Severe shock

We were five or six days from the British Virgin Islands, heavy into the monotony of a trans-Atlantic passage that began in Les Sables d’Olonne, France (home of the Vendée Globe solo around-the-world race). Days and nights had blended into weeks as we kept our boat pointed toward the equator. The swell was its normal 6 to 8 feet and the wind 8 to 12 knots. There were few if any clouds in the pale blue sky. No birds. We encountered few other boats in the weeks since we had reprovisioned in and then departed the Canaries.

It was a beautiful and boring evening, and we had just finished a dinner of canned steak-and-kidney pie. Unlike the succulent fare served up in sturdy English pubs, the canned version requires a strong stomach. The scent alone is to be reckoned with. But our skipper held a soft spot in his palate for the notable English cuisine.

Anxious to make landfall after three weeks at sea, and weary of the day-in, day-out watch routines, we motor-sailed under both engines of the brand-new multi-million-dollar 60-foot catamaran sailboat that we were delivering. Each crewmember had his or her own head and shower and a double bed.

There were four of us onboard. The skipper was an Englishman with somewhere in the realm of 100,000 offshore miles. I was a recent law school graduate between jobs and just married. My wife, to the astonishment of her colleagues at work, very generously allowed my absence for the six weeks necessary for the trip. My watch mate, Debbie, was a Canadian yacht broker. And Ed, the other crew, was a nurse from London who spent his summers racing across the English Channel.

We were all mulling around on deck as we closed another day of trade-wind sailing. To Debbie’s and my chagrin, it was the skipper’s and Ed’s watch. They always had the after-dinner watch. That left Debbie and me, night after night, with the less-sought-after midnight watch. We didn’t get to enjoy either the sunset or the sunrise. But with 30 years of deliveries, the skipper had earned that perk. He set the watch schedule.

Crossing our bow that evening, a half-mile ahead of us, was an old jalopy of a fishing boat, which looked as though its port side had been caved in by Moby Dick. We watched it with interest. It appeared neither seaworthy nor harmful, and it traversed in front of us at what we believed was a safe distance.

We were wrong.

A little farther or a little closer would have been safe distances. A different distance, factored with the speeds of the boats, the wind, and the direction of the swells, would have been enough to prevent the impending accident. The odds must have been millions to one against what was about to happen.

The catamaran’s engines hummed in the background. The light refracted off the endless blue water and the sun on its descent to the horizon was beginning to burn. There was no reason to think that this night would not be like all the others.


The loud cry came suddenly. I looked up and saw the net no more than 10 yards out. It was the green, heavy-duty industrial kind. There was no question where it came from. We were positioned perfectly to run over it. A swell rolled beneath it. Its fluid body easily bent and rose menacingly on top of the sea. It stayed in our path.

Shutting down the engines

We could not turn in time to avoid it. The best that could be hoped for was to shut down the engines. The skipper rushed to throttle back as the tip of our port-side pontoon struck the net. The fiberglass hull of the pontoon scraped along the heavy nylon and plastic. It sounded like a dinghy being pulled up onto a sandy beach. The scratching noise replaced the slowing turn of the propellers and the drone of the engines. We waited.

The propellers did not stop turning in time. The port-side propeller met the resistance of the fishing net’s unforgiving plastic and nylon. It ground violently and angrily to a halt as it encased and wrapped itself in the woven and knotted line. It whined in disapproval as its shaft became thoroughly imprisoned in the tight tangle. The port pontoon kicked at the premature loss of power, jerking the boat.

And then we were dead in the water. The sails flapped and a swell rocked the boat. We raced to look over the stern. The skipper cursed. “Ah, bloody hell!” The net was attached to us like a parasite. It looked alive. It expanded and contracted as if trying to consume some prey.

We stood in silence. We still had the starboard-side engine, but even with that, the drag of the big and heavy net would slow us down by days. It needed to be cut off. In the back of our minds we hoped it could be dislodged from the port-side propeller altogether. With an operational port engine, we would make landfall in the British Virgin Islands at least one day earlier than we would without its use. After three weeks at sea, each day was precious.

There were other factors, too. We had our pride. We would not be defeated by a piece of fishing net. No one wanted to come hobbling into port and have only the story of a stray piece of fishing net to tell.

“Alright, who’s going in?” asked the skipper, breaking the silence. “Jon?” He looked at me. I had gone in a week or two earlier when a fishing line (the kind from a rod and reel) had seized the same propeller.

“I’ll go.”

I was eager. As the first mate, I regarded it as my obligation. And there was the questionable adventure of the unknown. There were miles of dark water beneath us and hundreds of miles around us. I admit that the more reasoned part of me dreaded that unknown. My sense of adventure slows down at the point of leaving a boat in the middle of the ocean. In this case, my imagination told me a fishing net was a variable I wanted nothing to do with. The smell of fish would attract sharks.

