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I'll start with the bottom line: s/v Galena, Westsail 32 # 511, my home for the past decade or so, has been abandoned at sea.
Ready to Leave Fiji
What happened, as near as I can recall, is documented below.
I and others much anticipated my departure from Savusavu, Fiji. I'd been there far too long. The refits were all finished. She was provisioned and ready. My plan was to leave on Monday the 3rd of October.
But on the 30th of September I foolishly dropped my aluminum dinghy on my foot. This dinghy has served me well for years. She has taken me to shores, to bars, to other boats, and always brought me safely home to Galena. But while trying to flip her upside down to place her on Galena's coachroof for the trip to the Marshall Islands I dropped her on my left foot.
Me in my little aluminum dinghy
When it happened, my foot just hurt. I mean, it hurt like hell and I hopped around swearing for a minute or two. but no broken bones. No broken skin. Hell, it didn't even leave a scrape on the skin. The foot was a bit swollen the next day. But still no discoloration, no indication of anything serious.
I decided this was a minor incident and didn't let it affect my departure plans; including attending my own going away party on Saturday, which turned out to be a fantastic evening.
Sunday, 2 October, my foot still hurt and there was just a little discoloration to go with the swelling. Still no big deal. And I walked around town without much trouble.
I departed Fiji as planned on 3 October. Foot sore but not really an impediment to sailing. I was able to scamper around on deck and work the boat as usual.
On the 4th day out, 6 Oct, everything starts to go bad. There are suddenly large blisters on the skin on top of my foot.
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From here on there will be images that some will find objectionable. Others will consider sickening and repuslive. These are pictures of my left foot in various states of disease. Do not continue unless you are ready see some gross medical images of a damaged foot; some with rotted, blackened flesh and some with the skin removed and the tendons showing. Again, these images can't be "un-seen" so continue only at your discression.
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The blisters looked like this:
The blisters quickly pop and I soon have blood and fluids pouring out of me. By pouring out I mean literally a drop a second. The blisters keep forming and breaking and soon become bloody with black skin around them. I become very concerned about infection now. I apply OTC antibacterial ointments. I pour hydrogen peroxide over my foot. And I start taking large doses ofIbuprfen to mitigate the pain, which now is almost unbearable.
The next morning, 7 Oct, after a night of excruciating pain, I am convinced I need help. I'm convinced I am at the point where I have to ask to be evacuated or I may lose my foot.
Very quickly these couple of blisters spread from the initial trauma site to the entire top of the foot.
At about 1000 hrs local I activate my Emergency Position Indincating RadioBeacon (EPIRB). This was a very hard decision. I knew that once I activated that EPIRB I was essentially deciding to abandon my boat, my plans, my dreams. But I was convinced this had to be done.
I waited. I imagined the actions that should be taking place in New Zealand. My EPIRB had sent a generic distress call to satalites which relayed that information to the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC), Wellington, NZ. There, I imagined, a P3 Orian would be dispatched to investigate the nature of the distress. The aircraft should reach me in a few hours. I would explain my problem and ask to be evacuated. A helicopter would be dispatched from maybe Fiji to come out and take me to a hospital.
Waiting for rescue my foot was bleeding and had a lot of fluid running out of it.
Five hours later that day at the normal 0300Z Pacific Seafarer's Net call, I reported my status. I explained this was a medical emergency and that I needed to be evacuated to a hospital. I asked Peter, ZL1PWM, to make some calls and find out what response my EPIRB signal has generated.
The answer was a frustrating: "Not much." This was five hours after EPIRB activation. I was told that RCC, Wellington, had immediately reacted by notifying RCC, Suva, Fiji. I learned that I was in Fiji's area of responsibility. As of this time, RCC, Suva was "deciding" what to do. Five hours after being notified of an activated EPIRB, Suva was still trying to decide what to do. If I had been sinking, I'd have already sunk!
I was expecting medevac but nothing was happening. Peter had RCC, Wellington put some pressure on Suva. Suva responded by "asking Chinese fishing boats to stop by and see what I needed." But now, RCC, Suva, knew what I needed. Still, they did nothing.
But now everyone knew what my problem was. I was in extreme pain, blood and plasma pouring out of me. A foot infection that had me worried about not just loosing my foot, but actually dying. I needed to be evacuated to a hospital. ASAP.
