Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Accident on the Götheborg

We had an accident in my second week of sailing on the Götheborg. It shook me up pretty good. After an initial two hours feeling sick to my stomach and frustrated at the lack of things I could do, I spent about 24 hours feeling spacey and withdrawn. I'm sort of the high-strung type.

Towards the end of the last leg, we began down-rigging as part of the usual winter storage and maintenance. I spent the last hour of an afternoon watch bundling up the stor märs (main topsail). It's the biggest sail on the ship, and weighs 500 kg. After furling it and wrapping it in its own råband, which are usually used to tie the top of the sail to the yard ("rå"), we lowered the roll to the platform. From there, we folded the ends over and then snaked some heavy-duty modern slings under the bundle. The slings were then attached to a line that went up to the top of the mast, through a sturdy, brass-sheaved block, aft down to the deck, through a snatch block (curiously, the English name is much easier for me to remember than the Swedish), and then round the capstan. I'd draw a picture, but lol.

This was now right at the end of the watch. Muster was called, in fact, but those of us on the platform stayed to finish the job. Port watch, who were relieving us, got the job of manning the capstan. At this point, my job was to help guide the sail over the edge of the platform as it was lowered to the deck. They first lifted the sail a foot, so we could swing it over, and then they began lowering. Pushing the sail over the edge was not exactly easy, and in the back of my mind I am of course assuming that it might fall at any time, so I'm trying to keep my toes out from underneath it, and my fingers away from any ropes that might suddenly start moving very quickly. We get it over, however, and they lower it about two feet, so the sail's center of mass is just about even with the platform. I'm still facing forward, watching it slide down the front side of the platform, although the job is basically done and I'm about to head down the shrouds.

Suddenly, the sail begins free-falling. 500 kg of linen doom hurtling ~10-15 m to the deck. I have enough time to see this begin happening and start yelling when it comes to a sudden halt. I would say it fell 3-4 m.

After a moment, I realize something bad must have happened at the capstan. I look over the aft side of the platform, and sure enough I see chaos. Nobody's moving much, and nobody's saying very much. A few people are still manning the capstan, but there are capstan bars and people scattered over the deck.

My worst fear is that the sail stopped suddenly because some body part got jammed in a block somewhere. Actually, my worst fear is that someone is going to begin shrieking in pain and I'll freak out and have a panic attack. Luckily, that does not happen. Eventually I see the mate in charge of the medical team talking to people, and I decide there's nothing more I can do, so I wait around until we're asked to go down below and stay out of the way. In passing, I learn there are two seriously injured folks.

The intermediate cause of the accident was the rope coming free of the snatch block. That's not supposed to happen for a variety of reasons, but that information doesn't help very much once it's already happened. The rope had been in a angle shape, from mast top to snatch block to capstan, and when the block failed a lot of slack got taken up. In passing, the rapidly-straightening rope ripped out the ladder to the sundeck, which proceeded to crash into a few folks, bounce of the mast, and leave divots on the far side of the deck.

The captain is by some accounts a very friendly and talkative person, but to me he was always "The Captain", a rather quiet and serious figure. I was very glad, therefore, when he came down to the gun deck and gave a short, incredibly calm and mellow account of the state of affairs once the situation had stabilized.

Later, they helicoptered both of the victims out. One had a fractured wrist and a concussion, and the other had a bruised back and spine, I think. They re-joined us as we sailed into the harbor in Gothenburg.

The carpenter rebuilt the broken parts of the ladder and had it back up in about half a day.