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Bitten By A Wildcat

We had just finished the 190-mile crossing of the Sea of Cortez from Mazatlan, Mexico, to Bahia de Los Muertos (Bay of the Dead, in Spanish). In spite of the name, Los Muertos is a beautiful anchorage, located 100 miles above the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula.

This had been our worst passage in three years of cruising; nearly constant rolling and pitching for 36 hours, steady 20–25 knots of wind, and no sleep or food because of the rough conditions.

After we finally dropped the hook and secured Gracias, it was time for a gin and tonic. We’d done well on our crossing, and both of us deserved a break.

Judy and I were relaxing and enjoying the view of Los Muertos, when we saw a 46-foot Nordhavn motor into the bay. With one crewmember stationed at the bow, the crew prepared to drop the boat’s anchor. We watched the Nordhavn for a few minutes, the 46-foot passagemaker is one of our favorites. After a few minutes, we returned to relaxing in paradise.

Moments later, we heard loud cries for help coming from several people aboard the Nordhavn. Judy looked over and right away observed the fellow on the bow, later determined to be the boat’s skipper, holding his right hand, with blood flowing down his arm.

We assumed he’d cut his hand while dropping the bow anchor. We had witnessed a similar incident two years ago in Mazatlan.

A Helping Hand

We’ve spent more than a few seasons cruising remote areas, and are well aware of the need for community among the cruising fleet, be they sail or power. Without delay, I motored over in our inflatable to see if I could help.

When I stepped aboard the Nordhavn, the skipper, Bob Smith, was already seated in the saloon with a bag of ice on his hand.

The bleeding had nearly stopped, but his hand was over a bucket that contained a fair amount of blood. His injury was obviously severe and not just a cut. The three middle fingers of his right hand had been crushed and deeply gouged. The gouges and cuts were on the inside and outside of his fingers.

It was clear that Bob needed immediate medical attention if his fingers were to be saved. Unfortunately, there are no facilities or services in Los Muertos. The closest hospital is located in La Paz, the capital of Baja Sur.

The trip to La Paz by boat from Los Muertos is roughly 52 miles, and would take at least 10–12 hours. As luck would have it, we also knew La Paz was only 30 miles away by car. A car or truck was the obvious choice for this emergency, but we would have to find one.

Hightailing It To
La Paz—Mexican Style

It was late in the afternoon yet there were still several fishermen on the beach cleaning fish. I spoke to one of the men in my fractured Spanish, explaining to him that we had a medical emergency and had to transport an injured person into La Paz immediately.

The fisherman agreed to take Bob and his wife, Cynthia, to the hospital in La Paz right away. At least I thought that was our agreement.

After loading Bob and Cynthia into the back of his pickup truck, the fisherman made three stops before actually starting for the hospital. His first stop was for gas, pumped out of a rusty 55-gallon drum by hand.

His second stop was at the local cantina for “just one cold cerveza.”

And his final stop was to show Bob and Cynthia his new casa, or house. And, of course, for a bite to eat.

(A week after the accident, we all laughed about the “quick” trip into La Paz. At the time, however, neither Bob nor Cynthia thought it was the least bit funny.)

After spending several hours in surgery and receiving over 100 stitches in his hand, Bob’s prognosis was good. He would not lose any of his fingers, and may recover full use of his hand over time.

However, his right middle finger, which had to be surgically pinned, will probably remain stiff for quite awhile. (Soon after his return to the boat, I suggested that Bob be very cautious about waving to people with his injured hand and stiff middle finger. He smiled at my feeble joke, so he must have been feeling better.)

What Happened?

Over the ensuing weeks, I learned that Bob is a mature, experienced seaman, with years of bluewater sailing behind him, including several Pacific crossings. And I observed him, first hand, function well under stress. He is not very excitable in an emergency, even when he’s the victim.

With such experience and good judgement, how could he have gotten his hand caught between the anchor chain and the chain gipsy? (Chapman’s refers to the chain gipsy—that metal sprocket that grabs each link of chain and pulls it into the boat—as the “wildcat.” An apt descrip­tion.)

Here is what happened. His Nordhavn 46, Storm Haven, is equipped with a high-quality electric windlass. The windlass has an anchor-up switch and a separate anchor-down switch, both located on the foredeck right near the anchor. There is also a remote switch for the windlass in the pilothouse.

The contact points for both foredeck windlass switches had corroded, and neither switch had been working for several days. In addition, the anchor-up foredeck switch had apparently stuck in the “on” position but was not energized due to the corrosion.

When Bob reached down and grabbed the chain with his right hand, adjacent to the chain gipsy, the anchor-up switch momentarily energized, turning on and pulling Bob’s hand into the teeth of the wildcat. His hand was quickly pinned between the chain and chain gipsy.

Bob is certain he did not step on the switch.

Had the anchor-up switch remained on, even for three or four more seconds, Bob’s hand would have been pulled completely around the gipsy, probably resulting in the loss of his fingers and perhaps even his hand.

Fortunately, Bob’s friend and crewmember, John Walters, quickly realized what was happening. Instantly, from inside the pilothouse, John hit the remote anchor-down switch which freed Bob’s hand.

A Lesson Here?

Bob feels there are several lessons to be learned from the accident. First, fix the little things right away. He had known for several days that the foredeck switches were not working, but decided to delay the repairs until StormHaven arrived in port.

The second lesson, perhaps not quite so obvious, is that an anchor windlass is a powerful mechanical device, easily capable of causing severe injury.

Bob was exceedingly lucky, as was his choice of crew on this trip. He still has all his fingers and may well recover full use of his hand.

As I mentioned earlier, two years before Bob’s accident, Judy and I attempted to assist a woman who had caught her hand between the chain and the chain gipsy on a manual anchor windlass. Her 30-foot sailboat had lost power at the entrance to Marina Mazatlan and was in danger of going aground in the surf zone.

The woman caught her hand, which was subsequently pinned in the windlass as the bow of the boat surged up on an incoming wave. Her fingers were crushed and badly cut.

She required extensive surgery at a nearby hospital. For fellow trawler folk who cruise remote tropical areas, I hope you picked up on that key word…nearby.

As we often forget, nearly any windlass, power or manual, on any type boat, big or small, power or sail, is capable of inflicting serious harm. Even to old salts.

Wildcats can bite!