Galapagos to Marquesas

We safely arrived in Marquesas in French Polynesia after leaving Galapagos April 16th. Galapagos was amazing and seems far away now after we sailed 3045 nautical miles over 20 days to arrive here in Nuku Hiva May 6th. All of the highs and lows and the excitement of the Pacific crossing are here on a video we made (sit down with some popcorn in the evening, it’s 45 min). I had so much fun making this video, it’s a great way to tell a story.

Meanwhile, here are more pics of Galapagos

Sea Lions everywhere
The comically elegant Brown Pelican

In Galapagos, BBC filmed the hatching of marine iguanas and by chance caught on film the first time, snakes hunting together en masse. Really, check out this video, it’s an amazing piece of cinematography. There are more videos of our sights in Galapagos at the same YouTube channel above 🙂

En route to Galapagos

Twelve hours into our seven day sail to Galapagos, we lost electricity. The smart batteries communicate with an app on our phone, and there was message saying « Disabled by remote ».

Navionics, our navigation app, was glitching too, advising us to try again later because it couldn’t connect with the GPS satellite.

I admit, the thought crossed my mind that these events marked the start of a global cyberattack and the beginning of World War III.

So as the sun started to set, we sailed a parallel route with massive container ships coming out of the busiest port in the world, with the tacit agreement between us that they don’t run us over provided we have on running lights and throw off an AIS signal. Both lights and AIS require power.

Ian put on an headlamp and started checking each connection from battery to battery monitoring system (aka BMS) while I hand-steered. When he couldn’t solve it, he called the technician in Grenada—Jean-Michel—and explained the problem in French on our scratchy SatPhone connection. J-M tried to explain how to trouble-shoot an unsolvable problem such as a malfunctioning BMS or cyberattack. Bottom line, the two of them couldn’t figure out what went wrong and instead J-M helped Ian bypass the BMS so we had lights, AIS and autopilot to return to Panama safely.

We sailed back through the night arriving the next morning exactly where we started the day before. Turns out there was no global cyberattack. So we seemed to have a faulty BMS.

Then the following morning, the whole system appeared to heal itself so we set sail the next day—Galapagos Version 2.0.

And again, we lost power, but this time we were farther along and Ian knew how to bypass the BMS so we’d have power for essentials. The BMS basically protects the batteries, so when full, the batteries stop taking power from the solars, when hot they slow down, when almost empty they turn off. By overriding the BMS, we could have the basics in power but had to keep an eye on the health of batteries.

Departing Orca

We managed to catch some wind and other times we motored through glassy seas. Sunset brought dozens of Dolphins, playing in the wake of the bow. And one afternoon, a large pod of Orcas came up beside the boat, which was amazing to see them up close.

Crossing the equator
A trap of Red-Footed Boobie

Nearing Galapagos, Red-Footed Boobies started roosting each evening on the pulpit. The collective noun for Boobies is congress or trap. Both are suitable because like politicians at a congress, they nip at one another, deterring others from landing as they jostle for prime spots for the night. Likewise, they’re a trap. We initially thought “Oh how fun, nature up close” – but its a trap, because once settled in, they don’t leave and it’s not fun to clean the deck off each morning of solidified mounds of vomit and guano.

We arrived at San Cristobal Island in the evening, and prepared to clear customs the next morning.

Galapagos is a national park belonging to Ecuador. Ecuador got independence from Spain almost two hundred years ago, and since then, they have had one hundred changes of government and twenty constitutions. One article I read describes a history of “unbridled political warfare” between the right and left. But somewhat of a blessing, tapped oil reserves were not as big as originally estimated, so Ecuador stopped drawing attention from the fossil fuel industry who always seem to be behind civil foment. As a result, Ecuador is not distracted by oil money and is taking its environmental stewardship of Galapagos seriously.

Brown Pelican, often described as comically elegant when they stun fish by
launching a spastic free fall into the water

This is all to say that clearing customs in Galapagos is serious–highlights include: engage agent in G to manage our check in, proof of covid vaccination, scrubbed bottom of boat of any and all growth and send photos to agent, proof of fumigation of boat two days prior to departure, clean out pantry of offending foods (e.g. chia seeds), employ bypass of black water dischage, stock up on absorbent pads in case of gas/oil spill on boat and eco-friendly detergent and dish soap, set up garbage and recycling separation containers, and a bunch of other things. Total cost for this as well as every type of plausible permit was $2200 USD.

