A Slap on the Wrist From the Ocean

The title of this post should be taken metaphorically, but it was a metaphor I couldn’t resist. One needs an eye catching title for anyone to read these, right?

Rather than the ocean slapping my wrist a heavy (~150 lb or ~75 kg) steel door (to be watertight if finished) slammed on the fingers of my hand as the boat rolled around in the ocean while drifting beam to the waves. The outcome was actually very fortunate – although you may note minor deformity in one of the fingers even a couple of weeks after the event, the construction of the door and the inherent violence of the event would lead one to have speculated on a number of possible outcomes – amputation, pulverisation, complex fractures, etc.

Accordingly to not only retain function of the hand but to have sufficient adrenaline at work at the time to barely register any pain can be taken to be remarkably good fortune. That isn’t to say that it won’t be a minor niggle if for the rest of my life I have a finger that is no longer straight, nor that in an ideal world I wouldn’t have sought medical attention to at least try to determine if the bone or joints were damaged (it would be much too late to do anything about bones by now, as they start to heal within days). The finger works, has full range of mobility – no longer with pain and stiffness unless being used for load bearing tasks – the prognosis seems acceptable.

Picture showing fingers no longer straight

Finger damage uncertain

Apart from the testament to my carelessness and lack of foresight in not securing the incomplete doors, there is naturally a back story to this – a sequence of events before and after. I’m not entirely sure why I’m bothering to write about it – save perhaps that it at least demonstrates I am still serious about and pushing forwards with this project notwithstanding non ideal circumstances, or that perhaps I might not be fortunate enough to do so after another attempt and may as well document so as to leave something behind if all else fails.

I attempted to relocate the vessel recently. Neither the vessel nor the captain were ready to do so, but I had an ultimatum from my girlfriend – that I would not get the chance to see or raise my son if I did not do so. As to why that should be the only option for seeing or raising my son – that cannot be safely explained at this time, suffice it to say evil and hostile forces dominate my world and prevent it if intending to see this project through (and perhaps if not too).

The journey was short – slightly under 24 hours – and farcical. When I set off, literally racing the tide as it went out, knowing that to wait for one more tide would render the trip mathematically impossible at any achievable cruising speed (expecting to spend several days offshore non stop with no allowance for weather windows but with a few hours planned for sleep time each day). There were numerous risks I was accepting besides – no life raft, no inclination to call for help if things went wrong unless they were unimaginably catastrophic, no automatic steering equipment and only myself (a blessing in that I doubt few people could have been capable of being an asset as things went in the end, though I would not have risked other lives on this anyway), an untested engine and transmission (both with question marks), sailing rig not operational, no working alternator (though I had a generator), no gear selection save by entering the engine room, limited throttle range likewise – I could go on and on. Suffice it to say that while I don’t think it was quite a suicide trip, it was certainly a dangerous proposition.

As it turned out, I also had a set of new and unexpected problems on setting off – a compass reading very wrongly, no reliable chart information for the immediate area, a hydraulic steering leak, coolant loss – and a nearby military installation carrying out a procedure (which tends to mean large amounts of officialdom being active, an additional set of risks). The latter totally beyond my control – the former due to insufficient time to get everything ready.

It wasn’t an ideal set of circumstances, particularly for someone without any experience of this – this was my first foray offshore. Many people (especially without the back story and without knowing me as a person) would say it was remarkable stupid and foolhardy to do this, and yet – most people operate strictly within their comfort zones. Most of my life has been lived in adversity and hence it was logical enough for me to make the attempt. All that said someone told me afterwards that I was obviously scared as my hands were shaking – and even at the time I knew I was struggling to do simple manual tasks while applying as much mental effort as I was to suppress fear.

Nonetheless I confronted the fear and pressed on regardless, sorting out problems as I went. The problems with the vessel I diagnosed and corrected to the extent possible. The rate of hydraulic steering loss was not a showstopper in that I had plenty of spare fluid and I figured there might be enough to make the trip or if not I could rig up emergency steering. The compass was being affected by nearby metal that could be moved (although I wasn’t in a rush to trust it’s accuracy thereafter). External factors – by a level of luck practically suggestive of divine intervention – somehow did not become more than an immediate threat.

And thus, I pushed out into the ocean – clearing the shipping lane and shutting down to assess the coolant issue (and to pump out part of the bilge by hand, having no electrical bilge pumps yet). Unfortunately several things became clear – the first and most problematic of which was that the rate of coolant loss was an order of magnitude too fast to complete the trip even allowing for my limited fresh water stocks to be consumed for this purpose. The motion of the vessel while lying beam on to even the small gentle weather I was lucky to have (waves mostly well under 1m) was surprisingly violent and uncomfortable. I later found this out to be normal and to be expected under those conditions, but at the time it struck me that perhaps I had dangerously loaded the vessel (I had over a ton on deck and had spent the week before leaving working flat out moving weight around and generally trying to prepare, so I was tired even when I departed even as minutes of tide mattered).

I did nonetheless manage to appreciably dampen the unpleasant motion by securing heavy objects that were able to pivot and it was in the process of moving around attempting to do this that a few seconds of carelessness led to a door slamming on my hand. I could do nothing appropriate about the free surface effect of the fluids being carried in a non ideal fashion – nor anything about the weight on deck while the bigger priority was to diagnose the coolant leak. I spent most of the night drifting in the ocean working on this and ultimately was forced to conclude that the trip was no longer a mathematical possibility even without further issues, and with no resolution to hand either.

Accordingly I made the judgement call to abort and began attempting to retrace my steps as best as one could given the chaos of the departure. The return trip was a lot more rational and informed – I learned many things very fast. Most of the return just took time and corrected wrong assumptions, but for the last bit without good positional awareness in relation to what I had that passed for charts I had to rely more upon my wits. I eventually figured out where to go for a return to friendly ground and continued to do so.

As time wore on (and no chance to sleep that night, of course) I started to make some errors – forgivable perhaps in the circumstances but nonetheless errors I don’t think I would make a second time. I nudged the bottom once and grounded myself worse a second time – not completely within my control in that my steering was intermittently going out pending the addition of fluid and pressurisation of the manual pumping mechanism. I lost cooling on the engine in the last few hours of the trip while attempting to unground myself – through a combination of earlier carelessness and mistaken assumptions/stupidity at the time (later I identified that no serious failure had occurred and that it would have been correctable on the spot). Consequently I returned at very low speed for the last few miles, knowing that the engine was running with a risk of terminal failure from overheating and that I needed to give it the best chance possible to make it. I was also running heavily on adrenaline and indeed it wasn’t until after I slept on returning that my body started to inform me how unhappy it was.

I had negative emotions to keep at bay for the return trip, knowing that I was admitting failure and possibly losing any chance to see my only child (this remains to be seen), but when I returned I at least knew one thing – no matter what should unfold next.

I did my best, and I was satisfied with that.

The story isn’t over yet.