slash that job.

Do you have a learning difference and a job you're passionate about? Email us at thatjob@understood.org. If you'd like to tell us how you got THAT job, we'd love to hear from you. As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one, to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference, and we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at understood.org/mission.

"How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is produced by Grace Tatter. Briana Berry is our production director. Andrew Lee is our editorial lead. Our theme music is created by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show.

For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. And Seth Melnick is our executive producer. And I’m your host, Eleni Matheou. Thanks again for listening.

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