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Eve on Isle Blanquilla
Sailing east from the white sandy beaches and clear blue waters of the Los Roques islands to la Blanquilla Island, Venezuela can be like riding a bicycle through a tropical storm. More often than not, both wind and current are against you making for a wet, bumpy passage. The etiology of my troubles did not begin with the voyage, but sometime later with an illness and a rude awakening.
In preparation for my trip, I anchored southwest of Los Roques strip with a clear view of the lighthouse. This would give me a reef-free course to the southeast and east with only a dead reckoning. Watching the beautiful sunset before darkness fell and the lighting of the lighthouse, I found myself wishing there was someone nearby to make a bet with. A strange thing to think, but I knew I had the upper hand. I would have bet a few million, real Bolivars, about $2.00US, that this was the only navigation light that worked regularly in all of Venezuela.
The wide surrounding beaches, coral heads, and underwater reefs make the Roques a popular destination for sunbathing and diving for the Venezuelan mainland during the day. Because of its beauty and remoteness, it has been the backdrop for modeling agencies around the world from time to time. In my younger days, about a week ago, I would have taken time for a refresher course in looking at female anatomy. However, I had to raise anchor, lie to myself, and think about all the beautiful women on Branquilla, knowing that no one lived there except for two Costa Guardia and a bunch of hungry fishermen. The mind can play tricks on you at sea, so I occasionally get a kick out of fooling it back.
The movement of el norte y nordeste winds would have kept me busy if time was a factor. It wasn’t, so I split the difference on a 90-degree variable course give or take a few steps. I smiled as my kitty stretched her legs and plowed through the tiny 4 foot waves. My average lately has been about 6-10 feet. The sky was sapphire blue and the cumulus clouds looked like delicate puffs of cotton candy. I never wanted to see the land of again… until I put Joe Arroyo, “Noche de Arreboles” in the CD player and dream of the nights of Cartagena.
The lone palms and white beach on the west side of Blanquilla can be seen over a mile out. I put the main bridge late because I knew the country would block my wind when I pulled close. To my surprise, I had to weave between a sloop I knew and an old schooner that was barely on the shelf. Running further in, I dropped the hook in my favorite spot 200yds. west of the palms.
I recognized the sloop captain on Rude Rigin as an old fellow of mine. They’re out there… He followed me downwind from St. Kitts for 3 days doing a 2 on 2 watch with his brother, constantly changing and changing sails just to get a better view of me… He threatened to kill me on the VHF and SSB radios for the antibiotic give wrong to his wife. Unbeknownst to him, she continued to take them. In three days his Streptococcal pharyngitis improved dramatically and he was able to attend to his human needs. At this point, he slipped back, lowered the Kevlar wing (genoa punched out) on his wing-on-wing rig, stowed his light racing spinners, and must have lowered the RPM on its smoking diesel below the redline.
I woke up to the worst banging on my thigh that I have ever heard. I thought @#%!, the Guardia Costa couldn’t want beer and cigarettes early in the morning! While I was slowly rubbing my salty eyes, burning with a wet bandana that I could make out a face, I thought, Rude Rigin! “Mary you have to help me… I’m Ole woman is burn’n up. It’s like she’s long, Mary!”… I started to tell him that a good antibiotic should take care of him, but he thought better of it.
My beautiful island was gray and my morning was burnt because of the current squall and Rude Rigin. I barred all my hats, came out onto a wet deck and crossed the lifelines, eventually easing my way into Rude’s area, or dingy as he called it. to him. While he rowed wildly with all the hyperventilation, we moved slowly towards the pit.
On board, Minnie was lying in the cockpit in extreme distress and discomfort. “My beautiful girl, what happened to you?” I said. “I… I don’t know Doc. Please help me.” Turning, looking for Rude to send him in, I finally saw a distant black dot swimming after the dingy he had forgotten to secure. Shaking my head and returning my attention to Minnie. She looked a bit scalded, but all her vital signs were normal. “What were you doing when this happened?” “Nothing, I got on my boat and my head, my face, and my shoulders were on fire.” I asked, “What did you do before that? Did you take any medicine, or have any food that you are allergic to?” “Sir, Ole man and I were ashore early in the morning walking in and looking for apples.” “There are no apples on this island, Minnie.”
