Eve on Isle Blanquilla

Eve on Isle Blanquilla

Sailing eastward from the white sandy beaches and clear blue waters of the Los Roques archipelago to Isle la Blanquilla, 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 journey, I anchored south-west of the Los Roques chain with a clear view of the lighthouse. This would give me a reef-free course south-eastward then east by dead reckoning alone. Watching the picturesque sunset before darkness fell and the illumination of the lighthouse, I surprisingly found myself wishing that there was someone nearby to wager with. What an odd thought, but I knew I had the upper hand. I would have bet a few million, genuine Bolivars, about $2.00US, that this was the only consistently working navigation light in all of Venezuela.

The surrounding wide beaches, coral heads, and submerged reefs make the Roques a popular sunbathing and diving destination for mainland Venezuelan’s during the day. Due to its beauty and remoteness, it has occasionally been the backdrop for worldwide modeling agencies. In my younger days, about a week ago, I would have taken the time for a refresher course in viewing female anatomy. However, I had to hoist anchor, lie to myself, and think about all of the gorgeous women on Branquilla, knowing that it was essentially uninhabited except for two Guardia Costa and a handful of hungry fishermen. The mind can play tricks on you at sea, so I periodically get a kick out of tricking it back.

Shifting 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 variable 90 degree course give or take a few degrees. I smiled as my ketch stretched her legs and plowed through the tiny 4 ft waves. My average lately has been about 6-10ft. The skies were sapphire blue and the cumulus clouds looked like delicate puffs of cotton candy. I never wanted to see land again… until I put Joe Arroyo’s, “Noche de Arreboles” in the CD player and dreamed of Cartagena nights.

The lone palms and white beach on the west side of Blanquilla can be spotted over a mile out. I furled the main late as I knew the land would block my wind when I drew near. To my surprise, I had to weave between a familiar sloop and an old schooner that were 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 being an old groupie of mine. They are out there… He followed me downwind from St. Kitts for 3 days doing a 2 on 2 off watch with his brother, constantly changing and adjusting sails just to get a better look at me… He was actually threatening to kill me on the VHF and SSB radios for giving his wife the wrong antibiotic. Unbeknownst to him, she continued to take them. In three days her Streptococcal pharyngitis improved dramatically and he was able to get his manly needs taken care of. At this point, he slid back, lowered a Kevlar wing (polled out genoa) on his wing-on-wing rig, stowed his lightweight racing spinnakers, and must have lowered the RPM on his smoking diesel to below redline.

I awoke to the most obnoxious knocking on my hull that I have ever heard. I thought @#%!, the Guardia Costa couldn’t want beer and cigarettes this early in the morning! As I slowly rubbed my salty, burning eyes with a wet bandana I could make out the face of, you guessed it, Rude Rigin! “Mon you have to help me… me Ole woman is burn’n up. It’s like she on far, mon!”… Started to tell him a good antibiotic should take care of it nicely, but thought better of it.

My beautiful island was gray and my morning was shot due to the current squall and Rude Rigin. I dogged all my hatches, came out on a wet deck and stepped over the lifelines, finally easing my way into Rude’s patch, or dingy as he called it. As he frantically rowed with each hyperventilation, we slowly zigzagged toward the sloop.

On board, Minnie was lying in the cockpit in obvious agony and extreme discomfort. “My beautiful girl, what has happened to you?” I said. “I… I don’t know Doc. Help me please.” Turning, looking for Rude to get his input, I eventually spotted a black dot far aft swimming after the dingy that he forgot to secure. Shaking my head and returning my attention to Minnie. She looked mildly scalded, but all of her vital signs were normal. “What were you doing when this happened?” “Nothin, I got on me boat and me head, me face, and me shoulders was on fire.” I asked, “What did you do before that? Did you take any medicine or have any food that you are allergic to?” “No sir, de Ole man and me was ashore early this morning walk’in and look’in for apples.” “There are no apples on this island, Minnie.”

