Whitbread training a healing process Chessie bowman turns first-aid technician

March 02, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SAO SEBASTIAO, Brazil -- Jerry Kirby, bowman and first-aid technician aboard Chessie Racing, practiced his skills at repairing torn flesh with a stapler on dead chickens.

But nine days into some of the fiercest sailing on Earth, he was about to staple the gashed leg of Greg Gendell of Annapolis, at 25 the youngest member of the crew on the Maryland boat in the Whitbread Round the World Race.

The wind was blowing more than 25 knots. The 60-foot boat was surfing down giant waves. It was pitch black below decks, where light at night might blind the helmsman.

Gendell was on the foredeck changing spinnakers when Chessie's bow dipped under a wave. He was thrown from his feet and washed back toward the mast. His safety harness stopped him from going overboard. But he smashed against the roller furling drum before he was slammed into the mast.

"I just felt it get a whack," he recalled. "I felt it sting a little bit. It really didn't hurt then."

He went below and crawled into a bunk. Frozen and tired, he fell to sleep. When he woke, Jerry Kirby, in the bunk below, heard him say: "I think I have a hole in my leg!"

He was bleeding profusely. Kirby looked at the leg. A shackle on the furling drum had ripped through Gendell's sea boot and heavy cold-weather-survival suit and cut his leg to the bone.

"I realized we had a pretty big medical problem, and we were in the middle of the Southern Ocean," said Kirby, after Chessie arrived here in third position in Leg 5 of the 31,600-nautical-mile race Friday.

"But I never said that to him. I said, 'Don't worry, we'll fix it.' "

Gendell declined a local anesthetic, telling Kirby: "No, just get started. I will tell you if I need any."

Kirby said: "When it's blowing that hard in the Southern Ocean, stitching someone up in a Whitbread 60 is like stitching someone in the back of a Jeep driving full speed down a dirt road."

Crisis on deck

Without any cabin light, Kirby relied on a flashlight held by Stuart Wilson.

"The inside of the boat was moving so radically that just to hold yourself up was difficult, but to hold yourself up while stitching a guy's leg, that's something else," he said.

He managed to insert three staples in the wound, when suddenly a shout came from the deck: "Grinders down. We need guys on deck."

The handles of the main winch for trimming the mainsail and foresails had snapped.

Wilson dashed upstairs to help recover control of the boat, which was threatening to broach. So did Richard Deppe, who was on watch, but was busy below deck trying to get a broken motor to work.

Kirby said: "I am in the midst of sewing Greg up, and there's no one to hold the flashlight. Greg lay back and said, 'Do what you have got to do.' So I stuck the flashlight in my mouth and finished the job."

Gendell, who ended up getting 10 staples, tried to get up to take his turn on watch, but his leg was too painful to stand the pressure of his weather gear and boots. For 18 hours, he stayed below, mending sails and cooking.

Eighteen days later, when Chessie moored here, he was taken to a dockside clinic to have the inflamed and swollen wound cleaned and dressed by Dr. Rudi Rodriguez, physician to the Chessie crew, who trained Kirby in first aid.

Beside his bed during treatment was Gendell's wife, Pamela.

"I am so glad it's over," she said. "I got this phone call saying he had cut his leg open. Two hours later, he called me from the boat, and I felt much better after I talked to him. When you first hear, it's kind of like, 'How bad is it? Are you just telling me that?' But there's nothing you can do, except worry about it.

"Then every time I went to the Whitbread Web [site], it seemed another boat was on icebergs or someone was hurt. It was difficult. It's been hard to concentrate on anything else, particularly these past two weeks."

Gendell flew home during the weekend in the hope that the chill of a Maryland winter would allow his wound to heal faster than the sweltering heat of the Tropics. He hopes to be fit for the next leg, to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which begins March 14.

His injury was just one of the crises that the raging Southern Ocean inflicted on the Maryland boat as it spent 27 days racing from Auckland, New Zealand, round Cape Horn, to this small, picturesque port.

An ocean of crises

"You would not believe the problems we had," skipper Dee Smith said. "On every watch, there was a problem. I can't believe the way the crew just kept it going, kept positive, worked on every problem there was."

Among the problems:

A ripped mainsail, which forced Chessie to sail with a single reef in the sail for a week when the wind was too strong to allow the sail to be stripped for repair.

Two blown-out foresails.

A broken toilet, or head, which at the time threatened to be the most serious setback when it failed just two days out to sea on a leg that would last almost a month (it was repaired).

A bow pulpit raked backward by the force of the waves.

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