Wednesday, January 28, 2009

APPENDICITIS! but all ends well



Doug’s feeling a little indigestion, but he’s ready to leave Isla Mujeres. So we bobble our way downwind along the coast of Quintana Roo, staying so close to the reef we can mostly see it break, because that’s where the two-knot-against-us current isn’t. Offshore we can also see the sportfishers working the big drop out from 100-meters, so it doesn’t really matter that the charts are minimally detailed. We know where we aren’t and it’s a good day to be doing exactly what we’re doing.

But Doug finally says, I think we’d better stop at Puerto Moreles. Yes, sir! We anchor, he sleeps, all curled up, takes the occasional charcoal pill, one of the half dozen over-the-counter remedies that constitute our ‘medical kit’, takes a shower, sleeps, and moans, and sleeps. Next morning springs to life, immediately wilts.

Ashore I located El Centro de Salud, open and not busy. Bad sign (and good) Doug, in substantial pain, is ready to go there right away. I’ve been parsing symptoms from a yard sale medical dictionary and believe we’re steaming towards appendectomy. The clinic doctora concurred.

Within the hour we were in a taxi bouncing towards a private hospital, Hospital Americano, in Cancun, recommended by a man we met on the street who spoke English and thought the public hospital would be too busy and other private hospitals too expensive. Isn’t that how you make all your decisions too?

It’s a job site, busted concrete in buckets and rebar sticking out of the walls, but the Urgencia door is open and we’re ushered into a reception room by a concerned woman who, with little formality, listens to our broken Spanish, orders a blood test and an ultrasound. Forces are marshalling around us, including English-speakers and a gastrointestinal surgeon (in Dockers!).

Yes, they say, the appendix. Doug collapses into a wheelchair which goes up the elevator into room 309, clean, plain, simple, clean. There’s protocol, first this, then this, which I find reassuring. Doug gets an IV, the surgical team gets phone calls, and there’s business protocol too, a swipe of my Visa card and a Hail-Mary phone call to Maryland’s Carefirst international Blue Card division, who offers translation service and ‘medical guidance’ but who knows what else?

Well, I’m exceeding my allotted page per view, so I’ll cut to the chase. The organ had ruptured, but by about 6 PM it was gone forever and Doug had been fitted with a gasket and a drainage bag, plus a couple of small ‘puncture wounds’. I didn’t even know removal would be laparascopic until it already was! We both slept to the comforting sound of the IV pump.

Next day I shanghaied a cruiser off the street (good thing we’re all so easy to spot!) for help moving the boat to a mooring behind a seawall in a marina - one less thing to worry about. The cruising community is wonderful in that, and many other, respects.

And I must say, this hospital was just right for us – a small family-style place, not corporate, B&B rather than resort. Records were handwritten, or typed, not a computer in sight (except in accounting!), but so what? The ultrasound was there, the IV drip machine (that half the nurses were too short to hang bags onto), the laparascopic whatever in the operating room. Carefulness and good intent was in the air, plus the surgeon had done hundreds of appendectomies. We didn’t know any of this in the beginning, and maybe should have found out, but how?

Eventually it became almost fun. The nurses trained Doug to report pee-pee and poo-poo. Soup and jello came from the cafeteria downstairs. Doug shuffled around on ‘paseo’ with his skinny wheeled ‘novia’ firmly clinging to his arm, watched TV (whole ‘nother story there, and not pretty!) and slept all he wanted.

Dealing with medical emergency is not a situation you can ever really prepare for, or, if you felt satisfactorily armed, you’d have so little liberty left, why bother? So I’m sticking to my general world view, which is that the orbit of Galivant and her crew intersects with many other unseen orbits and cycles, Halley and Hale-Bopp, shipwreck and disease, but also benevolence and good fortune, all distributed despite us (my inner Calvinist is overriding the Buddhist here).

We had a near miss from a perilous encounter, but maybe now we’ve paid our current ’bad luck tax’ and we’ll get back to normal life ASAP. Doug said that if he had actually died, it would have been doing something he wanted to do, sailing in Mexico.

I just wish I could stop that sympathetic throbbing in my own iliac quadrant!

Normal programming resumes shortly.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bienvenidos a Mexico!


This is the cold front we raced to Isla Mujeres, and as the cheery lighthouse and flat waters show, we made it! In this nice anchorage, we will not have to worry about the dreadful effects of twenty plus knots of north wind against four knots of Yucatan Gulf Stream current that is happening just over the hill.

It was a trip of about three and a quarter days from Key West, maybe 362 miles? There’s a superstition about bad luck for starting a trip on a Friday, but it was trumped by a full moon, a fair breeze and a weather window just our size. Bad luck might also be ignoring opportunities like these. So we downloaded a satellite image of the ocean currents, made a last cell call to Verizon to cancel our service (out from under that monthly nut!) and motored out the Northwest Channel from Key West, bound for Mexico.

