CARIBBEAN PROPERTY MAGAZINE
Living, Working and Investing in the Caribbean
S P E C I A L F E A T U R E S
Musings of a Medical Officer on A Tall Ship
By Kate Huber
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by
It’s a breezy evening and we are out for a three hour sail. The time is nearly up and we are thinking about getting back to the dock.
I’m a new deckhand and medical officer aboard a 101-foot two masted, gaff-rigged wooden schooner. As the sun sets, I’m called to the afterdeck. A man who is passenger aboard for the sail has not been feeling well. Sitting, he is now starting to collapse.
Looking immediately to his friends and then to his wrist, I see what I’m searching for: a medical bracelet.
He’s diabetic. Call an ambulance. We are going in.
Racing below decks, I know exactly where to look. A tube of high glucose paste is in easy reach. I have but seconds, maybe a minute before he might not be able to swallow it.
His friends hold him up. With a gloved hand, I squeeze as much of the sugary substance as I can onto my finger and rub in into his gums, on his tongue. He swallows. It’s not too late.
We’re nearing dock and the rest of the crew is busy tying-on heaving lines.
And still more. He’s swallowing it readily now. He is starting to protest. That’s great! It can’t taste good. But it doesn’t matter. More nasty glucose paste then. He can sit up by himself.
The first heaving line is thrown. I see the ambulance waiting for us. He’s sitting up by himself. We’re coming onto the dock.
The tube is empty. The medics board and ask him what is the matter and he tells them that he became hypoglycemic. Then they ask me what happened and I tell them. The passengers are departing and the medics leave with the man. He’s off to have a big dinner no doubt.
I was steady till now but I think I really need to sit down.
We’re sailing south with a group of college students for a semester at sea.
One day we hit the heat of the tropics. I say hit because if you are well adjusted to the fresh breezes of the north, even a sweltering New England summer can’t compare to the bone baking tropical sun. Once you reach your tropical latitude, it is all at once hot. But as the sails begin to fill with those north-easterly trade winds, the weather is perfect. It makes me wonder why anyone would ever live anywhere else.
A deserted Bahamian Island
Many people don’t know that there are myriad deserted islands in the Bahamas. I suppose you could count them if you wanted to. But, being just a deckhand, I never get to look at the chart that long. I’m usually on deck or aloft. That is where you see the most anyway.
One island we stopped at was very beautiful and forested. It feels so good to go tromping through the thick forests after the shadeless sun at sea.
It is really amazing how much garbage gets washed up on the windward side though. It is as if a selection of everything you can buy first fell into the sea to be sampled and set aside by swarming currents.
Another island is a desert. I took only my swimming suit and walked from sand and rock to sea and back. On such a small island it is easy to walk to the top. Looking around, I see that there is only water surrounding me. It is so silent.
The cook has been snorkeling off the side of the boat and had caught enough conchs to cook as delicious dinner.
I want to save one of the beautiful shells to take home with me but we throw most of them back. That’s okay. I’ve already found a perfect shell ashore.
For one of the students, it was the first time she’d eaten shellfish. She broke out in hives the same evening and I’m starting to get concerned. Although I’ve been giving her the maximum dosage of Diphenhydramine, the anti-histamine used in Benadryl, and hoping for the best, she is also very sea sick and throwing up a lot. So I don’t know how much she is actually getting into her system.
I may have to radio to one of our doctor contacts ashore in order to be able to use the prescription drugs we have aboard.
Our ship has a subscription to a medical service that offers rather substantial first aid kits, with all the equipment and prescriptions necessary to handle almost any medical calamity. However, since I am trained as an Emergency Medical Technician with a special ‘wilderness’ component, I have to first use the VHF radio to phone ashore so that a doctor can prescribe the required medicines.
I’ve never had to do it before, but her hives are starting to get a bit worse and it has already been 36 hours of maximum Diphenhydramine dosing.
AS A DECKHAND, I'VE REGULARLY USED VHF BUT NEVER TO CALL A DOCTOR ASHORE
As a deckhand, I’ve regularly used VHF but never to call a doctor ashore. I radio to the station based in Louisiana. At first I get no reply. After some time, an operator connects me to the doctor, who, after hearing about the situation, agrees that something stronger is necessary.
He begins to spell out the name of the drug using the phonetic alphabet. Delta, India, Papa, Hotel, Alpha, X-ray. I am terribly confused and get a bit flustered. The doctor gets frustrated. But after a second try, I get the hang of it and find the drug. Within a day, the hives are gone.
Our first Caribbean stop in civilization is, of course, St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands.