We had heard about the process from other sailors and we were prepared for the ten people to board the boat to review each aspect of the check in file. Of course the first thing one agent noted was that we have a (legally purchased) Humpback Whale vertebrae from Bequia mounted to the wall in the saloon. He asked what else we had, explaining that finding any other pilfered items of nature on the boat at departure would results in confiscation and fines. So we declared an embarassing amount of pilfered nature that Ian has accrued on his travels, and the agent photographed, documented, wrapped and taped up each piece and left us with solemn instructions we must not remove anything from Galapagos.

But it has been worth it–Galapagos is absolutely amazing. We plan to visit three islands, some of the highlights so far are the enormous sea lion population who hang out wherever they feel like it, rays, turtles, sharks, and marine iguana. The biggest highlight was swimming with a 15m pregnant whale shark – check out some of our video footage here and this Guardian article on the endangered whale shark. As always, you can check out our place in the world here. (Oh yes, and a new BMS is on the way courtesy of Ian’s brother Doug and FedEx)

Sea lions everywhere
Sea lion feeding in a fish ball
Green turtle
Eagle rays
Galapagos marine iguana
Beautiful beaches

The whole Panama story

In the marina on the Atlantic side of Panama, on one side of our berth there were mangroves full of mosquito-eating songbirds, and on the other side, there was jungle that hadn’t seen a hurricane for fifty years. Everything about the jungle was thick and tall and large. Throughout the day, we’d hear calls from howler monkeys that sound like Targarian dragons warning their approach.

Here, we spent most of the month having daily discussions about fixing what appeared to be a leaking, hemophiliac transmission. Ian had lists of pre-Pacific boat jobs that ranged from critical to luxury additions but we prioritized the transmission — as in the piece that transmits power from the diesel engine to the shaft-mounted prop that spins the propeller to propel the boat forward, which for me, sounded critical for a planned circumnavigation.

A haul out to fix the transmission
Nervous smile but nothing bad happened

It may have been heatstroke but when observing the propeller shaft spin, we both thought we could see a slight wobble. We hauled the boat out for a week and took everything apart to check that straight things were straight (they were) and sealed things were sealed (they were not). With a new transmission installed snug to the shaft with the grace permitted from a flexible coupling ring, we dropped back in the water and started stocking the boat with supplies, eyeing the Plimsoll line (1).

This food goes in that cupboard

Stocking up for two people for a Pacific crossing isn’t that onerous. I may have put more thought into my supply needs when working in the arctic. The only thing to keep in mind is that Panama has cheap booze and the South Pacific does not. So in addition to lots of flavour boosters (e.g. sundried tomatoes, curry paste, toasted sesame oil) and the kilos of vacuum-sealed Manchego, pancetta and dried saucisson) we have 50 litres of boxed wine and 12 litres of rum stored under the floorboards of the boat (note, this is not for me).

The day before the Canal transit, our friends Michael and Krishan arrived from Toronto as crew for the crossing – our first visitors since getting the boat.

Michale Krishan and Ian

In my mind, the Panama Canal, that connection between the Atlantic and Pacific trade route, was a means to an end. I really didn’t care about what the Canal represented in terms of human ingenuity and its mark on industrialization, provided we got to the Pacific. My knowledge of the Canal was limited.

First, I knew that the building of the Canal resulted in thousands of workers’ death due to Yellow Fever (also called vómito negro in Spanish, for the ominous black vomit appearing prior to death). It was the Cuban epidemiologist, Carlos Juan Finlay, who made the connection that mosquitoes transmit Yellow Fever, and this is one of the creation stories about how global health research came about i.e. how to control disease so it does not impede the progress of industrialization.

The second thing I knew was that the area around the Canal is one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth due to the diverse habitats you get from merging the north and south continents, adding in range of elevation, the tropical jungle and the fresh and saltwater estuaries. I also knew that this area is home to the Smithsonian Research Centre, where you get the merging of young grad students and apex predator researchers resulting in a predictable #metoo investigation.

But the engineering design of the Canal? I had not given it any thought.

Webcam screenshot, we’re rafted to a catamaran in bottom right corner

So it came as a surprise to me that I was awestruck when we entered the first Canal lock to begin our ascent to Gatun Lake, and the large lock doors that are over one hundred years old closed behind us and the water began to rise. I found myself moved by the sheer size of this engineering ingenuity and the profound mark its construction has made on global industrialization (both good and bad).

