A Killing Experience

There is a spot in the Pacific Ocean that is more distant from land than anywhere else on the globe. Two thousand miles to the east are the mysterious Galapagos. Two thousand miles to the west are the glorious Marquesas and the Dangerous Archeapelago. It is even more than two thousand miles to the north and south before any land is reached. The loneliness is palpable.

It was here (approximately, as a good navigator adds) that I had my killing experience. The nearest reachable port where medical help was available, was two thousand miles downwind, about 18 days away. I would have been dead long before 18 days had passed.

Ignorance aside and luck always to be wished for, a sailor's survival depends on having at hand resources, information and initiative. I survived my killing experience because we had the medical resources on board, we were able to get the information we needed (via Amateur Radio) and we were blessed with a woman with the initiative to put it all together.

The morning was splendid. We were running easily down the trades towards Tahiti. The sea, the winds, a fine boat and a remarkable woman conspired to make that morning one of the best of my life. As the sun came up we two were rolling, lovingly, in tune with the boat and each other, in a pillowy genoa bunched down on the foredeck. The business of loving and dawning concluded (one not unlike the other), I offered to make a hot breakfast by way of saying thank you to boat, woman, winds and God.

I lazed aft, still bemused by the morning, naked, as we always are at sea in the tropics, I was disinclined to break the spell. In this mood I ignored my own orders to wear the clammy oilcloth apron used for protection against burns when using the stove.

I had opted for an alcohol primed kerosene stove because everyone said it was the most available fuel in strange ports and because of its safety, to which everyone also attested. Nothing is so likely to be false than that which is universally held to be true. Both kerosene and the priming fuel, alcohol, are difficult to find and, lulled by everyone's assertion that kerosene is the safest fuel, I allowed the moment of carelessness that led to my killing experience. That which is most obviously safe can easily become the most dangerous. I am learning to distrust the familiar. Like the friendly bathtub, it is where killing happens.

Kerosene can be made to burn only after it is vaporized by igniting a bit of alcohol around the burner. The process is Rube Goldberg-ish but it works well when you are tied to the dock after a good nights sleep ashore. It is difficult to judge the correct amount of alcohol required. The alcohol frequently burns off before the kerosene is vaporized and you are left with a hot burner which must be allowed to cool before the process can be repeated. Waiting in a galley at sea is not anyone's favorite activity and it becomes habit to give a little extra squirt of alcohol at the hot burner. With luck, which is most of the time, you get a poof of hot air and the process gets started again. It is a chance we all take, a chance which can kill.

It is a chance I took, bare naked and with too little experience of burns. The stream of alcohol ignited and flamed back up to the bottle in my hand. The bottle ignited and, as I threw it from me, it bounced off the sink, turned lazily in the air and sprayed me from haunch to fetlock with burning alcohol. I charged up out of the galley, the floor of which was blue with flame, as were both of my legs. Later my lady said I looked like a shish kebab, and, she added with womanly priority, that was better than a weenie roast.

She grabbed a pillow, smothered the flames and in the same motion doused my legs with cold water from a jug kept, for no good reason, by the sink. This was a life saver since burns continue to 'cook' even after the flames are extinguished. The cold water cools the skin and halts the burning process. Much trauma was avoided by the cold water but I was left with second degree burns serious enough to kill. If the shock doesn't kill you, infection will.

Providence or pure luck now wrote a lifesaving scenario of coincidence. Five years previously my son, his wife, the same lady and I were on a summer daysail on a chartered boat in a quiet little bay in the south of England. We were about an hour out (downwind) and he had gone below to make tea. I had the tiller and stupidly, without alerting him, I tacked about. The water he was boiling spilled over his legs. He sustained second degree burns, eerily identical to those I was to suffer five years later. He quickly went into shock. We had to get him help fast, but the quick run out with the wind became an aggravatingly slow beat back. We almost lost him.

Four years later after completing his medical studies, he made up a medical kit for my Pacific crossing. The prevention of shock, remembering his own terrible burns, was his first priority, so codeine came aboard. Next was the prevention of infection. In his accident shock could have killed him but since the hospital was only hours away, infection could not. Far at sea the need to control infection for days, or even for weeks, had to be considered. An antibiotic was of course the answer. But on a small boat, where immobilization is impossible and where motion endlessly abraids even healthy skin, a regimen other than bandages was needed. Nothing till that time had been developed to address these conditions.

Providentially, a product appeared which dealt elegantly with burns in the uncontrolled environment of a pitching, crowded boat. Silvadene, a sulfa impregnated silver oxide cream acts as an analogue bandage and provides all the security of a sterile antibiotic bandage without the terrible consequences of the application of cloth to naked, burned tissue.

Afterwards my son told me that he placed a large jar of Silvadene in my kit. Later, acting on a compulsion he could not explain, he added three more. He had no way of anticipating that there would be the need to control the deadly threat of infection from burns covering 20% of my body for 20 days, but the providential voice spoke and the other huge jars were stored. One jar would have killed me as effectively as no jars. Now there were four.

We had codiene and Silvadene, but we knew little of their use. Missing was still the professsional information needed to begin effective treatment. A perfect solution would have been to have a physician on board. Failing that there was Ham radio. There is not one moment, day or night, anywhere in the world, that I cannot call into effective operation a responsive network of Amatuer Radio operators. As soon after the accident as I could, within minutes before the pain took hold, I told the crew to reach out on 14.313 Megaherz and seek aid.

There is a peculiar, conservative and altogether admirable tradition among sailors that one never calls 'Mayday' save in overwhelming threat to life and ship. I found it impossible to give the order for Mayday. Call Medical Emergency, I said, and keep calling until someone answers. The microphone was taken by Cindee, a woman with a great pair of lungs, who soon made the first tentative contact with the net. The net operator, in Texas, cleared the frequency of all traffic and across the whole world the only voices to be heard were our weak one and those of the capable and experienced Hams who took over my emergency.

What can we do? they asked and I, illogically, demanded that they locate my son 7000 miles away in his hospital in Philadelphia. I trusted and valued his knowledge and, most importantly, he had put my medical kit together and already knew what resources we had on board. There were several physicians on the net (there always are) but I wanted my son, so they set out to find him. Within half an hour Gil was on the radio, relayed via Texas. Gil already had the Burn Center in Philadelphia waiting on another line.

After that, all was anticlimax. I had codiene. I had Silvadene. I had loving care and instantaneously radioed medical advice. Eighteen days later we fetched up in Hiva Oaa in the Marquesas and consulted a doctor at the little local clinic who declared me cured. Healed with no infection and practically no scars.

I was lucky. Learn from my luck. Each time you untie from your dock act as if you will be a thousand miles from land. Think through all eventualities, no matter how improbable the scenarios seem. Seek out the experts and the physicians, seek out the sailors who have been there. For as sure as God made little apples, you will some day find yourself in need, and the killing experiences of others may save you from one of your own.

We had one serious shortage. Our cotton bandages for holding the Silvadene lightly to the burns, were used up in a week. As I watched my lady tear linen into strips, my mind wandered, reality blurred and for one brief and glorious moment I, Rhett, lay injured watching a daring Scarlett pull a petticoat from beneath her skirts and...................