Couple battles boat trouble and COVID-19

By Shelli Swaim

My husband, Jeff, drove to Las Vegas on March 15 to attend a three-day golf tournament put on by a group of friends from the central coast of California. Though social distancing was relatively new, he armed himself with hand sanitizer, a can of Lysol, disinfectant wipes and medical gloves.

Shortly after returning home, however, he developed a headache. By the next day, he had a fever. He wore an N95 mask he found in the garage to prevent infecting me. By then, he had a constant headache, fever and loss of appetite. Just three days after his symptoms began, I developed a cough and fever. Realizing we’d both contracted COVID-19, we were glad we’d been isolated at home since Jeff’s return from Las Vegas.

Over the next 10 days, my symptoms included a fever, cough, sinus issues and night sweats. I also broke out in a rash that mimicked chickenpox, mostly localized to my neck. The weirdest symptom was when I completely lost my sense of smell; taking a big whiff of rubbing alcohol was like smelling water.

Jeff aboard Thumper

Jeff aboard Thumper

After two weeks, Jeff’s constant fever would sometimes rise to 102 degrees. He could barely eat, felt weak, short of breath, and his hands began to shake, so we decided to seek medical attention.

Trouble finding help

After getting nowhere with our primary care physician, I drove Jeff to a hospital with a parking lot triage. They refused to test him for coronavirus or the flu, listened to his breathing with a stethoscope, prescribed a Z-Pak and inhaler, and told him to go home.

Becoming more worried in the following days, I messaged our daughter, a busy first-year doctor at Stanford Hospital. After hearing about her father’s symptoms, she said he needed a chest X-ray as soon as possible. She explained that you couldn’t tell what the virus could be doing inside his lungs just by listening with a stethoscope.

Jeff called our primary care physician to request a chest X-ray and explained his symptoms again. The doctor said he would contact a radiology office. He told us to wait for them to call us back. We never heard from the radiology office, and when Jeff finally called them, a message said the office was shut down and no longer doing X-rays. At this point, we became very frustrated.

Days later, thanks to a local doctor friend, we got our hands on a pulse oximeter, a handy little tool that reads the oxygen saturation levels in your blood. Our friend and our daughter kept an eye on our results and noticed they were holding steady, but my daughter still wanted to see a chest X-ray. Still very weak, Jeff agreed to our last resort, the hospital. I drove him up to the tents set up outside and waited in the car so as not to expose anyone to my own symptoms. Jeff had set up a group text message with our daughter in the Bay Area and me in the parking lot.

After the initial screening, they led him inside the hospital, but after a few more questions, he still didn’t know if they were going to do any testing. Thankfully, the hospital gave him not only a chest X-ray but also tested him for the flu and drew his blood for lab work. The flu test came back negative (no surprise there), and fortunately the chest X-ray was clear. The lab results showed a couple of markers consistent with having the coronavirus, so they gave him the coronavirus test. They released him to go home and told him he would likely recover before getting the test results, which could take up to 14 days.

Back at home, Jeff started to feel better, but I got worse. I experienced excruciating pain in my back, hips and knees when lying down. I attached heating pads and ice packs to my body just to make it through the night. I even attempted to sleep standing up against a wall with a pillow behind my head; that didn’t go too well.

After three more nights, my pain finally subsided, and that’s when we got the earlier-than-expected call that Jeff had indeed tested positive for COVID-19. The Public Health Department said he would officially be quarantined. He asked, “What about my wife?” They responded that there was no need to test me because they already knew I probably had it. The next day—after a full three weeks of symptoms—Jeff signed the official quarantine paper.

Boat trouble

Jeff turns off the raw water infeed levers at the bottom of the engine compartment.

Jeff turns off the raw water infeed levers at the bottom of the engine compartment.

That night, we had a huge downpour in Santa Barbara. The next day the marina called to tell us that our boat alarm was going off. Since Jeff was under official quarantine, I had to go check it out.

Armed with a full mask, gloves and my body covered, I drove to the marina and scurried down the docks to our boat. Sure enough, the main cabin and enclosed flybridge alarms were sounding. With Jeff on Skype, I showed him the engine bilge light, which indicated water in the engine compartment. I could see water below and aft of the engine. The bilge pump couldn’t pump it all out. The bilge pump sits at an awkward angle and struggles with a few inches of water at the bottom of the engine compartment.

I turned the alarms off, but I couldn’t reach the bottom of the engine compartment to do anything else. Knowing that more storms were coming in, our only option was for Jeff to break quarantine and come fix the problem on the boat. We could not ask anybody else to come into the already contaminated cabin to do it for us.

When I returned home, Jeff had already called the Public Health Department and told them about our dilemma. They switched his quarantine orders to be on our boat as if he were living aboard.

With his mask and gloves on, he came to the boat to fix the problem. Debris clogged the aft deck drains during the heavy rain, letting water in the aft storage compartment, which migrated to the engine compartment. Jeff cleaned the debris from the deck drains and bailed the water from the aft storage compartment. Even though still very weak, he squeezed himself into the engine compartment to bail the few inches of water from the bilge.

Just to be certain water wasn’t coming from any other source, he turned off the raw water infeed levers I had been unable to reach at the bottom of the engine compartment. He said the hardest part was getting back up out of the engine compartment. Fortunately, the engine suffered no damage. Jeff made it home fine, and a few days later, he was officially released from quarantine.

Having since recovered from the coronavirus, we really appreciate the generosity of friends, family and neighbors who helped during our ordeal. We made it through, but a lot of people weren’t as fortunate, and others still suffer. Life has changed during this pandemic, but how I view life has changed even more.


Shelli Swaim and her husband, Jeff, joined Santa Barbara Sail & Power Squadron/13 in 2018. Shelli serves as assistant treasurer, and Jeff has completed the Marine Electrical Systems course. The couple enjoys boating to the Channel Islands off the Santa Barbara coast on their 31-foot Camano trawler, Thumper.

This article originally appeared in the squadron newsletter, Signal Hoist.

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