A shorter distance to cover than the Suez Canal, yet it was markedly more costly and challenging than the Egyptian desert project that just had to traverse at sea-level through sand, not ascend and descend blasting through volcanic rock. Three attempts were made to build the Canal, starting in 1850, the first two failed because of high costs and high worker deaths. One engineer arrived for work with his own coffin, not expecting to return home alive.

Conversely, our experience transiting was relatively comfortable–popping a bottle of Proseco during the evening on Gatun Lake. 

Before entering the locks, we rafted to two other sailboats. It was late afternoon, and we’d be going through the first three locks of the Canal in the evening, arriving at Gatun Lake, an artificial lake flooded to save on additional Canal construction. And the following morning, we crossed the lake and start the 23 metre descent to sea level through the final three locks, arriving in the evening on the other side. A different pilot–a guy to give Ian direction–joined us each day, and we hired one line handler, Omar, to help with the lines that get thrown to us by the guys on Canal wall. We tie these lines to the boat and our boat is held in place while the water swirls into (or out of) the lock. Then once up (or down) a level, the doors at the opposite end open, we release the lines, and we motor to the next lock. 

Et voilà. As if by miracle, you skip months at sea and the confrontation at Cape Horn where the Atlantic and Pacific meet. Instead, suddenly overnight, you’re in the Pacific Ocean.

Exiting the last lock to the Pacific

Panama Canal Index

Years to build, during the third and final attempt: 10

Year opened: 1914

Distance across (km): 77

Estimated number of deaths per km, mostly Black workers from Caribbean: 500

Hours of operation since opening: 365 days 24/7

Number of ship to transit in 2021: 13 342

Toll of largest ship (USD): 450 000

Cheapest toll recorded, 1928 – Richard Halliburton swam through (cents): 36

Our toll (USD): 2500

1. plimsoll line: I’ve wanted to use that word in a sentence since I learned it in Physics 101 – it is the maximum weight you can add to a boat and still remain seaworthy.

Pilot and Omar — so professional, loved these guys
All these boats squeeze through the Canal everyday
Late afternoon waiting to enter the locks
No barfing 🙌🏻
Michael catching the lines for the bow
Omar securing the aft lines from the guys on the Canal wall
Big ships next to mega ships

Panama en bref

Hike in the jungle

Panama is beautiful and we’ve been busy getting ready to head across the Pacific. In a few minutes we depart for Galapagos and internet permitting, I may upload a written blog piece about Panama, hosting friends from Canada, and crossing through the Canal when we arrive in Galapagos in a week. Meanwhile enjoy the pics here and in the Gallery

Happy Spring!

Talking navigation, friends from Toronto Michael & Krishan arrive for a visit and crew for us through the Panama Canal
Lining up to enter the Canal
And we made it 💕

Guna Yala Islands

After Cartagena, we planned to spend a few weeks making our way up the coast of Panama, visiting the Guna Yala archipelago (formerly the San Blas). Technically, you could visit a different island every day for a full year–ranging from a white sand, deserted island with a single coconut tree to populated larger islands with bridges and shops. The area is collectively governed by the Guna people who have sagely held off gold miners and mega hotel developers.

This place is remote enough that our navigation map shows a big blank white space of “Uncharted Waters”. We used a guidebook of surveyed/sounded maps from Eric Bauhaus called Panama Cruising Guide. Mr. Bauhaus graciously lists waypoints to follow that will keep your boat off a reef, an unfortunate event that occurs for non-waypoint followers each year.

We had one month of provisions, prepared for no internet, and hoped we’d have at least a few visits from the Guna in pirogues selling fruit, veg and fish. Instead, within a day of arrival at a pretty anchorage, we were visited by ‘Celery’ in a dug-out canoe who – of course! sold SIM cards with unlimited data and anything else we wanted.

The data access is island-specific, and Ian discouraged me from choosing an anchorage based on proximity to the cell phone tower. It turned out that the most beautiful island and reef with the best fishing also had the worst cell phone reception, so we became accustomed to our cell phones lazily ping-ing off faraway towers to receive messages from home hours or days later.