It's sunset on the 7th October. The only light is Peter's voice. Peter is a relay station for Pacific Seafarers' Net and the main operator of Northland Radio, NZ ( https://www.northlandradio.nz). All night I'm getting advice from him over the radio. Much was well intended but of little practical value. Peter even gets the US Coast Guard to put pressure on Suva telling them "this is a US citizen on a US documented vessel; Go get that man!"
By now I'm sailing back toward Fiji. Unable to properly sail Galena, I'm relying on a balky Aries wind vane so my course is not as steady as I would like. But for the most part it's holding course. The last time I had been able to go on deck I had dropped the Yankee Jib. Galena was sailing with a full main and staysail. The wind was picking up and Galena was begging me to put a reef or two in the main. But since I couldn't put any weight on my left foot, I couldn't effectively work the boat. So Galena drove on, hard. Seas were about 7-8 ft with wind over 20 kts just forward of the beam.
By the late evening of 7 October RCC, Suva finally commits to sending a navy patrol boat. They promise it will depart Lautoka at dawn. At Dawn? Why not now? This Navy patrol boat has a max speed of 14 kts, I'm doing 4 towards them. I'm looking at 10-hrs minimum until rendezvous. Or sunset on the 8th.
So I suffer through another terrible night of pain. I turned off the HF radio. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I'm close to giving up. I've done all I was supposed to do. I'd declared distress on both satellite (EPIRB), HF, and VHF frequencies. New Zealand, Australia, the USCG, they all have my story. And I'm sailing south. Nothing else for me to do.
Morning of the 8th. Suva says a fishing boat has agreed to come to my aid. Sure enough, later that day a Chinese fishing boat comes up on VHF mid morning asking, "You got problem?" I asked they had doctor on board. "This fishing boat. No have doctor." I ask can they transport me to a hospital. "This fishing boat. We fishing." End of conversation.
And then I find out that suva has not yet released the Navy boat. I'm frustrated beyond measure. I'm crying; I'm screaming. I'm telling everyone on the radio to just go to hell. I've done a lot in my life, I never before felt like I might actually die.
I am alternately cursing Peter and appoligizing to him. Then Peter gives me the radio frequency to directly speak with RCC, Suva. I suggest that that is probably not a good idea. Peter says, "No, Bill. I think it's time RCC, Suva, hears from you directly." I "talk" with RCC,Suva. I start off calmly and professionally, I give them my position, my course and speed. They now promise me that that the Navy boat will rendezvous with me at dawn, 9 Oct. One more night. I'm furious. Why wasn't it sent to me that morning as promissed. I become a bit indignant with RCC, Suva. During this exchange, USCG Fairbanks comes up and tries to help by asking questions. They are not plugged into my situation. I give them some information. But then they want to know if I'm wearing a life preserver. Once again I switch from calm world traveller to irate skipper in distress. I sort of tell the USGC to shove it.
As evening falls, I'm now having hallucinations. I look at something, say a clock on the bulkhead. I become aware that it has changed into something else. once it was a picture of a lion, I think. Then back to a clock. The night of 8th Oct is a night I barely remember.
Before dawn I grab a backpack and start collecting personal effects: passport, boat papers, a computer, a backup hard drive. A clean t-shirt. Then I think, what if they let me bring another bag? I'm looking around my little cabin. What do I see that I want? Nothing seemed important to me. It was all just stuff. The most important, expensive, things I couldn't take. Like that Icom 802 HF radio that had been my lifeline to Peter and the world outside of Galena. At that moment I loved that radio. Every time I pressed that button and spoke, someone answered me. It was an expensive radio, but it was the best radio on the market and I would love to have taken it with me. Or maybe the Vesper Marine AIS. Again, expensive, but it was telling the world where I was.
I tried to think about what I would be doing for the next few years? I pulled up the V-berth cushion opening the forward-most hatch. There in that locker was my Bear compound hunting bow. It was in one neat package. Maybe I was delirious, but it seemed like an easy choice.
About 5 AM I get a radio call from the Fijian Navy patrol boat. They ask for my current position. I give it. They ask if I can see their search light. I climbed up on deck. No, no light visible. They ask that I fire a flare. I climb back down, dig out a flare, and climb back up. I fire a flare. No, they don't see me. I ask, why they didn't know where I was? I gave them my position within a few hundred feet. They should be able to drive right over to me.
