The following is an incident from our early days. I don’t think I ever put the story on a blog (if I did it was on another blog written years ago) but in a way, it is a dramatic opening and a not just a bit of a bloody start to our adventure out here. The reason for writing it is to gauge from you guys what kind of an opening to a book it might make. Please feel free to comment. Better put: please comment. It would be a great assist to me.
It was frigid. I was in the water. And I was hurt. One second I was fine, the next I had been hit in the head by a 20 hp outboard motor propeller as it drove over me at full speed. It hit my head like a sledge. Some kind of hot goo was coming out of my skull as I flailed about trying to get back to the surface and I was starting to think that this might not turn out to be such a good day after all.
I had just been injured in a freak boating accident miles from anywhere.
My wife and I were constructing a small wilderness cabin up one of the inside passages on the BC coast on a sparsely populated and un-serviced island. It was around noon on a hot July day when we left our building site for a trip to the local store. We are located ten nautical miles northeast-ish from the nearest settlement with roads and telephones, 30 miles and a ferry ride east-ish from the nearest small town and two miles South of our nearest neighbour. It is isolated by our standards. Remote by any standards.
I was 56 at the time. My wife 52. We are basically healthy and relatively capable people but still citified to the extent that both of us had soft hands and a single day’s hard labour resulted in extremely sore muscles. We had more fat than muscle, more optimism than experience and more patience than skill. Building a cabin was our idea of a challenge and an adventure. Fortunately, we liked doing it and had each other to share it with.
It doesn’t get any better.
That day, my wife and I were riding along in our small inflatable boat at full speed – at about twenty knots. Sally was at the helm. I was sitting up on the bow. I was leaning forward into the boat because equalized weight distribution helps level the trim of the boat and allows it to ride better. I was leaning in towards the center of the boat with my seat on the front tubes, my upper weight on my arms placed on my knees. My weight was well inboard. I thought I was sitting safely.
But I straightened to look at something on shore at the exact same instant we hit an inexplicably large wave. The momentum of straightening my posture together with the deceleration of the boat hitting the wave sent me over the bow. It was instant. I remember thinking as I went over, “Damn! The propeller!”
Then there was a huge ‘bang!’ and I remember thinking again, ‘Damn! The propeller.” As the boat passed over me, I was twice struck by the spinning blades. One blade cut along the part line of my hair and the second cut almost at right angles near the crown of my head. It felt like a single hammer blow.
A few seconds later, I bobbed to the surface with a view of the inflatable still moving away from me. I could see Sally’s back. That was not a good moment. She seemed so distant. Worse, she was heading the wrong way. I could already feel hot liquid pouring from the top of my head. The pain was obvious and extreme but not incapacitating.
I was conscious but not overly coherent. I remember instinctively calling out, “Oh, my God!”
It occurred to me at that moment that ‘Oh, my God!’ was not going to convey the appropriate message so I took a deep breath, collected my thoughts, tried to be calm and yelled again. This time I had purposefully formed the sentence in my head: “Come and get me.” And so I let out at the top of my lungs, “Oh, my God!”
This involuntary and repetitive exclamation struck me as mildly amusing at the time. It seemed as if I was destined to yell prayers instead of instructions. Just as well, I thought, considering the situation. So, I shut up and began to swim slowly towards the finally-stopped boat. It was about 75 feet away. It seemed like a mile.
Sally had watched the whole accident unfold in some kind of horrible slo-motion but the boat was traveling too fast to do anything about it. She stopped the boat rather than try to adjust to the situation right away. It was the right move.
As I swam I became more and more aware of my circumstance. I was fully clothed, but injured and bleeding. My immediate rescue was likely but medical assistance was not. We were a long way from anywhere. I was particularly aware of the temperature difference I was experiencing. I was in 50-degree water and my body was rapidly becoming colder.
In the meantime, of course, hot something was pouring from my head and down my face. My head was covered in a gooey, sticky-warmth and my body was getting colder. It was very strange and not just a little disconcerting. I started to worry.
Sally re-started the boat and covered the distance to me within seconds. She was very good. She could have easily come too fast or missed me altogether. Instead, she drifted up to me neatly with the engine put in neutral at just the right time. We connected the first time we tried. After a few futile attempts to get me into the boat, I suggested that I hold on to the rope looped along the gunwale and that she simply drag me to the beach as quickly as she could. I adopted the harpooned whale position which came somewhat naturally in the situation and Sally took the extra precaution of lashing me to the boat. It was a good idea. I was losing consciousness.
Being dragged through the water increases heat loss. It was scary cold. After what seemed like an hour but was more like five minutes, we got to shore and I rolled into the boat from the beach, holding Sally’s just-disrobed t-shirt to my head to stanch the flow of blood. I had inadvertently wrapped one of its buttons against my head and for the next few hours felt what I thought was a skull fragment as I held the shirt in place.
In retrospect, that silly error was the worst part. I kept expecting brain matter to ooze out whenever I moved the cloth.
We drove another ten minutes to the nearest neighbour and they called the Coast Guard. Forty-five minutes later two Coast Guard out-station, rapid response teams were on site and thirty minutes after that a helicopter arrived. Within the next hour I was at the Campbell River hospital and soon after that I was examined and stitched up. They even gave me a sandwich.
I was very lucky. It seems the propeller had neatly sliced through my scalp in two separate places for about ten inches of laceration but had not cut into my skull. There was no skull fragment – only a bloodied button and an overly vivid imagination.
That kind of precision cut is not an easy thing to imagine. Try pinching your own scalp and see how much skin you get. Then wonder how two powerful blades could have sliced only skin deep without cutting much deeper. I was more than lucky. I was saved miraculously.
I guess I am also hard headed.
I was fortunate in more ways, too. I met fabulous neighbours who all came to my aid. People I did not know came to help. Blankets were volunteered and comfort was extended wherever possible. The Coast Guard personnel were perfect – just like you want them to be. They were proficient in the first aid and skills they manifested but also in their caring and humanity. They were not only skilled professionals but they were also decent human beings.
As I was being carried aloft by the medivac helicopter, the remaining Coast Guard staff turned to assist my traumatized and worried wife. They took care of our boat and got Sally to the nearby town where the hospital was. They were excellent.
The helicopter crew and the hospital staff picked up where the Coast Guard left off. They, too, performed and behaved way beyond my expectations. In fact, I was catching a ferry back to my cabin four or so hours later. I looked a bit ridiculous in my blood-stained bandage and I certainly felt a bit ‘whacked’ but, all in all, I was intact and doing fine.
I remember entering the ferry passenger waiting room with a dazed look on my face and wearing a weird looking bandage-cum-turban on my head. Sally had gone to buy the tickets. I entered a room with about ten others already seated and waiting for the ferry. Some looked up at my arrival. They looked horrified. Blood was seeping through the bandage and trickling down my neck. I hadn’t noticed it.
Tipping my turbaned head forward, I said, “I’m the leader of a new island cult. Anybody wanna join?” Nobody laughed. Nobody even acknowledged my existence. They just looked away or at each other. The message conveyed clearly to me was that they knew a nut-case when they saw one. And after a few minutes, everyone left the waiting room. They decided to wait outside. I don’t blame them.
I guess my echoing laughter at my own joke didn’t help allay their concerns. They felt safer outside. Sally didn’t come in either, now that I think about it.
The sun was setting as we crossed the last body of water on our way home in a water taxi. I held Sally close for a long time and reflected on the day. I was very thankful to be there. And with her.
“You know, Sal, with the exception of the propeller, it was a pretty good day!”