We also had regular visits from families selling molas, the intricate fabric art so recognizable in the area. And we had regular visits from fishermen selling lobster, squid, and reef fish. They assured Ian that spearfishing is permitted (actually we learned that it is illegal, along with kitesurfing and boat chartering) and Ian ended up fishing a few days with some young guys, bonding over spearguns and breath-holding.

The area is pretty amazing: clear cerulean blue and turquoise waters, moderately healthy reefs, really friendly locals. We’d put it as the number 1 spot we’ve visited since getting the boat. If you’re interested, don’t let a pandemic or the heavy carbon footprint of getting here prevent you from seeing this place – even with the most optimistic emission scenarios, these islands are on the global top-ten list for disastrous impact of storm surges and extreme flooding. But the Guna Yala collectively has a strategic relocation plan. They own the land on the mountainous mainland as well and have already started building infrastructure. I feel like they should advise developers in Miami.

Spearfishermen and spearfishermen-to-be
Discussing improved spear propulsion
The sweet sound of a Li-Powered grinder to sharpen one’s spear

Beautiful Cartagena

We were both initially a bit disappointed in Cartagena.

For me, my ideal place is a quaint, quiet town where people keep to themselves and there’s only a cafe/bookstore and a posh epicurean shop that regularly stocks Manchego cheese. One of Ian’s ideal places is a social anchorage, where, blissfully oblivious to the risk of food poisoning, 120 sailors will organize a potluck Christmas dinner, as was his experience in 2006 in Cartagena.

When we first arrived, after a bureaucratic and expensive check-in, we headed into the old city, which is hot, bustling, and packed with local holiday tourists. Way too overstimulating.

“It’ll grow on you,” Ian reassured me. During his last circumnavigation, he was here for four months and the marina, Club Nautico, hosted a potluck dinner at Christmas. Colombia is one of his favourite countries and Cartagena was one of the highlights of his last trip.

But since then, things have changed in Colombia. There has been a very successful peace agreement between the government and the rebels in 2016 ending a 52-year civil war. And Club Nautico has moved on. Before, 90% of their clientele were international cruiser sailboats. Now, 90% of their clientele are the thriving Colombian middle-class who prefer powerboats. And apparently (or should I say, mercifully), the powerboat folks do not do potluck at Christmas.

So we both had to shift our expectations. I had to adjust to that Latin American pulse. Ian had to reset his expectations regarding the anchorage. On one hand, the anchorage is a pumping, partying, rolling anchorage of passing speedboats all day long, many playing loud music – a cover of Elton John’s Rocketman being the most popular. On the other hand, the closest grocery store is amazing and stocks an endless supply of Manchego.

Once I caught up on sleep after getting through The Washing Machine, and I wasn’t agitated and angry that this place is loud and friendly, we started to take it all in. To begin with, Colombia is a COVID-conscious country, having been slammed this past June. Vaccination rates are high and Cartagena has COVID measures comparable to Toronto circa-October.

So it all felt relatively unfettered to experience Cartagena, a beautiful old walled city with well-preserved architecture from the 15th century. The highlights have been:

  • Sitting in artist Botero sculpture-littered-plazas with cafes serving ceviche and mojitos at noon while bearing witness to a wedding through the open doors of an old cathedral
  • Patio dinners with ceviche and gin Basilico cocktails
  • Rooftop bars with a sunset view of the plaza while sipping pisco sours (and eating ceviche)
  • The Museo de Arte Moderno showcasing Latin American art from the 1950s and small side streets in Getsemani barrio with local contemporary artists working in open-air studios draped in bougainvillea
  • And friendly taxi drivers, ours was Luis, who will shuttle all over town, calling all their contacts to try and find the mRNA covid booster or a machine shop to custom fabricate a backup stainless steel bolt for the autopilot (my aversion to hand steering means I do not want that puppy to break)
Pisco Moai bottle from Easter Island, mounted on the wall of Afrikii

Finally, we also celebrated Ian’s completion of a circumnavigation. One way of looking at a circumnavigation is going around the world but you can spiral, climbing the latitudes and never cross your path. Another way of looking at it is when you “cross a path”. He sailed around the world but hadn’t ended up in any of the same places twice until we arrived in Cartagena. We had a drink of pisco from the Easter Island Maoi bottle that is mounted on the wall of the boat that Ian got in 2007. This bottle has yet to complete its own circumnavigation.

