I sailed solo along the Nicaraguan coast, trying to cover some distance, but it felt like I was dragging a dead whale. The bottom paint was shot after about 8000 miles, and the hull was a living reef.
I anchored in a remote bight in the coast, donned snorkeling gear, and jumped in. I scraped the propeller first, as I always do, and felt stinging all over my body.
I scraped the whole bottom of Condesa – about a two-hour job – and got stung like hell. The stinging was tolerable as long as I kept my mind on the job. I’d only stop to pull off a full-on tentacle when I saw one wrapped my face.
They might have been stray Portuguese man-o-war tentacles that got chewed up in the surf and sent adrift. Whatever they were, they contained the projectile nematocysts that stinging invertebrates use for defense and killing food. (I learned this later, after reading the Merck Manual and Dr. David Eastman’s First Aid Afloat.)
I toughed it out until Condesa’s bottom was reasonably clean, then got the hell out of the water and tore all the gear off. It stung worse. The salt water had had a cooling effect and once I was out in the air my skin burned. I ran for the deck shower to wash it all off, but it turns out this was a very bad idea.
According to the Merck Manual and First Aid Afloat, fresh water causes the nematocysts to fire. Only salt water should be used to wash off the stingers. Silly me, I thought sea water would just have more stingers in it.
Shower of fire! Shower of fire! The pain was debilitating, especially on my face, the razor burn of all razor burns. I felt woozy and puked over the side. I dived for the medical kit, which contained an Epi-Pen. If I couldn't breath I’d Pulp Fiction myself.
I thought it was the start of an allergic reaction or shock, and I was by myself on a very remote stretch of coast. The only person I’d seen in the last day was some guy riding a burro on the beach.
I’d heard somewhere that alcohol was good for such stings, so I dumped half a bottle of rubbing alcohol over me and rub-a-dub-dubbed. This brought immediate relief, enough to get into the books and read what to do. The alcohol was the right thing, as would have been vinegar, baking soda, or anything to change the PH of my skin. After that the books recommended hot water compresses, then to cover my body with a baking soda paste and scrape it off with a dull knife. Since I didn’t have that much baking soda, I forwent the knife-scraping.
The hot water seemed to neutralize the poison, at least to where I didn’t feel sick anymore.
I should have done the scraping. I took another fresh water shower that night and it was shower of fire all over again. The nematocysts can lay dormant for hours, waiting for their trigger, and the poison stays intact, even after hot water and alcohol.
The books predicted I would have oozing pustules all over my body. The next day I had nasty little blisters everywhere, or oozing pustules, if you prefer, but thankfully my face was spared, which is odd since my face hurt the worst.
Constellation Canis Major, rendered in oozing pustules on my left flank: