Last week I got an unforeseen last minute opportunity to go sailing for the bank holiday weekend with a couple who own a Moody 38, called Ty Mor. I jumped at the chance and didn’t think twice about the early start from Swansea marina on the Saturday morning. They had looked at the charts and weather forecasts and created a passage plan that involved 3 days sailing from Swansea to Lundy, then on to Tenby, before finally sailing back to Swansea on the bank holiday Monday.
I felt very grateful for their offer to go sailing with them as it meant I could get some much-needed practice in ahead of my level 4 training in a few week’s time with my ‘real’ race Skipper and Mate (slightly daunted by the prospect!). I was also grateful for the opportunity they had given me to sail aboard a yacht that’s considerably smaller and therefore, quite different from a Clipper 70. A little apprehensive, but mostly excited (and definitely grateful) I had quickly gathered my sailing boots, some thermals, seasickness tablets, sun block and a sleeping bag and driven over to Wales.
The generous spirited couple who own Ty Mor are Susan and Mark Baldwin. They live near Chepstow (so fairly local to me), but I had met Sue through the Clipper training. Sue is going to be a circumnavigator in the race aboard Visit Sanya skippered by Seumas Kellock. Joining us at Swansea marina was another female Clipper race circumnavigator, Kathy Haig, who will be sailing aboard Zhuhai under Skipper, Nick Leggatt. Kathy and I were the novice sailors, both having done next to no sailing prior to our involvement in the Clipper race. Sue and Mark meanwhile, have been sailing all their lives and spend every opportunity they have to be at sea aboard their much-loved yacht.
All was going well, apart from three out of the four of us struggling with seasickness in lumpy seas and the tablets we’d all taken were wiping us out with drowsiness. Despite this, Kathy announced on deck that she was going to go down below to make us all a sandwich during our sailing passage from Lundy to Tenby and we all enthusiastically answered that it was a good idea. There’s nothing like the constant wind chill at sea to make me want to constantly graze on food – mostly easily-at-hand food such as sugary snacks that I’d never touch when ashore: mars bars, digestive biscuits, Pringles, salted cashews, bananas and crisps.
Kathy turned to go down the companionway steps into the saloon from the deck. First one step, then another, moving her hands down the handrail as she did so, then “S***!” A drawing in of air, a closing in of panic, dread replacing nausea in our stomachs. Kathy had fallen backwards from the steps as a big wave in the lumpy seas about us had knocked her off balance, sending her flying backwards so her back slammed against the solid wooden table in the saloon. Sue and Mark instantly jumped up and went down below to assess the situation leaving me at the helm to keep a look out and count the seconds pass by in dread for what they might find.
Sue managed to get Kathy to the couch in the saloon and kept talking to her to assess the extent of concussion and injury. We administered painkillers and encouraged her to sip water. For a few hours Kathy was stabilised lying in the saloon and kept saying she was OK. It wasn’t until she shouted out she needed assistance to go to the toilet that we began to suspect a broken rib or internal bleeding as she was in agony trying to stand up and found she was unable to.
Given we were within a hour of sailing into Tenby and it was now early evening, we decided we’d call the coastguard and ask for advice rather than make a MAYDAY or PAN-PAN call via VHF. Immediately upon doing so, things took a dramatic turn and we found ourselves having to motor in circles and stay offshore so that an RNLI lifeboat could be deployed from Tenby lifeboat station and a helicopter airlift could take place if necessary.
We made it back safely into Swansea marina and once we’d moored up we learnt that Kathy was to be discharged after one night in hospital with a walking aid and lots of prescription painkillers and anti-inflammatories. She’d had a CT scan, among other tests, but doctors concluded she hadn’t broken any ribs or damaged organs; she was simply suffering from very painful internal tissue bruising. It was such a RELIEF to hear this news, because we knew what was at stake if it was a more serious diagnosis, since Kathy is due to set off on her circumnavigation in the race in 95 days’ time.
Reflecting on the unexpected turn of events, I realised what a valuable lesson this had been for me in the run-up to race start. When at sea ALWAYS expect and try to be prepared for, the unexpected. Danger isn’t just lurking on deck, but moving about the boat down below can be just as dangerous, if not more so.
I had also got to experience heavy weather sailing and the effects that can have on the body and crew morale when seasickness sets in. I was surprised by how calm all 4 of us coped with Kathy’s accident; most of all, Kathy herself! And I marveled at the free emergency service provided by the RNLI, which is run by dedicated volunteers, quite separate from the coastguard. The lifesavers who stepped aboard Ty Mor were such a reassuring presence. I genuinely do not know what we would have done without them and I know I will never see an RNLI lifeboat in quite the same way ever again.
…I also now know far more profoundly, what is at stake by setting off to sail across oceans. If an accident happens to me or fellow crew during the race, we won’t be able to call up the coastguard on VHF radio and wait for an RNLI life boat in order to be rescued. We’ll be relying on our own wits and onboard resources. At best, there will be a voice assessing our medical dangers and guiding us through medical procedures from thousands of miles away via the PRAXES medical support service and, if we’re really lucky, a ship may be a few days away and willing to divert course to offer assistance. It’s a very, very sobering thought.
We had no idea at the time, but Kathy’s rescue made it into the local newspaper – Western Telegraph- with a rather dramatic headline: ‘Helicopter and lifeboat on mercy mission to injured sailor‘.