Now we’re heading off to the San Blas Islands in Panama where there will be no regular internet. Happy New Year everyone ❤

Get your Declaracion de Renta typed out here on a manual Olivetti
We voted this the best ceviche in Cartagena, Plaza Santo Domingo (it’s under new management this year so ignore the google reviews except mine)
Calle de San Juan, Gestsemani barrio, lined with studios of young artists
Come for the food ❤ (Ian patiently waiting for the picture to be taken so he can eat)

Kuujjuaq->Carriacou->Kralendijk->Cartagena

After leaving Grenada to visit family in Canada, I returned to work in Kuujjuaq in the arctic and Ian returned to the boat in Grenada. By the time I got back to Grenada, he had muscled through a couple of COVID lockdowns but still managed to get through a ton of boat jobs – including the installation of a Hydrovane self-steering wind vane. This is a brilliant piece of engineering. It’s this mondo steel frame mounted on the back of the boat that once you set the course, the ‘vane’ directs its rudder to steer for you, sans electrical power. So we have two steering options – the autopilot and the wind vane – may we never have to hand steer insh’Allah.

While waiting for the arrival of the fancy lithium batteries that we ordered, we sailed up to Carriacou, one of the islands at the top of Grenada with a cool beach vibe. We rented a car and did a loop of the island, wandering around the northeast corner trying to find “The Boat Builders of Carriacou”. These guys are famous for building these solid racing/fishing boats using the island’s white cedar (this is a great film about them). We found one guy who was set to complete his fishing trawler by January. Two years to build (he has a day job) and paid off in two months during tuna season.

Then, with amazing luck given COVID, quarantine, and tight timing, we met up with my brother when he and my nephew-in-law brought his boat down from St.Vincent after being hauled out since June 2019 when we left it there after crossing the Atlantic. It’s a great loop to the storyline – had I not done the crossing in 2019, I probably would not have met Ian, had I not met Ian, I definitely would not be living on a boat now.

With new lithium batteries and solar panels installed, we sailed off into the sunset, heading due west to Bonaire and spent the three-day sail discussing how we were going to use all this reliable electricity (so far, we have a new hot water heater and iron).

Bonaire is an island known for diving. We got a mooring on the lee side (the calm side), near the capital Kralendijk, where the shore quickly drops off to 130 feet depth. Folks scuba dive by just gearing up and walking out the front door of their hotel. Ian took a freediving course to complement his spearfishing – that is (a) to improve his chance of survival (in my opinion) and (b) to increase his catch (in his opinion). He can now go to 100 feet and hold his breath for 3 minutes and 45 seconds.

Bonaire is part of the smattering of Dutch islands in the Caribbean, and they all have this scrappy vibe to them. They serve iguana, the massive wild-caught descendants of dinosaurs, on the menu. They don’t pretend it’s some delicacy but it’s practical and tastes like chicken. They also make liquor from cactus, ’cause it’s practical and tastes like alcohol.

When comparing Grenada to Bonaire, we noted the difference in their historical narrative. In Grenada, plaques at tourist sites state that this factory/wall/monument/fortress was built by African slaves brought against their will to the Caribbean to be forced to work in dangerous and inhumane conditions. In Bonaire, the plaque at the salt flats describes the “small huts constructed during slavetimes as camping facilities for slaves…these huts were used as sleeping quarters and places to put away personal belongings of the working teams”. Our guidebook tells us slaves could walk back to Rincon on the weekend (30 km) to visit their families. I think Bonaire is glossing over the context that ‘slave’ and ‘salt flat’ conjure up.

We kept an eye on a weather window to leave Bonaire and sail to Cartagena, Colombia. It’s a three-day downwind sail (i.e. comfortable) with only one vomit-inducing stretch called The Washing Machine where the large Magdelena River exits into the Caribbean and the current is confused and fierce and the waves are high. The weather window showed 15-20 knots at The Washing Machine in the early morning with good light to watch for detritus exiting the river (like trees, and perhaps urban legend–but a floating school bus was once sighted there). The actual event unfolded with us hitting The Washing Machine in the middle of the night in 30-38 knots of constantly shifting winds, confused waves, and once, the boat rolled perilously to one side, water crested the cockpit, and I may have screamed.

We arrived safely in the beautiful old town of Cartagena feeling a bit beat up but quickly found respite in enjoying ceviche served fifty different ways.