After receiving assurances that my crewmates would keep a careful lookout as I exposed myself in the water, I carefully made my way down the three steps of the pontoon. On the bottom step, the water washed up over my feet. There was only one way to do it. I jumped in. Then taking a moment to adjust, I swam to the area between the two hulls of the catamaran directly off the stern. This was where most of the net was. It was an ugly sight, and I hesitated to touch it. But there was really no choice. The 8-foot swells continued to roll in, and the net was the most readily available thing to grab onto.

Lack of cutting tools

After consultation, we decided on a course of action. My tools were to be a set of office-like scissors and a 2-inch kitchen knife. Neither was greatly effective against the hard plastic and nylon of the fishing line. But we used what we had. I chopped away from the water while Ed and Debbie helped hold the net in place and chopped away with their own implements. It was slow going, but we soon managed to cut through the length of the net. Ed and Debbie stowed it in a cockpit locker where it would do no further harm. The boat was now free of the largest section of the net. The propeller was next.

Leaving the relative security of the stern, I swam around to the outside of the port hull. The ocean here was much different. No longer obscured by three sides of the boat, it was more intimidating. But it would be easier to dive down to the propeller from the outside of the boat.

I took a deep breath, kicked up and dove down. Reaching for the bottom of the hull, I rolled onto my back underwater and pulled myself into position. The propeller and the shaft were a mess. They were encased by at least 4 inches of net. I grabbed at it. It did not budge. The propeller had spun the net too hard. That was the least of my worries.

The boat suddenly pulled up as a large swell came through. The water rushed through. I grabbed a hold of the net and struggled to stay in place. The boat rose up on top of the swell, pulling me vertically. I tightened my grip around the net, clutching the shaft of the propeller within it. Up, up, the boat and I went.

And then, all the forces shifted. The swell completed its pass. The boat dropped off the back side of the swell. Struggling to cope with the changing direction, I looked up and saw the heavy, white underbelly of the boat driving down at me. To avoid being bonked on my head, I scrunched my shoulders up against the bottom of the hull. As it drove down into the sea, I went with it. Then there was relative calm as the boat floated in the trough of the sea. I surfaced.

After some deliberation, we decided a line around my waist might help keep me in place and ease my fears of being swept away. But diving underneath and trying to free the propeller in the midst of the 8-foot swells remained an impossible task. After a few futile stabs and cuts at the net, I would have to redirect my efforts to hanging on as a swell rolled through. After a few weak attempts, we decided it was best to let it be. We would make due on the sails and the starboard-side propeller.

“Okay John, well done, come aboard,” the skipper said.

The sting

I shed my tether and swam to the ladder hanging off the end of the port pontoon. I was tired, cold and ready to get out. I did not feel the jellyfish lace itself over my shoulder and down the right side of my chest. Nor did I feel it fire its venom. I just wanted to get out of the water.

I put my hands down on the end of the pontoon to push myself up and out as if exiting a swimming pool. My arms did not respond. I dropped back into the water. I did a double take and tried again. Again, my arms did not react. I gripped the pontoon, wondering where my strength had gone. Then a burning sensation came over me. Something was wrong. I had no idea what it was. I was scared. It made no sense. I thought momentarily I was being attacked by a shark. At a minimum I knew I needed to get out of the water.

“Get me out of the water!” I yelled.

Ed responded immediately. He jumped down from the cockpit and pulled me up onto the first step of the pontoon. To my horror, I saw a mangled jellyfish matted on the upper right portion of my chest and hanging down to my stomach and back. A look of masked concern came over Ed’s face. He helped me up to the cockpit of the boat and then, telling me to stay put, went below.

I am not sure, but given the sting, it must have been a man-of-war.

Everything began to happen quickly. The burning on my chest was fiery. My arms tightened up. I could direct their movement only with great effort. I stood as best I could, dripping wet on the deck, waiting for Ed to come back up on deck. The others had not yet learned what had happened.

“Ahh!!!” I shouted and cursed as the burn set in. I was unaware of anything but the pain on my chest.

The next thing I knew Ed was back in front of me. He wiped a sponge across my chest collecting some of the slime. It felt like a red-hot poker was being pressed up against my skin. Thick, heavy welts covered my chest and shoulder where the jelly had touched. The ordeal was just beginning.

The toxins traveled beyond my chest and arms, invading the rest of my body. My feet cramped, making it difficult to stand. I rocked back and forth from foot to foot. My insides raced into my throat and my head became faint. I crawled down onto the deck and vomited. You know, the canned steak-and-kidney pie.

Outlook isn’t promising

The skipper and Ed talked options. It was not promising. Neither knew what to do. We were not prepared for this contingency. We had no proper medical supplies. The conversation turned to using urine as a salve for the burn. In retrospect, it was almost comical.

