Our final two weeks on Gratitude before the 2023 hurricane season were QUITE eventful. Cruising is definitely not for the faint of heart.
The first big event happened right as I was flying back to St. Lucia from a trip home in June to go to Bonnaroo with our kids. The tropical depression Andy had been watching for a few days began developing into what would become Tropical Storm Brett. And it was headed right for our location in Rodney Bay, St. Lucia. There was quite a lot of anxiety and activity on the docks as the storm approached, but we saw no damage, thank goodness! Waiting out the storm delayed our departure, but the upside was that it gave us a smooth passage south when it had passed.
First Stop: Waililabou Bay, St. Vincent
Ever since our first live aboard experience during our sailing boot camp of 2018, I have been wary of visiting St. Vincent. The island had a reputation for regular crime (theft and occasionally assault) against cruisers; why take the risk when there are so many beautiful, welcoming, and safe islands in this part of the world? So in 2019, on our way down to and back from Grenada, we bypassed St. Vincent and went straight between St. Lucia and Bequia.
And that’s what we planned to do this year, on our journey back to Grenada. But as always, sailing requires flexibility! We departed Rodney Bay at 5:30 a.m. on June 25, hoping that we would be able to sail to Port Elizabeth, Bequia in 11-12 hours and arrive with enough daylight left to anchor in visibility. Gratitude, however, wasn’t having it. The winds and seas were very mild in the wake of Tropical Storm Brett, and all the way down St. Lucia’s coast we were fighting to make a top speed of 5 knots. By mid morning Andy had decided we would not make it all the way to Bequia, even if the winds picked up once we left the shelter of St. Lucia’s mountains. So we dug out our trusty guidebook and started looking for a good anchorage in St. Vincent.
I had already done a little research on Active Captain (basically the Trip Advisor for sailors!) and knew that I wanted to avoid Chateaubelair. But a lot of cruisers had posted recent and favorable reviews of Cumberland Bay and Wallilabou, so we decided to slow down in those areas and evaluate them visually. We ended up in Kearton’s Bay, just around the corner from Wallilabou, on a mooring owned by the Rock Side Café.
To all our fellow Caribbean cruisers – this is a beautiful and safe overnight harbor! Orlando and Rosi, who run the Rock Side, are gracious and welcoming hosts. Their moorings are solid (Orlando is a diver and maintains them personally) and their food is delicious. They also have help in the person of Squin, who will ferry you to shore so that you do not even have to deploy your dinghy, and he will help you secure your lines to the moorings, both bow and stern. Other boat boys will offer to bring you fruits and vegetables, if you like.
We had such a pleasant stay in this cove. We placed our dinner order with Orlando upon arrival (pork for Andy, chicken for Karen) and got in a nice nap before dinner. Once Squin brought us ashore, Rosi met us in the café (which is set in a garden patio at the back of their home) and offered us rum punch. We then enjoyed courses of bread, soup, and salad before our entrees were served with rice, plantains, pigeon peas, and Caribbean “sweet” potatoes. (These are not the sweet potatoes we know and love at home. They are white, very starchy and not sweet at all.) After dinner, we enjoyed an assortment of chocolate ice cream, small cake slices, mangos, guava, and bananas.
We slept soundly that night with no threats of any kind, and then we woke to a (relatively) cool morning and the soothing sounds of waves on the nearby beach. Around 10 a.m. we put on our dive gear and jumped off the back of Gratitude to explore the rocky shore. What a delight! Such healthy coral and an abundance of fish. The variety and colors were striking. I didn’t get photos because I neglected to recharge the camera housing, but I remember seeing lots of trumpet fish and cornet fish (many juveniles!), lots of lobsters, a couple of smooth trunkfish, and a few lionfish.
Also, I was very proud of my underwater navigation skills on this dive, as we were exploring an unfamiliar site without a guide. I oriented us before we entered the water and planned out the general directions for going out, around, and back from the boat to a large boulder off the shore. And it worked out just as I planned! It is very satisfying to feel like I am improving as a diver in multiple ways.
Second Stop: Blue Lagoon Marina, St. Vincent
Our next stop was a mooring ball at the Blue Lagoon Marina, where we arranged a dive with a local company. I’ll put a few photos from that experience here, but they don’t capture the real drama. For that, I turn this post over to Andy, below.
Scorpion fish, eels, worms, and black coral were the photographic highlights of this ill-fated dive.
Andy: I will give a pared-down account of this dive. Spoiler alert – things went oh-so-wrong.
We went diving at New Guinea Reef and The Garden in St. Vincent with a local outfit. Three things went wrong on this outing, and they resulted in my first dive accident and injury.