You can check out where we are on the map with our sat phone link here.

Paradise Beach Club in Carriacou
Carriacou boat builder finishing his tuna trawler
Crossing paths with my brother Paul and his son-in-law Joaquín
In Bonaire, this tastes like chicken
Salt flats of Bonaire
Huts where teams of slaves working the salt flats could camp and store their things

La Soufrière erupts in St Vincent

We knew that the volcano had been rumbling for the past week and half. But it wasn’t until we took a road trip to the southern point of Bequia Island, in St Vincent and the Grenadines, that we learned that La Soufrière had begun to erupt ‘effusively’.

That afternoon, we had taken a bus south with Shiv and Olivier, two backpackers, to check out Toko’s Bar where whalers congregate. This is the only place other than the arctic where traditional whale hunting is permitted by the International Whaling Commission–‘Traditional’ meaning harpoons and open boats, and ‘whale’ meaning something the size of a Greyhound bus.

When we arrived at Toko’s, we looked like a small band of hippie tourists (which I guess we are). The steps down to the beachfront bar are shaded by a huge almond tree, and the stair’s decorative handrail is the rib and vertebrae of a Humpback. Large dories painted pacific blue, lemon yellow, and pepto-bismal pink were overturned at the beach’s edge.

At first, we thought Toko was suspicious that we were from Greenpeace. We explained we were interested in the whaling…thing… We then realized, he just thought we were idiots when he asked if we were aware that La Soufière was erupting. At this moment.

He pointed to the TV mounted on the wall where everyone was gathered. Government officials spoke very slowly about evacuating 16 000 people from the 5km radius of the eruption. They said the airport was closed. They warned citizens to expect hydro and water outages.

Unphased, Ian got Toko to talk about all things whaling over beers, while I researched ‘volcano-evacuation-preparation’ on my phone.

Unrushed, Ian asked about the hunt, the meat preparation, and how the oil is rendered. In a profound act of trust, Toko brought out a bottle of rendered oil and poured it into a shot-glass and took a swig, then poured more into the same shot-glass and offered to Ian. He lowered his mask and took a swig. Our entourage made plans to return for a whale meat dinner the following evening. Again, everyone (except perhaps me) was pretty chill about the volcano thing.

That evening, we got back to the boat and as the sun began to set, the plume of ash kept rising. And once the sun went down, the plume was lit up with flashes of lightening over the volcano.

Much of the ash that shot up 30 000 feet was blown out to the Atlantic but the rest started to rain down on St Vincent. In the morning, the boat was covered in a couple milimetres of ash, and the air was thick with dust. Breathing in left you with the smell of burnt brick and the feel of grit in your teeth.

At this point, Ian and I were on the same page as far as an evacuation plan. We invited Shiv and Olivier to come along and pulled up anchor in Port Elizabeth, heading south to Tobago Cays to wait for the dust to settle.

Over the next few days, the sky would clear and then there’d be another eruption. The possibility of the airport opening seemed less sure, so we headed to Grenada so I could fly back as planned to work in Canada.

Tobago Cays is a whole blog post itself, but I’m too lazy to write it now, while in quarantine in Toronto before heading to the arctic next week. En bref, small marine park made up of islands and reefs, and lots of turtles and some sharks and rays. Very, very beautiful. I’ll just post pictures below.

Ian’s still in Grenada repairing the auto-pilot, installing a windvane, and replacing the aft toilet. We’ll take a summer hiatus over hurricane season and then we’re back in the fall 😉 À bientôt

Leaving Toko’s bar, Bequia Island
Bones of the humpback outside Toko’s bar
Toko showing Ian whaler paraphernalia, including the atlas vertebrae
The evening of the eruption, in Port Elizabeth, Bequia Island
Sailing Vessel Athea in the evening
Morning after the first eruption
Sunset in Tobago Cays

Dominica

For those of you who have an airline ticket or two sitting in your Checkout, just waiting for a chance to take a holiday in the Caribbean the minute the pandemic abates, may we recommend Dominica.

