Captain’s Log: The Lionfish Incident

Captain’s Log
Claiborne Hamilton (CH)
May, 2010


Week 1
Although I gave up the redundancy of logs many years ago, I feel compelled to jot down just a few notes regarding sailing conditions and the highlights of this journey. Chris Carillo – a neighbor and surfer buddy who just finished his first year of law school – joined me for the passage.

The first leg from Jax Beach to St. Augy was like a jungle cruise.  The Intracoastal teemed with life: first a manatee, then the alligators; bald eagles plus a giant nest, a flock of geese in flight, numerous thick schools of baitfish, and a porpoise family with babies for escort.

The small marsh creatures stroke up a harmonious chord at last light, prompting the captain (me) to remark, “My, the woods are full tonight.  Let’s camp here and get a fresh start in the morning”.  We pleasantly anchored at 9 p.m.

The next morning we woke up and out the inlet we went: blue water (about 250 miles worth) to Walker’s Cay.  Sea state and weather were unusually mild and cooperative.  Half the time we were under sail alone, and about half the time we had to motor sail.  Though I prefer not using the engine at all, it was a very comfortable crossing.

Of course, Chris – a professional fisherman from Long Island – hooked a nice sized dolphin in no-man’s land ( mahi-mahi or common dolphin fish, Coryphaena Hippurus, as opposed to the mammal). I got a solid gaff in the fish, but he was too green to throw in the boat. He kicked into high gear, shaking me like a dirty martini, and it was even money as to who was pulling who in. Finally though, it became clear where our next meal was coming from.

Land ho! at Walker’s Cay, a pearl of a ghost resort.

Mr. Customs Man good-naturedly tried to clip us for an extra $150 (quoting the fee for boats 35’). I politely declined “la mordita” (the little bite), as the Blue Moon is precisely 34”10”.

Being low on fuel and ice, we contacted ‘Love Train’ (Rosie’s) on Grand Cay via VHF (channel 68). We got an affirmative on navigable entrance channel and basin depth. I had never considered taking the Moon in there before, but it seemed to be a convenient pit-stop.

Moving on down to the uninhabited Double Breasted Cays, we tripled anchor in the remote and picturesque creek, and began settling into out-island cruising life, exploring the archipelago’s maze of intertwining mangrove creeks, fishing, diving, reading, napping, and scoping out other boats congregated in the “designated anchorage”.

While collecting fish the second day, Chris got startled as a lionfish he’d shot wriggled up the spear and bumped his knee. He put one hole in the fish, and the fish put two holes in him.

I had watched this species invade the Bahamas for the past several years. They are now ubiquitous and can reduce reef fish population by 80%. I had studied them a bit and was pretty well prepared with a stubby paralyzer pole and special, needle-proof gloves for cleaning.

Chris seemed somewhat concerned over this venomous inoculation, and asked, “What do I do?” We were in the dinghy zipping back to the Blue Moon for treatment, and only a couple of minutes had elapsed. I asked, “Does it hurt really bad?”  He said, “Severely!”

Yep, that’s a lionfish for you. Although not a real threat to life or limb, their poison is one of the worst, causing extreme pain and a variety of other noxious symptoms for hours, days, and sometimes months.

Back at the “Mother Ship”, I rotated pots of boiling water for hot compresses to break down the toxin. For a while it got worse as pain spread to his hip, then lower back, with the affected leg becoming sort of paralyzed. Over a two hour period, Chris stabilized with the help of 4 Advil tablets and a couple of Percocet. Before sunset, however, due to Chris’s prior heart surgery, the decision was made to run by dinghy over to the clinic at Grand Cays for the nurse’s advice. Outer cays don’t have Doctors.

By the time we got to Rosie’s, Chris’s leg had been puffing up. His normally pleasant countenance was distorted with pain, his posture contracted. As he hobbled along the wharf, floppily dragging a swollen, partially paralyzed limb, I didn’t say anything, but he looked just like the hunchback of Notre Dame. Except, of course, he didn’t have a hunch.

The dock master, realizing Chris wouldn’t be hiking to the clinic, disappeared, and returned in two minutes with a nice fellow in a golf cart. This gave us the opportunity to reconnoiter the village by land. It was colorful and well kept, with a spacious school and ball field.

Surprisingly, the clinic looked like a gift from the Crown, and seemed out of place for an out-island cay. But, there it was, brand spanking new, with all its fancy architecture and staff. The kicker, as we were to find out, was that it was a free clinic. That’s right, completely free, as in you don’t pay a penny. Not for treatment, injections, prescription meds, etc…. Nothing, nada, zero, zip!

All three nurses immediately attended to Chris, administering an antihistamine injection to counter the swelling, and a couple of benzocaine swabs to the puncture sites (like throwing a cup of water on the cigarette that started the brushfire). They had been seeing quite a few lionfish stings, and assured us it was not life threatening; the offending spines usually don’t break off, and we had given proper treatment with the hot water.

The girls were curious about Chris’s heart surgeries at such a young age. I candidly explained how he brought it on himself: by starting smoking when he was one so that by his first surgery at two years old, he had already been smoking half his life. To cover the final base concerning the aortic valve replacement, they called Trauma Central in Nassau, where the physician concurred with the present treatment and added a precautionary regimen of antibiotics.

The nurses seemed to really be taking a liking to us, but Chris was anxious to get back to the boat. So, Dolly gave us a hug and Denise graciously gave us her cell phone for any midnight emergency– warning us not to answer any calls from the local boyfriend. We borrowed the phone with a cautious smile and were on our way.

Come the next day, the mate was able to travel. We returned the phone, picked up ice for the fish we were going to catch, and set sail for Stranger’s Cay. Halfway there, we decided to push further on to Hawksbill, which would make for an easy sail to Fish Cays in the morning.

I had GPS waypoints for some group coral in the middle of nowhere. Chris sight-casted on these, as well as other small heads as we sailed by. Almost every time the lure got wet, it came back with a fish on it. Did I mention he’s a professional fisherman? We threw back snappers and amberjack, keeping 1 nice mutton, and 3 yellowtail. I finally had to chase Chris around the boat to get the rod away from him.

Dropped anchor in the calm lee of Fish Cay and started cleaning our catch. I was expecting a shark, but not the big boy that showed up. A nine-foot beast, he rolled as he circled beneath the boat. I saw the stripes: tiger shark! Wow! I grabbed my mask and eased down the swim ladder to get a real good look. An absolutely awesome, powerful-looking creature, with a large head and girth, and beautifully patterned coloration, the Tiger was very relaxed, content just grazing on snapper scraps, and uninterested in the person with big eyes clinging to the swim ladder. Chris followed suit, but the shark seemed to enjoy swimming right underneath him every time he ducked his head in the water. Both of us took underwater pictures of the big guy, but I think Chris’s camera was on the fritz.

We did an afternoon aquarium dive in the cut between two cays: shallow water and swarms of fish, including large amberjack and nurse sharks. A laid-back closure to our first week.

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