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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21 thoughts on “Sick at Sea

  1. So glad you survived this ordeal. I can only imagine the worst of thoughts that plagued you during this ordeal. I have now sent you my Angel’s, prayers, and love to guide a truly special friend as you continue your adventures. I should have given you one of my lucky cats! Stay safe my friend, and know you are loved by many. We are all here when you need us.


  2. Jeffrey. A fantastic account of a serious situation that we all take for granted when sleeping in our home bed. Smooth sailing my friend.


  3. Hello Jeffrey
    I can only imagine—stay strong.
    Wish I could deliver you my famous chicken soup made from scratch.
    News from the Norrheast U.S.—a splendid summer with great striper,sea bass and fluke fishing and lots of fresh clams.
    Our globetrotting mutual friend dropped by the boat last week fit and full of fresh ideas and the very happy owner of a new bad ass fishing boat.
    Check it out on his Instagram site.
    Heading home soon and then on to KW where I look forward to seeing you in December.
    Thoughts and prayers with you for good health and safe passage.


  4. Man, oh man. Slop buckets and sweaty sheets sound miserable, but I can’t get that image out of my head of a “surgical staple gun.” I suppose it could be used if the Imodium doesn’t work. Onward!


  5. Life sure does throw some boomerangs your way, especially when you least expect them. Glad you dodged this one. You are one tough guy but please take care. All wishes for a full recovery being sent your way


  6. Oh my! Tough to find comforting chicken soup in the South Pacific. Glad you are on the road to recovery.
    Always good to hear from you.


  7. Our prayers are with U that U will not encounter such misery again on your voyage.I know your family means the world to U.I am sure they are all stressed in hearing of your recent turmoil.Best wishes for a safe and good health journey. Phil Roche


  8. OH MY GOSH!!!!! I can not imagine being sick alone on anchor in a remote island. I had serious flu and bow infections on anchor in Block Island RI that lasted 2 days, but I had my wife onboard and I was in USA. I used heat from a tea pot and tons of covers to sweat it all out. It was painful and not fun. This alone had to be very frightening. Good decision to not get near the clinic to avoid an infection. I do think you should team up with a buddy boat and have coms with them. BE STRONG, you are amazing. Thanks for the sharing and quality writings.


  9. Hoping you feel much better Jeff… pause for a bit to make sure you are well… Ron and I always dreamed of adventuring on long sails but his MS has shipwrecked our dreams… I must have caught whatever you were stricken with today and even though I’m at home with Ron I’m useless to caring for him and worried but at least help is next door if I really need it… stay safe and hugs from central Ohio…❤️


  10. Once again, awesome story telling. Many of us who have single-handed can relate somewhat; but then again most of us are anchored within sight of America!

    Your candidness and insight is very much appreciated! You truly are bringing us along on your adventure.


  11. You are a very brave man indeed! A journey alone on the sea with an illness, now that is quite a journey.
    When you are home, back in the US , and you reach for a spoon to taste some chicken soup, that’s when you will truly appreciate all you have learned and endured!
    Chicken soup will have never tasted sooooo good!


  12. Yikes Jeffrey!! How scary. Poor baby. I am VERY glad you were at anchor (and, just for the record, think it is crazy that you didn¹t ask fellow sailors for help. BUT that is a separate issue). Ginny must be worried.

    Also, I don¹t know who Bob Morris is, but his comment is pretty funny.

    The leaves are JUST starting to change here. I am looking forward to those perfect fall hikes in the mountains and some kayaking on the French Broad River. Then we will head back to Naples, where from all reports the red tide is killing fish and making breathing difficult for everyone. I have been researching Costa Rica for good tennis places (i.e. With clay courts). If you happen to come across anyplace in your travels, we would love to find a more interesting place than Florida for spend some time.

    Sorry we weren¹t around with chicken soup.

    Love, Marilyn


  13. Jeffrey…as they say where I come from “Bless your Heart!”. This sounds really awful. I am such a wimp when I am sick but I have Nurse Ed to take care of me. I can’t imagine how awful it was to be that sick and “alone”. Thank goodness it passed and you are OK. When I was sick as a little girl before the chicken soup, my Mama always gave me crackers and sips of Seven Up. Stock up on some of these too. But, hopefully this won’t happen again and you can use the Seven Up as a mixer 🙂 Take care!


  14. Oh Jeff! Thank the universe you weren’t underway! We’ll have no more of that! I cant bring you tea, but I do send big healing hugs and lots of love. Tho there are many miles between us, we have you in our hearts. Ger & Ross

    Sent from my iPhone



  15. Card(i’ll mimic PT!!) I too am glad u pulled thru this….being that nauseated and alone must have been a mind blower…something about your kind spirit connects all of us with u…Heard an interview w Yvon Chouinard : “your not really having an adventure unless something bad happens to you!!” How true… Sail on, sail on Sailor


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