Lonely emergency

A dinghy came flying over the rough seas. A man was yelling, “Doctor, doctor!” in a strong German accent. My heart stopped. Even though we were in the tropics, a cold sweat came over me. We were at remote Tahanea atoll in the Tuamotus Archipelago of the French Polynesia, aboard our boat Sisu, a 36-foot Brentswain. Although we were ready to help anyway we could, we weren’t doctors and we couldn’t speak German.

This was our third anchorage in Tahanea’s lagoon, and the wind had come up once again, swinging around quickly, leaving all five sailboats anchored there on a lee shore. The sailboat closest to us was re-anchoring as their anchor chain had become wrapped around coral heads.

Sailors were helping other sailors as the wind came up and many were in the same peril. It was on the sailboat next to us, a Sun Coast 42 steel ketch named Second Life, that the accident occurred. The bow pitched higher in growing seas and the anchor chain got caught in the bow roller as the captain, Bernd Haensch, struggled with the rode. Suddenly, Haensch’s hand was caught between the windless and the chain, crushing his hand, amputating two of his fingers and breaking the others.

It was a lonely atoll with no inhabitants. Only five boats rode at this anchorage with two other sailboats on the other side of the 10nm wide, windswept lagoon. Luckily, there was a nurse who spoke German onboard one of the sailboats on the other side of the lagoon. Over the VHF she was able to talk to Britt Haensch, the injured man’s wife and a woman friend. The nurse guided them through setting and bandaging the hand. Unfortunately, the grisly task of cleaning the wound was not as thorough as it could have been had someone with medical training been aboard. I later learned that we were lucky we couldn’t understand German; the details were gruesome.

Unsettled weather
The atoll of Tahanea was our first stop in the Tuamotus, and it turned out to be the only atoll we visited. While we were there, we experienced two weeks of unsettled weather; tropical storms and converging fronts made for violent squalls with winds from all directions. We felt chased around the wide lagoon, seeking sheltered anchorages in the lee of the small islets that formed the rim of the atoll.

Of the five boats in this anchorage, three crews were German. The other boat was an 80-foot British mega sailing yacht. My partner Timo and I were the only Canadians. Men from the German and British boats leapt into action, helping with the anchor chain, which was still caught in the bow roller. The boat on which the accident took place was stuck on a short scope in deep water with the wind pitching the bow. Medical supplies — antibiotics, pain drugs and dressings — were being gathered up from boats. Others were attending to Bernd.

At the scene of the accident, on the bow of the boat, blood still lingered on deck. A fellow sailor assisting with the anchor chain looked over and said, “I’m sorry, it’s too much, but I can’t continue to help with those fingers still on the deck.” Knowing they were too far away from medical help to preserve the fingers, without hesitation or grief Britt pitched them into the lagoon. This was a time to deal with the greatest priority. Her husband’s hand had been dealt with as much as possible, now the need was to attend to the safety of the vessel. The German woman approached the situation with strength.

Assistance from a British yacht
Fortunately, the British mega yacht had five staff and the owners aboard. They were all a great help, as were so many other voyagers. Several hours later, the wind was still strong, the injured man’s hand was bandaged and the drugs were doing their job. Their anchor seemed adequately set as night came on. The first English I heard on the radio was Britt hailing the British yacht on the VHF: “You are so many. Could someone please come and stay the night with me? My husband is still bleeding and the anchor is not yet set properly.” Happily, the British owner obliged her, sending his skipper over for the night. My heart went out to them.

As with all the other boats, we were up most of the night standing anchor watch. I sat in the cockpit as the boat pitched and heaved, the snubber line slowly taking up the shock of the anchor chain. I watched the GPS, listening for the anchor alarm and the reef seemingly closer in the dark. I thought about the wounded captain and his wife, and the other cruisers in the atoll. How many sailors, with only two onboard, would be able to handle their boat if anything went wrong, if one of them was wounded, or God forbid, lost at sea?

Everyone was thinking about how to get Bernd to the nearest medical center in Papeete, Tahiti, about 300-nm away. The wound was bandaged, but the chance of infection was great and losing the whole hand was a possibility if Bernd didn’t receive medical attention quickly.

Option 1: Take Bernd and his sailboat to the north end of Fakarava, an atoll about 80-nm to the NNW with an airstrip, and travel by plane to Tahiti. The problem was, the plane only came in on certain days of the week. It would mean a wait of several days.

Option 2: Call a charter plane to come to the Fakarava atoll. This would cost approximately $5,000 in U.S. currency.

Both options 1 and 2 left them with the problem of how to get Bernd and Britt’s boat to Tahiti. The possibility of flying a sailing crew into Fakarava atoll to deliver the sailboat was considered, but it too, would be expensive.