I say civilization because I do believe they have a McDonald’s in addition to a number of the cruise ships loading and unloading per hour. However, this means that it is also filled with all the supplies a sailing vessel may need to winter in the south.
For us it is a place to maintain the ship until the next sailing semester starts: a week or ten days of scraping, sanding, painting, and repairing so many parts and pieces of our ship. In the evenings we get landed on the beach and make our way to the bar.
There is also a small coffee house where you can get a large cappuccino and check internet for an hour. It is air-conditioned and after beans and rice and being dirty for days, it feels like a real luxury to drink steamed milk after a shower.
Outside is a large open air market and just down the road are five enormous cruise ships. Facing the cruise ships on the other side of the street is where the poor people live.
Large, fallen down flats house a mostly black population. Tourists may catch a glimpse of them, selling hats and tee-shirts on the street.
From the ship there, I can only see enormous rocks rising out of the sea.
The island itself is like so many others: low, flat, white against the warmth. As we get closer, I can see that between the rocks are pools of water, where the waves go. This is where we will take a swim, washing the sweat off our backs with saltwater.
In places the pools are deep and I can’t touch the bottom. In order to climb further in between the rocks and find the pools beyond, I have to wait for a wave to come, raising the water and me with it, to the climb out of the closed pool. Above the rocks is only blue sky. I climb up to the highest rock to look out. All around is water. The ship is anchored not too far.
EVERY TIME I SEE A BIG, BEAUTIFUL WOODEN SAILING SHIP I FEEL A THRILL RUSH THROUGH ME
Every time I see a big, beautiful wooden sailing ship I feel a thrill rush through me.
It is the sign of new adventures, new places, and few worries. At sea there is a place for everyone and everyone must play their part. The whole hierarchy of the ship depends upon that constructed community.
Questions of what, why, and for whom are quickly replaced with how, when, and where.
It is simple and somehow satisfying to lay aside all the telephone bills, appointments, and newspapers until you don’t know any of them anymore. There is just today and what you must do today, because here, everyone else depends on you and you depend on everyone else.
My head and hair are getting hot under the sun and I climb back down between the rocks and jump into yet another pool, cooling my skin and resting my thoughts. It is soon time to set out again.
Rising up out the sea like a bullet is the tallest peak in the Netherlands.
Apparently Saba also goes straight down, making it a diver’s paradise.
However, I only went up and not down, being no diver myself. It is 2,000 and some feet high and 1,000 and some steps to the top through lush rainforest, so every hot step is worth it.
The view from the top is as stunning as Saba itself. Just as Saba comes unexpectedly out of the sea, looking around there is only the blue sea against an even bluer sky.
From the top I also got a very good look at the airport, which is one short, narrow strip of pavement with a giant X painted at each
end, as if to say STOP or you will fly over a cliff and into the ocean!
Another Dutch Antillean island, Sint Eustasius is a calm and restful place. It is where I sent my first foreign letter from. We went to find internet at the local library and for the first time in my life, I realized that Dutch is spoken in more places than just the Netherlands.
Though I wouldn’t know it until years later, I would someday come speak this language I then called learning, useless.
Every island seems to reach out of the sea more or less towards the sky.
As I walked up the hill towards the forest that finds itself above all the colorful houses and red dirt roads, the smell of sulfur strikes me, like a rotten egg.
One of the many Windward Islands, Sint Eustatius sits in the volcanic chain of green that stretches itself from Florida to Venezuela.
There is something sad about Montserrat, though I can’t actually say I’ve ever been there.
I’ve only sailed past it a number of times and each time we search out the tip of a clock tower amidst the mud. That is all that is left after this volcano-island exploded more than a decade ago.
Now one half of the island is called the “exclusion zone.” It is only on this sulfuric side that my memories of Montserrat have been made.
Perhaps that is why I forget the town and tourist industry on the other side and see only a sad portrait of a town that used to be. A town that was one day unexpectedly buried along with a great number of its inhabitants.
It is still possible to observe the volcano and the buried town from an observatory on the edge of the “exclusion zone”.
Someday I would like to go there. Being the only country outside of Ireland that still celebrates St. Patrick’s Day, it might be fun to go in March.
BUT NOW, AS I THINK BACK ON MONSERRAT, I CAN STILL SMELL THE SULFUR AND FEEL THE ASH ON MY FACE.
But now, as I think back on Montserrat, I can still smell the sulfur and feel the ash on my face. Every time we sail past Montserrat, we test the fire hoses and pumps. The ash covers the cabin hatches, sails, and our skin. Everything and everyone gets a rinse down as we sail on further south.
Not all the students are used to the roll of the sea and one night, a student filling the tea pot poured boiling water all over his hand.
