A lesson in what can go wrong at sea

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.

The Bristol Channel, the area where we sailed for three days and saw only four other yachts.

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.

Sue, studying the charts to locate a safe anchorage as we approach Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel.
I felt in very safe hands with Sue who is already quite an accomplished sailor. She is usually found at the nav station (pictured), whilst her husband prefers to helm.
Sue loves a navigational chart and meteorological data; I’m still learning!
Ty Mor at anchor off Lundy Island; the other yachts were the first we’d seen all day.
Ty Mor is the yacht in the foreground. This is taken at dusk from Lundy where I had been watching seals from the pier.

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.

Once Sue had got Kathy ‘stable’, she phoned Kathy’s partner to alert him to the fact that Kathy might not be returning to Swansea. Through all this, Kathy was courageous and kept being upbeat. Sue was absolutely incredible in tirelessly looking after the safety of crew and yacht. She is a very competent sailor and I respect her enormously.

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.

Support for Kathy was on its way!
Sue, Mark and I were very apprehensive when the RNLI lifeboat approached us. We put fenders on both port and starboard as we had no idea what they were planning to do and we needed something to do with our nervous apprehension!
The Tenby RNLI lifeboat pulled alongside us and two crew jumped aboard with emergency medical kit.
Upon their arrival we were instructed to moor up on the RNLI buoy off Tenby. This RNLI lifeboat man kept us all occupied on deck and communicated with the RNLI vessel, whilst his colleague assessed Kathy in the saloon.
They were brilliant guys and we were hugely grateful for their reassuring presence. Once he’d made his assessment and radioed for a paramedic to arrive by helicopter this man got a well deserved brew – always necessary in a crisis!
Once he arrived, the paramedic ordered that Kathy be taken off the boat by an RNLI basket stretcher back to the RNLI lifeboat station in Tenby, where an ambulance was to be on standby.
Kathy’s feet can be seen on the stretcher as she is safely transferred onto the lifeboat with all the RNLI crew, paramedic, medical kit and of course those key 21st century items, her mobile phone and charger!
Being taken back ashore by stretcher; not how Kathy anticipated her sailing trip would end!
A crowd had gathered to watch as the lifeboat came up the slipway in Tenby.
As the helicopter flew off overhead, Sue, Mark and I sat in silence wondering what on earth was going to happen next and hoping that her injuries were not serious. We were subdued that night and Kathy’s absence was keenly felt onboard.
We spent the night on the RNLI mooring buoy wondering where Kathy was being sent to and the extent of her injuries.
The next day we made an early departure (a bleery-eyed 6am) from Tenby back to Swansea, but still we didn’t know what diagnosis had been made regarding Kathy’s fall. All we knew at this point was that Kathy had been taken to a hospital in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire. As we were one crew member down I had to fight back my fear and take a more active role on deck, which included helming in a force 7.

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.

This companionway may look benign, but in heavy weather can be an accident waiting to happen, as Kathy’s experience taught me.

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‘.