Option 3: As the British yacht was large and able to handle high winds and higher seas, they offered to take the wounded man directly to Tahiti, which would make it a fast and more stable passage for him. It would take one and half days to arrive in Papeete, Tahiti. Still the problem remained of what to do with their sailboat?

The majority of voyagers have two on board, a man and a woman. How many have put learning all aspects of sailing and running the boat on the “must do” list? We learn to sail and we get out there, but is that enough? We must be honest. Is there a plan if a tragic event happens? Many voyagers dream of an extensive voyage, a life of cruising, freedom, the vast oceans, enchanting lands, adventure and independence. These are all powerful lures to the voyaging life, but you should remember that you are potentially on your own out there!

It is a huge hurdle to have the patience to teach, learn, and practice, but the value is in confidence. I couldn’t go to sea without knowing both my partner and I could both run the boat alone. Long haul or short. Fortunately, for our situation, we’ve both been solo sailors.

The wind dies down
In the morning, the wind subsided. I had never met Bernd and Britt before, and wondered how much English they spoke. I rowed our dinghy over to their boat, even though I was anxious not to intrude on their trauma. Introducing myself, I boarded their boat to a scene of unrest. Britt was very welcoming, a brave woman, though very small in stature. They had sailed from Germany many years ago, traveling to the North Sea and south to the Caribbean, through the Panama, then crossing from the Galápagos to French Polynesia. I offered to help his wife deliver their sailboat to Tahiti, just so they would have some options. I told them what experience I had, and they said they would consider it.

Within the hour, one of the German cruisers arrived at our boat, just as I sawBernd being transported in a dinghy to the British yacht. They would take me up on my offer. The British yacht was to weigh anchor immediately for the hospital in Tahiti, leaving Britt with a satellite phone and cell phone for her use.

Their boat was a 42-foot, 20-ton steel yawl. Ours is a 36-foot, 11-ton steel sloop. I was a bit nervous, but for all of us this was not a case of choices; it was a time for facing strengths. We would leave in three days when the weather was predicted to settle and we’d be in the company of their co-boating friends on a catamaran, and my partner on our boat.

An impromptu meeting
Three days later we gathered onboard the yawl, my partner, the captain of the catamaran, and Britt. There was still blood in the cockpit and a sense of nervousness and concern onboard. The captain of the catamaran, who was German and had been the man who first came to our boat calling for a doctor, spoke in halting English while he explained the workings of the boat. In tragedy people develop a welcome bond, and even with language differences we soon felt closer to one another. We went over the systems, set up VHF channels for communication and planned a route. My partner and the catamaran captain returned to their boats and shortly afterwards we hoisted the anchor to head out the lagoon pass. The tide was nearing slack, though still flooding; with a bit of a twist and pitch through the current we were out and on our way.

The weather didn’t behave quite as predicted, but that is often the way of weather. During the three-day journey to Tahiti we rode out high seas and winds up to 30 knots. With only a bit of the genoa out, we averaged five knots. Sometimes the seas gave us a banging and a lashing, but the heavy steel boat seemed stable. At one point my new sailing partner told me she hadn’t seen weather this bad since the North Sea!

During the trip we didn’t sleep much and we ate minimally, and thankfully, there were only a few dramas. The dinghy hanging from davits off the stern came loose and had to be refastened. I fixed it while tethered to the stern swim grid. Programming the GPS, which was in German, was a bit of a trick too. Fortunately, we had the same make and model on our boat and my partner could talk me through the steps to program it over the VHF. So the trip went well. The other boats were faster making Point Venus anchorage on the north side of Tahiti. Knowing we would not make the anchorage until after dark we opted to stay at sea for the night, tracking NNW and correcting our course in the night to meet with the others at dawn just north of the pass into Papeete.

As my new friend Britt steered her sailboat into Papeete that morning, I smiled and noticed she stood a bit taller at the wheel. Bernd spent a week in the hospital; thankfully it was nothing worse then losing his two fingers. His wife had gained new confidence finding she knew more then she thought, even while learning new skills. I gained a wonderful new friend and some courage in sailing another vessel. Oh, and I learned a bit of German as well.

—Linda Ann Fear and Timo Saukko left Vancouver Island, Canada in August 2005 on Sisu, a 36-foot Brentswain, to Mexico. In March 2007 they sailed 27 days from La Paz, Mexico, to the Marquesas, in the French Polynesia, through the South Pacific islands and on to New Zealand in November 2007. Linda owns Avalon, an Alberg 30 left behind in Canada.

By Ocean Navigator