Sick at Sea


Flying Fish in the South Pacific. Alone in an isolated anchorage can be beautiful beyond words… until you become sick. Then, all a solo sailor wants is a kind word and someone to bring him a cup of tea.    Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

It is not seasickness that ails me. I love the rhythm of this sailboat. And, I am not sick of the sea. I cannot imagine a more beautiful place to be than on the ocean aboard Flying Fish.

If I were onshore it would be just a routine illness, the kind that we all get from time to time, maybe more severe than usual–bronchitis, high fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and a blinding headache for hours on end. (If this is “too much information” it won’t hurt my feelings if you click off now, however, this bout of the flu or whatever it was, is relevant to the narrative of the voyage of Flying Fish.)

Onshore there are doctors and medications immediately at hand. You call in sick at work for a few days. No drama. On a sailboat, in a remote part of the world, it becomes an entirely different issue.

This 72 hours of delirium hit me like an unforecasted cyclone. I had been preparing for a departure from Neiafu, Tonga the following day. Fortunately, I was still at anchor when the illness immobilized me. I was awaken at midnight by a volcanic eruption of nasuea and night sweats. I could not even sit upright in my berth. If I had been underway navigating the reefs of Vava’u or the Ha’api islands, as I had intended, there might have been serious consequences.

Flying Fish is a thoroughbred of a sailboat. At nearly 49 feet and 16 tons this boat takes my undivided attention to keep the keel moving straight and level. She is a handful to sail alone but I am up to the task. I am not a young man any more but when I am sailing this boat I feel half my age. In nearly 10,000 miles under sail aboard Flying Fish, in all weather conditions, I have felt completely confident in my abilities to sail her singlehandedly. But, until now, I had not been sick like this onboard. This was a game-changer.

By morning, my lungs were seriously congested. It was difficult to breath. The vomiting had forced me to place a Home Depot bucket at the side of my berth. I was sweating and then freezing between convulsive waves of nausea. I stared at the ceiling of my cabin and thanked God that I was not under sail.

This is the first moment in the voyage of Flying Fish when doubt of my ability to sail long distances alone has entered my mind. Before I left the dock in Key West eight months ago, I had carefully prepared for potential accidents at sea. It was part of my risk mitigation. A neurosurgeon friend even gave me a surgical staple gun as a bon voyage gift, and a hands-on a demonstration of how to use it, if necessary. But I never considered the more mundane possibilities of just being physically sick at a time when I needed to be at my peak mental and physical capabilities.

After two days on my back, with the cabin of Flying Fish a horror show of sweat-soaked sheets, spilled bottles of over-the-counter medications, and an overflowing bucket, I finally addressed my options. There is a clinic on the island of Vava’u but at least three sailors I have spoken with who were recently attended there have contracted serious staph infections. That was not a good option to me. I almost made an “assistance needed” VHF radio called to other yachts in the area that might be listening. That would have been the prudent thing to do but I let my pride get in the way of feeling better. Being solo on Flying Fish–a big, conspicuous boat–puts out the message, “Hey, I’m tough enough to sail across oceans alone. I don’t need anyone’s help.” How wimpy would it look now to get on the radio to say, “I don’t feel very good. Can someone please bring me some chicken soup?” The irony is that nearly every boat in radio range would have responded. Cruising sailors look out for each other. It doesn’t have to be just life and death situations.

On the morning of the third day the illness was over. As I cleaned my body and boat I began to feel somewhat chagrined. Had I overdramatized a bad case of the flu? I don’t know; I’m a sailor not a doctor. At what point do severely congested lungs become pneumonic? Or a coral cut becomes a staph infection? In 1888, Robert Louis Stevenson sailed to the South Pacific on the yacht Casco, “to be far from any hand of help.” He had struggled with tuberculosis for years and had hoped the tropical sea air might heal his lungs. Four years later he was dead in Samoa at age 44.

Thus far along my journey, I have focused the risk mitigation on avoiding reefs and storms, but this little health event reminded me that I need to pay attention to the health and well-being of the pilot of Flying Fish, too. When I set sail from Key West with such ambitious plans I wanted a challenge without a lifeline. I didn’t want it all to be easy and comfortable. Now, I realize I need to learn about the physiological part of sailing alone, too. Being sick at anchor is far less serious than being sick under sail but in an odd way it has given some perspective and balance to my passage aboard Flying Fish.

I could have taken a lesson from one of my maritime heroes, Joshua Slocum, who as most sailors know was, in 1898, the first person to sail alone around the world. On his Atlantic crossing he had just left the island of Faial in the Azores and he made a supper of cheese and plums he had been given as gifts. Within hours he was on his back on the cabin floor writhing with cramps and delirious with fever. At one point he looked out of the companionway doors to see an ethereal figure at the helm steering the Spray. The figure looked at Slocum and said, “I am one of Columbus’s crew. I am the pilot of the Pinta come to aid you. Lie quiet, señor captain, and I will guide your ship tonight.”

Guardian angels manifest themselves in many ways. May all of those who sail alone have an angel looking out for them, especially when we are sick at sea.

