2014-04-08 / Front Page

Poland, Indiana Man Loses Leg In Accident Sailing The Gulf Of Mexico In Late 2013

by Michael Stanley
Staff Writer


Tom West proudly stands in front of his hand-crafted yacht, “Faith” in this photo featured in Popular Science Magazine. (Courtesy Photo by Chris Cone) Tom West proudly stands in front of his hand-crafted yacht, “Faith” in this photo featured in Popular Science Magazine. (Courtesy Photo by Chris Cone) From Poland to Pensacola onboard his hand-crafted yacht “Faith,” retired Indiana University electronics engineer Tom West took one heck of a “sail” in 2013.

The voyage to the Gulf of Mexico was long and exciting, extending from Alabama to neighboring Florida before tragedy struck on November 4, 2013. Thrown out of a comfortable docking situation by storms, West horrifically had his left leg completely severed while attempting to move anchor. In the days, weeks and months since, he’s spent time in four separate hospitals following a U.S. Coast Guard rescue.

“It was a very complex sort of thing; we anchored close to a tourist attraction fort and it kind of got windy and storming after we went to bed. It started moving our boat into the dock at the tourist place, so I was afraid I’d get in trouble with them, so I tried to move the boat,” West explained. “The boat had gotten turned around sideways and the anchor got caught, so we moved the boat out by motor and put out another anchor. This was in the middle of the night and when I went to retrieve the other (anchor), I got tangled in the rope, not realizing it, and the anchor rope tore my leg off. It was stupidity. It’s a bad thing, but I’m lucky I’m alive. The Coast Guard came and got me, but it was three or four hours before they operated on me. They used something like 40 some pints of blood, I was unconscious for almost two weeks. It was a rough deal. Trying to work in the dark like I was doing and trying to hurry, I made a mistake. I think what happened was the rope got into the prop. I had always been able to pull it before – I didn’t expect it to pull me.”

Launching from Cincinnati into the Ohio River, West and his wife, Marsha, sailed south to Kentucky Lake and the Tombigbee Waterway, later arriving to a storm in Mobile, Alabama.

“We’ve got 1,200 to 1,300 miles on the boat now,” West said. “It was pretty wild getting that boat to the water. The motor blew a head gasket right away, so we had to tear it down and put a new head gasket on it and then we started down the river. We stopped at 20 or 30 places, there are 25 or more locks on that trip. It was pretty neat, we got a little bit out in the gulf and then I lost my leg and that was about it. It was quite a ways down through all of those rivers.”

When the couple docked just south of Evansville, they were surprised to hear word had traveled south and that dock workers knew of “Faith’s” journey. An article of his travels appeared in the August 2013 issue of Popular Science Magazine.

“It was amazing, people had heard of the boat before we had ever arrived; it’s quite a shock when they know who you are when you’re coming in,” West said. “They go, ‘Well, we know this boat, who you are and everything else.’ People had been talking to them about it. It’s kind of famous in a way, it’s had a lot of publicity in different places.”

The 73-year-old has a degree in Astro Physics, a master’s degree in Physics, and an unwavering determination to return to the water. West is currently adjusting to his fourth artificial leg.

“It has been a battle ever since (the accident), but we’ve about got it squared away now. We’re supposed to go back down in a few weeks; they moved the boat from Pensacola to Mobile (Alabama) because some people in Mobile wanted to take care of it, so we had it moved there,” West said. “The boat performed almost perfectly, the way it was designed. It’s a beautiful boat in the water; it looks a lot nicer on water than on land.

“I’m about ready to go back. I’m practicing learning to walk again... a lot of people can’t understand it, but you can’t blame the boat. I did it. Sometimes you do stupid things and if you do them at the wrong time, you get hurt bad. I should have had more crew and waited until morning to do anything. I thought I could do anything until (the accident) happened.”

The 60x16 vessel was a four-year labor of love for West. Completely crafted from the ground up, the curved steel body, framing and all other components were assembled in his front yard along State Road 42 in Poland.

“It’s something that when you’re getting old like I am, you think about what you’re leaving behind and that’s something I’ve built to leave behind, and it’s a pretty nice thing,” he said. “There are people who have built their own boats, but not quite like ‘Faith.’”

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