It was pretty nice, too, with that full moon over pale shallowish water that glowed green even in the dark. Our last view of US territory, other than the arbitrary ‘economic zone’ on the chart, was a row of shrimpers, like dogs at a fence, patrolling the perimeter of the Dry Tortugas Protected Maritime Zone at dawn the next day.

One of the greatest new toys aboard is the AIS, which tells us when a ship is within a dozen miles. Better yet, it displays name, bearing, distance, closest point of approach and even dimensions and destination. So instead of ‘ships passing in the night’, we had the Harriette N and the Laura Schulte, 28’ draft, or 584 feet long, bound for Santo Tomas or Lagos, carrying hazardous cargo Class A or Class B, passing within 1.65 miles, or 4.72, in 14 minutes, or 28.

I’d been expecting a larger US Coast Guard presence, maybe even rafts of Cubans, but, other than the ships in bunches, one fast sport-fish was all we saw, and all we heard on the radio was the increasingly distance voice of “US Coast Guard sector Key West.”

I can also report that Cuba has no ‘loom’. When the sun goes down it is dark there. They have not been afflicted with the stain of the mercury vapor lamp, or overlit in any other way, and the night sky remains a presence, and place of beauty and wonder.

Back in the old days, we would have lurked offshore waiting for daylight to enter any strange new harbor. And we are each cautious people in our way. But we did have enough faith in the various data-providing services aboard, electronic charts foremost, reinforced by radar, plain GPS, paper charts and even rough dead reckoning, that we took on the mile-and-a-half wide south entrance to Bahia Mujeres in the dark, and lived to tell the tale. In fact, after a hot shower and a glass of wine, we just slept straight through til morning, when the main act of this voyage really begins.

Into the Keys


Life looks pretty good in the Florida Keys. Boot Key Harbor is quite full of boaters and boats contentedly swinging bow to stern in the vast mooring field, and Key West is brimming with tourists. Jugglers and mimes and unicyclists and fire eaters all cajole the sunset crowds in Mallory Square. The man with the manic laugh who trains cats is still putting on his show – I personally might be wishing for a different life by now. And the cats? They walk and jump and sit, but their tails are switching all the time. I wonder???
The Navy has roiled up the anchorage, insisting that everyone move 400 yards from Fleming Island (present limit is 100 yards), saying that more munitions are being stored there and boaters should be clear of the ‘explosive zone’.
But we are focused on business. My bicycle shuttles too and fro on errands, last minute laundry, groceries, mail, phone calls, reordering our lives, again. Hardly time to admire the palms, cycads and datura that burst through every picket fence, the sweet old cottages and the art-encrusted bicycles, not to mention a cast of characters who could almost fill a bar in Star Wars.
And now, finally, taking a look at the sailing directions from here to Mexico, it seems there's quite a stir of ocean between us and our destination.


Sunday, January 4, 2009

21 Bridges between West Palm and Ft. Lauderdale


SOUTH FLORIDA via WATERWAY:
We did this section once on Absolute years ago and thought ‘never again.’ But the offshore weather was gusty and contrary, so... There are roughly 21 opening bridges between West Palm Beach and Ft. Lauderdale, - they, plus Ft. Pierce to the north and Miami to the south are the ‘safe’ ocean inlets, or in our case, outlets. Most bridges have schedules, hour and half hour, and even if you step smartly you can’t quite get them all timed right.
We got lucky, following a sand barge through a couple unscheduled openings. The gears under several bridges looked freshly painted, in peach and lime, or whatever those Florida football team colors are. Not a single squashed pigeon either, here in the land of pelicans.
Before the buildings got too tall and too numerous, we could roll out the jib for a power-assist. We even found an anchorage on the waterway, north of Ft. Lauderdale at Lettuce Lake (no lake, no lettuce).

Next day, Christmas Eve, we droned on. The weather was squally, the sky dark and for while we thought there had been some disaster – there were no people, no lights in the houses, and Santas and snowmen were collapsed in puddles on the lawns. But then the landscapers and pool boys appeared, and there was always traffic being stopped for us on the bridges. I could imagine people cursing the delay, or, I hoped, being glad for the respite.

Florida is said to have one of the highest unemployment rates and highest foreclosure rates in the country (also highest number of lightening strikes), but it’s hard to say what we were seeing when we saw so many empty buildings. The traffic reports are always full of congestion, breakdowns and delays.

In the “how times have changed” department, I hooked up my new wifi antenna (thanks Alf 124, whoever you may be) while waiting for a bridge, and was able to send a digital photo to a supplier, call him and arrange for the correct part, and have it shipped to an address I arranged in Key West, all in the 20 minutes we waited for the bridge!

We even bashed our way out the Ft. Lauderdale channel that Christmas Eve afternoon, but when the short steep seas kept washing the deck, the wind moved well forward, and the GPS quit, we turned around, slunk apologetically back through SE 17th St. and Las Olas bridges again, and anchored in the middle of the Middle River, alone.

Good thing too, because just then Amazon came around the bend. Next day we had a nice brunch (shrimp and grits) in the cockpit. Conditions lightened all around, and we spent Christmas night reaching down the coast to Miami, chatting with family on the cell phone all the way.