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Dire Straits

Belesana slipways in China Straits.


Rod, The manager of Burns Philip, looks over the top of his desk and peers down at me as I lay on the floor "Are you sure you’re OK? You look bloody awful."

"Sure, Rod, I’m fine," I smile from deep inside a gray fog, "I just have to rest for a minute. I just have to go slow and easy and now we’ve stopped taking the lead or whatever with our water we should get better."

"Well, I wish the damn phone would work. You say this guy is Dr. Cook?" I open my eyes to see his round, friendly face rising over his desk like a moon.

"Dr. Cook."

He dials again and the moon smiles, "Ahhhh! She’s ringing!....Hello? Yes, Moresby Hospital?....May I please speak with Dr. Cook?......Calling from Samarai, It’s an emergency." He glances down at me, "They’ll have him in a minute."

I struggle up from the floor, a wave of nausea slides the floor and the desk sideways. I plop down hard into the chair next to the desk and take the phone from Rod. I put my ear to the black plastic receiver.

"Hello? Dr. Cook here."

"Dr. Cook. This is Richard Chesher calling from Samarai. You gave me some medicine for worms back in April."

"Oh yes, I remember. You’re on a research boat. A biologist. How are things in Samarai?"

"Not very good, I’m afraid. It turns out I did not have worms - or any kind of a parasite. It’s heavy metal poisoning."

"How on earth would you get heavy metal poisoning?"

"We think It’s from a water catchment tank where we’ve been getting our water for many months. We’re not sure if It’s lead or chromium or copper but I’m sure its heavy metal poisoning. We have all the symptoms of acute toxicity; the metallic taste in the mouth, neurological dysfunction, convulsions, exhaustion. My liver is beginning to swell."

"It think It’s rather unlikely you could have heavy metal poisoning." He sounds remote, a tiny little distant voice from the black instrument. But the remoteness in his voice is not just the phone.

"Well we don’t know for sure what metals are involved but I took a sample of our water filter and it is so metallic It’s green in color and tastes bitter and like...like metal. I’ve sent off a sample to have it tested. Also Freddy and even our cat are very ill with the same symptoms. It’s not just me."

"Look. I’m not up on this. I’ll have to consult my books and get back to you."

"I’m in Burns Philip in Samarai. I think we need some penicillamine to chelate the metals and get them out."

"I’ll call you back." And Dr. Cook is gone, the black plastic receiver hisses impolitely into my ear. I discover I can’t hang up because I have been talking with my head on Rod’s desk and the damn receiver is trapped under my head. I pull it out and hand him the phone and he puts it in the cradle. The hissing noise shuts off with a click.

"He’s going to look in his books and call back," I explain.

"Can I get you anything?" Rod’s voice is full of concern.

"How about a glass of milk? And could you see if Freddy is finished with the shopping?" He goes out into the store and I lie down on the floor again and fall asleep.

Dr. Cook does not call back. Rod calls the hospital three times. Each time takes 30 or 40 minutes because the "Bloody goddamned phone doesn’t work." Dr. Cook can’t be found. He has gone home. They have no home number for him.

Rod gets some of his workers to help put the cases of milk, sodas and boxes of frozen chicken livers and other goodies into our dinghy and we zoom across China Straits to Belesana where Moira is secured to the mooring buoy. Albey and Ruth Munt, owners of the slipway, have been very sympathetic and worried about us. They say we can stay on the buoy until we are better and offered us any kind of assistance.

I asked Edwin, a PNG workman at the slipway, if the workers ever drank the water in the tank with no valve. He said, "No, we don’t drink it. No good."

The wreck that forms a sea wall at Belesona Slipways

No Good

I am face down on the ground. Two policemen come by and look down at me, lying there. They mumble something and mosey on down the path. A third policeman walks over to me, "Let’s have a look at you." He bends over and pushes his face right inside my chest, looks slowly back and forth, surveying my interior. "Uggg. Looks Terrible in there."

I turn over and focus up through the hatch. The sky is gray and cold. I smell coral. Must be low tide. Freddy is asleep again. Last night she had convulsions and scared me really bad. She’s quiet now but her skin is cold and gray like the sky.

I breathe deep and try one of Steiner’s exercises, "I Am.....deep breath....He thinks...deep breath...She Feels...deep breath.." and repeat this again and again. I begin to shimmer, oscillate, and my mind floats, lifts through the hatch and above Moira. It is cool up here and the jungle is a dark pastel green. The world is covered with a bright milky haze. I try to draw strength from the jungle and sea.

I AM....tendrils of thought reach out to touch the damp, cool jungle...He thinks.....an inner flame, weak and flickering....She feels.....a cascade of light, but loose, rapidly fading sparks .....Some energy flows into me in the mind link to the life of the jungle but it is so weak, so dim. I long for Sun and rise higher and higher, I AM...until I feel the cold moistness of the gray clouds surround me and Sea is far below. He Thinks... I float up through the clouds, getting lighter and lighter and lift into the brilliance of Sun... She FEELS... Sun surges into me. I Am...the warmth...He thinks... deep breath...She feels... Sun fills me. I try again and again - urging the right mind (he thinks) and the left mind (she feels) to join and become one with the overmind (I Am) and refuel from Sun. Sun flows into me again and again, copulating high above the clouds, filling me with life.

