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Voyager finds herself suddenly alone

Oct 8, 2009
Marie Blackburn aboard her Hallberg-Rassy 49 Zelda. A sudden medical emergency required her to take command while on a passage in the Mediterranean.  (Weldon Riker)

Marie Blackburn aboard her Hallberg-Rassy 49 Zelda. A sudden medical emergency required her to take command while on a passage in the Mediterranean. (Weldon Riker)


To the editor: Recently, I met with voyager Marie Blackburn and learned her sad experience of losing her husband while voyaging. Here is her story in her own words:

I am an accomplished, experienced sailor with 12 years as a live-aboard, on an Atlantic crossing, and eight years voyaging in the Mediterranean. I can tell you, when a major event takes place and you find yourself wandering around between the surreal and disaster, your training, knowledge and experiences do kick in. That’s what happened to me in May 2004 in Greece.

We were leaving a cove on the island of Karpathos on board our 49-foot Hallberg-Rassy cutter/ketch Zelda, bound for Crete. Terry Blackburn (my husband) went forward to raise the main; I was at the helm. I saw him look directly at me and raise his hands about head-high, in the same fashion as a scrubbed surgeon holds his arms to put on his smock and latex gloves prior to an operation. Terry went to his knees. I thought he was passing out so I ran forward to catch him. He started turning blue. I administered mouth-to-mouth, using the head-tilt, chin-lift method, and then cardiopulmonary resuscitation. I gave him 30 compressions, but he continued turning blue. I ran below to get a nitroglycerin tablet and put it under his tongue, and continued mouth-to-mouth while listening to his breathing and feeling for a pulse. He passed away in my arms.

That day, I understood with a detached, deliberate and pronounced awareness exactly what my situation was. I was alone. My husband was dead. I was sailing an American-flagged vessel in Greek waters, and the winds were blowing. Events took place rapidly and the realization set-in: I was alone. I seemed to go on autopilot, I was no longer struggling. Events a few moments ago were in the distant past. My thoughts and actions were deliberate and reflexive. I began tending to the safety of my boat, and making clear decisions.

Before making our Atlantic crossing, my husband Terry and I prepared for a host of possible situations. We took courses in weather prediction, first-aid and CPR. I even took a course in diesel engine maintenance.

We had sailed to the U.S. Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean as a jump off to Bermuda and then for the Mediterranean and sailed to ports, thoroughly exploring that area of the world.

The day my husband died, the winds were strong and the three- to five-foot chop aggravating. Zelda had seen much worse, however. She is definitely seaworthy, and was handling my inputs and steadying herself well in spite of the difficulties I was having after Terry’s death. Bow spray seemed to be baptizing me to a new life.

Realizing that Terry’s body was lying on deck, I hastily went below and grabbed rope to lash him securely. I was concerned about losing him overboard.

The engine was running and the autohelm was set to a course to our destination: Crete. Actually, I thought about returning to the cove we had just left. It was only 45 minutes behind me, but immediately nixed that idea, remembering how difficult it was for us to get in there in the first place.

Using my laptop electronic navigation charts and my GPS, I plotted a course to the nearest port, Kassos, Greece. I knew I had to tell someone immediately. I began hailing “mayday, mayday, mayday!” on VHF channel 16. No one answered me. It wasn’t a mistake so much as it was plain ignorance, maybe just a lack of knowledge, but I should have known in advance as to what VHF channels are monitored when you are in such a situation. I was calling mayday on a channel not monitored by the Greek coast guard. As I learned afterwards, the Greek coast guard monitors VHF channel 18, not 16.

I had been at it for some 20 minutes; I kept wondering why they weren’t answering me. I would have thought someone would have responded given the amount of time that had passed. I longed to hear from a fishing boat, freighter, tanker, someone, anyone! Every now and then I would go topside, up the companion way, afraid I may hit another ship, or better yet, afraid I was not heading toward another vessel at all. I couldn’t let fear set in.

I threw the necessary switches and tuned our combo single-sideband/amateur radio to my last net frequency. About an hour had passed with no response to my radio calls. I was pleading “mayday, mayday, mayday!” A quick check of my course and heading confirmed that I was making good time toward Kassos.

I was below for what seemed an interminable amount of time. Now, broadcasting on the net channel I was sure to get some response. But, it was still early, 0700 or so. But there was not a ship in sight. At this point I did hear a transmission coming from my VHF, but it was faint and difficult to understand given the accent of the responding caller and weak radio signal I was getting. We went back and forth a couple of times; this seemed to only add to an exasperating and difficult time. I kept trying to communicate, but to no avail.

The Cruiser’s Net SSB channel I was broadcast on is a familiar communications platform to seasoned cruisers. It is made up of volunteer boaters with SSB capability. Someone finally picked me up on the SSB. “I hear you… where are you?” After answering him, he replied he was in Turkey. Then there was silence. How do you tell someone that your spouse just died? The man on the radio made everything happen for me. He asked me my position. I gave the coordinates and stated my predicament: I am sailing alone, my husband is dead, but the boat was not taking on water. There were no other souls on board. He replied he was broadcasting from land-base, and was more than several hours away. He was my life-line throughout the ordeal. He assisted me with calls, I learned later, to the Turkish coast guard, then to the Greek coast guard.

The net came alive about 45 minutes later, with fellow boaters listening to events as they unraveled. That day, two doctors responded with did you try this or that. I explained my husband had passed, but the support was extraordinary. The most moving part was the deep sense of camaraderie I felt. I was no longer alone. The net controller announced: “There will be no net today. We are keeping the channel clear for Zelda.”

The Greek coast guard joined the net frequency and gave me instructions to sail around the end of Karpathos, a course I knew would be directly into the wind. I had no intention of beating-to-weather to get to a port more convenient for them. I stood firm. They relented and I met them at Kassos.

Finally rendezvousing with the coast guard cutter outside the Kassos harbor, they sent a physician on board who confirmed Terry’s death. Upon tying up to the dock, they removed his body to Karpathos.

Hearing my radio transmissions all during the day, and keeping me company as well, were my friends (fellow sailors), Denis and Mary, and Bob and Susan. Bob and Susan had put their boat in a marina, and caught the next flight to meet me. I cannot tell you the relief I had seeing the both of them bounding down the ramp with their duffle bags over their shoulders.

As a final note, the sense of community is hard to relate in words when it comes to fellow seafarers. Later, at Terry’s funeral on the island of Rhodes, there were more than a dozen fellow cruisers in attendance. Apart from learning as much as you can to complement your experiences while sailing at home or abroad, the one thing I would encourage is to consider acquiring a defibrillator for those who may be voyaging with someone with a heart problem.

I don’t know why it has taken me this long to tell this story, but a close friend sent me an e-mail that pushed me over the edge, she said, “We never know those things of which we are capable until we are faced with things beyond our wildest imaginings. I think you should tell your story!”

Women or folks in general, I implore you to take responsibility for your knowledge and seamanship. Take action, attend a safe boating course, go to a sailing center and learn the basics. At the very least know how to turn your radios on and hail a mayday. Because, you never know when all things will go wrong and you are suddenly alone.

—Weldon S. Riker is a freelance writer who lives aboard his 31-foot Allmand Sloop at the Baltimore Marine Center in Maryland.