Medical Rescue off Bermuda

When I first met Rich, he was bare chested, working down in the hold of the Nordhavn 46 Rusty Pelican that four of us were to take from Fort Lauderdale to Gibraltar. I remember noticing a growth of some sort near his navel, but of course one doesn’t mention anything like that, and Rich soon had me hard at work helping to prepare the boat for the crossing. I just assumed the growth was a part of Rich and simply forgot about it. I guess Rich wasn’t thinking much about it either.

A couple of days later we had the Nordhavn ready and provisioned, and everything was stowed. We left the dock at 1205 on June 6, 1996, and cleared the Ft. Lauderdale sea buoy at around 1250 that day. We got into the Gulf Stream and rode it north at better than nine knots over the ground for the next couple of days.

On June 8, Rich noticed that the prop shaft packing gland was not dripping any water and was hot to the touch. We had to do something immediately, so Rich went into the engine room to loosen the packing gland. This should have been a fairly simple job, and we didn’t even go into neutral during the work. To reach the packing gland Rich had to lie on his belly and extend both arms down into the bilge.

It was soon obvious, however, after Rich had backed the flange all the way off and still no water was dripping, that this was going to be a bigger job than anticipated. The Nordhavn has one main engine, a 140-hp Lugger, and a small 27-hp Yanmar with a folding prop located off to the side to be used as an emergency “get home” engine. This arrangement gives the Nordhavn its long-range cruising ability. We simply fired up the Yanmar and killed the Lugger, which allowed us to keep going and keep our heading in some fairly rough conditions, as well as giving Rich a chance to pull out the packing and correct the problem.

Before he was through, Rich had pulled considerable extra packing from the gland before getting water to flow. He then retightened the flange to provide the proper drip. He had been down there more than two hours, working on his belly all that time, and certainly “straining his gut” often as he worked the packing out.

That afternoon and evening, Rich felt terrible with a bad belly ache. He didn’t tell anybody that the “growth” at his navel had extended. But the next morning he seemed fine, and we all chalked up his feelings of ill health to a long, stressful situation in the hot engine room.

Crewmember injured Everything was fine until a couple of days later, when Rich again went down into the engine room, this time simply to turn valves to change fuel tanks. It meant crawling on hands and knees for only a few minutes, but it did Rich in. He came back feeling terrible, and there was no question about the “growth” at his navel. It was massive, probably three inches in diameter and a couple of inches high, hard and discolored. Rich lay on the bunk in the pilot house and was definitely not getting any better.

It was June 10, 1996. We were only about 230 miles northwest of Bermuda, so we assumed a new course directly toward Bermuda. We could not, however, find a suitable frequency on which to call Bermuda Harbour Radio. We could have announced a “pan-pan” on 2,182 kHz, but at this time we preferred not to announce our plight to the world. We called WOO, the High Seas Operator in New Jersey. Our experience had been that the ATandT High Seas operators have very powerful antennas they can point directly at you, and, if there’s any propagation at all, they get through loud and clear. We explained that we had a medical emergency and needed the Coast Guard. The WOO operator cleared a frequency for us and contacted the Coast Guard via land line. Their cooperation was fantastic, and this brought us in direct contact with the Coast Guard rather than indirect, as might have been the case using “pan-pan” on 2,182 kHz.

The Coast Guard took our vessel name and description, our position, the number of people on board, and the nature of the emergency. Upon understanding Rich’s condition, they transferred us to Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center Norfolk, who brought a flight surgeon on line. Rich was near the radio and could talk directly to the flight surgeon, who quickly determined that what Rich had was an umbilical hernia and that, due to his condition, he should be taken off the boat and be given medical attention as soon as possible. Coast Guard R.C.C. Norfolk asked us to stand by while they determined the best way to handle the situation. We really thought that they would be bringing a helicopter out from Bermuda and were discussing how we could accommodate it, but in about 15 minutes R.C.C. Norfolk was back on the air. Using the Automated Mutual-assistance Vessel Rescue system (AMVER) the Coast Guard had located the cruise ship Song of America, a Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines ship, 70 miles northwest of us and also bound for Bermuda. Song of America had a surgeon on board who could operate on Rich if necessary.

R.C.C. Norfolk informed us of Song of America and its relative position and advised us to contact them on 6,215 kHz, upper sideband. We immediately contacted them and at the same time turned to a new course of 320° M and upped engine rpm to 2,000 to close with Song of America as fast as possible. Both the Coast Guard and WOO stayed on the open frequency until they were assured we had a firm contact with Song of America. What a tremendous help they both were!

Rendezvous with cruise ship We tried using our VHF radio, but since the two vessels were separated by 70 miles we couldn’t raise them. Staying on SSB required that all messages between the two vessels go through Knut Moen, the radio operator on Song of America, who then had to relay the message by hand to the bridgeit was a slow process.