A half hour later they call again. They ask if I can see their searchlight. This time I look to the west and see a glow in the cloud cover. I tell them the bearing to me (070) and estimated distance (5 nm). I turn toward them making 5 kts. A half hour later I can see the searchlight on the patrol boat. I hit them with my 1000 lumen flashlight and they respond saying they can now see my deck lights.
I go below and throw my two bags into the cockpit. I make another visual sweep of the cabin. It's a mess. But I don't care. Back on deck the sky is now bright enough to see the patrol boat about 2 miles off. I hand steer toward her. When we are about 1/4nm apart I turn to windward, lash the tiller to leeward, and stop Galena.
The patrol boat motors across my stern, then turn into the wind. She lauches a large inflatable boat and motor over to Galena. They had sent over the doctor and three seamen. The bottom of the boat was covered with fuel jugs and other bags. As they try to stay along side Galena, they are rising and falling about 7 ft relative to Galena's deck. I toss in my bags. I open the lifeline gate. I sit on the gunnell and wait for a rise. They yell, "Now!" I jump and land, of course, right on my foot. I scream in pain. The doctor takes my foot and tries to shield it from the salt spray that is now washing over us and the inflatable turns back toward the patrol boat. I look over to Galena. She's bobbing gently in the rough seas. Looked to me like she was waiting to make sure I was oK before she carried on on her own.
The last I saw Galena was as the Navy crew carried me across the fantail of the patrol boat. It looked as though she was falling off the wind and sailing away. But that was probably just an illussion as the patrol boat turned for Fiji.
The Navy doctor made me more comfortable and dressed my foot. The crew and captain took excellent care of me for the 9-hour ride back to Lautoka hospital.
The hospital ER Doctors said I should have come in sooner. They started talking about possible amputation. I started to explain that I had put out the call for evacuation over 2 days ago. But what's the point.
My arrival on Sunday afternoon (9 Oct) marked the start of excellent care. Pain meds, IV antibiotics, attentive staff.
In the hospital, prior to the surgical debridement.
Monday morning the doctors did the surgical debridement. I got a spinal block. I came away with my toes in place. The doctors said it should heal but may need grafts as most of the skin on the top of my foot is gone.
Tuesday, 11 Oct, was a day of rest, injections, bad food and flirting with nurses. And lots of sleep.
24 hrs after debridement. Yes, those are tendons, and yes, most of the top of my foot is gone.
I booked a flight for Wednesday night (12 Oct) to Las Vegas. There I'll settle into the care of my sisters, great hospitals, and the peace of zero responsibility.
I was heading for the States and Galena was adrift in the South Pacific Ocean at
15 34.6 S, 177 33.1 E
1900 hrs, 6 Oct UTC
Winds East at 20
Main and staysail up, sheets to the wind, Helm tied to leeward.
Note: all times and dates are Fiji Local (UTC +12 hrs)
I always said the boat was tougher than I was. This week proved it.
This is when my three angels from Savusavu showed up to take care of me. On 10 October Marie, Lisa, and Elke flew out to Lautoka to help be get my shit together and escort me to my plane in Nadi. I know that I could not have made it without their assistance. They came to the hospital and just by being there with all their positive thoughts and love gave me hope that I was going to make it through this. They bought me clothes, food, and other things I needed to become a little more civilized prior to boarding a plane. They then hired a large taxi to get me to Nadi in comfort. They hired a day room at a resort in Nadi where I could spend a couple of hours getting cleaned up and dressed (I hadn't bathed since I'd left Fiji on the 3rd and this was on the 12th). They fed me and got me to the Nadi airport in time for my flight on the night of the 12th. Seriously I don't know how I could have managed the move from the Lautoka hospital to the Nadi airport without their help. I am forever in their debt.
Then my niece, Kim, gave me another unexpected and magnificent surprise. She took it upon herself to upgrade my airling ticket from coach to Business Class. So instead of suffering in a near upright position for 12 hours, I was laying almost flat in Fiji Air's luxurious Business accommodations. As it was, I was in considerable pain. Had I been in coach seating I would not have been able to stand it. Thanks again, Kim.