Fortunately it was on my watch and I rushed his hand into a bath of cold water. But with a third degree burn exposing a nearly three square inch area of hypodermis on the top of his hand, a rugged sailboat, where hygiene is not always the first priority, is probably not the best place to be.
But I’ve been doing my best, boiling water and regularly bandaging his hand with silver sulfadiazine cream for an exposed, moist treatment.
Although a continuing education class for my for my Wilderness EMT training recommended Second Skin, which keeps the burn moist while it heals, Second Skin doesn’t allow you to change the bandage regularly.
It is a kind of treatment that only requires sterilization just once and keeps the wound encased in a kind of jelly-like “skin” until it has healed.
However, the student was rather concerned about not being able to inspect his hand every day. Even though I thought that on our ship, where the water isn’t always the cleanest, that a one-time thorough sterilization might be better, it was also good to be able to watch for signs of infection.
So we went with the time-tested silver sulfadiazine cream and in the end, it didn’t even look like he’d have much of scar.
In any case, I had a lot of nursing to do as we sailed on for the southern capital of yotty sailboats: Antigua.
Millions of Eastern Caribbean (EC) dollars are spent every year on martinis and wood varnish in Antigua. The captain always says, “EC come, EC go” with chuckle as we come into Antigua.
It is essential to dock the ship under sail with our schooner, so as to gain status with the sailors of the billion dollar boats next to ours.
We fire a small cannon and the flags go up with a bang as the sails come down. Only a truly great captain can perform such a feat with a 101-foot, gaff-rigged schooner and, fortunately, we have such a captain.
Today, I had the day off and got to go hiking. I hiked up through the arid
forests to an old fort whose history, I'm sorry to say, I am completely ignorant of and, unfortunately, found no one who could enlighten me. Still, it was a fabulous hike.
I walked along the intricate rock cliffs that overlook the southern side of Antigua. Waves were crashing up against the rocks far below. A variety of colorful cacti and red, sandy dirt cover the cliff. I was wearing hiking boots with thick soles but I still had cactus needles sticking all the way through them into my toes. Goats were everywhere, climbing the steep rock faces with more agility than I can ever dream of.
A SAILOR'S NIGHT IN A LOCAL BEACH BAR CONSISTED OF ME GETTING A FREE BEER FOR BEING THE WORST POOL PLAYER IN THE OVERCROWDED CAFE.
A sailors’ night in a local beach bar consisted of me getting a free beer for being the worst pool player in the overcrowded cafe. Needless to say, I didn’t complain. I have no pool-playing pride to injure.
Of any place I have ever been, I think Dominica is the most incredible and the most beautiful. In the back of a van curling and curving and climbing with unnerving speed up the hills, we ate fresh grapefruits and awaited a hike to the boiling lake.
The Caribbean is known for its sun but once you get close enough to the top of a volcano, a cloud of sulfur covers the sky. It began to rain before too long and as we continued climbing, we sunk deeper and deeper into the rich red clay.
As we neared the top of one hill we descended to meet the base of the next. Hour after hour we hiked through the forest, our feet finding their way through the mud. After what seemed hours, we finally reached another hilltop and began our descent into the “valley of desolation.”
In the “valley of desolation” clouds of steam ascend out of small boiling pools in the ground. Along our left hand side is a sulfur heated stream surrounded on each side with trees. Being careful not to scald a sandaled foot in the boiling water, we climbed out of the valley.
Sulfuric steam meets us as we finally reach the mile wide boiling lake. Every few minutes a burp smelling like a rotten egg clears the steam and I can just make out the bubbling water deep in the crater. Though it is not very pleasant to picnic in sulfuric steam, we have reached our destination and are all hungry enough not to care about the smell.
Back down the mountain and through the valley of desolation, we have hiked many hours and have found our way back through the mud to the waterfall filled pool where we began.
From a height of thirty feet up, I stand, terrified to jump. But jump I do. As I swim into a cave a current carries me to the far end where an eddy has formed and all I can do to keep from being sucked in is to cling with all my might to the rocks on the side. Eventually, I let go and let myself be whirled around and around.
So, my initial terror was soon swept away and I can’t even remember how many times I jumped from the thirty foot waterfall or how long I let myself be sucked up by that current.
After being at sea, the power of nature ceases to cause me fear.
Rather it is only my awe and wonder that remain and continue to increase. In any case, I’ve never had so much fun.
Author : Kate Huber. Born in the USA, Kate wanted to be a flautist. But after sailing round the Caribbean as a Medical Officer she changed tack and moved to the Netherlands where she is currently studying for a Masters degree in Literary Philosophy at Leiden University.
Email : Kate Huber