Broken Skipper—What Happened

Sea stacks on the Skerwink Trail, taken a short while before the accident.

Like most voyaging couples, I suspect, Phyllis and I have long feared one of us getting seriously injured as the ultimate risk, short of death, facing us. This fear has always been especially prevalent during our Arctic voyages; who knew that it would be realized so close to home.

As many of you know, I fell and broke my leg while hiking in Newfoundland. And while we were traveling by car at the time, most of what happened in the next few hours would have been the same if the accident had occurred while we were cruising Newfoundland on Morgan’s Cloud. We did some things right, some wrong, and learned a huge amount. I will try and share some of these lessons over a series of posts though it may take me awhile since this short post took four days to write, typing with one finger on an iPad in short bursts through a fog of pain killers.

What Happened

Phyllis and I were hiking a short, but spectacularly beautiful, trail around a headland in Newfoundland. The weather was relatively warm and settled though the trail was very wet in shaded areas. We would classify the trail as easy on our scale, which admittedly has been calibrated by many years of hiking and near-climbing in the North.

While descending a short flight of “wilderness stairs” constructed from on-site sourced tree trunks and branches, my feet slipped out from under me and I fell several feet landing with my full weight on an about four-inch diameter trunk set vertically into the ground to anchor one end of the stair-tread, thereby crushing and breaking my femur just below my hip joint.

Phyllis called for help on our cell phone and within 30 minutes two young men, both wilderness first aid trained, had arrived, quickly followed by members of the local volunteer fire department, an EMT, and a member of the local RCMP detachment. After assessing my condition, the EMT and RCMP member called for a helicopter evacuation. This was rejected higher up the chain of command, a decision that is currently under review.

The rescue team then finished the excellent stabilizing job that Phyllis had done and strapped me on to a back board before carrying me over two kilometers of rough terrain to a beach where I was loaded onto a fishing speedboat for a short trip across the bay to a waiting ambulance.

This whole process took about four and a half hours. It took a further hour in the ambulance to reach the regional hospital and the warm embrace of my first dose of analgesics. So, while this was may not have been a wilderness accident in the strict sense of that term, the time to hospital was well into the duration that could be expected in a real wilderness emergency.

It will be hard for anyone not on-scene to imagine what an incredible feat evacuating me through the tangled mess of scrub spruce and slippery uncertain footing was. One mistake or moment’s inattention could have had fatal consequences for me. I owe those men and one woman a huge amount and quite possibly everything I will ever have: In the bush a femur break is one of three frequent killers (the other two are head injury and heart attack).

In the next chapter, we will look at some things we did right.

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Meet the Author

John

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

19 comments… add one
  • Morgan Floyd Nov 18, 2012, 5:06 pm

    First, very glad to hear that your recovery is going well, or at least well enough to peck out a blog post on an iPad.

    You mention that you and Phyllis have long feared serious injury while on a voyage. I wonder if either of you undertook any medical training to prepare for your voyages? I’d be interested to hear more about it in a future post if you have (but perhaps you’ve already written on the subject?). I’ve often thought my partner and I should look into some additional training to better prepare us for the unexpected.

    Many wishes for a continued and speedy recovery.

    -Morgan

    • John Nov 19, 2012, 8:10 am

      Hi Morgan,

      Thanks for the kind wishes.

      I will be writing about the training we have done in part II, stay tuned.

  • hotels in london Nov 19, 2012, 7:57 am

    I’m sorry about your incident. Hope you will recovery very soon and wish you to have in the future fewer adventures of this kind.

  • sailias Nov 19, 2012, 8:54 am

    The results of the inquirey, as to why a medivac given the nature of the emergency was overrulled, will be very interesting and pertinant in this case as a femur break and a four hr evac over land without medication is brutal. Perhaps Minister McKay would care to comment since he feels entitled to personal use of the same aircraft as was observed recently. There is no question the program is underfunded but that seems to be an internal management thing rather then an issue with the availability of funds to keep these helicopters in the air. Unless the fleet was grounded due to lack of maintenance or all were allocated there is no justification for not allocating an aircraft given the nature and level if threat to life in an area that promoting tourism.

    Congratulation on getting through this. I used to work as a Ski Patroller and what you went through is no picknic. You were in good hands and those lads and gals who got you through it, and the folks on the boat all deserve a pat on the back.

    Get well soon. Dont let up in the inquirey.

    /ch

    • John Nov 20, 2012, 8:35 am

      Hi Sailias,

      Yes, the whole issue here is a difficult one. I would be the first to say that those, like us, that choose to take their pleasures in remote places must understand that resources are not unlimited particularly in a country of just 32 million spread over a huge land area, like Canada.

      My biggest worry is that the decision of the commander on the ground, the RCMP member, I think, did not seem to receive the weight that it should have.

      I have no input into any review of this decision.

  • Jeff Sailor Nov 19, 2012, 2:51 pm

    Once, seven guys and I had to evacuate a woman rock climber who had fallen. All we had to do was carry her maybe a half mile to a road where an ambulance was waiting, but the ground was steep and forested. It was exhausting, even with a large team, and surprisingly dangerous for everyone.

    But it reinforces the unseen danger that any two-person crew assumes; it is extremely hard (sometimes impossible) for one person, all-alone, to rescue their severely injured partner. The situation can become desperate in remote locations.

    Be like a Boy Scout—be well prepared!

    • John Nov 20, 2012, 8:38 am

      Hi Jeff,
      A really good point. Unless you have done it, it is impossible to really understand how hard and potentially dangerous to both victim and rescuers a carry over broken ground is.

