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Good Seamanship

Topaz at C1500 Start. Teresa Carey
Topaz at C1500 Start. Teresa Carey

I’m going to kick this column off with a story I’ve been involved with over the past three weeks. My wife Mia and I have been running the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) Caribbean 1500 rally now for a few years, and it takes up most of our time in October and November. It’s something I love and part of the reason I had to leave the editor’s post at this wonderful magazine. The rally runs from Portsmouth, Va., to Nanny Key, Tortola, and this year the smallest boat in the fleet, Topaz, admirably dealt with what could have been a disaster offshore.

Topaz is a gorgeous 36-foot wooden sloop owned and designed by Chuck Burns. A few days prior to the rally start, Chuck found himself without a crew. He got in touch with my friend Austin, a 20-something kid from Texas who I’d only just met last spring sailing a Tayana 48 north to Rhode Island. Topaz was to be Austin’s second big offshore passage. Rounding out the crew was Percy Lidback, another friend-of-a-friend Chuck had found. On November 2, they set off with the rally fleet from Portsmouth.

Three days out, the weather turned rough, and late in the afternoon Topaz took a wave at a weird angle. Percy was jolted into the cockpit seat and dislocated his shoulder.

 Mia and I were home and received a phone call from a satellite phone. It was Austin, who calmly explained what had happened. I told him to call me back in 10 minutes.

 I got on the phone with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) in Norfolk, and they got in touch with a doctor. A dislocated shoulder can be a serious injury, but it’s something treatable in the field. When 

Austin called back 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 rather than treat without training, they had immobilized the injury and taken Percy off the watch rotation. Chuck decided to alter course and aim for Marsh Harbor in the Bahamas. 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.

Three days after the initial incident, Topaz made it to Man-of-War Channel in the Abacos. Their engine had conked out, so Austin and Chuck had gone purely under sail double-handed, an impressive feat. The Bahamas Air and Sea Rescue (BASRA) were in contact with Topaz and arranged to tow the boat through the reef. They had Percy off the boat and into a hospital where he was treated that night.

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 everyone involved who all worked together to expedite our entry into the Bahamas and get medical help for Percy…I also have much appreciation for Austin who worked hard aboard Topaz to help get us to safety.”

Topaz’s experience reminded everyone of the value of being prepared for all contingencies on a long ocean passage, and the boat was awarded the Seamanship Award in absentia in Tortola. 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. I think he actually enjoyed the challenge. Topaz will remain in the Bahamas for the foreseeable future while Chuck returns to the U.S. for the holidays. After that, he might explore the Bahamas, but isn’t making any commitments just yet. And in cruising, that’s how it should be.

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