After the Mutiny

After the mutiny I was cast adrift. After an interminable period of floating aimlessly about the Atlantic, I was hoisted aboard the M/T Patris. Or maybe it happened like this instead (my recollection is a little fuzzy):

I was up until 6:00 a.m. December 4 driving the boat. Well, I was actually watching the boat drive itself most of the time. The autopilot works really well on "wind vane" mode as long as it is set at a high response rate. This "works" it more, but keeps the boat close to the same wind angle all the time. The wind shifted in the night, and I turned the boat more downwind and moved the spinnaker over a couple of times, about 20° or 30° total. This slowed us down a little.

The night before a bird had landed on Serge when he was sleeping inside his cabin. So when I got tired I got some wet paper towels and laid them on his face. I didn't realize that a human could jump four feet up from a horizontal position. He was pretty noisy, too. With Serge wide awake, I showered and went to sleep.

Sometime after that, someone adjusted the sails, probably for a little too much speed, and the spinnaker wrapped around itself. Serge, Jim, and David took it down. Serge was holding the halyard while David and Jim talked about what to do. Part of the spinnaker blew off the deck into the water. Then the rest of it followed. That's dangerous because the water pulls really hard on the sail and can pull people into the water along with the sail.

Then there was a lot of yelling for Mike and I to get up and help. I was in a deep sleep by then. I woke up, went outside and asked what I needed to do. David asked me to ease the main sheet. The main sheet is the rope that holds the boom on one side or the other. There can be a lot of force pulling on it, because a lot of the main sail's sideways force goes directly to that rope. On our boat there is a 4 to 1 block (pulley system) making it easier to manage.

I asked which main sheet -- I didn't even know which way the wind was blowing. I took the main sheet off the top of the winch. The something happened and the rope went through my hand. I think it came over the top of the winch. I don't know how many wraps were on the winch, but one of our crew had a habit of leaving only one wrap on the winch. Then I think my hand was pulled against a single pulley while the rope went through it. The lee (downwind) main sheet caught the boom before it went very far.

This happened in less than one second. Between being half asleep and the mental shock, my memory may not be completely accurate. It happened about 8:24 a.m. (UTC), 16° 39'N, 44° 52'W, about 940 nautical miles from St. Lucia, our destination, and over 900 miles from the nearest land.

I looked at my hand and could see tendons through two holes on the palm side of my left index finger. Afterwards I walked inside. Mike asked if I was OK. I said no. Then I went down, took a couple of pictures of my finger, laid in bed, and passed out. When I woke up it seemed like I had been asleep for a while. I had the feeling of waking from a nightmare. I thought to myself, "boy, I'm sure glad that was just a dream." Then I looked at my finger. That was a bad feeling.

I was only out for a couple of minutes. Mike came to check on me, had a look at the finger, and managed not to be sick. I called home for some phone numbers, and Brian was up and got them for me. Mike called Dr. Battles in Pryor and woke him up at 2:30 a.m. on Sunday morning for medical advice.

Dr. Battles was VERY helpful then and throughout the ordeal. He impressed on us how important it was to keep the finger from being infected. He also gave Mike instructions for cleaning and bandaging, antibiotics, and general information.

Later in the day we uploaded pictures of the finger to a web site. Dr. Battles and some doctors he consulted could see the finger. Serge called the Purpan hospital in Toulouse. They handle sailing injuries. They said surgery was urgently needed to save the tendons, warned about infection, and recommended evacuation. Dr. Battles also recommended evacuation, with concurrence of a hand specialist.

Mike cleaned the bathroom, kitchen, and living room thoroughly. Serge changed my sheets. I wasn't allowed to touch anything unnecessarily. I even got a new drinking cup. We ran the generator and air conditioner so people wouldn't sweat. I tried to keep a couple of feet away from everyone else. I wore part of a pillowcase over the bandage for an additional barrier.

Mike cleaned the finger by boiling water and pouring it (after it cooled) over the finger. We used Neosporin ointment at first, and then stopped on Dr.'s advice. It might have made the skin too soggy. The finger was wrapped in a lot of sterile gauze. My other fingers were taped too, to keep me from inadvertently grabbing things with the wrong hand. I can now tie my shoes with one hand -- double knotted.

I was going to put some of the pictures here, but they look really bad. Let me know if you want to see them.

The Hospital Purpan or the French coast guard put in motion some evacuation plans. They said they would try to find a faster commercial vessel to take me within helicopter range, about 120 miles. Shannon Wallace in Pryor talked to the U.S. Coast Guard and some commercial helicopter companies.

The commercial helicopters weren't ocean rated. The U.S. Coast Guard recommended staying on The Minnow. They told Shannon it wasn't life threatening so they couldn't evacuate. They were helpful and gave medical advice that matched the doctors in the U.S. and France, except for recommending evacuation.

