Eve on Blanquilla Island

Sailing east from the white sand beaches and crystal clear waters of the Los Roques archipelago to Isla la Blanquilla, Venezuela, can be like riding a bike through a tropical storm. Most of the time, both the wind and the current are against you, creating a bumpy and wet passage. The etiology of my problems did not begin with the trip, but some time later with an illness and a rude awakening.

In preparation for my voyage, I anchored southwest of the Los Roques range with a clear view of the lighthouse. This would give me a reef free course to the southeast and then east by dead reckoning only. Watching the picturesque sunset before darkness fell and the lighting of the lighthouse, I surprisingly found myself wishing there was someone nearby to bet with. What a strange thought, but I knew I had the upper hand. I would have bet a few million genuine bolivars, about $2.00 US, that this was the only constantly working navigation light in all of Venezuela.

The surrounding wide beaches, coral heads, and submerged reefs make Los Roques a popular sunbathing and snorkeling destination for mainland Venezuelans during the day. Due to its beauty and remoteness, it has occasionally been the setting for modeling agencies from around the world. In my youth, about a week ago, I would have taken the time for a refresher course on visualizing the female anatomy. However, I had to weigh anchor, lie to myself and think about all the beautiful women in Branquilla, knowing that it was essentially uninhabited except for two Coast Guardsmen and a handful of hungry fishermen. The mind can play tricks on you at sea, so I periodically enjoy tricking it.

Shifting north and northeast winds would have kept me busy if weather had been a factor. It wasn’t, so I divided the difference into a variable 90 degree course plus or minus a few degrees. I smiled as my ketch stretched out its legs and rode the tiny 4 foot waves. My average lately has been 6 to 10 feet. The skies were sapphire blue and the cumulus clouds looked like delicate little balls of cotton candy. I never wanted to see land again…until I put Joe Arroyo’s “Noche de Arreboles” on the CD player and dreamed of Cartagena nights.

The lone palm trees and white beach on the west side of Blanquilla can be seen from over a mile away. I furled the mainsail late because I knew the land would block my wind when I got close. To my surprise, I had to weave between a family sloop and an old schooner that were barely on the shelf. Running further in, I dropped the hook at my favorite spot at 200 meters. West of the palms.

I recognized the sloop captain in Rude Rigin as an old groupie of mine. They are out there… He followed me downwind from St. Kitts for 3 days doing a 2v2 off guard with his brother, constantly changing and trimming sails just to get a better look at me… He was actually threatening to kill me on VHF and SSB radios for giving his wife the wrong antibiotic. Unbeknownst to him, she continued to take them. Within three days his strep throat improved dramatically and he was able to attend to his manly needs. At this point he slid back, lowered a Kevlar wing (genoa stripped) onto his wing-over-wing rig, stowed his lightweight racing spinnakers, and must have dropped the RPM of his smoking diesel below redline.

I woke up to the nastiest banging on my helmet I’ve ever heard. I thought @#%! The Coast Guard couldn’t want beer and cigarettes this early in the morning! As I slowly dabbed at my burning salty eyes with a damp tissue, I could make out the face of, you guessed it, Rude Rigin! “You’ve got to help me… my old woman is on fire. It’s like she’s far away, man!”… I started to tell her that a good antibiotic should take care of it just fine, but she thought better of it. .

My beautiful island was gray and my morning skyrocketed due to the current storm and Rude Rigin. I chased down all my hatches, out onto a wet deck and over lifelines, finally making my way into Rude’s patch, or grim as he called it. As he rowed frantically with each hyperventilation, we slowly zigzagged toward the sloop.

On board, Minnie lay in the cabin 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.” I turned, looking for Rude to get the information from her, finally seeing a black dot swimming on the stern behind the grim one that she forgot to secure. Shaking my head and turning my attention back to Minnie. She appeared slightly scalded, but all of her vital signs were normal. “What were you doing when this happened?” “Nothing, I got on my boat and my head and face and shoulders were on fire.” I asked him: “What did you do before that? Did you take any medication or eat any food that you are allergic to?” “No sir, Oleman and I went ashore early this morning walking around looking for apples.” “There are no apples on this island, Minnie.”

The only chance for the apples was if the American, who once built an airstrip and cabin here years ago, had brought a tree with him. Still, he would have to self-pollinate and there was very little chance he would grow in this arid climate. Was Minnie slightly delusional from her suffering?

“Doc, here are apples like my grandmother used to make butter apple wit. You know…the little green apple kind.” “Did you try them?” “No, I tried to get Ole man to test them, but we didn’t have time before the squall started. I climbed up the tree while Ole man got dirty. Then we got back in the boat and I started getting burned.” just a little bit of time.” “So…your apple tree was on the beach?” “Yes.” She pointed to the fluffy green tree that she could make out in the rain and mist. It was much taller than the surrounding vegetation. This confirmed my suspicions instantly – I had seen this tree on a previous excursion while looking for black coral and crabs.

“Minnie, you’re lucky, darling. Once I clean you up with soap and water, you’ll feel so much better in 8 hours.” “Fortunately, your Ole man did not do what you suggested and ate, Manzanilla de la muerte.” “Uh…” “Yeah! You guessed it.” “Little apple of death”.

Hard. You wonder?… Three days had passed and there was no sign of him. Finally, on the fourth day we heard a loud noise from the west and soon saw a tower of black smoke. The noise continued to intensify until the Coast Guard cutter arrived an hour later. All of the narcotics task force soldiers on deck lined up on the bow in full dress uniforms commemorating their life-saving skills. Rude was soon taken away in a boat as the Venezuelan National Anthem played and soldiers saluted.

Apparently, he had recovered his raft, but lost his oars in the excitement. As a result, he was found adrift near Isle Orchilla, a military complex, severely dehydrated and on a nearly deflated raft. Accused of espionage, once he was able to take his first psychological test, all charges were dropped.

The Manchineel Tree (Manzanella)

This is a beautiful tree usually found in subtropical and tropical arid climates. It reminds me of “The Garden of Eden”. Beauty defies danger.

It can be found throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America, Curacao, and Bonaire. Curaçao puts signs on them, the French West Indies paints red bands around them, however most of the time they are not marked.

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

This tree has waxy green leaves with a brown trunk and bushy branching 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-like sap (big caveat with any plant), so it is imperative that no part is touched. One surprising danger is that even standing under this tree with or without rain can cause symptoms. No part of this tree is good for kindling or making firewood. Inhaling the smoke or getting it in the eyes can cause the same symptoms as direct contact.

Although mortality does not appear to be a major concern, severe burns to the skin and internal organs, conjunctivitis (irritation and redness of the eyes), blindness, and internal bleeding may be significant findings. If swallowed, there is burning in the mouth, throat, and esophagus. Gastrointestinal bleeding, dysarthria and dysphagia (difficulty speaking and swallowing), as well as difficulty breathing are serious. There may be isolated cases where the heart rate and breathing are slower, this may represent an isolated phenomenon or be part of a histamine (allergy) response.

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

The author, Dr. Robin Minks, is a neurologist and general practitioner, as well as a captain and world traveler. He served in the US Navy and has been practicing medicine for over 27 years.

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