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At 22, Launch driver is master of the dance

Peter Cuddy is a yound launch operator whose boat handling makes an impression on visitors to Newport, R.I.

The passengers — a gentleman and a frail, elderly woman — need to disembark from Peter Cuddy’s Newport, R.I., launch at the narrow end of a dock. There are challenges.

The large outboard motor of a powerboat tied alongside the dock protrudes beyond the dock end, into Cuddy’s space. A modest southwest wind is working against the launch. And it is certain that the lady will need to use the handrails at the side of the launch when her friend helps her ashore, so in addition to his other considerations, the launch driver will have to position his craft with this in mind.

Without hesitation — one might even think with aggression — Cuddy pivots his Oldport 26 just off the moored powerboat. His throttle hand pulls back on the lever, giving a burst of reverse to the Yanmar 70 hp and its single screw as his wheel hand spins the bow out. The next burst is in forward, the chrome wheel in a spin opposite from before. Each move is economical. There is no slop or tilt, no boiling around the transom. In three or four steps, the Oldport walks in. With less force than a friendly kiss, its rail meets the narrow dock end. The curve of the bow has left sufficient room to accommodate the imposing outboard. The passengers step up to the dock more easily than they might have climbed from a cab to the curb.

And you wonder: Where does a kid — a 22-year-old lad whose fashion sense dictates voluminous shorts with hem at the shins and crotch at the knees — learn such boat handling?

You may have had a clue when, as the passengers assembled at Oldport Marine, Cuddy came down the dock. His swagger was maybe the posing of untested youth. It also could have been a declaration of competence. Passing under the small roof of a mid-dock shelter where a handful of passengers might escape the sun or weather, Cuddy’s right hand stretched overhead, his fingers popping from one rafter to the next, as a playing card pinned to the fork of a bike flutters along the spokes.

His eyes were hidden behind curved sunglasses. The collar of his Oldport polo shirt flipped up. Without words to his customers, he uncleated the dock lines, backed out to a narrow thoroughfare, wheeled around and headed into Newport Harbor as might a young man raised aboard a lobster boat who had chosen not his father’s offshore labor, but had seen that tourists, too, could be harvested.

If this was your thought, you were mistaken. Cuddy’s genetic trail descends from yachtsmen. His father, Michael, a retired contractor, reached the higher levels in several classes of racing sailboats and participated in Olympic trials. His grandfather sailed a Herreshoff S-boat in the Narragansett Bay waters for which the design was intended. Peter Cuddy, although he has not yet owned a boat, first took the helm at an age when most toddlers have not yet mastered a tricycle.

“We always had a 40- to 50-foot motor boat that we’d camp on [on Newport’s Brenton Cove], ” says his father. The family also had an 8-foot pram. “At 3 years old, I put a life jacket on him. We were standing on the swim platform. I asked him if he could take the boat alone out around the big boat and come back. He said: ‘Sure, Dad.’ So he started out. The thing had a 2-hp outboard. The life jacket was bigger than the kid.”

As young Peter circled the family yacht, his father ducked into the cabin to tell his mother. “She looked out the window and almost freaked out,” his father now laughs.

“At the age of 5 years old, he and his brother figured out this scheme that they could collect trash around Brenton Cove for a buck a [bag] and take them over to a Dumpster at Ford Adams. Then from [age] 7 to 10, he took sailing lessons at Fort Adams. We moved to Florida in ’94, so he was running a center console up and down the ICW. He was 10 years old.”

Frequently, the child would be stopped by police who would ask him if his parents knew he had the boat. He carried a cell phone so the police could speak directly with the Cuddys.

Now Cuddy, a senior at Florida State University where he is studying finance and real estate, spends his summers hauling Newport tourists and — between trips — towing yachts from one mooring to another or collecting mooring fees. He says he has not yet seen weather that has kept him at the dock. He has seen drunks who can’t find their boats, as well as an assortment of carousing on decks in the mooring fields.

He says that he owns a limited master’s license, that he has never had a customer go in the water — although a dog did once and, another time, a family of about eight went ashore, forgetting to take their 3-year-old child with them.

Aboard his launch, Cuddy speaks few words, shares no humor. His boat handling seems to convey all that must be communicated. His vocabulary is throttle and wheel, wheel and throttle, forceful when necessary yet never abrupt, nonchalant as a matador as he challenges the hull of one boat with the stern of the launch, slashes the peaked bow in an arc past the vulnerable side of another.

And then he is Astaire, gliding beside a customer’s yacht, the launch ladder mating perfectly with the lifeline gate, the dance delicate and complete.