Gibraltar to the Canaries – Major Injury

The Line Extends – Jeffrey Smith’s circumnavigation continues

This installment finds Jeff and his crew sailing from Gibraltar to the Canary Islands in preparation for the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers.

Big seas, a 27 knot puff and a loose mainsheet put our third crew member, Jim Marsh on a backboard headed for the hospital.

Jim was sitting near the starboard mainsheet on my Catana 431 Today!. Catana uses a dual mainsheet to stabilize the boom and provide vang control of the mainsail leach. Everyone on the boat has had an experience with the mainsheet – I had it snap up while I was bent over the winch, and got hit in the mouth and nose, thinking I had broken my nose. We purposely maintain tension on both mainsheets at all times to avoid problems.

We were on our last night at sea during the passage from Gibraltar to Gran Canaria for the start of the 2001 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers. The passage had been wonderful – our first time off the wind, setting the asymmetric spinnaker, and really getting the boat moving. As the wind built each evening, we would swap the screacher/gennaker for the spinnaker, and eventually end up with the solent jib and reefed main.

Each evening, a storm system would blow through – a series of nasty lows in the mid-Atlantic, combined with lows over the Med and Morocco were making for some serious conditions. Fortunately, we were starting from Gibraltar. The Med has “enjoyed” three weeks of solid Force 8 winds, and 40+ boats out of the 225 in the ARC have not arrived. Boats coming out of the Med report extremely short steep seas – the 60 foot cat Star Chaser reported having their bows 30 feet in the air as they crested waves.

All of our sailing from France to Spain and Gibraltar had been upwind. We had not used the spinnaker in close to a year, and were having problems reefing downwind. We found that getting the wind on the beam and letting the main out would get enough pressure off the battens to allow the main to come down to the next reef point. Most nights we had been carrying the second of three reefs, but because things were building quickly, we were setting the third reef. We got the third reef in, gybed to get in phase with the waves and get on the favored course for Gran Canaria. Then while Jim was trimming the jib, rather than standing over the jib winch to grind it in, he sat back on the coaming next to the main winch. I looked down from my steering station, saw him sitting there, started to warn him to move, and then a big gust hit along with a large wave. We started to rocket down the face of the wave, and unfortunately gybed.

The mainsheet was extremely loose, and it caught Jim behind the head and threw him across the boat. He missed the main halyard winch pedestal by a few inches, and impacted the stern lifelines heavily. He was wedged in between the lifelines and winch pedestal, and while I attempted to control of the boat, Tom Niccoli, our other crew member, went to work getting Jim fully into the cockpit.

Tom got Jim into a stable location in the cockpit, and then we got the boat cleaned up and the autopilot engaged. We spent the next hour-and-a half doing triage on Jim – checking his breathing, looking for broken bones, bleeding, dislocations, etc. Initially stunned and dazed, Jim quickly regained rational thought, and worked with us during the diagnosis and stabilization phase.

We knew we needed to stabilize his neck, as he was paralyzed in one arm and had considerable pain in the other. I created a cervical collar using a SAM splint and some rigging tape, and then went below to identify something to use as a backboard. While considering removing one of the stateroom doors, I came across one of the foam cockpit cushions. Thinking this would be more comfortable for Jim to lie on, I took it up to the cockpit. We had to remove his harness, and fortunately he had the use of his legs so he could lever himself up so we could slide the harness, sheets and other items he was lying on out from under him.

I retrieved some bath towels to make into neck rolls, and we used rigging tape to strap Jim to the cushion. Then we took the duvet off his bunk and used a sleeping bag to try and keep him warm. Fortunately it was a warm night and no rain. We dragged the cockpit cushion across the cockpit so we could continue sailing. At one point, I glanced up while we were surfing down a wave, and saw 16 knots with triple-reefed main and no jib. I was glad we had the third reef in, and that the autopilot was able to keep up with the conditions.

Jim was in considerable pain, and was requesting pain medication. Our fourth crew member, Scott Milne, is an emergency room doctor in Seattle, and had not joined the boat yet. I got on the Inmarsat C and sent him an urgent email requesting advice. I also sent Jim’s wife Lisa an initial report of the injury and told her that we were making all due speed for Lanzarote, the closest island in the Canary Island archipelago.

