August 28, 2012

One tough sailor

I MENTIONED in my last column that the Vendée Globe was the toughest sailboat race in the world.  It certainly attracts the toughest sailors.  I was recently fascinated to read an account of the 1996/97 Vendée Globe that described how Englishman Pete Goss rescued Frenchman Raphael Dinelli after Dinelli’s 60-foot boat sank in the icy Southern Ocean.

Derek Lundy’s book, Godforsaken Sea, is a wonderfully detailed record of the misadventures that plagued that particular race.  Pete Goss was 160 miles downwind of Raphael Dinelli when Dinelli’s boat capsized in Force 11 winds.  The mast smashed a hole in the cabintop and soon the deck was awash. Dinelli lashed himself to the deck and awaited rescue.

Goss himself was in trouble enough himself in those enormous seas. He had been knocked down three times and almost pitchpoled a couple of times.  In hurricane winds of 70 knots he hoisted a tiny storm jib and tried to beat back to Dinelli. He was knocked flat immediately but he nursed his boat upright and found he could sail at five or six knots about 80 degrees off the wind.  Every half hour or so he was knocked down again and the boat sustained severe damage but he carried on. Once he was thrown across the cabin and landed on an elbow that had become infected early in the race.

Just before Dinelli’s boat sank, the Australian Air Force found him and dropped him two life rafts.  Goss eventually came across him after two days of bashing to windward and maneuvered under that little jib in enormous seas to pick him up. Dinelli, in a typically Gallic gesture, handed Goss a bottle of champagne from his survival suit and then fell flat on his face in the cockpit. He was thoroughly chilled, as stiff as a board, and unable to move.

Goss nursed him back to health and dropped him off in Hobart, Tasmania, 10 days later.  Goss continued the race, but when he was about 1,000 miles west of Cape Horn, he decided to do something about that infected elbow of his. For a month he hadn’t been able to bend it at all and he had lost the use of his arm completely. Now the big, crimson swelling ruptured and there were protruding hernias of soft tissue and  copious secretions.

With the boat running and rolling in 15-foot seas, Goss strapped a flashlight to his head and a mirror to his thigh. He picked up a scalpel and began to slice open his elbow. He ran into trouble straight away.  Blood dripped all over the mirror so he couldn’t see what he was doing. “Shit,” he thought, “I’m going to cut a tendon or cut my arm off in a minute,”  So he put the scalpel in his teeth, mopped up the blood with a cloth, and started to fax the race doctor back in France for instructions.

But the doctor’s fax machine had broken down. So Goss faxed race headquarters and asked for instructions.  While he waited, the wind picked up, the boat heeled, and all his medical equipment fell off the table.  In considerable pain, Goss, swallowed two “bloody great” tablets he found in his medical kit, but the instructions were in French, which he couldn’t read.  He began foaming at the mouth. The tablets should have been dissolved in water first.  “It was quite funny, really,” he said.

For six hours Goss worked on his elbow, finally receiving the advice he needed.  He experienced immediate relief and the infection was cured.  For months afterward the elbow was still painful if he used his arm a lot, but it maintained steady improvement.

He and Dinelli subsequently became great friends, and President Jacques Chirac awarded Goss the highest civilian honor the French nation has to offer, the Légion d’honneur, for saving Dinelli’s life. Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain invested Goss as an MBE.

It’s almost impossible to imagine the physical conditions in the Southern Ocean while all this was going on, if you haven’t been there yourself. All I can say is that the Vendée Globe sailors are a special breed, and Pete Goss is one of the toughest of the bunch.

Today’s Thought
He hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing, in the figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion.
— Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(27) “Yes, sir, he likes to practice high diving from the ceiling.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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