Medical Chronicle

Capsizing in the Southern Ocean

Start for Alan Wynne-Thomas, skipper Cardiff Discovery, DNF, during the Vendee Globe 1992-1993, in Les Sables d'Olonne, France, on november 22, 1992 - Photo Henri Thibault / DPPI

During the night during a radio link-up with Race HQ, you think you heard that the leaders have made their getaway. You have to keep your foot down. You know you are close to the limit and that any technical problem or nasty waves slamming into the boat could have extreme consequences.

Here it comes. You hear the noise building and you know it’s heading straight for you. Aimed directly at you. You’ll feel the effect in a few seconds. On these heavy boats with their flat hulls, there’s no quick darting out of the way. The slamming is violent. The boat is pushed forward and then plunges down into the trough of the wave. It’s like hurtling straight down a ski slope in the dark. Everything shivers and the keel adds its shrill whistle to the noise. We’re over twenty knots. The noise is deafening and invades you. The water explodes over the bow and sweeps over the boat. Suddenly the autopilot fails. The hull skids and the boat heels over. Watch out! If the boat gets hit side on by a wave, there is a serious risk of capsizing. Without any thought, you jump on the tiller and pull it over. You’re back on track. About time.

There’s the bottom of the trough. The bow digs in and the boat comes to a standstill. There is for a tiny second an impression of calm, as the boat ploughs into the water and the wind is on the other side of the wave. But it won’t last. The boat comes back out and shudders, before accelerating away again. Aboard his Groupe LG, Titouan Lamazou’s old boat, Bertrand De Broc is also trying to get back on track. But this time, he can’t do it and the boat broaches. The mainsail sheet hits him in the face. A killer blow, but he manages to reduce the sail. There’s a nasty taste in his mouth, which is full of blood. In the tiny mirror, he can see his tongue is slit open. A deep wound. You know what happened after that. The needle, thread, stitches, tongue sewn back up. Part of the legend of the Vendée Globe.

On the same day aboard Cardiff Discovery, Alan Wynne Thomas, a Welsh sailor who looked like a rugby player, was sleeping in his bunk. Under reduced sail and autopilot, the boat was riding the waves. Nothing to do but wait. But downwind, the boat was unstable. Alan feared that his boat would suddenly accelerate and go over with tonnes of water on his deck. The cockpit would often fill up. It was impossible to steer as there was a risk of getting thrown out. The hours slipped by and it seemed never-ending. The waves were getting bigger and the boat’s movement increasingly violent. At 2.30 in the morning, Alan sent a message. “Capsized at 2, thrown out of my bunk. Cracked or broken rib on the left hand side. Can move around, but not much. No assistance required.”
I received this message by telex, via Saint-Lys Radio, the ship-to-shore radio. At that time conversations were carried out via the BLU radio, as satellite phones were not yet available. It was time consuming and sometimes you had to wait an hour to get a reply. As soon as I got his message, I prescribed something to ease the pain and asked for more info. He would later explain: fell two metres, ribs smashed into the aluminium tube on the other bunk. Seriously injured. Hard to breathe. Pain from above the heart to the plexus. I can’t feel my ribs directly and it is too cold to take off my clothes.” Over time, the pain grew worse. Things were not looking good. He ran out of morphine. The days went by. In spite of the pain, Alan remained confident. “I think my ribs are bruised rather than broken. Finding it hard to move around and it is very painful.”

Personally, I was convinced that at least one rib was fractured. I could only imagine how hard it must have been to carry out manoeuvres. Alan later admitted that he crawled around on all fours to relieve the pain. There could have been serious complications. A punctured lung could stop him from breathing. Moving around could see the broken bone puncture an organ like the spleen. An internal bleed would be disastrous. And yet, Alan hung on in there. “I’m really suffering, in spite of the medicine. Any movement from my bunk into the cockpit is very painful and I can’t stifle a cry. It’s worse than before and extremely hard to carry out manoeuvres.”

He soon ran out of morphine. The Indian Ocean was not going to be kind to him. A torn mainsail, electrical system failure. It was hard to cope. Alan headed for Hobart in Tasmania. Yet in spite of our recommendations, he refused assistance. He would only retire wonce he got within sight of the harbour. Taken for X-rays, we would discover he had six broken ribs, including two with several breaks.

For twenty days he carried out manoeuvres in spite of the pain. It is always hard to judge the degree of pain and judge the extent of the injury. Internal trauma cannot be seen on photos. We had to base out diagnosis on what we were told by the patient. But this can vary depending on the state of mind. A skipper can exaggerate the suffering to explain his poor performance or decision to retire, consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes they hide the extent of the suffering not to worry his friends and family or to avoid being sent to a port.


For a doctor, determining the reality of a symptom like pain is necessary, to help identify the real problem and to choose the right means to deal with it.

Dr Jean-Yves Chauve

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