On arrival at LAX my being in a wheelchair made processing through immigration and customs a breeze... no waiting, straight to the front of the line.
My sister met me at the airport in Las Vegas and drove me directly to the emergency room at St Rose Dominican hospital. They evaluated me and admitted me. My foot was still just a large open wound:
After a couple of days they told me they didn't have the proper specialties to treat a wound as severe as mine. So I transferred to University Medical Center where all the required specialists were.
There they admitted me and performed another surgery. This time they stitched into the huge hole in my foot something called DermACELL (defined as: Decellularized regenerative human tissue matrix allograft). This is a porous substance that my own tissue could use as a base and grow into.
After the first week, when they took off the bandages, my foot looked like this (the yellowish stuff is the DermAcell):
They applied a wound vac (a vacuum pump that continuously sucked out all the blood and fluid from the covered wound.). They stuck a permanent tube in my arm (called a PICC) to administer intravenous antibiotics. This wound vac and IV system would be my constant companions for the next seven weeks. The idea was that once my own tissue had permeated the Durmacell and filled the cavity in the top of my foot, they would cover it with a skin graft.
The wound vac is a suction pump attached to a foam pad secured over the wound with sheets of adheasive plastic to make an air-tight seal.
Finally, after nine days in the hospital I was sent home. Home in this case is my sister Tammy's house in Las Vegas. There, with the help of home care nurses, Tammy would take care of me while my foot slowly, very slowly, healed. For the next 6-weeks I was essentially bedridden and unable to move about on my own. I had the wound vac attached with a tube to my foot and an IV pump pushing antibiotics into my arm. That severely restricted my mobility. I also developed a sever rash on my arms as a reaction to the Vancomycin antibiotic. That and the continual pain from my foot made me rather unpleasant to be around.
By the 29th of October my own flesh started filling in:
Another 4 weeks went by and I was showing some real progress, except for the tendon of my big toe which had no flesh over it.
It wasn't until 9 December that I was healed enough for them to try a skin graft. That required another 4-day stay in the hospital. Again, they sent me home with instructions to come back to the hospital every couple of days to have the graft checked.
The skin graft was held on with about 25 small staples.
The took the skin from the outside of my left thigh. That site actually caused me more pain over the next couple of weeks than my foot did.
By the time Christmas came around I was able to move about without a walker. Now unfettered by hoses and pumps I could hobble on my own enough to visit family for the holiday.
By New Year's Eve the graft was taking fairly well. Just a small spot seemed to be dying and that will be addressed in a couple of weeks. A few days ago I was strong enough to drive my car and actually go places on my own. What a great feeling to no longer be dependent on others for everything.
Two weeks later and portions of the graft have clearly died.
And the tendon for my little toe is clearly bare.
By early February those few trouble spots were still not covering with skin. The doctors tried covering the wound areas with a growth product called
That material had a positive affect but smelled horribe!
At the end of February the foot was looking much better with just that one spot still presenting as an open wound. It was getting smaller every day and only antiseptic ointment and a bandage was being applied. My foot fits into my shoes and I'm learning to walk without a limp. The foot and lower leg muscles are way out of shape and need exercise.
By mid-March 2017 the foot was well-healed. I'm still limping a little but my gait is getting much better. There is only a little pain on the outside edge of the foot and it's still a little swollen.
Down to just a nasty scar.
On 4 November (one month after I abandoned her a couple hundred miles north of Fiji) Galena was sighted and salvaged off Epe Island in Vanuatu. She was taken under tow by an inter-island ferry and towed into Port Vila, the main harbor in Vanuatu.
There followed a series of communications between myself and various individuals who either wanted the boat, or wanted to be paid for having salvaged her. I was finally contacted by the Customs officer of Vanuatu who said the boat was being taken by Customs and asked that I sign a document giving up ownership. I did that and have heard nothing more.
Galena's 640 nm drift from Fiji to Vanuatu
My last received images of Galena:
My decision to give up Galena was made when I activated my EPIRB and radioed for evacuation on 7 October. Furthermore, I had just spent 6-months and a significant amount of money performing a serious refit of Galena getting her ready for sea; I didn't want to go through that again and, furthermore, couldn't afford to. After a month of internalizing my decision to move on to other types of adventures, I was not going back to sailing.
Galena being towed
Galena arriving in Port Vila, Vanuatu
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