I think they would have evacuated me if it had gotten infected, because then it would be life threatening. I didn't want to wait and see, so I was very happy when the French coast guard called Monday night.

The M/T Patris

At midnight we got a phone call on the Iridium from the French coast guard, le Cross Antilles, I think. The asked if where we were and if we still had someone who needed to be evacuated. We told them, impressed that they were keeping on top of it.

An hour or so later, they called back and said there was a commercial vessel in the area that could pick me up and take me within helicopter range of Martinique or Guadeloupe. We were happy to hear that. Then the captain of the Patris called on the phone, got some details, and said he was changing course and would be at our position in 4 hours. He also said they were a VLCC (very large crude carrier, a supertanker), 330 meters long. They would contact us on VHF 16.

They called us on the radio, and on the 3rd try they were close enough to hear us clearly. They asked us to change course to 220, and we did. Actually we changed to 210, but that was close enough, and as David said, it was about 220 magnetic. Later I asked whether they use true or magnetic bearings. They always use true when at sea.

They spotted our lights about 20 miles out. When we were close, they reversed their props to stop the ship. We drove around on the west side, the downwind side, to the crane in the middle of the ship. David backed our boat up to the basket that the ship had lowered over the side from a crane.

The water was pretty smooth, despite the 8-10 foot swells on the opposite side. The ship was still moving forward a little. The ship was so big, looking like a huge metal cliff, that it seemed like there was a current flowing by the stationary ship. I climbed in the basket and went up. The Minnow drove off into the wild blue yonder.

This occurred on St. Nicholas day, the holiday for the patron saint of seagoers, and insured a year of luck for the Patris and its crew.

The Patris is 330 meters long. Its rudder is taller than the Minnow is long. When I was aboard, its draft was between 19 and 21 meters, depending on location (left, right, front, or back). That explains how it blocked those waves so well. From the bottom of the ship to the top of the mast is 157 meters. The bridge looks down onto the top of the Minnow's mast.

The 7-cylinder engine is 3 stories tall, produces 34,000 hp, and turns 11-meter propellers. I think each of three generators was producing 1000 amps at 400 volts.

It takes 16 days for the ship to travel from Nigeria or Angola to Galveston. This trip they are making ship-to-ship transfers to unload the crude oil into 4 other ships at Galveston.

They had big waves from 4 hurricanes this year, especially Rita.

The crew of 32 is normally 6 months on and 3 months off, but one of the officers has been on board for 2 years. I don't know whether he's been to shore at port, but if so it was by helicopter because the ship stays so far off shore. The have about 5 helicopters land per stop for crew changes and etc.

When I got to the ship, they took me to the bridge to meet the captain. He is a pretty big guy, maybe in his 30's, fairly long black hair, and wore black shorts and t-shirt. I could see the minnow heading off. I was higher than the top of its mast.

Then I went down to the ship's hospital. It had two beds in a good-sized room. It wasn't quite as clean as the minnow, but wasn't bad. I certainly was not going to complain. The bed had a diesel odor, but it had clean sheets, etc. The hospital was "my cabin."

When we got to the hospital, the chief officer, who is also the medical officer, started unwrapping the finger. Two or three other people came in to look at it, and he shooed them away, but not before they got too close for me. I was used to keeping away from people and their potential germs on the Minnow. I made Howard Hughes look normal.

The chief officer wore sterile gloves, but he had a helper who didn't. We didn't have sterile gloves on the minnow. They were both very helpful and friendly.

I got him to rinse it with 0.9% salt solution, the same thing they use for IV's. They got medical directions from the Greek Red Cross. I didn't let them pack it in Vaseline, based on Dr. Battles' advice, even though that would make the gauze come off easier. Part of my second finger was really soggy and I'm sure it all needed to dry out. They gave me Amoxicillin, and Dr. Battles said that was good and to keep taking Biaxin.

The St. Nicholas day noon meal was a feast. The crew had the day off, except for essential jobs like driving the ship. Greek food is good. The let me wander around the ship. One guy took me down to the engine room. I spent some time on the bridge.

Once I asked the chief officer to take my temperature. He said he kept forgetting about that. He gave me the thermometer, without the disposable cover. I stuck it in my mouth anyway, hoping they kept it in alcohol or something. Afterward he motioned that I should stick it under my arm. Oops. Temperature was a little high (97.9) until I figured out that normal is 98.6 and not 96.8.

Their radar looks a lot like ours, except the display is bigger. It has some ground clutter like ours. They (and some sailboats) have a transponder so the boat name shows up on the radar. Maybe we should get that.

There is lots of ship monitoring equipment. You can see the exact draft of the ship at 4 locations, tank levels, and lots of stuff I didn't decipher.

At night, the close curtains and one or two people look out all the time for other boats, buoys, etc. They keep it completely dark. They have problems with fishing boats around Africa, and general boat traffic around the Florida and Bahama straits where they have limited maneuvering room. There are also weather buoys out in the ocean, some charted and some not.

