We were wrapping-up an eight-day October fishing trip. Having finished dinner we were heading home, hoping to return to dock in 36 hours. Wind was howling, waves were chaotic, most everyone was in their bunk.
My new friend Chris was rinsing some equipment in the basin of the aft (rear), starboard (“right-hand”), head (bathroom). He came on this trip after returning home from a tour spent on the ground in the Iraq War.
For safety, doors to the heads were always latched when they were open, using a metal hook. This practice is particularly important in stormy seas.
Chris and I were speaking when the boat suddenly lurched upwards and to the starboard side. Thrown off my feet and out of the head, I flew backwards into the port (“left-hand”) bulkhead (“wall”) across the aisle.
At that precise moment a retaliatory wave caused me to ricochet and land upright but flat against the starboard bulkhead. My nose and right hand were resting on the bulkhead. So was my left hand—except for my middle finger, which I didn’t yet realize was wrapped around the inside of the frame of the forward head door.
As I splattered against the port bulkhead, the heavy wooden door of the forward head was accelerated sideways by a third wave, and it slammed shut. The door was immediately locked from the inside: an angler had entered the head unnoticed as I was being tossed about, and engaged the lock after the head door slammed shut.
The speed and timing of this cascade of events was remarkable—something seen more often on the big screen, than in the reality of daily life.
It took me a moment to assess what was going on. My face was fine, but my chest felt warm on the inside—a novel sensation for me. I tried to push off the wall but my left hand seemed to be “stuck.” I looked at my hand and the door and asked myself out loud: “Why is my finger stuck in the door?”
Chris took hold of my left hand, and said: “Planet, look me in the eye—you’re gonna be OK. Don’t look at your hand.” He pounded on the door, the lock turned, and the door opened. Chris held my left arm by my wrist. I didn’t look.
I lamented, “But I have to go to Siberia” (I had a trip to the Soviet National Academy of Science in Siberia, in pursuit of a Fulbright Scholarship to study bird flu and teach mathematical medicine, scheduled the following month).
Gently, carefully, Chris led me to the table next to the galley—close to a sink and ice machine. He told me again, “This doesn’t mean a thing—you’re going to be fine.”
I felt no pain, but rather systemically weak, slightly warm in my forehead, and a bit nauseated. It was my first time ever being in shock.
The next person to help me was Captain Greg Muller (RIP), a beloved member of the San Diego Sport Fishing Fleet. Gregor was the chef on our trip. He cooled the back of my neck with crushed ice wrapped in a towel, and gently massaged my shoulder and neck while I breathed deeply and slowly. It was extremely relaxing.
The crew gathered in the galley. So did some anglers. Nobody spoke. I was told later my face was white as snow.
Not too long later, so my memory perceives, nausea and light-headedness began to clear and I picked my head up off the table. I was told later I’d started regaining my color.
BUT, now that the shock was wearing off, I was starting to feel my heart rate in my left middle finger, and it was not good!
A consortium of crew and passengers developed a plan to stabilize my finger. I don’t remember how the crew moved me from the forward to the aft galley booth—which I learned later they dubbed “Planet’s booth” (my nickname). My hand was resting in a tray of ground ice with the finger bandaged: 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off.
The galley mate Ginger loaned me her poncho, just like that which Clint Eastwood wore in westerns—to remind me that I am a man. The crew added a shift to their schedule to watch over me, 24-7. Ginger took the first shift.
When I awoke for the first time, Chris had taped a baggie holding a blue pain pill to the window behind my head. A sign next to it said: “Planet, eat me – if your finger hurts.” It made me laugh.
Captain Sam changed my bandage every six hours: many crew and anglers were present. I only looked at the face of the Captain, who always made the same facial expression, seemingly indicating: “I’ve seen worse.” He said: “it’s looking pretty good.” This made me calm. The Captain told me later he thought I would lose the squashed part of my finger.
The anglers were awesome. Most were present for bandage redressing, and echoed Chris’ encouragement, that I’d be OK. I felt very privileged—beholding to everyone for their compassion. And I felt awful, wrecking their trip home.
We arrived at San Diego Bay early so I assumed we had to wait. The Bay opens when the authority having jurisdiction says. Guess what? The Coast Guard let us in early, and led part way to the docks! God bless the Coast Guard, emergency responders of the seas!
The dock was more crowded than I ever saw at such an early hour: three deep and a hundred wide, the long-range anglers were waiting for us.
Captain Sam escorted me slowly across the dock and up the loading ramp, all the time holding my hand. I felt like a conquering hero, not a conquered angler! Nobody said anything, it was completely quiet. I mostly looked at my feet so I wouldn’t trip.
Waiting for us at the beginning of the loading ramp was Captain Sam’s partner, Captain Brian, with whom I also sailed many times. His truck was running and the passenger door was open. I was helped into the truck, and we headed to the ER of the top hospital in the region. In my life I’d never felt so appreciated by others, before or since this event…
When we arrived we were placed in a little room by ourselves. Two beautiful nurses immediately went to work cleaning my finger. I never looked. The surgeon arrived, and after taking a look said he thought he could repair my finger. He told me later that the end of my finger was squashed to the width of a paper plate.
As the surgeon worked, we all told each other stories and kept each other chuckling. I felt no pain.
When it was over I had an enormous white bandage on my repaired finger—the size and shape of a cucumber. This bandage automatically “flipped-off” (i.e., made “the bird” sign to) everyone within eyeshot.
Captain Brian took me back to the dock. We each had a beer at Mitch’s Seafood Restaurant, across the gangway from the docked fishing boat where it happened. The Captain drove me to my apartment, three blocks away.
Even today, I’m told the crew recalls this event on every cruise at the angler safety meeting, held when the boat heads for pelagic waters.
I am fortunate, grateful, and honored…
Blessings sometimes come in fantastic disguises!
Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.
February 24, 2021