It’s a relatively small island where all the cool kids go. There are no mega hotels or long stretches of beach. There are little quaint beaches, lush forest, and vibrant neighbourhoods precariously perched on stunning cliffs. It’s between Guadaloupe and Martinique with 73 000 people and presently 9 active COVID cases with ZERO community transmission. They are also well-organized for testing and quarantine. So we sailed from Antigua without a pre-test, and on arrival and day 5, we were tested at the dock, and did a 7-day quarantine

We had stocked up on food and planned a couple of boat jobs. One of the jobs was to put on our scuba gear and scrape the underside of the boat to clean off mollusks, and then we used the rest of the air in our tanks to explore the bottom of the harbour that had a scattered collection of small coral crops. Tucked into various nooks of the coral, we counted 7 lionfish.

Unlike the deliberate upset of the ecosystem of rabbits being introduced to Australia for food, or the Asian carp introduction in the Mississippi to control plankton, lionfish were accidentally introduced to the Caribbean probably via the dumping of exotic aquarium tanks into the ocean. Lionfish are beautiful, have no natural predators, and they can consume every manner of fish that exists on a reef within weeks.

So although its illegal for foreigners to spear fish in Dominica, we decided in good conscience that spear fishing lionfish was a civic duty.

Ian googled how to spear fish them without getting stung by one of their 18 spines that contain a neuromuscular toxin that has the similar chemical composition of cobra venom. His plan was to wear thick leather work gloves, spear them and then use tin snips to clip off all of their spines. This all worked well the first day and we had 5 fresh, small lionfish for dinner.

The second day, the first fish he speared was a good-sized one which he shot through the cheek (not through the brain) and threaded him along his float line, then kicked off to find another fish. Whether the still-alive lionfish swam at him, or Ian thoughtlessly just kicked off in his direction, we’ll never know. But Ian ended up catching 4 spines deep into his tendon just below his ankle.

There was no yelling at first, just an explanation through gritted teeth as he came aboard. I boiled water for heated compresses that supposedly break up the toxin, and I checked online whether there were any death-due-to-lionfish-stings (there have been none). He stripped off his wetsuit, showered off the salt water, then lay down in the cockpit as the excruciating pain set in. He started tylenol, naproxen, benadryl, whiskey, and a favourite spotify playlist. He sang along to an Alpha Blondie reggae version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” through a clenched jaw with added explicatives–stating it was the worst pain he’s ever felt. Other divers on google reported they had pain for about 2 hours. « We’ve got this, » I reassured him. « No need to break quarantine. »

The bruising, muscle strictures, and swelling had started immediately, climbing as high as his calf muscle. I googled again death-rate-lionfish-sting…still came up as zero per cent. I assured him he wouldn’t die, and I assured him he wouldn’t lose his foot (I didn’t actually know that for sure but he needed some conviction on my part in order to muscle through the pain until the toxin wore off).

The lionfish in question was still on the line hanging off the end of the dingy. Wearing the leather work gloves, I pulled him onto the boat still alive, his unblinking saucer eyes staring at me, tracking me as I rummaged around on the boat to find something to smash his head in. We have a priest in the cockpit for this (a wooden hammer used to give the fish it’s last rights) but I used Ian’s weight belt instead and one strong stroke, the eyes stopped their swivelling. Then holding him flat, I used the tin snips to clip off all the spines that are like sheathed hypodermic needles protruding from every side of him. After that, it’s like cleaning any other fish.

Ian’s pain got worse at 4 hours, and still at 6 hours. Then at 7 hours, he got a break and fell asleep for 45 minutes only to be woken up again with excruciating pain. At 8 hours, I put out a call on the radio to the other sailboats in the anchorage explaining the situation and requesting narcotics. We got Tramadol delivered to us by our neighbour boat, and another boat offered us IV morphine if needed. I kept thinking it would be over soon. Instead it was a very long night–14 hours after the sting, the pain went down a notch but the swelling and discolouration was still significant. He still has a very ugly foot 3 weeks later (he started prednisone the next day, compression and elevation, and a green leaf poultice prescribed by the beach bush doctor, and we watched for infection). I think even if he wanted to go spear fishing, he couldn’t fit his foot into his fin.

This also got him out of hiking–of which Dominica has tonnes, each with one or more waterfalls, and some sort of hot spring. The high mountains means it rains every day and everything is lush. The market is full of local fruits and vegetables, fresh fish is available at the end of the day, and Saturday you can buy local goat, beef, or chicken. They seem to be the only island we’ve visited so far that doesn’t have to import all its food, so theoretically, they could safely sit out a zombie apocalypse if need be.