The only possibility for apples was if the American, who once built an airstrip and cottage here years ago had brought a tree in with him. Still, it would need to be self-pollinating and there was very little chance of it growing in this arid climate. Was Minnie mildly delirious from her suffering?

“Doc, there is apples here like de one’s me granny used to make apple butter wit. You know… de small, green crabbyapple kind.” “Did you taste them?” “No, I tried to get me Ole man to taste them, but we had no time before de squall started. I got undr de tree while de Ole man got the dingy. Then we came back to de boat, and I started burnin in just a little while.” “So… your apple tree was on the beach?” “Yes.” She pointed to the green, fluffy looking tree that I could just make out in the rain and haze. It was taller than the surrounding vegetation by far. This confirmed my suspicions instantly. I had seen this tree on a previous excursion while looking for black coral and crabs.

“Minnie, you are fortunate me dear. Once I clean you up with soap and water you will feel much better within 8 hrs.” ” Fortunately, your Ole man did not do as you suggested and eat, Manzanilla de la muerte.” “Huh… ” “Yes! You guessed it.” “Little apple of death.”

Rude. You may ask?… It had been three days and there was no sign of him. Finally, on day four we heard a loud noise from the west and soon seen a tower of black smoke. The noise continued to intensify until the Guardia Costa cutter arrived an hour latter. All of the narcotic task force soldiers on deck lined the bow in dress uniforms commemorating their life saving skills. Rude was soon brought over on a launch while the Venezuela National Anthem played and the soldiers saluted.

Apparently, he had recovered his raft, but lost his paddles in the excitement. As a result, he was found drifting near Isle Orchilla, a military compound, severely dehydrated and in an all but deflated raft. Charged with spying, once he was able to take his first psychological test, all charges were dropped.

The Manchineel (Manzanella) Tree

This is a beautiful tree usually found in tropical and subtropical, arid climates. It brings to mind “The Garden of Eden”. The beauty defies the danger.

It can be found throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America, Curacao, and Bonaire. Curacao puts signs on them, the French Antilles paint red bands around them, however most often they are unmarked.

Well known to ancient Caribbean tribes, its fruit was used to poison arrowheads and the leaves were used to contaminate water supplies of enemies. Early Europeans were said to have died due to this plant’s toxicity. In actuality, there were no reported deaths at the time of my research.

This tree has waxy green leaves with a brownish trunk and bushy branching much like many North American apple trees. The fruit is green, sweet, if you dare, and about 2cm in diameter. All parts secrete a white latex type sap (big warning with any plant), so it is imperative that no part be touched. A surprising danger is that even standing underneath this tree with or without rain can cause symptoms. No part of this tree makes good kindling or firewood. Inhaling the smoke or getting it in the eyes can give rise to the same symptoms as direct contact.

While mortality does not seem to be of great concern, severe burning of the skin and internal organs, conjunctivitis (eye irritation and redness), blindness, and internal bleeding can be significant findings. If ingested there is burning of the mouth, throat, and esophagus. Gastro-intestinal bleeding, dysarthria and dysphagia (difficulty talking and swallowing), as well as difficulty breathing are serious. There may be isolated cases where the heart rate and respirations are slowed, this may represent an isolated phenomena or be part of a histamine response (allergy).

Treatment is straight forward and almost too simple. Immediately wash the affected areas with soap and water and allow up to 8-12 hours for symptoms to resolve if Manchineel is the definite culprit. Antihistamines (oral and topical) have been used if there are no allergies to them. Flush the eyes with sterile water if affected. As with any foreign substance, any signs of progression, an early anaphylactic reaction, visual difficulty, bleeding, or change in vital signs should be evaluated immediately by a qualified physician.

The author, Dr. Robin Minks is a neurologist and general practice physician, as well as a captain and world traveler. He served in the U.S. Navy and has practiced medicine for over 27 years.