We attempted to reach air/sea rescue personnel using our SSB and VHF, and both were completely ineffective. I sent a distress message on the Inmarsat C and included that I would be monitoring VHF channel 16. Fifteen minutes later the Lanzarote air/sea rescue group hailed us on VHF and we made arrangements to meet them off the southwest corner of Lanzarote for a mid ocean rescue.

We considered having Jim air evacuated, but the only rescue helicopter was engaged on another rescue. We headed for the arranged meeting point, and got a Stokes litter onboard despite the extreme conditions. The Stokes litter landed on Jim, which did nothing for his condition. Ten foot waves were throwing my boat down onto the rescue boat, and we were at risk of getting holed. Jim really wanted off the boat and to get to a hospital, but I told him I thought he would be killed during the transfer. The only way we could see to do the transfer would be to strap Jim into the litter, hoist it on the spinnaker halyard, have the rescue crew pull in on lines connected to the bottom, and attempt to lower him into the rescue boat. All while the two boats slammed into each other violently. There was tremendous risk that he would slip between the two boats and be crushed to death. He agreed to stay on my boat while we made way for Las Palmas, Gran Canaria.

We thanked the rescue boat and waved them off, and I told them via VHF that we had decided to go to Las Palmas instead of continuing with the attempt to do the mid ocean transfer. They came by and we were able to get the Stokes litter back to them. Then we raised the main, set the jib, and started surfing towards Las Palmas.

We moved Jim, still attached to the cockpit cushion cum backboard, down the three steps into the salon. He had gotten cold in the cockpit, and the salon was much more comfortable for him. It was terrifying moving him. Tom was stabilizing his head and neck and I was moving him around. Jim is not a small guy…

Scott authorized the administration of pain medicine, so we opened the medical locker and dug out the pills. I was concerned that Jim would choke or vomit, and having his neck splinted would cause him to suffocate. But fortunately he tolerated the pain medicine well, and was able to get some rest.

We did everything we could to smooth the ride, but the seas were running 8-10 feet, and we had to head across the swells to make way to Gran Canaria. We would head up to cross over the shoulder of the waves, surf down the back sides and turn downhill hard to outrun the next wave train. By working through the shoulders we were generally able to smooth things out. But every once in awhile a bad series of waves would catch us out and the boat would be thrown around viciously.

Twenty hours after the accident, we pulled up to the fuel dock in Las Palmas. A surprising number of people were on hand – many observers from other boats that had been following the VHF interchanges, plus three ambulances and a large number of rescue personnel. Tom and I got out of the way while the rescue team brought a portable inflatable stretcher on board and got Jim secured. He ended up being completely encapsulated – only his face was out of the cocoon. It took seven of us to hoist him through the cockpit, along the side deck and over the life lines. Then he was in the ambulance and off to the hospital.

We were able to get his passport information before they whisked him away, so we could satisfy the immigration folks. The ARC berthing team allowed us to stay tied up at the fuel dock, and Tom and I got some much needed rest.

We got the cell phone going, and contacted Scott via phone, and spoke with Jim’s wife. Lisa was extremely upset. During one phone call, she told me that the hospital had “lost Jim”! Apparently the transition from the emergency response team to the hospital staff did not go very smoothly, and Jim ended up on a gurney at the end of a hallway, where he spent most of the night. Finally, they got him fully admitted and into a room, and he and Lisa were able to talk on the phone for a few minutes.

The next few days consisted of trips to the hospital, phone calls and emails between us, Scott and Lisa, intermingled with planning and provisioning for the upcoming Atlantic crossing. We got to Gran Canaria early, but found we had a list of 60 items that needed to be accomplished. My watermaker had failed during the trip from Barcelona to Gibraltar, and Scott helped get support from the manufacturer in California. One of the tech folks was on the way to Las Palmas to support all the boats in the ARC, and he ended up completely rebuilding my watermaker.

Lisa flew in and spent 18 hours a day with Jim in the hospital, coming back to the boat for a quick drink, debrief and to sleep. Scott flew in, met with the local doctor, reviewed the charts and X-rays, and spent considerable time with Lisa and Jim. The medical support in Las Palmas was tremendous – the facility was nicer than most hospitals in the United States. Jim’s care was top notch.

The paralysis in both arms and hand has eased, and the pain has improved. He is quite weak, and may need surgery when he gets back to the United States. He and Lisa are planning on staying in Las Palmas until we leave, avoiding the Thanksgiving Weekend travel crush.

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