  • Terry Ricketts Nov 19, 2012, 6:46 pm

    Hi John,
    Glad to read you are doing good. I was one of the firemen that helped bring you out to the boat. Take Care.

  • RDE Nov 19, 2012, 8:52 pm

    Hi John,
    Look at your experience from the bright side! If you were an American instead of Canadian your hospital bill would likely have been at least half the value of Morgan’s Cloud! Even if your insurance policy actually paid the bill, the deductible would still eat up a year’s sailing expenses. And the result of Obamacare simply will be to force people to buy insurance who can’t afford it while the insurance they are forced to buy doesn’t pay for their actual medical expenses.

    Last month I had a miss-diagnosed medical non-emergency that resulted in an overnight stay in a regional US hospital. The total bill? $12,000. I was charged $520 for a handful of pills manufactured in India that probably would cost $50 in Canada and less than $10 in India.

    I’m now looking to permanently emigrate to Canada where I have worked in the past, motivated by sheer disgust with our system of medical extortion in the USA.

  • Ed finn Nov 22, 2012, 10:01 pm

    John,
    Sorry to here about your accident, Newfoundland is a tough place. We Newfoundlanders forget that sometimes…
    I guess you were the guy who was injured and rescued on the Skerwink Trail near the town of Trinity, Newfoundland??
    The local press gave it a lot of coverage, and as well they covered the decision not to medivac u by Helicopter
    Anyway, I have been a visitor to your website for years..
    Glad to here u are recovering.
    Newfoundland is a large island in the North Atlantic, every man I know has a boat (I have 2 lasers, a 17 ft aluminium canoe, a 15 ft runabout and an IP 35 and a 24 ft River boat of local design) or some historic attachment to the sea .
    Death at sea or on the ” Rocks” or by mis adventure is all to common up here. Perhaps you were lucky…

    Soon a more pragmatic level,and in typical Newfoundland fashion— How’s the boat? You forgot to mention it…LOL. . Just kidding, no I’m serious …How’s the boat?

    Ed
    Carbonear , NEwfoundland

    • John Nov 24, 2012, 8:09 am

      Hi Ed,

      Thanks for the thoughts.

      Luckily, the boat is laid up for winter, so no worries there.

  • PETER Nov 23, 2012, 2:36 pm

    John, Sorry to hear of your accident. Hope you are well soon.
    I have towed a Hamilton Ferris tow generator since 1995 when I installed it in New Zealand. Since then I have towed it probably 100,000 miles. I love it. On passage I never run the engine to top up the batteries. My boat, SEA BEAR, has a low electrical demand…no refrigeration, wind vane steering and no computers. I have had a few procedural problems from time to time but have learned how to live with it’s idiosyncrasies.
    I think the Watt &See is an major technological improvement and would install one except I am happy with what I have.
    I do have a solar panel but no wind generator.
    If anyone wants any more details, let me know.
    Peter

    • John Nov 24, 2012, 8:12 am

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for the get well thoughts and also your endorsement of the HF towed generator.

      Your comment makes the important point that to be successful with alternative energy systems you need to cut your usage down to the bare minimum.

  • George Trott Nov 24, 2012, 12:04 pm

    John, you always had a flair for the dramatic.

    Glad to hear that you are on the mend. Remember older folks’ bones tend to be more brittle.

    I am not surprised to read that you were fairly well prepared.
    GT

    • John Nov 25, 2012, 3:20 pm

      Hi George,

      Wow, “flare for the dramatic”, and to think that for all these years I have been thinking of myself as just plain clumsy!

      And who are you calling old? I seem to remember that you are the senior one of the two of us!

      Seriously, thanks for the note.

  • William R Nov 24, 2012, 7:49 pm

    John,

    As someone who shattered his femur a few years ago (and consequently as a result has still delayed my Blue-water adventures) I can empathize with your immediate post accident, as well as the recovery ordeal you are about to go through.

    As Rachel Hunter once said in the old shampoo commericial: “It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen”. Speedy recovery

    WFR

    • John Nov 25, 2012, 11:37 am

      Hi William,

      Thanks for the thoughts and encouragement from someone who has been through it. I hope you get out sailing soon.

  • Axel the novice.... Jan 10, 2013, 6:21 pm

    Dear John,

    I wish you a speedy recovery.

    I have read the entirety of your web-site (pretty much) over the last 2 days and have loved the pragmatic stance you seem to take in all your telling a.

    I have a quick question which I believe you would provide a rational, yet direct answer to.

    I have some reasonable coastal experience (40 days skipper) on 34′-40′ foot boats. I’m safe and take safety and common sense pretty seriously, especially when not sailing solo (which I have done a little). I feel confident yet have respect for the sea. have managed and even enjoyed BF 7 short handed for 48 hours (coastal, so waves although substantial – not high seas). Question is simple; I feel ready to do skipper on the ARC regatta on a well equipped 37′ with my wife only – who is also competent. Am I wrong in my confidence? My thinking is that this is one good way to start some ocean voyaging!

    Take care,
    Axel

    • John Jan 11, 2013, 9:17 am

      Hi Axel,

      You are obviousness going about things the right way. As to being skipper on the ARC, my general guide line is that a person should not skipper a boat on an ocean crossing until they have done at least one multi-day ocean voyage on another boat as crew. I know many people break this rule and manage fine, but I still don’t think it’s a good idea. The bottom line is that no amount of coastal sailing really prepares you for what it is like far offshore.

      I would recommend that you crew on at least one passage like that to Bermuda from the US east coast on another boat before taking on the ARC as skipper.

      You can read about my own apprenticeship here.

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