On Tuesday afternoon we passed the Mirabella, a large monohull. It had the solent only out and was apparently motoring because it was going 11 knots. They called and asked about the Minnow and my transfer while I was on the bridge. Did the injured person transfer successfully? Yes. Any damage to The Minnow? No. What was the injury? etc.

I thought it looked a lot taller than the Minnow. It turns out it was the Mirabella V, with a mast height of 297 feet and overall length of 247 feet. It's the largest single-masted sailboat sailing.

Wednesday evening I was in the hallway reading a safety poster. One of the crew invited me into someone's cabin where the captain and 3 other guys were sitting around talking. I was mostly in Greek, but was still interesting. The captain has lived on a relatively small Greek island (Khios, I think) all his life. I have lived most of my life in Pryor, Oklahoma, population 8,000. We met out in the middle of the ocean.

Later I watched a movie with some of the crew, called 13 to 30.

Everybody on the boat was always very friendly and helpful to me. The seemed to get along well with each other, too. I think jobs on a supertanker must be among the better maritime jobs available.

They have to be extremely careful about all kinds of rules and regulations. If they spill one liter of oil overboard, the person responsible (and the ship) is in very big trouble. They have frequent inspections from oil companies they ship for -- BP, Shell, etc -- that cover everything to properly posted information to systems of doing things to properly signed and initialed documentation. The operation is tight.

There are safety posters around the ship. There are some about what to do in piracy areas, some general do's and don'ts for maintenance, emergency procedures, and one sign I noticed that said something like "Safety First. Quality Medical Care is Far Away." I was very happy for the quality of medical care I got on the ship.

Once a month the ship does a man overboard drill. The turn hard 60 degrees one direction and the turn hard the opposite direction until the are on a reverse course. This puts them close to the man overboard. It takes 30-60 minutes, depending on the ship speed and some other stuff.

Wednesday morning there was going to be a helicopter at 14:00, but it came early at 10:00. The pilot joked that they were having some good ice cream for lunch and didn't want to miss it. He also mentioned that the civil police helicopter on Guadeloupe was broken, so we'd have to wait for a boat if we landed in the water.

When the helicopter approached, there were two people on a fire hose, one each on two big water cannons, and two or three more standing by with fire extinguishers. I guess they do this whenever a helicopter lands. It makes good sense when you consider their cargo.

They put a life jacket on me, showed me to my seat, and we took off for Guadeloupe.

Patris photos:



We landed at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire (I think). I spent about two hours there. I checked in, and the nurse poured betadine over my finger. I was a little worried at this, not because it hurt like crazy, but because the Greek Red Cross had them put it only on the outside of the wound. I hoped the tendons were sealed off enough that it wouldn't hurt them.

Then I saw another nurse, then talked to a doctor in training, then a regular doctor. They bandaged me up really tight, and I took a cab to the airport.

The hospital at Guadeloupe is considered modern with good medical care. They seemed to lack some room, though. There were 10 or 12 people on beds in the hallway where I waited. Some of them didn't look very well. But I suppose if they were well then they would be somewhere other than a hospital, right?

On the way to the airport I called Shannon in Pryor to ask him about flights. He said he already had a ticket for me. He knew I was going to Guadeloupe before I did!

After a stop in Haiti, I made it to Miami. I rushed off the plane and through Customs to make sure I caught a flight to DFW. They were all cancelled because of an ice storm. In fact, the grouchy lady at American Airlines said there were no more domestic flights going out. That was wrong, but the fastest way to Tulsa was on Delta the following morning at 6:15.

I got a room for a few hours, mainly for the shower and the cleanliness. This was tough because the police shot someone at the airport, a lot of flights were delayed or cancelled, and the hotels were full.

I had to stop eating at 10:00 p.m. until after surgery the next day. Brian picked me up at the Tulsa airport Thursday morning and took me to the hospital. There, they knocked me out and a hand specialist worked on my finger.

Now I am living happily ever after. I should keep the use of my finger with a limited range of motion. I am looking forward to "aggressive therapy." I think that has something to do with football.


Here is the journal of the trip:

Next Time

This accident was entirely preventable. Here are some things that I intend to do in the future, any one of which would likely have prevented the accident:
  1. Wear gloves.
  2. I intend to spend 5 minutes waking up before I mess with rigging, unless it's an emergency. People may get irritated about that, but I don't mind.
  3. The mainsheet winches on our new boat are angled so that the lines frequently slip off unless you are very careful. In fact, every person on board (except me) had had a mainsheet slip off the winch, out of control. This will be fixed as soon as possible by repositioning the winch.
  4. I intend to always make sure a line is adequately wrapped on the winch before I ease it.
  5. The entire crew will know that the primary job when the spinnaker is on the deck is to keep it out of the water.
Bob Webster