Risk Factor #1
First, when we jumped in, we each only had about 2200 PSI of air in our tanks when we entered the water. We expected 3000+. Karen called this out to the dive master while we were still on the surface, and he told us that was normal. We had well over 100 dives at this point, and I can assure you that this is not “normal”. At any rate, it was the same for everyone, so down we went.
Risk Factor #2
Second, when we descended, we went somewhat deep for quite a while. Our lowest point was 73 ft, which we are certainly capable and certified to do, but the two dives were for 49 and 44 minutes, respectively.
Risk Factor #3
I started running out of air on one of the dives. This is where I think things went wrong for me, although I didn’t realize it in the moment. We were maybe 30 ft under the dive boat after a long dive, and I started running very low on air. You can feel it when this happens. It’s called “breathing down your cylinder”, and it feels strange. You have to work hard for each inhalation. In retrospect, there are quite a few things I should have done in that moment that I did not do, but what I did was skip my safety stop and to swim up to the surface right away. All seemed well.
Until… about 90 minutes later, Karen and I were back aboard Gratitude, when something violent hit me all at once. I was sitting in our saloon (pronounced “salon”, but I suppose it has served as a saloon at times) when dizziness hit me like a truck. I went from feeling generally okay to the room spinning at about one revolution per second. I could not stand or even sit up. It was so sudden and so extreme that all I could do was call for Karen. Severe nausea soon followed.
After some period of time that I cannot begin to estimate, Karen came below, and I remember being on my side, physically curled up around the toilet (don’t worry kids, that’s as graphic as we’ll get), and she said we had to get me to the hospital. The trouble was, we were maybe 2/10 mile from shore, and I could not even sit up, much less clambor into the dinghy to get ashore.
(Karen here: I count it as one of my greatest accomplishments as a wife that I managed to get Andy into our dinghy, then onto the dock, then into a taxi bound for the hospital. I was insistent after I had placed a call to the DAN insurance medical hotline, and a nurse evaluated Andy’s symptoms. We both knew that just waiting for his dizziness to abate was not a good idea. Now, back to Andy.)
Milton Cato Memorial Hospital
At the hospital, they gave me IV fluids and oxygen all night. It seemed to help. I still could not walk unassisted, but my vertigo (there needs to be another word for this – it’s nothing like I’ve experienced before) was less violent. The doctor said he would authorize an emergency flight for me to Grenada, where they had a hyperbaric chamber. He thought that it was either Vestibular Decompression Sickness or Inner-Ear Barotrauma. He thought he could refine his diagnosis, but the hospital didn’t own an otoscope.
But, we were in the process of taking Gratitude to a spot in Grenada, which was about 90 miles away, and we didn’t want to leave her in St. Vincent. That would translate to about 13 hours of sailing. The tricky part was that, we wanted to arrive in daylight if at all possible.
So, that night, Karen untied from the mooring at about 6:00 p.m., and we started heading south for Grenada. Karen did most of the sailing. I crawled to the helm for a few minutes here and there to let her sleep, but honestly, I was no use whatsoever. I still could not stand or walk at all, and I would regularly tip over when I crawled. Fortunately, everything went well and we tied up at Whisper Cove Marina the following morning.
I had a doctor, who is a friend-of-a-friend, Zoom in with me. He had experience with decompression, and he Zoomed in with me multiple times to talk through what happened and what I could expect. Thank you, Dr. McCurley! That was a tremendous help.
When we got to the doctor in Grenada, he looked at my ears and said they both looked like they had been “through the Ukraine war”. He said there was no way he would put me in the hyperbaric chamber due to the risks of putting my ears under pressure, so we just had to wait it out.
We flew home later that week, and even though I was very nervous about the long flight and the pressure changes, it didn’t seem to affect me.
By the time I got to my regular physician (about three weeks from the injury), I was much better. He looked perplexed at this story, and he spent quite a while looking at my eardrums and evaluating me. He said my ears looked healthy and completely normal.
The net was that I was like a toddler for weeks. I could not walk without holding on tightly to Karen’s arm. My recovery was very uneven. I noted that I would have a good day and then a couple of bad days. One day I felt perfectly comfortable on my Harley (I know… I know). The next, I was wobbly on my feet once again. I started learning not to take the highs too high or the lows too low.
After all that pain, sleeplessness, fear, and stress, the heat and inconveniences of our Grenada marina were more than we wanted to deal with. So for our last few nights on the island we booked a room at True Blue Resort and recovered by the pool. It’s not swanky, but it put us close to some of our favorite restaurants on the island.
Since we would be flying home for the majority of hurricane season, we made friends with the family on the boat next door to us. Their son agreed to check Gratitude’s lines, fenders, and bilges weekly (and we paid him for it). We were definitely ready to come home for a bit!
Up next: Our return to Grenada to begin our journey back to the US.