It was the only chance for apples if the American, who built an airfield and a hut here years ago, had brought in a tree with him. However, it had to be self-pollinating and there was little chance of it growing in this mild climate. Was Minnie completely oblivious to her suffering?
“Doc, there are apples here like my grandma used to make apple butter with wit. You know… kind of a little green crabbyapple.” “Have you tasted them?” “I won’t try, I tried to make Ole man taste them, but we didn’t have time before the squall started. I got an undr de tree while Ole man got the dingy. We then went back to a boat, and I began to shoot in but a little while.” “So… your apple tree was on the beach?” “There are.” She pointed to the green, fluffy tree that I could make out in the rain and mist. It was much taller than the surrounding vegetation. This immediately confirmed my suspicions. I had seen this tree on a previous trip while looking for black coral and crabs.
“Minnie, you are lucky for me dear. As soon as I clean you with soap and water you will feel much better within 8 hours.” “Fortunately, your Ole man did not do as you suggested and ate, Manzanilla de la muerte.” “Huh…” “Yes! You thought of it.” “The little apple of death.”
Something. You may ask?… It had been three days and there was no sign of him. Finally, on the fourth day we heard a great noise from the west and soon we saw a tower of black smoke. The noise continued to increase until the cutter Guardia Costa arrived an hour later. Every narcotic task force on deck put on the bow in uniform in celebration of their life saving skills. It wasn’t long until Rude was taken over in a launch while the National Anthem of Venezuela played and the soldiers saluted him.
Apparently, he had recovered his raft, but lost his oars in the rush. As a result, he was found drifting near Orchilla Island, a military base, badly watered and in an almost damaged raft. Accused of treason, once he was able to undergo his first psychological test, all charges were dropped.
The Manchineel Tree (Manzanella).
This is a beautiful tree usually found in dry tropical and subtropical climates. It brings to mind “The Garden of Eden”. Beauty goes against the danger.
It can be found throughout the Caribbean, South and South America, Curacao, and Bonaire. Curaçao puts signs on them, the French Antilles paint red bands around them, but they are usually not marked.
It was known to the ancient tribes of the Caribbean, and its fruit was used to poison arrowheads and the leaves were used to pollute the water supply of the enemies. Early Europeans were said to have died from the toxicity of this plant. In fact, no deaths had been reported at the time of my research.
This tree has deciduous green leaves with a brown and bushy branching trunk much like many North American apple trees. The fruits are green, sweet, if you want, and about 2 cm in diameter. All parts contain a white latex sap (a big caution with any plant), so it is imperative not to touch any part. It is an incredible risk that even standing under this tree with or without water can cause symptoms. No part of this tree makes good burning or fuel. Inhaling the smoke or getting it in the eyes can cause the same symptoms as direct contact.
Although mortality does not appear to be a major concern, severe burns of the skin and internal organs, conjunctivitis (eye soreness and redness), blindness, and internal bleeding can be significant results. If swallowed there is burning of the mouth, throat and esophagus. Gastrointestinal bleeding, dysarthria and dysphagia (difficulty speaking and swallowing), as well as severe respiratory problems. There may be isolated cases where heart rate and respiration are reduced, this may represent an isolated phenomenon or be part of a histamine (allergic) response.
Treatment is straight forward and almost too simple. Wash the affected areas immediately with soap and water and leave for up to 8-12 hours for the symptoms to resolve if Manchineel is a definite culprit. Antihistamines (oral and daily) were used if there are no allergies to them. Flush the eyes with plenty of water if affected. As with any foreign object, any signs of progression, early anaphylactic reaction, visual impairment, bleeding, or change in vital signs should be evaluated immediately by a qualified physician.
The author, Dr. Robin Minks is a neurologist and general practitioner, as well as a captain and world traveler. He served in the US Navy and has practiced medicine for over 27 years.
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