#17 – The Need to Know

Women cruising are challenged in small ways nearly every day, but every once in a while a big challenge comes along, and whether we have the skills and the attitude needed to meet it determines whether or not there will be a happy ending.

Consider the story of Sheri Schneider of the Gozzard 44 Procyon. After many years of preparation and short-range trips to the Bahamas and Maine, Sheri and her husband Randy — in their 40s, fit and with Randy recently retired from the US Coast Guard — left Beaufort, NC bound for the Panama Canal by way of the Western Caribbean. They had a long-planned rendezvous with friends they’d made in the Bahamas to transit the canal and head for the Pacific. All went well on the transit, and they got an auspicious start on their first long passage – six days from Panama to the Galapagos – with near perfect sailing conditions.

On their first morning in Puerto Ayora, however, Randy woke with stomach pain. “We blamed it on the arrival lunch with our friends the day before and continued on with an island tour. But throughout the day and the following night, Randy’s conditioned worsened, and after some fruitless visits to the local clinic we realized the problem was becoming serious.” Thanks to their membership in DAN*, Sheri was able to make one call and the medical evacuation to Quito was arranged. Within a half hour of arriving in the emergency room, Randy was in surgery for a perforated ulcer!

Being sick in a foreign country where the language is different and the standard of care may not seem to measure up to what we’re used to is an anxious experience many cruisers encounter in their travels. Likewise, leaving the boat in an unfamiliar anchorage does not help. Yet both these experiences went well for Sheri and Randy because of two fundamental assets: membership in DAN, which coordinated every aspect of the emergency evacuation, and friendships with other cruisers they could rely on. Unfortunately, because the doctor in Quito recommended six weeks of recuperation, Sheri and Randy were forced to watch those friends sail on without them.

“When we finally departed for the Marquesas, we made great time, averaging over 160 miles a day the first nine days.” On May 8, however, with 1266 miles to go, a badly-timed lurch knocked Randy over and he fell onto the cockpit table hitting his back and his head. “At first we were most worried about a concussion, but the next morning Randy woke with major stomach pains again. “ Although the symptoms were somewhat different, by the 10th, he could no longer manage his watches and was out flat below. He could not keep food, medication or water down, and he had not passed anything in days. Abruptly Sheri found herself single-handing a forty-four foot boat, standing all the watches, doing the navigation, handling the sails, even attending to the engine. They were halfway across the Pacific. “I was very much afraid Randy might die.”

From their first boat, a Macgregor 26’, Sheri and Randy worked at their sailing together. Obviously his Coast Guard career gave Randy a huge head start, but he insisted Sheri learn everything he did, and she was lucky that he was a good teacher, “a natural explainer.” They continued to learn together as they graduated over the next twelve years from the Macgregor in California and Oregon to a C&C 37 in Newport, RI, and finally in North Carolina to Procyon which they had built for them. Having the boat built meant they could have her fitted just the way they wanted, and four years later Sheri would have cause to appreciate the cutter-rig’s furling sails, controls led back to the cockpit, integrated cockpit navigation, and the single electric winch installed in consideration of Sheri’s bad shoulder.

But to Sheri on her own in the Pacific, the most important piece of equipment on Procyon was their SSB radio. Although their closest friends were long arrived in the Marquesas, Sheri could still be in touch with them via the morning crossing net. Alerted to her crisis, other boats on passage joined in to lend moral support by radio throughout the day, and three nearby Norwegian-flagged boats listening to the net changed course to maneuver into VHF range. Additionally Dr. Tom Walker of the catamaran Quantum Leap, although 500 miles ahead, daily talked Sheri through monitoring Randy’s vitals and administering treatments (enemas fashioned from a first aid kit syringe and some heat shrink tubing administered ten minutes every hour in an effort to ease the suspected blockage and combat dehydration.) “You can’t get that kind of support over a satellite phone.”

While Sheri juggled being both a full-time skipper and nurse, her friends, recognizing that Randy’s deteriorating condition required evacuation, took on contacting the authorities. Working with the USCG and French Navy, a nearby container ship enroute from Panama to Papeete was diverted to a rendezvous. Meanwhile, the Norwegian boats converged on Procyon and launched a dinghy to facilitate the transfer to the 700’ vessel.

This was Sheri’s worst moment. The ship could spare no crew to help with Procyon. Would Randy’s care aboard be any better than she was giving? Could Randy last the 2-3 days it would take the ship to reach Papeete? And should she go with him…which would mean abandoning the boat?

Suspecting he would refuse to go on that basis, Sheri decided to stay with their boat, but watching the ship steam away after Randy was hoisted aboard was an awful moment. “How would I find him? How would I get news? Had I made the right choice? As long as he was in the bunk below, I’d known I could count on him for a hug and to answer questions. Now I was on my own.” That night Jan and Eva on Necessity shadowed her and kept watch for both boats so Sheri could try for some much-needed sleep, but all the uncertainties continued to haunt her.

The morning brought good news. Unknown to them, the container ship had a French woman doctor as passenger who’d promptly put Randy on an IV. Hydrated and on a stable platform, his insides finally got a break, and the blockage, probably an intestinal adhesion from the surgery that had broken away in the fall, passed. Randy rebounded overnight and was able to tell her himself on the morning net.

Unfortunately, with 800 miles still remaining to Nuku Hiva, the wind was dying. Motoring now, Sheri had to deal with such practical issues as fuel supply and a clogging filter. Alerted to her concerns, their friends on Endangered  Species and Wind Pony in Nuku Hiva filled all spare fuel jugs and shuffled crew so that one boat could motor out to meet her with help. “I can’t tell you what it felt like when I saw Wind Pony motoring over the horizon, blasting Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” over their speakers.”

Now, fifteen months (and some thorough medical checkups later), Sheri and Randy sit on the lovely Procyon shifting gently on her mooring in Musket Cove as Sheri tells me this story. Around us are moored many of the players from this saga, friends for life. The Schneiders have sailed 5000 more miles since the Marquesas, including the vigorous roundtrip to New Zealand, with no further problems, and they have many more they mean to sail. “I didn’t want to go, you know,” says Randy. “It was a fait accompli by the time I knew about it. But I knew she would be okay. She had the abilities to do it.”

“And that’s the point of telling this story,” says Sheri, “that women need to know. They need to know about evacuation insurance, and they need to know about the importance of an SSB radio and how to use it to get help and support from nearby. But most of all they need to know their boat systems and how to sail the boat if the worst happens. Women came up to me afterward and called me a hero, but there’s not a thing heroic about it. It’s just being able to do what you have to.”

*DAN or Diver’s Alert Network is not just for scuba divers. Join at http://www.diversalertnetwork.org

This article was published in the December 2007 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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