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Emergency on Board and Rescue by Mexican Navy (Part I)

Thea and Jonathan Avis

Zwerver II
Van de Meer Ketch
May 15th, 2015

When we left Vancouver in 2012, the skipper’s agenda was to go into blue water with Zwerver II, our 48’ steel ketch, that he (with some help from me) had completely refurbished over a 6 1/2 year period. This boat is ready to take blue water. However, her crew hasn’t yet reached that state of readiness.

We sailed to San Francisco with two others on board. We had some technical difficulties with our Raymarine auto pilot, but having our electronically savvy son with us, he was able to figure out the problem while we anchored in Neah Bay. Off shore 100 miles was quite comfortable – especially with four on board. We left at the end of August and our crew left us shortly after arriving in San Fran.

After 10 weeks enjoying Sausalito, we vacillated between harbour hopping to San Diego, but finally decided to go out 50-60 miles, leaving at the end of November. We went through the Santa Barbara channel, when our topping lift off the main let go, wrapping itself around the rigging. Jonathan used the halyard off the mizzen to secure the main boom.  It was night and we weren’t going to anchor in the pitch black, so we crawled along until morning when we were able to anchor in one of the Santa Cruz islands. I climbed the mast to get hold of that sheet. That wasn’t nearly as scary as I’d envisioned.

We left the next day, escorted by literally hundreds of dolphins. We wanted to go into Newport Beach as we’d heard so much about the famous secondhand marine store, “Minnies. “Minnies” wasn’t worth the stop, but Newport was a fun place to see.  Then on to San Diego – leaving early one morning and arriving after dark the same day. Jonathan had been to San Diego with another boat some years earlier, so was familiar with the harbour; otherwise we don’t arrive in the dark at any anchorage.  We stayed in the free anchorage in San Diego for the 3 months they allow cruisers to anchor in a one-year period. This was not our intention, but we already started to learn that “sailors’ plans are written in sand at low tide”.  While there, it was suggested that going off to the Marquesas in the upcoming Spring might be ‘pushing it’, so why not stay in the Sea of Cortez for a year.

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From San Diego we cruised into Ensenada, a one day trip to check in to Mexico, which was SO EASY. We docked at Baja Naval; they were so accommodating, guiding us through the check-in-to-Mexico process. We ended up hauling out as we needed a cutlass bearing. Any work on the outside of the boat was to be done by the yard; any inside work we were allowed to do, but they allowed Jonathan to work on our two part dinghy, which he wanted to beef up while we were on the hard waiting for the bearing to arrive. We highly recommend Baja Naval; it is over-the-top-sensational.

We left Ensenada on March 21st, a month to the day of our arrival. We left with the intention that we would test our ability to do a longer passage, getting into a sleep pattern that encompassed the night watches.  Light-ish winds meant motor sailing and it was going quite smoothly (having to wake Jon only a few times to readjust the damned autopilot).  Day 5…perfect day…planning to go ‘wing on wing’ with the genoa and the main sail, when our preventer snapped.   No real problem until Jon asked me a tad later to take a line forward and tie it off.  My fingers got caught between the line and the fairlead through which I was trying to get the line.

I screamed to Jon that I’d lost my fingers…well the tops of my index and middle finger.

We decided that going back to Bahia Magdelena, which was closer, was better than going forward to Cabo San Lucas, which was 100 miles further.   We radioed securité, securité, securité for help, but no response.  We had earlier heard a conversation between a boat called Legacy and another and contacted them to ask for advice.  What luck! This large-ish sport fishing boat had a Spanish captain on board and through his help and/or connections, he was able to get the Mexican Navy to come to the rescue.  We were easily 40 miles away from the Bay and even ‘flying’ at 9 knots for us would have taken until early in the morning to get there, and then still not within reach of a hospital.

The accident occurred about 2pm and the Navy arrived about 6pm.  I had my wounds on an ice pack, which I’d tucked away for emergencies, bound up as best as possible and lying on the floor of the salon with my feet up while Jon was moving our boat towards shore.  There was no pain.  I found the aspirin and settled in as best as possible.  There was nothing else to do.  I was so grateful, truly, that it was my left hand, and especially grateful that it wasn’t either of Jon’s hands.  There was never, and has not been any pity party.  It was awful, and how I manifested this is a puzzle!  It is what it is.

Mexican Navy Vessel

The navy boat had a doctor and a nurse on board and after freezing the hand, putting me on intravenous, and dressing the wound, we came alongside Zwerver again to unload two fellows to help Jon.  No help really at all, they could speak little English and so far Jon can only say “como te llamas?”

When the doctor had finished her dressing of the wounds, we sped up to 40 knots and raced for the port of San Carlos.  We arrived to a waiting ambulance, which had driven one hour from the Hospital.  We proceeded to la Ciudad de Constitution, about 1 hour inland by car.  I was taken into Emergency, accompanied by the doctor from the boat and the Captain of the Navy – Alejandro Bellasquez Bollina.  My details were related, and after x-rays, new intravenous, and pain killers I was taken to a two-bed room, of which I was to be the only occupant for the week.

Tuesday morning, Dr Jimenz, the trauma specialist, came to inspect and explained in his very, very limited English that a skin graft would be required for my index finger; skin taken off of the palm of the same hand, and he didn’t think that the knuckle hanging on by a thread of my middle finger would work, as it had now been almost 24 hours since the accident, but he would try as necrosis was setting in.  Surgery was scheduled for 12 Noon, no water and no food up until then.  I was so dry in the mouth, but not a chance for a drop of water.

A general anesthetic sent me to oblivion and the surgery was done.  All bandaged up, and nowhere to go.  Dr. J.  had used his iPhone to ask about any allergies, and showed me the words ‘close monitoring’, which would happen after the surgery (Jon would tell you I need close monitoring all of the time).  Wednesday morning, he looked at the wounds and determined that the middle finger was ‘no good’ and another surgery would have to be performed, with a slight further amputation, as the cut was very ragged.  No general: I had eaten my Frosted Flakes for breakfast.  I feared for the sound of the amputation, but there wasn’t a sound and I didn’t want to see, so all was well.  Back to the room.  Lots of sleep.

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Jon was able to contact me on Tuesday night via the Port Captain’s office, (we have no telephone) and came to see me on Wednesday to tell me about the hole in the boat (as I said, he has his side of this drama).  Bus from San Carlos was 140 pesos return ($11 CAD); Jon had to stay with the boat due to the anchorage being exposed to rough water, rather than spend time in the hospital.

Hospital staff were very concerned that I was all alone, as it is the custom to be accompanied by family when in hospital.  They were quite distressed by this situation, as I was to learn.  The staff were wonderful – all Spanish – no English, so it was a great way to improve my Spanish, which was an upside.  The food: well, I didn’t have much of an appetite…tacos with every single meal, as well as jello!  But everyone was so lovely, it was sad to leave. Well almost.

On Monday night in the Emergency, I was concerned about the costs but the Captain assured me that it would not be a problem.  “dDn’t worry”, but what does that really mean?  Both Jon and I had been left with the impression that the Navy was paying for everything, but why would they?   In the end, the hospital bill was negotiated down to 6,000 pesos, ($500) which really was a bargain.  I can’t imagine what the rescue cost was, for which we don’t expect a bill.

After I was on board the navy boat, Jon continued under power to Magdelena Bay.  He didn’t arrive until about 1am  and was exhausted  But the drama for him was not yet over! That story will be told in Part II.

 

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