One afternoon, we visited Ian’s Canadian friends Tim and Jessica who have the most amazing place and they do Airbnb (definitely stay here if you come). They sent us off to a little known hot spring. We drove through a gravel pit, over washed out roads, and followed their instructions that once we crossed a little bridge, park then walk through the banana plantation to the river where’s there’s a little beach, then swim across the river quickly because there’s a strong current and at the base of the cliff is a little hot spring hole. There might have been some healing powers in the spring, it was the one day when Ian’s foot looked a little better.

NB: Shout out to Ben P for the consult–turns out Ben did a presentation on medical management of lionfish sting way back in PGY3 😉

Cleaning the first day catch
Day 3 after the lionfish sting
Perhaps a little desperation, trying the bush medicine poultice
Hiking with Jessica and Tim in their neighbourhood

Antigua and Barbuda

Antigua and Barbuda (pronounced An-Tee-Gwa and Bar-Bew-Dah) are beautiful. Antigua has habours surrounded by old volcanic mountains–its English Harbour is a sheltered marina for super yachts, including Bono’s and The Edge’s Cyan–who we keep seeing in different anchorages (their boat, not them). The island of Barbuda is an ancient coral reef, low-lying and much less developed. It’s one town, Codrington, has a tiny grocery store where you can buy local peanuts and tomatoes, as well as imported canned processed cheese (new to me).

Male frigate bird, whose large red pouch signals he’s available for mating

Barbuda has a large frigate bird colony amidst the mangroves trees. The mangrove’s ropey roots act as a fish nursery. Surrounding much of both islands are large stretches of reefs that act as architectural nurseries for the fish and barriers for storm surges. We’ve spent much of our time snorkelling in and around the shallow coral reefs of Nonsuch Bay, Great Bird Island, Maiden Island, Coco Point, and Coral Bay.

Coral core samples, like tree rings, shows the diversity of the Caribbean coral reefs. These samples show population stability over 220 000 years. This means that the diversity of the reefs was maintained over all of human history, including one Ice Age. Just think, of all the changes that occurred on the planet over the last 220 000 years, the Caribbean reefs were unchanged. The coral core samples show elkhorn and staghorn populations, the reef’s main architects, as a constant presence at the sea’s edge and shallow waters, establishing and reestablishing colonies depending on varied sea levels.

But in the last 40 years, the elkhorn and staghorn coral have been reduced by 95% of their original population due to disease and climate change.

Let that sink in.

The reefs were a constant. Nothing phased them. And then in a blink of history, these unassuming sentinels have quietly sounded the alarm confirming our collision for the sixth mass extinction.

Bleached mounds of dead coral look like piles of elephant bones

So I was hopeful to find an obscure 2003 link to a reef restoration project on small islet named Maiden Island. The site describes thousands of artificial reef balls and coral transplants to provide safe space for marine life. When we visited, we found that after 17 years in existence, the coral such as staghorn, which should grow on average 4″ a year, was instead stunted and partially bleached after three major warming events in the last 5 years. The reef ball project seemed to be more of a breakwater solution than a reef restoration project and if you google reef balls, many countries are using them to fortify their shorelines.

We then met Nick Fuller MD, born and raised in Antigua, who rowed across the Atlantic at age 65, authored a book on salvaging, and owns a nearby island. Sadly, this reef restoration project, he told us, lost its benefactor, the now-incarcerated Ponzi scheme financier, Robert Allen Stanford, who is presently serving 110 years in prison in Florida.

The good news is that Ian and I are well and safe, surrounded by moderately climbing COVID cases. The bad news is that we, as in humanity, have less than two generations to change the trajectory of climate changes. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch Chasing Coral available on Netflix and here’s a review of Gate’s new book for net carbon zero or better yet, get involved in 350.org–the UN’s Climate Change Conference is in November 2021 and “…with 70 countries already committed to net zero carbon emissions, it represents the best opportunity in years to make progress. It also comes at a time when the science is more definitive, the technology more cost-effective, and the price of inaction far clearer.” No time like the present to use any and all the political clout you have on behalf of the next generation.

Sergeant Major Damselfish, together with Surgeonfish, ‘garden’ algae on the coral…sheltering here in Blade fire coral (Millepora complanata)
Great star coral (Montastrea cavernosa) with some branching coral

Several thousand artificial reef balls surrounding Maiden Island, Antigua
Barbuda highlands