I left Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela on a heading of 355 degrees with 15-18 knots of wind from the north-northeast. The day was sunny and hazy as usual with three to five foot seas, also as usual. Perfect conditions to let all sails fly. Misty Moon, my sailing vessel, glided over the blue water. The only noise was the wind whistling through her rigging.
It hit me like a hammer. My heart sank. Something was going to happen to ruin this perfect day.
In an unforgiving sea, those feelings that some call premonitions, could mean anything. Hitting a submerged shipping container, an uncharted reef, a whale, or blowing a sail are but a few possibilities. It could mean a tragedy happened on land to a friend or loved one. The possibilities spun through my head faster than a Category 5 hurricane.
I could think of nothing foreseeable… Relaxed, I put in one of my black market salsa CD’s, had a drink of black market rum, and fired up one of my black market Cuban cigars. This is the only benefit of socialism. Anything worth having must come from the black market and it is usually cheaper.
All seemed to be going very well. What a site my ketch must have been from the shore. The bellies of all five sails budging over the white-capped, blue water as she cut her way across the horizon.
I took down all of Misty’s sails except the mainsail seeing waves breaking on reefs. The 6 hour run was invigorating and uneventful. I questioned the accuracy of my sub conscious and premonitions.
Small, remote fishermen’s shacks came into focus through my binoculars. One miles out, I put a reef in the main. Entering a calm bay after being on choppy seas is like driving your truck off of a furrowed corn field and hitting smooth pavement.
I soon discovered what my premonition was about.
Off my starboard bow was a medium-sized, white sail boat lying sideways with the mast just out of the water. This meant that she had run aground and was at risk of being lost to the sea. Five pirogues (fishing boats) surrounded her with lines attached trying to free the little boat.
Latin American fisherman are very hard-working and usually helpful, but they lack organization. It would not have surprised me if they were all pulling this boat in five different directions at once. It is important for them to prove that their way is the correct way. A big debate usually ensues when there is no progress, then each fisherman changes positions, pulls in opposite, but still different directions. Only if they have instruction, or it is time for supper will they agree to pull in one direction.
Misty Moon was in a similar situation in Samoa. We knew what to do. Hailing the skipper on the VHF, a panting, nervous man got on the radio. “Sailing vessel just entering the bay, this is sailing vessel Isabella, requesting assistance.” “Do you copy?”
“Copy.” “SV Isabella this is SV Misty Moon… is anyone injured on board?”
I asked for and received more details over the radio.
“SV Isabella can I suggest that the fisherman with the two big Yamaha motors attach a line as high up the mast as possible, open the throttle, and lean you over further to free you from the bottom?” “Let him pull you to deep water.”
The reason for all the confusion became clear.
“No hablo espanol mate” cracked on the radio.
I said, “Put the fisherman on the horn with the twin motors.” Giving instructions to the fisherman in Spanish and adding that I had rum for everyone when the job was finished, the sail boat was free in 30 minutes.
A round of applause went out among the fisherman and it grew through the afternoon as the rum did its magic.
How did the boat get into such a precarious situation? As it turned out a rusted Chinese anchor chain had snapped a link and the backup anchor, apparently, could not be deployed. But, there was more.
I asked the leather skinned skipper with gray stubble, “Why could you not set the second anchor or use your motor to keep off of the reef?”
Still anxious, he replied, “My wife and I were preparing a meal in the galley below deck and thought all was well. Our competent 45-year-old Trinidadian hand was on deck.”
I asked, “Did he not notice the drift and take proper land bearings?”
“We aren’t sure. He was very competent up until the time we ran aground and found him dead on the bow.”
“What?” “I thought you said no one was injured on board.”
I looked towards the bow and noticed the blue trap covering a lump. It was covered with raisin sized flies. The stench invaded my nostrils as the wind shifted and was that of sun rotting flesh and excrement.
The skipper said, “He’s dead; not injured” “We found him lying over the bow with both hands on the anchor chain as if he were trying one last time to save us.”
Interesting, I thought… How could a seemingly healthy, middle-aged deck hand die so suddenly? Or was it sudden?
The skipper was unusually nervous although his boat had been saved and his wife was silent.
I asked, “Did your deck hand seem sick at all prior to this?”
The Isabella skipper said, “Leaving Tobago we noticed that he was doing less work and talking less. He wanted to be alone it seemed. By the time we got to the Testigo Islands, about 8 hours back, he was complaining of severe muscle cramps and joint pain.” “Oh, he was sweating a lot and coughed up blood I believe, but he said it was just a bad, bleeding tooth.”
I asked, “Did he complain of chest pain, headaches, visual changes, or numbness.” I wanted to eliminate the possibility of a heart attack, stroke, and some poisons.
The skip said, “Yes a headache, neck, and back pain.” “He would not bend, like he had a board taped to his back.” “We were afraid that he had a brain infection. My wife took his temperature and it was 104F, but it soon came down with Tylenol.” “We were also concerned about pneumonia as his coughing got worse and his spit definitely had blood in it.”
“Was there vomiting or bending over holding his stomach?” I asked, knowing that this was the most common symptom in cases of poisoning. Short of thinking he was a worthless sailor, there seemed to be no motivation for the couple to harm their deckhand.
“No sir, as I told you, he would not bend over, like he had a steel rod down his spine.”
Skipper said, “He always tried to work hard regardless of how weak and horrible he felt.”
“Trinidadians are hard workers and good sailors for the most part.”
He said, “As things deteriorated we tried to raise anyone on the radio, but there was no reply.” “We were afraid that we were all going to die from some strange disease he brought on board.”
It was clear that this couple was scared and questioned their own actions and well-being.
I replied, “You’ll be safe if I am correct.”
“Did we do the wrong thing by not sailing directly to Bonaire and not getting help sooner?” “We made sure he was drinking a lot, and gave him Tylenol every 6 hours.”
I examined the Trinidadian and noticed a raised rash on his arms, legs, and chest. There was a large amount of blood in the mouth. I pointed this out. Seeing the skipper and his wife’s unease I said, “When I left Trinidad a few months ago, there was an outbreak of dengue fever.” “Given your history of this man’s illness and my exam, I think he died from a bug bite.” “A mosquito to be specific.”
Skipper said, “I have heard of dengue but not of people dying from it. I was under the impression that people only got headaches and flu symptoms.”
“It is unusual. I suspect he also had an HIV infection, diabetes, or something that would make him more likely to get severe infections.
All of the activity had attracted to Venezuelan Guardia Costa (Coast Guard). Far offshore, I could see them turning and heading in my direction.
I surveyed the situation and concluded it wasn’t good. One fisherman was drunk and passed out in his boat; the others were drunk and now throwing their daily catch and nets at each other. I had not covered the Trinidadian’s body which was still resting on the bow. Skipper and his wife, in relief, had drunk 3 bottles of champagne by this time. I knew I would have a lot of explaining to do when the Guardia Costa arrived. For medical evaluation and treatment see: Dengue Fever (Break Bone Fever, Singapore Fever, Dandy Fever, Dengue Shock Syndrome)