Crushed-finger injury tests first-time voyagers

While sailing in the 2003 North Atlantic Rally to the Caribbean in early November 2003, one of our crewmembers had a nasty injury that demanded our best medical and communications skills — and it was our first offshore passage. The NARC, from Newport to St. Martin via Bermuda, is run by Hank Schmitt of Offshore Passage Opportunities. We were sailing our boat Doubletake, a 1995 Shannon 43 double-headsail centerboard sloop.

After the stop in Bermuda (and a new linear drive for the autopilot) we set off for St. Martin. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect: 20 to 25 knots out of the northwest, clocking over the next two to three days to the northeast. We had a delightful and exciting broad-reaching romp under double-reefed main, 70 percent yankee and staysail for nearly four days.

Then, just when we thought we were home free, disaster struck. The winds lightened, and I was belowdecks. Andy Tirpok and George Clothier called down, asking if we should shake out the first reef in the main. “Go ahead,” I said. It was calm and broad daylight. What could go wrong? Ten seconds later I heard a scream of pain. I went on deck and saw blood splattered in the cockpit, and George was grasping two fingers of his right hand. He had gotten them caught in the electric winch. Apparently a swell had rocked the boat, and without thinking, he braced himself with his other hand on the winch while using it to raise the halyard.

Quick inspection showed that he had lost the pad of his ring finger, and most of the tip of his middle finger. There was some bone showing. It was not a pretty picture. We soaked his hand and applied towels to stop the bleeding. But we were still two days out from Tortola, the nearest location with good medical facilities.

I got on VHF 16. “Any vessel, any vessel this is Doubletake.” After a few seconds, the VHF crackled “This is Iron Mistress. Go ahead Doubletake.” I explained what had happened and asked if anyone could render advice or assistance. “Good news Doubletake, you happen to be speaking to a doctor.” It was Robert, skipper of Iron Mistress, and never had I heard more welcome words.

We reviewed the situation, as well as the contents of our medical kit. With guidance from Robert, we cleansed the wound with diluted hydrogen peroxide and dressed it loosely (since some swelling was anticipated) with nonstick dressing coated with Neosporin, taping some gauze bandage on top of that. Meanwhile, George, who is British, was redefining the term “stiff upper lip.” Although clearly in great pain, he managed to keep calm throughout the ordeal and even managed to show some humor. Unfortunately, it was British humor, but we all reluctantly conceded that even British humor was better than none at all!

With Robert’s help we developed a medication plan consisting of antibiotics and painkillers, along with fluids and food to prevent nausea. With Andy at the helm and Pam Ehret and Smidgie Reid attending to the patient, I got on the satellite phone and contacted Village Cay Marina in Roadtown, Virgin Islands Search & Rescue, and the U.S. Coast Guard to advise them of our situation, just in case things got any worse. They were all very helpful.

Richard, the assistant manager at Village Cay Marina was instrumental in helping coordinate activities locally. He put us in contact with the Bougainvillea Clinic in Roadtown, which has been operated for more than 20 years by the well-known and highly regarded Dr. Robin Tattersall. A specialist in cosmetic and reconstructive surgery, Tattersall and his colleagues are the best in the business. A sailor himself, he sees dozens of such incidents each season. We advised him of our status and made arrangements to come to his office early Friday morning upon our arrival.

Meanwhile, we were simultaneously testing the design limits of our Westerbeke engine in an effort to make all possible speed toward Roadtown. I also got on the radio net for the Caribbean 1500 and advised them of our situation. It was great to hear all the good words of advice and encouragement from so many experienced sailors. We were told of Davis, one of the support staff of the Caribbean 1500, who would meet us upon our arrival late the next night, and sure enough, he was right there in his dinghy, waiting for us.

The next morning we took George to the clinic for treatment. Tattersall did a skin graft, and the prognosis was good. Fortunately there was no infection. All things considered, we were very lucky. We are forever indebted to Robert on Iron Mistress and to all those who helped us with their advice and support. The value of sailing in company should never be underestimated.

What did we learn from this experience? While it is not possible to plan for every eventuality, accidents at sea do occur. A well-stocked medical kit and some basic medical skills are vital to distance voyaging. Our medical kit was better than average, having been supplemented with a number of prescription medications prior to our departure, but in retrospect it could have been better still. In the future, I would consider subscribing to one of the many doctor-onboard services available to voyagers today. At the very least, make a point to review your medical kit with a doctor — preferably one who sails — who can recommend a broad set of pharmaceuticals and other equipment suitable for most accidents or emergencies at sea.

We also learned something that we already knew: The sailing community is unique in its generosity and contagious in its good spirit. We look forward to being a part of it!

David Ehret is a financial software developer based in Philadelphia. He and his wife, Pam, quit their jobs last year to do extended voyaging on their 1995 Shannon 43.

By Ocean Navigator