“I don’t have to go,” the skipper said. “Do you have to go?”

“I don’t have to go; do you have to go?” Ed replied.

“I can go; I can go!” Debbie exclaimed.

Debbie’s urine was soon being sponged on. I am not sure whether it eased the burn or not. I was no longer focused on the burn. It was nothing compared to the crushing sensation I felt in my feet. I had never felt such pain. They felt like they were being clamped in a vice lined with rocks after having already been tied into knots.

As it was, my body devised its own mechanism to deal with the toxins flowing through it. I went into shock. My arms and legs began to spasm and twitch, and as this happened the pain in my feet and the burn on my chest seemed to subside. Soon I was being carried down to my berth.

Below on my bunk, the situation deteriorated. In short bursts my body began to seize up. I flopped like a fish out of water. My legs, arms and torso all shook together. With each seizure my breathing became fast and shortened. The seizures got worse. They became more intense and prolonged as my body battled the chemicals flowing through it.

After a little while, I looked forward to the intervals between the seizures where I could rest and regroup. My endurance was being tested. But as the seizures got longer and longer, the periods of calm became shorter and shorter. I am not exactly sure when, maybe about 40 minutes after I first went into shock, my teeth entered the fray. They frantically bit at elusive patches of air. No matter how hard I tried, I could not stop the chattering. It was frustrating. I focused on ending the ferocious biting, but my jaws didn’trespond.

Concern and fear

My heart raced. It thumped madly trying to keep up with the workout the rest of my body was undergoing. It was like I was running a series of sprints and I did not have the choice of easing up the pace. I became more and more aware of my heart. I looked up into Debbie’s and Ed’s eyes, who were taking turns watching me, and saw concern and fear. I never believed I was going to die, but I was scared.

One voice in my head said: “You’re okay. You’re young and you have a strong heart.” Meanwhile, another voice said: “This is fricking nuts.” In the end, I decided that so long as I was conscious and aware, everything would be okay.

At some point, during a lull between the seizures, the skipper came in with some news. It was good and bad. He’d established contact with the Coast Guard doctor on duty for international waters. The bad news, he said, was that we had none of the medications the doctor recommended. Some hydrocortisone cream or Benadryl would have gone a long way.

The good news was better than the bad news was bad. The shock was not abnormal. After an hour and a half to two hours, according to the doctor, it would subside.

But, the doctor had added, it was important to make sure that none of the jellyfish’s tentacles were embedded in my skin where they would fester and cause an infection. The skipper looked seriously at my chest and pointed. “There, there and there,” he said, indicating the swollen scars on my chest where cuts would have to be made.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I thought.

On closer examination, it was clear that all the jellyfish had already been removed from my body. I would be spared the knife. I silently thanked Ed for his efforts in removing the jelly from my chest in the beginning. The tentacles did not have time to dig in.

Seizures subside

Better yet, I realized after the conversation with the skipper that I had not had a seizure in a while. And the next ones that came were shorter and less intense. Almost as quickly as they had begun, they were subsiding. I noticed the burn on my chest again and the puddle of sweat I was lying on. I did not mind the short feeble seizures which the remaining toxin continued to inflict. A rush of peace and tranquility was taking over. Soon the seizures stopped and I fell asleep.

When I woke a few hours later, it was early in the morning. I felt strong and almost refreshed. I went up on deck to see what was going on, and I was relieved by the cool night air. The nightmare was over. The burns, which almost felt good, such was my state of mind, reminded me that it had all been real, though I could hardly believe it.

Debbie was on deck. She smiled and shook her head in disbelief at what had happened. I asked her for a cigarette. The nicotine was wonderful — the perverse joy of addiction.

The burn disappeared two days later, and I took great satisfaction in removing the rest of the net from the propeller five days later in the protection of a beautiful, clear harbor in one of the many British Virgin Islands.

Most of the welts disappeared in a few days, and the scars from the burn largely faded over a period of months. Today, four years later, a barely discernable white sliver down my chest reminds me of my encounter with a Portuguese man-of-war.

After the trip, I learned that my reaction was indeed a severe and dangerous one. Most Portuguese man-of-war encounters are far more mild. My reaction could have been due to any number of factors, including my body’s own predisposition, the size of the sting, the potency of the venom and the amount of venom discharged.

Fatalities from man-of-war stings are rare, but they do occur. People who are stung should get out of the water immediately to avoid the risk of drowning. If the victim shows the first sign of shock, allergic reaction or any kind of respiratory problems, medical attention should be sought, by radio if necessary. n

Jonathan Burke, formerly a lawyer in Washington, D.C., is now a reporter for the Martha’s Vineyard Times and lives in Vineyard Haven.

By Ocean Navigator