It’s exactly a year ago yesterday since this bad boy was responsible for breaking my fingers.
Ok, I accept that some of the responsibility was my own for having my fingers in the wrong place at the wrong time, during a fast tack in strong gusts.
What happened was that Skipper and I were sailing on a rather lovely 70′ racing yacht in Italy last summer when we got an unexpected phone call from the owner to go and pick him up in Viareggio, on the Tuscan coast. Unfortunately we’d taken the boat out that afternoon for extended sea trials. We had vaguely thought that we might drop anchor for a spur of the moment romantic evening under the stars, at Portovenere, near La Spezia.
But the phone call came when we were exactly half way to Portovenere – only an hour into our trip – but not great when the owner wants to be on board within forty minutes. He had the same idea as us: a short two hour sail and a romantic night in Portovenere for him and his guests. So, with no time to think it through, Skipper spun the wheel around for us to head back.
For some unaccountable reason I had in my mind that I could stand in the cockpit and just flick the genoa sheet (the rope that attaches to the sail at the front of the boat ) off the starboard winch and pull the port sheet in – like I was in a dinghy. I don’t know what the pressure on the sail was when I ‘flicked’ the sheet off the winch – but when it whipped free a coil of rope took my third and little fingers with it.
I heard a crack as my fingers were wrenched away but somehow didn’t understand where the pain was coming from. I remember that I just let both the sheets go and Skipper was less than impressed to have a headsail flapping wildly out of control as we came about.
‘I’ve hurt myself.’
‘Can’t you see I’m busy?’
‘My fingers. I think I’ve broken them.’
‘Just wait….O.K., let me have a look.’
‘Come on. You’ve probably just dislocated something.’
‘Ok, but look, don’t touch….Owwwww! That’s touching!’
Anyway, jobs had to be done and we needed to get back to pick up our owner and his guests. Within a few minutes I’d got to that sickening broken-bones feeling where you feel dizzy, go hot all over and want to throw up. Skipper asked me to call up Portovenere Marina on the radio to book a berth for the night, me being the Italian speaker. I went to sit down at the chart table and picked up the radio. The sweat was stinging all the way from the nape of my neck to the base of my spine. The sensation of queasiness was making patterns in front of my eyes.
‘Can you get me a bucket?’
‘Will do. Just get on with it.’
So I got on with calling up the marina and making up beds and provisioning the wine chiller and burrowing for cocktail snacks in our stores of plastic boxes under the floor. I didn’t in any case think I’d broken anything – how could I have done and still be able to make up beds with broken bones?
We picked up our owner, his girlfriend and their guests and set sail again for Portovenere. It was a beautiful evening and we had a good sail back. Skipper and I swapped roles so I took the wheel and he did all the deckhand work to save my fingers. Perhaps risking the loss of the use of my hand was a bit of an extreme way to get hold of the helm, but despite the pain I enjoyed steering this great yacht, cutting so smoothly through the water.
The guests turned out to be a member of a legendary American rock band and his wife. They lay under the boom on the cushions with the owners and sipped champagne as night fell and we approached the lights of Portovenere. Once we were safely tied up at our berth we were invited to join them for dinner.
And wow, what a dinner. Our owner last year was a bit of a gourmet and he ordered every type of seafood: grilled prawns, fried calamari, langoustine; followed by whole fishes and a lobster each, huge bowls of salad and dressed vegetables, puddings and sorbets, and all washed down with fine wines and more champagne. I sat next to the Rock Star who noticed my swollen fingers and the difficulty I was having with my knife. I explained about the injury to my fingers that afternoon.
‘Trust me,’ he said. ‘I did a year in Med School before I gave it all up for the life of a world-famous rock star.’
With which he took the bottle out of the champagne bucket, and poured a bottle of spring water over the remaining ice.
‘Put your hand in the iced water and don’t take it out for ten minutes. Then do it again.’
There are compensations for pain. I have had my broken fingers attended to by an internationally famous rock star, who also very obligingly kept my champagne glass topped up as well.
When we got back to the UK three weeks later I went for an X-ray.
“I don’t know if I’ve broken or dislocated my fingers,’ I told the radiographer. ‘I heard a crack when I did it.’ He looked at the image of my skeletal fingers on his screen.
‘Oh, that crack will have been your finger bone breaking.’
Ok, so according to the X-ray, only one finger was broken, my third finger, a long diagonal split from the base of the finger through to the first knuckle. My little finger, unbroken but wrenched to a very unnatural angle, actually now looks the worse injury – a joint so mangled that it appears to be severely arthritic.
In truth, I know now that I’m lucky to still have fingers. I’ve since heard stories of sailors with stubs rather than digits when they tangled with the unforgiving power of a big drum winch.
But, unbelievably, guess what? I made exactly the same mistake again yesterday – a year to the day. A different, smaller electric winch, which I was using to tension a shore line when we returned to our berth. The top turn of the rope skipped up over the rim of the winch – and pinged the last joint of the very same finger upwards. This time no breakages, just a strain and a joint at a wonky angle.
Next time I’ll take the helm and leave the winch to Skipper.