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Most call mayday; he rang up his pub

The Bull’s Head goes the extra yard when a loyal patron, alone and injured at sea, calls for help

The Bull’s Head goes the extra yard when a loyal patron, alone and injured at sea, calls for help

It made perfect sense to Alan Thompson. The 62-year-old British sailor from Fishbourne, West Sussex, was sure he could count on his friends at the Bull’s Head Pub if he found himself in a jam. The owners, Julie Edwards and Roger Pocock, were like his second family.

So when Thompson seriously injured himself single-handing his 37-foot Hunter Legend across the Atlantic in January, the first call he made was to the bar in the UK. “He knew we would move heaven and earth if need be to help him,” says Edwards. However, a call to the Coast Guard sufficed.

Thompson, who injured his hip and leg falling down the sailboat’s companionway steps, was rescued a few hours after making the call. He was roughly 750 miles northeast of Bermuda and had to abandon the $55,000 Hunter. The story captured international headlines: “Yachtsman Thanks Pub Rescuers,” “Trouble at Sea? Call the Pub,” “Injured Single-handed Sailor Sends Mayday to Local Pub.” The coverage made it seem like Thompson was an inexperienced sailor. Not so.

He founded and ran three sailing schools in England over the past 20 years, and still teaches sailing theory for bay skippers and yacht masters. Thompson has logged 50,000 sailing miles and completed two previous Atlantic crossings, both from Tampa, Fla., to England. But he had the help of four crewmembers on each of those passages — and he was a much younger man. The first trip was two decades ago, the second 17 years ago.

Thompson unsuccessfully tried to recruit crewmembers at the Bull’s Head last summer. When he decided to go it alone, Edwards and others begged him to wait. “It was the wrong time of year for everybody,” says Edwards. “But Alan is quite impulsive. He wanted to do this right away. He was quite certain he could do it. We kept telling him it was too dangerous, that you only need to have one accident.”

That accident occurred on a fair day with a “nice southwesterly breeze on the starboard quarter,” says Thompson. He had just checked his position at the nav table and was climbing the stairs to the cockpit when the boat lurched to port. “I wasn’t holding on to anything, and I fell backward in the cabin,” he says. “I hit my side on the nav table. It was very painful. I lay there for a while and crawled my way up the cockpit steps and was able to reach the [satellite] phone.”

Thompson called the pub, and Pocock answered. He jotted down Thompson’s coordinates and called the British Coastguard in Sussex, which contacted the U.S. Coast Guard. The U.S. agency then issued an alert through the Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue System. (Amver is a computer-based voluntary global ship reporting system used worldwide by search-and-rescue authorities to arrange for assistance for people in distress at sea.)

A Turkish oil tanker, en route to New Haven, Conn., from Europe, responded and set a course for the sailboat. Thompson waited five hours for the tanker to arrive. While waiting, he was able to speak to his doctor in England on the sat phone and was told what medications to take to relieve the pain.

At the time of the rescue, seas had built to 6 to 10 feet, so the crew of the 822-foot tanker was unable to secure a tow line to the sailboat. Nonetheless, Thompson says the crew was extremely helpful. “They did not know what kind of shape I was in,” he says. “When they picked me up and saw that I was all right, a wave of relief went over the ship.” The tanker proceeded to Connecticut, where Thompson checked into Yale-NewHavenHospital. He had suffered nerve damage in the areas of his pelvis and right leg.

Thompson says he was “devastated” and “sick to my stomach” about the loss of his boat, though he later realized that it’s just a “piece of plastic” and is grateful he survived the ordeal. He says he was more upset about the loss of his dog, a 10-year-old chocolate Lab named Chocolate Sam, who died before Thompson went to the United States to buy the Hunter.

In addition to the $55,000 Thompson paid for the 1988 sailboat, he spent another $25,000 outfitting it with radar, a wind generator, single-sideband radio, EPIRB, life raft, and other equipment. He also had three GPS units (two fixed and one hand-held) and two VHF radios on board. The boat was insured, but Thompson says the policy wouldn’t have kicked in until he reached European waters. “If I had reached the Irish Continental Shelf, I would have been covered,” he says.

Thompson sailed from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Georgetown, S.C., and on to Bermuda to ready the boat for the crossing. He left Bermuda on New Year’s Day, and the accident occurred Jan. 13. During the voyage, he stayed in contact with the pub, calling twice a week. Edwards, Pocock and Thompson are close friends who have gone on several sailing trips together.

“I think he called us first because he needed to hear a familiar voice,” says Edwards.