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Caribbean 1500: Lessons Learned from a Challenging Passage

Caribbean 1500: Lessons Learned from a Challenging Passage

by Andy Schell

Five more yachts arrived into Nanny Cay overnight last night, leaving only seven more at sea. Slow Dancing, the Island Packet who re-started last week after disembarking a sick crewmember, is the only yacht not to have left the Chesapeake. They were forced to return a second time when an errant wave fried their SSB radio.

“We’re okay,” said skipper Dan. “Not sure what we’ll do at this point. Maybe head down the ICW or do a couple hops offshore to the Bahamas,” he added.

Ironically, the boat Slow Dancing, before Dan took ownership, had completed the 1500 four times prior. For whatever reason, the sailing gods didn’t offer him any help in the matter this year. Despite the setback, Dan sounded to be in good spirits, and seemed to recognize that the cruising lifestyle is going to throw you curves. The best thing is simply to accept them and make the best of what your handed.

Topaz and Kinship also had their plans changed on them due to unforeseen circumstances, and wound up in the Bahamas. Kinship simply due to a loss of electronics and autohelm (which is another story), but Topaz due to a crew injury.

Chuck on Topaz found himself without crew only a few days prior to the start in Portsmouth. At the last minute, he got in touch with my friend Austin, a 20-something kid from Texas who I’d only just met last spring when he joined me in Bermuda to sail Saudade, a Tayana 48, back north to Rhode Island.

It was Austin’s first offshore passage then, though he was a competitive racing sailor back home and owns his own boat. He was super keen on that trip. I asked him how he wanted to deal with seasickness.

“You can put the patch on now, before we leave, and pre-empt it,” I told him. “Or, you can see how you do and if you need it.”

Austin chose the gutsier move and went without. He was sick in less than 24 hours, curled up around the head in the vee-berth and suffering. I gave him a patch, and 24 hours later he was back to his cheerful self.

So anyway, Topaz was to be his second big offshore passage, and he was excited at the opportunity. Rounding out the crew was Percy, who had planned on going with Lady Jane. After they got delayed fixing the saildrive unit in Deltaville, Percy wound up with Chuck and Austin.

Three days out from Portsmouth, when the fleet was experiencing some of the “most challenging conditions they’d ever faced in a 1500,” according to rally veteran Ron Horton, who’d been sailing on Trillium, Topaz, the smallest yacht in the fleet, took a wave at a weird angle. Percy was jolted onto the cockpit seat at a bad angle, and dislocated his shoulder.

Mia and I were home in Pennsylvania at this point and received a phone call from a number I new to be a satellite phone (anytime the number starts with 8816, I get nervous). It was Austin on the line, calmly explaining what had happened. Of course it was late, 9pm for the fleet, and dark, as most things that go awry seem to happen in the night. I told him to call me back in ten minutes.

I got on the phone with the USCG in Norfolk. They were going to call a doctor, who could advise Austin and Chuck how to handle the situation. A dislocated shoulder can be a serious injury, but it’s something treatable in the field, if you’re properly trained. Wilderness First Responder courses – requirements to work for places like Outward Bound and Broadreach, or to be a Ski Patroller – train treating this injury and others. The challenge it, as the injury swells, it becomes harder to set it. Time is of the essence.

Austin called back in 10 minutes and I gave him the number for the USCG, who then patched them through to the doctor. They offered to keep me on the line in a conference call, but I didn’t want to influence their decision making. Austin called back again a while later, and explained that they had immobilized the injury and had taken Percy off the watch rotation, while giving him some Advil to ease the pain. Chuck had decided to alter course and aim for Marsh Harbor in the Bahamas, by then the closest port where they could get Percy to a doctor.

Over the next few days, I had regular contact with both Topaz and the USCG. Percy’s condition was fine, other than the obvious discomfort, and it appeared he had not suffered any long-term nerve or blood vessel damage, thanks to the simple diagnostic tests Austin had performed with the USCG doctor’s advice.

By Friday night, three days after he initially suffered the injury, Topaz was outside Man-O-War channel in the Abacos. Their engine had conked out, so Austin and Chuck had double-handed the boat all the way there, completely under sail. The USCG by then had passed along the information to Bahamas Air and Sea Rescue (BASRA), who were in contact with Topaz when they arrived (at night, of course). They arranged to tow Topaz through the reef and had Percy off the boat and into a hospital where he was treated immediately that night and expects to recover fully. Customs & Immigration handled clearing in Chuck and Austin the next morning.

Chuck, though disappointed at not being with the fleet in Tortola, seemed happy to be in the Bahamas and proud of how he and the crew handled the situation.

“Diverting to the Bahamas was the right thing to do,” Chuck wrote. “I have nothing but praise for the Caribbean 1500 staff (Andy), the USCG, the Bahamian CG, the Bahamian Immigration and Customs who all worked together to expedite our entry into the Bahamas and get medical help for Percy... I also have much appreciate for Austin who took up the slack and worked hard aboard Topaz to help get us to safety.”
Topaz’ experience reminded everyone the value of being prepared for any and all contingencies on an ocean passage like the 1500. They handled the entire situation with a calmness and professionalism that made me proud. Austin, in his second passage, has certainly gained a wealth of experience. After realizing the situation wasn’t dire, I think he actually enjoyed the challenge.

As for Chuck and Topaz? The boat will remain in the Bahamas for the foreseeable future while Chuck returns to the USA for the holidays. After that, he might explore the Bahamas, an area he’s never been, but isn’t making any commitments just yet. And that’s as it should be.