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Market Day in Tonga


Alesha Muhuinga sips the juice of a green coconut at the fresh produce market in Vava’u, Tonga.    Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas


The fresh bounty of the market is loaded aboard Flying Fish.    Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas


A church choir with women and men dressed in traditional ta’ovala woven skirts sings to the market patrons shopping for fresh fruit and vegetables.    Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas


The Utukalongau Market in Neiafu is the main event in town each week as it draws buyers and sellers from across the island group.    Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

Big Bats & Bad Starfish


A colony of male Flying Fox fruit bats hang upside-down on scent-marked branches as a female makes her final approach to choose a mate.   Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

The Unique Fauna of Tonga

Each landfall in Flying Fish presents new fascination and wonder. Every island offers distinctive culture, unique geology, and an idiosyncratic diversity of nature. The Kingdom of Tonga is no exception.

Flying Fish is anchored close to a shoreline in the island group of Vava’u. Growing at the high water mark is a Tropical almond tree that provides a roost for a colony of bats. These are big bats. Think of a small dog with black leathery wings. And yes, they do have teeth, fangs actually. And no, they are not vampire bats, there are no puncture wounds on my neck (yet). Still, I would not be happy to wake up in the middle of dark night to find a bat the size of a poodle fluttering around inside the cabin of Flying Fish.

These bats are known as flying foxes (Pteropus tonganus). They are the only mammals that can fly. The bats are thriving in Tonga but their numbers have declined on other Pacific islands. Some species of fruit bats in Samoa and Fiji have become extinct because of overhunting. Flying foxes are considered a culinary delicacy in the South Pacific. In the Kingdom of Tonga, however, they are considered sacred. Nobody is allowed to hunt them except, of course, the King of Tonga. There is an expression here–Fakatonga–translated it means, it’s the Tongan way of doing things.

In my anchorage there are several dozen bats hanging upside-down in the almond tree. They are a generally passive group with continual chittering and readjustment of their claws upon the branches of their roosts. Occasionally, one will drop from a branch, take flight, and disappear into the crown of a nearby mango tree. When the fruit is ripe, the bats masticate the pulp and spit out an “ejecta pellet” (a wad) of fiber. Contented, the males then scent-mark sections of a tree branch to attract females to land within their territory.

I look up to a sudden commotion on one branch. Two bats bare their teeth and wrap their wings around each other, squealing, as they begin a ferocious struggle. Amid the screeching and tumult there is a whirling ball of wings and fur, yet somehow the bats manage to stay attached to the branch. The melee causes other bats in the vicinity to wrap their cloaks tightly around their heads, as if they cannot bear to look at what happens next. It seems as if the combatants are in a battle to the death.

But then… Oh!

It turns out that they are not actually fighting at all. It’s bat sex. Procreation. The two bats re-emerge from their amorous scrum and then immediately look in opposite directions and ignore each other. It is the way things are done here. Fakatonga!

bat close

A female bat (middle, with the black neck) chooses between two males. Other bats nearby cover their faces with their cloaks because all hell is getting ready to break out as the males fight for the right to mate.   Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

Underwater, the life in Tonga is equally fascinating. The reef and coral is vibrant and alive, despite evidence of an invasive predator that is multiplying here as in many other tropical South Pacific habitats.

This beautiful creature is called the Crown of Thorns starfish, and it has an insatiable appetite for coral. A Crown of Thorns starfish is capable of eating six square meters of live coral in a single year. The size of this starfish can be massive with a diameter that measures up to three feet projecting 23 individual coral-eating arms. It’s spines will not only puncture a wet suit but they are also laced with a toxin that can cause vomiting, nausea, and severe pain.

spiny starfish2

The Crown of Thorns starfish has 23 individual coral-eating arms with venomous spikes that repel predators and can cause vomiting, nausea, and severe pain in human beings.    Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

I first began seeing Crown of Thorns starfish on the pristine reefs of French Polynesia. In the nearshore waters off the Cook Islands, where much of the reef is dying or already dead, these starfish were feeding on the last of the live coral polyps. In Australia, The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has joined in the culling efforts of Crown of Thorns there. The problem is so severe that in February volunteer divers removed nearly 47,000 of these starfish from the southern Great Barrier Reef in just seven days.

Research has shown that the outbreaks of Crown of Thorns are related to many of the same issues occurring in all oceans worldwide: increasing water temperatures, spikes in nutrients caused by costal and agricultural runoff, overfishing of natural predators. While the problem is not nearly as severe in Tonga as it is in other areas of the Pacific, the threat to these reefs is real. Crown of Thorns starfish have the ability to move at a speed of 20 meters an hour and one female can produce up to 65 million eggs during a single season.

spiny starfish

A beautiful but destructive creature, a single Crown of Thorns starfish is capable of eating six square meters of live coral in a single year.   Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

And so what do big bats and bad starfish in Tonga have to do with each other?

Nothing. And Everything.

Creatures like these in places like this remind me why I am here, alone on a sailboat, a long way from home. The voyage of Flying Fish is taking me to places where every sight, and scent, and touch seems fresh and new. Some things are beautiful. Others are destructive and even frightening. It is all life as I have never seen it before. I am experiencing the wonder of a natural world more complex than I could ever imagine.

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