Rescue At Sea - February 4, 2002
"Not again," I thought as Miranda rolled out of bed and stumbled into the head to be sick for the third time. The wretching had begun around midnight and dawn was now approaching. As the morning progressed her digestive system seemed to be quieting down, and she was able to sip water and keep it down.
The most dangerous thing on a sailboat is a calendar, for sailing and schedules do not mix well. Miranda was feeling weak and tired, but both of us thought she was improving. Our main mistake was our decision to push ahead with our planned timetable despite Miranda's weakened state. Our plan was to set off from Bequia on a 24 hour sail which would take us to Trinidad where we were scheduled to rendezvous with Sid and Rebecca Shaw the next day. We left Admiralty Bay, Bequia around 8am, Miranda was feeling well enough to steer us out of the harbor and clear of the island while I stowed the anchor and raised the sails.
But, about an hour later, as I steered and she lay in the cabin trying to get some rest, her condition worsened. She came up on deck complaining of slight numbness in her hands. This worried me but I figured it was a symptom of the dehydration she must have been suffering and figured that with some rehydration she would recover. I decided some Gatorade was in order to help replenish her electrolytes, and I poured and handed her a glass. She took a few sips and in less than a minute was over the side wretching it up.
At this point we were both quite concerned. Miranda's hands had completely cramped up to the point where she couldn't hold a glass, and the numbness was spreading to her legs and arms. I quickly made a straw out of an old pen and set it in a glass so she could try to slowly sip some water down. It was getting harder for her to drink as she was beginning to panic. Her breathing was quick and shallow and her entire body was tensed up. It was when she mentioned that her face and tongue were tingling and feeling numb that I decided it was time to call for immediate help.
I balanced the sails so the boat would sail in a straight line, locked the wheel, and jumped down below to get on the radio. At this point it was almost 10:00am and we were closer to Canouan, the next island south, than we were to Bequia. I first tried the VHF radio, which is for local line of sight communication. I was unable to raise anyone on 16, the usual hailing channel so I turned to the amateur radio. When I became a Ham operator less than 4 months ago I was aware of the safety benefits, but I never imagined I would be using it to call for help so soon.
I tuned my rig to 14.300 Mhz, the Mobile Maritime Net, and was glad to hear voices talking back and forth. I spoke into the mike, "Break, Break This is KG4 Oscar Alpha Quebec MM with a medical emergency." I got an immediate response from Dave Franke, WA5EZW, and it was quite a relief to know I had someone's attention. Dave was not able to copy me well, nor I him, so he alerted Ed Petzolt, K1LNC, in South Florida. Ed was able to hear me well and I read him loud and clear.
I explained the situation and answered questions about the boat, our location, and Miranda's condition. Ed proceeded to get the U.S. coast guard in San Juan, Puerto Rico on frequency and was able to relay information from us to them. They tried to assess the situation from the relayed information so they could decide if an emergency evacuation was necessary. I had no way to judge the seriousness of Miranda's condition, but I knew she needed help quickly.
My first thought was to get Miranda ashore to Canouan. However, I didn't know what kind of medical facilities they would have ashore on this small island. My guess was that they would have to fly or ferry Miranda back to Bequia or St. Vincent in order to get her help. But, since it seemed to me that getting Miranda ashore was my first priority I headed toward Canouan. As I sailed south I tried again to raise anyone local on the VHF, with no luck.
Ed continued to monitor the situation from his station in Florida. He was a great comfort to us aboard the boat not only because he was doing an excellent job of taking control of the situation, but he also worked hard to keep our spirits up. On more than one occasion he spoke directly to Miranda, who was in listening distance of the radio, in order to keep her calm and reassured that help was coming her way.
Indeed help was on the way, for the US Coast Guard had contacted the St. Vincent Coast Guard, and the St. Vincent Coast Guard had launched a 23 foot Boston Whaler, named Chattam Bay, to rendezvous with Baggywrinkle. I spoke to the St. Vincent Coast Guard directly over the ham radio as they were now on frequency as well. They advised me to call Chattam Bay on VHF channel 16. I tried calling them for about half an hour, but there was no response. I did however get a response from another sailboat in the area who said they had just seen Chattam Bay pass by. This was reassuring, for this not only told me that Chattam Bay was on the way, but that my VHF radio was still in working order. As it turned out the VHF radio on Chattam Bay had ceased working, but St. Vincent Coast guard was able to communicate with them via cell phone. We gave the Coast Guard our position and they relayed it on to Chattam Bay. About an hour later they were in sight and approaching fast.
I quickly dropped all sail, started the engine, and pointed Baggywrinkle into the wind. As Chattam Bay came along side I helped Miranda into the cockpit and onto the deck. At this point it was hard for her to stand on her own, and she couldn't hold herself up because her hands were cramped up. I grabbed her under her arms and handed her across to the 3 Seamen (William Theobalds, Vincent Gordon and Clinton Lewis) aboard the Coast Guard vessel. I ran below and grabbed Miranda's passport and a few articles of clothing and stuck them in a bag which I threw across as well. As they sped off toward St. Vincent General Hospital I yelled to Miranda that I loved her and I would see her there.
It was a lonely motor sail back to Bequia, and the hour and a half it took seemed to last forever. When I motored into the harbor I was very glad to see the boat boys who only the day before I had considered a nuisance. One of the boys showed me to a mooring and gave me a lift ashore. I immediately called the hospital and took it as a good sign when the nurse told me to hold a second and she would put Miranda on the line.
I spoke briefly to Miranda and was reassured that she was getting the help she needed. She had been taken straight to the emergency center and given a drip which began replenishing her electrolytes and returned feeling and movement to her limbs within minutes. I told her I would be taking the 5:30 ferry over from Bequia and I would be in the hospital with her around 7pm. And that is just what I did.
When I arrived at the hospital she was still weak and tired, but she was able to walk on her own, and she was in good spirits. The first blood test had come back and other than the low electrolytes it looked normal. But, the doctor wanted to keep her in the hospital overnight to do another test in the morning so she was moved to the Women's Ward. I had no place to stay as the boat was still back in Bequia, but the doctor kindly told the nurses to give me a cot in the Emergency Ward. It wasn't a peaceful sleep, but I managed a few hours.
Miranda slept well in her hospital bed, and despite sore legs from anti-vomiting injections she was feeling much better the next morning. She was released from the hospital that afternoon, and was able to walk the mile or so to the ferry dock. We caught the 5:30 ferry back to Bequia and by 7pm Miranda was resting quietly in her bunk back aboard Baggywrinkle.
It had a been a traumatic and scary 24 hours, but it had taught us valuable lessons not only about dehydration but also the dangers of trying to meet a timetable while sailing. We took a couple of days rest, put these events behind us, and began planning our passage to Trinidad again - this time without a specific arrival deadline!