Little help offered in medical emergency

We are currently finishing our Atlantic loop aboard our Nordhavn 47 Strickly for Fun. And it was in the Caribbean that we recently had an experience with a medical emergency that shows the importance of being prepared. In the spring of 2004 we left Ft. Lauderdale as one of 17 boats on the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally and arrived in Gibraltar at the beginning of the 2004 boating season. After spending three seasons cruising the Mediterranean we crossed back in November of 2006, ending up at Grenada in the Southeastern Caribbean.

One of the things we do to keep in touch with our yachting friends, shore parties and anchorage neighbors (who we ask to monitor a common channel if the conditions look like someone might start dragging) is to monitor a different VHF channel – in our case 72. We do this at anchor, underway and in marinas.

We arrived in St. Kitts on Friday, March 16, during the Cricket World Cup competition. One could not help but notice the heavy presence of Coast Guard personnel in the marina. A Coast Guard RIB would cruise the small marina several times a day, and larger Coast Guard vessels would also dock at the marina, including Coast Guard vessels from other countries.

On March 17, 2007, we were in St. Kitts marina and I heard a radio call on channel 72. A female voice with a German sounding accent was calling from the sailing vessel Carpe Diem saying her captain was hurt. I thought I was only hearing one side of the transmission. No one broadcasts a distress call on 72, they use 16, but I just wanted to make sure everything was OK, and to make sure she did not need assistance. So I decided to continue monitoring the channel. Then I heard her calling “for anyone to help.” Her transmission was 5 by 5, which meant the transmission was strong and clear. I listened and when I did not hear anyone respond, I did. With her German accent and my inability to speak German, there was some difficulty in communicating, but we managed.

After I determined the captain was having trouble breathing and was not able to communicate on the radio, I decided this constituted a life-threatening situation and decided a Mayday was appropriate. I then broadcast a Mayday relay on channel 16. After calling multiple times, at least two other vessels also tried to contact the police and the Coast Guard. They raised the local police, who told us to continue calling on 16 until the Coast Guard responded. After several long minutes the Coast Guard responded on channel 16 (we received them 5 by 5). They immediately requested I change to channel 6 and I did, but I was not sure the boat in distress would be able to do so. I informed them of the problem with the captain on Carpe Diem.

Before I gave the Coast Guard the vessel’s position, I asked Carpe Diem for their location, and she gave me a lat/long of 17° 17.4′ N/62° 42.7′ W, which was less than a mile away. (17.5 – 17.4 = 0.1 nm south and 42.7 – 43.5 = 0.8 miles east.) This was the position I gave the Coast Guard.

Since I was receiving everyone 5 by 5 I decided to see if I could get the vessel in distress to communicate directly with the Coast Guard on channel 6. After making sure she knew how to switch to channel 6, she did so and was able to communicate directly with the Coast Guard. I continued to monitor this conversation. After the Coast Guard established the boat was a 38-foot white sailboat (this took several minutes) they called us and asked where we (M/Y Strickly for Fun) were located. I replied, “In St. Kitts marina.” The St. Kitts Coast Guard said they were too far away from the vessel and then asked if I would respond. I was somewhat surprised since, according to our chart, the sailboat was about 500 yards from their Coast Guard dock!

Our dinghy was on our boat, and while my wife and I could deploy it, due to the way we were moored it would have taken 10 to 15 minutes. I ran over to the other side of the marina and asked two different local fishermen charter boats if they would go out to a boat in distress in the local harbor. They both said no. I turned to another local who just shook his head no. I then decided to stop asking the local boats and went to an American-crewed yacht to ask if they would assist a boat in distress. They said yes, and they provided two strong people. (Little did I know how important this would end up being.)

M/Y Carissima, a 94-foot Hargrave captained by Marcel Delorm, who assisted by providing a ride out to Carpe Diem, also supplied an able body in chef Jeff MacNichols, who helped us get the patient to shore. The boat they provided was a twin 250-hp outboard tender that they towed behind Carissima.

In the mid-1970s, I was a paramedic working in a hospital in Minnesota and so have some experience with medical emergencies. I brought my emergency medical backpack and my medical “crash bag,” but not my drug box. I keep my “every second counts” emergency medical equipment in a small crash bag in the saloon, and the rest of the equipment in our stateroom.

The crew of Carissima’s twin-engine “dinghy” said their boat could go 50 miles an hour. I believe it! Though the seas were only a short 2-3 foot chop at full speed we were really bouncing. I was wearing the emergency medical backpack and had one hand holding on to my crash bag. One hand was insufficient for me to hold on to the boat and I almost flew overboard more then once. On the way out we passed two Coast Guard vessels, one less then 1/4 mile from the boat in distress. We thought maybe we would be in the way and we should not continue but I said, “Let’s continue just in case.” As we continued we saw that the close Coast Guard vessel did not stop! We were the only boat going to their assistance.

The 2-3 foot chop made getting onto the sailboat from the tender a dangerous experience. After I got on board I asked the people on the boat for a line and fenders, but they did not understand. So chef Jeff became our human fender and human lines by holding the two boats together, but apart. Our ability to communicate was very limited to say the least. I checked the captain for a pulse – there was none. I asked when he stopped breathing, but no one understood/answered. In a cardiac arrest, time is critical. Permanent brain damage occurs in just a few minutes. This patient needed more advanced treatment then just the CPR we could do on the boat. I needed to get a defibrillator, oxygen, airway and cardiac drugs to the patient in just a few minutes, or bring the patient to shore where these could be administered. I decided we needed to move the patient off the boat.

I realized we did not have a litter, and did not have enough people to safely move the captain into our wildly rocking boat. While I did not want to throw him over, he was dead if we could not get him help. I quickly broadcast on the VHF radio we had a full cardiac arrest; we needed an ambulance at the dock and any additional help at the boat. It quickly became clear that additional help would not be forthcoming. I dragged/picked up the 250-270-pound patient out of the cockpit and rolled him under the lifelines into the waiting arms of Marcel, who caught him and placed him on the boat deck. All the while Jeff was trying to hold the boat next to the sailboat, a task no less difficult than catching a really heavy person.
While this was going on my wife Teri was working the radio relay to get an ambulance to the dock. The Coast Guard wanted us to return to the marina with the patient, but I told Teri we did not have the extra time and to direct the ambulance to go to the cruise ship dock. On the cruise ship dock there was a cruise ship and a Jamaican Coast Guard boat. The dock was closer, and I was hoping the cruise ship and docked Coast Guard vessel could provide additional help.

We performed CPR on the patient as we made our way to the cruise ship dock. As we were arriving, Marcel honked the horn five times and then even more, trying to get the attention of the Jamaican Coast Guard vessel. I would have thought the sound of five blasts on the horn would get them up on deck – nope; we had to yell for help. They would not assist in performing CPR on the patient due to the risk of AIDS. We finally got their help in getting the patient off the boat and onto the cruise ship dock. This took six people.

As this was going on I was calling the cruise ship asking for assistance. When the cruise ship heard the patient was not one of their passengers they refused to continue talking to me on the radio. I then asked one of their uniformed staff for help and he just walked away. Many thanks to M/Y Carissima and its captain, Marcel Delorm, who offered to assist by providing me a ride out and who also supplied an able body in chef Jeff MacNichols.

I later learned the name of the captain we assisted: Hans Ulrich  Schollhirn. Unfortunately, he was pronounced dead at the cruise ship dock – he was 53 years old.

Scott Strickland is currently voyaging aboard the Nordhavn 47 Strickly for Fun.

By Ocean Navigator