“Rusty Pelican, please steer 300°,” said Moen.

“Rusty Pelican steering 300 magnetic,” I replied. Five-minute pause.

“No, no, Rusty Pelican, 300 true.” Variation is 14° W, so I went to 315 M. Pause.

“Rusty Pelican, what is your position, heading, and speed now?”

“Position is 35° 22.5′ N by 67° 15.1′ W, we are proceeding 300° T at 7.5 knots.” Pause.

“Rusty Pelican, do you have GPS on board?”

“Song of America, that is affirmative.” Pause.

“Rusty Pelican, we have determined an intercept. Can you proceed to a position of 35° 36.5′ N by 67° 20.0′ W?”

“Song of America, that is affirmative, proceeding to 35° 36.5′ N by 67° 20.0′ W.”

This was about 17 miles from us, close to 40 to 50 miles from them. Still about two and a half hours away. But there was nothing we could do but proceed as fast as possible to our intercept with Song of America. Nobody thought of getting something to hold Rich’s gut in if it should decide to pop open, or maybe even to put an ace bandage around him right now to give him support. In retrospect, we should have contacted the doctor on board Song of America for advice.

About 20 miles out, we picked up Song of America on our radar, and were able to go to VHF at the same time. Now I was talking directly to Capt. Tore Myhra on Song of America’s bridge, and it did make communications easier. They also saw us at the same time, as well as two other contacts, a commercial ship and a sailboat about four and six miles behind us, respectively. We informed Song of America that we were the contact nearest to them.

It is a bit scary seeing a huge cruise ship growing on the horizon and coming straight down the line at you. I usually try to stay well away from big ships. We had not had a radio contact for quite a while, and Song of America’s bow kept growing larger and larger above us. Finally, when the ship was only four miles from us and her bow looming large, I chickened out:

“Song of America, this is Rusty Pelican. Would you prefer meeting port to port or starboard to starboard?”

“Rusty Pelican, why don’t you maintain heading and idle down, and I’ll come around you,” replied Capt. Myhra.

“That’s affirmative, Rusty Pelican throttling down.”

We had been running with the paravanes out to increase roll stability, so as soon as we idled down we pulled the port ‘vane in to allow their launch to come up to us. Interestingly, the autopilot would not hold heading at our idle speed of 2.5 knots, so I had to hand steer.

Making the transfer Song of America came around our stern and gave me a new heading. As we went along together side by side, they dropped a power launchit seemed from their top deckwith 12 men in it. The seas were about three feet in spite of our being in the cruise ship’s lee, and it took two or three attempts for them to come alongside us. We had earlier transferred Rich from the pilot house and had him resting in the main salon, ready to be evacuated. The two crew were with Rich, supporting him for the transfer, so there was no one other than me to assist the launch. And I was conning the boat without autopilot. Finally I left the boat to herself, went outside the pilothouse, and grabbed a line the launch crew threw me. This time they were able to come alongside and hold the boat long enough to make the transfer.

As I let go the line, the VHF came on very loud: “Rusty Pelican, Rusty Pelican!”

I looked up and saw we were headed directly at Song of America, which was about 200 yards away. I spun the wheel, grabbed the mike, and gasped, “Thank you, Song of America.”

As we slowly turned about away from the ship, I was able for the first time to really take in the entire scene. More than 1,000 passengers lined the decks, watching the rescue. I later learned that it took 19 minutes from launch to retrieval of the small boat.

By the time of the transfer Rich was feeling much better. On board Song of America, Dr. Michael Lavrsen stabilized Rich, and Song of America ran for Bermuda. It was about 1700 local time. Dr. Lavrsen decided that there was no immediate emergencyon the cruise ship they don’t operate unless it is an emergency. The next day, Song of America docked at St. Georges, Bermuda, where Royal Caribbean’s Bermuda agent rushed Rich to Bermuda’s King Edward VII Memorial Hospital where Dr. T.J. Elliott operated on him that day.

After the transfer we also ran for Bermuda, but since there was no way of getting there in daylight the next day, I dropped rpm to 1,500. Our last contact with Song of America as they steamed out of our sight confirmed that Rich was okay.We arrived off Bermuda shortly after daybreak on June 12. All Bermuda seemed to know about the rescue. As soon as I contacted them, Bermuda Harbour Radio told me they were expecting us. We soon cleared customs and were tied up by noon. Rich’s brother Dave, who was one of the crew, went immediately to the hospital.Ten stitches later, and after a couple of nights in the hospital, Rich was discharged by Dr. Elliott, who told him not to leave Bermuda for four days in order to make sure there was no infection and to avoid straining or lifting for two months. On June 16, Rusty Pelican left Bermuda for Gibraltar with a complete and happy crew on board.

Pete DeFoe is a Coast Guard-licensed captain and a licensed radio amateur who lives in Calais, Vt.

By Ocean Navigator