I awake sometime during the day. Frederique’s face. Eyes red. Tears flowing. "Ohhh I’m so worried about you." Fear and love and emotion opens an inner gate and a river of love floods inside and bursts from my eyes. My throat is thick, my chest heaving...

"Knock it off!" a voice yells from inside of me. "We can fix this mess but not if you stress the system." I get a vision of a group of engineers in my liver. They are angry at my deep emotional reaction....like someone stomping on the roof while they do delicate molecular surgery.

"I’m terribly sorry," I apologize to the engineers. "I’m sorry."

Another voice speaks, quiet, powerful, "There is nothing you need to do just now. Relax. Deeply. Count backward from 5 to 1. 5....4....3....2....1 Deeper and deeper, just letting go, relaxing. Feel the warmth of the Sun, a bright glowing light, its energy flowing into you as you drift deeper and deeper, no cares, just floating deeper and deeper, growing stronger and healthier."

I sit at the dinette eating hot chicken soup, drinking staminade. Freddy is pale and very quiet, frowning. She seems so very small and frail.

My kidneys ache. I don't remember getting in bed. Freddy is also in bed. She is awake. She says her kidneys also hurt. "Urine Alert, kidneys hurt. Up to Pee. Kidneee."

I struggle out of the bunk and look at my watch. 4 AM. I go to the head and urinate. It is dark brown, almost black and it foams. "Why Richard, It’s full of protein." I look in the mirror. My lips are swollen. My whole face is swollen. My whole body is swollen with water. Kidney failure. "What’s the?" I can’t remember the medical term for it. I stumble forward and open a can of fruit cocktail, hoping the sugar will feed my kidneys. "Hey, Guys," I say to the Engineers in my Kidneys. "You want some of this?" The heat from the sugar spreads inside as I float back to bed and fall unconscious next to Freddy and Walter the Cat.

I am half awake, perhaps a dream Freddy, her face exhausted stands next to the bed looking down at me, "I don’t like it when I’m sick and can’t take care of you..." the dream speaks. It must be really her. She does not look good. Her words penetrate. Remorse. Desperation. She is crying, weaving back and forth.

"Don’t get emotional," I snap through thick and swollen lips, my tongue huge and heavy as lead (shrieks of internal laughter). "Emotions are too draining. Get back in bed and get some rest. Right now. Move it!"

Belesana Slipway

View from the Belesana Buoy

It’s such a nice day today. Freddy and I decide to go ashore to move around a little. I have a hard time putting on my pants as my legs are so swollen with fluids. When they are on I can’t button them. I sit and think about this a long time. Freddy is also swollen with fluids. Walter is cranky and sleeps all the time.

Ashore, I find it is very hard to walk. Freddy and I hold hands for balance. Paula Plattsman, concerned about the two zombies with the yellow skins, gives us a copy of Adelle Davis’s book "Lets Get Well."

"Maybe you should go to the Hospital," she suggests. "Or fly to Australia for help."

"I think the trip would kill me," I actually believe this. "We are no longer being poisoned. The medical texts say the patient must be stabilized before taking catalytic treatment. So right now all we’d do in a hospital is rest and take plenty of fluids and eat rotten food. And maybe get hepatitis. We’re better off aboard Moira."

Back on Moira three hours vanish in semi-coma. I get up to pee and the mirror tells me, "Your liver is failing. See the ugly yellow color? See the nasty orangey-black tongue?" As I look at it in the mirror, peeing out blood brown pee and foaming protein, I see a darker blackness in the center of my tongue. It magically shapes itself into a skull and cross-bones. I begin to giggle and can’t stop.

I sit at the dinette and read "Lets Get Well." The book has a section on liver problems, even on lead poisoning. She makes good sense. Mrs. Davis has a special elixir of milk fortified with eggs, heavy vitamin E and B complex, lots of vitamin C, calcium. Eats lots of liver. High caloric diet. We are already doing some of this. Freddy and I make up a list of what we need and go in to find Ruth Munt.

"The doctors are very emphatic about not eating eggs when you have liver problems," Ruth is very upset by our shopping list. "You shouldn’t believe Adelle Davis, you know. She died of liver cancer, you know."

"My mother died of the same thing," I reply thoughtfully. "She drank too much. But she still gave good advice."

It takes us 30 minutes to deliver the list to her and get back aboard Moira. The effort has not been entirely beneficial. I have a hard time breathing, my head is swimming, chest tight, anoxic. I have to be very careful for awhile. I could die.

Moira at the Belesana Slipway

Pagan on Friday

Freddy is feeling much better. Two weeks of the Adelle Davis diet is working wonders on her. I feel better, too. I think we are over the worst.

A few days ago a boat called Pagan sailed in to Belasona. I happened to meet the captain ashore. He’s from Australia. I said, "Hi. A guy with a boat named Pagan can’t be all bad. Are you staying long?"

"Naw, got to bet back home, to Australia," he explained. "We’re off Friday."

"Friday?" I gave him a skeptical look, "You"re going to leave on a Friday?"

"Why not? Don’t tell me you believe all that superstitious bullshit about not leaving on a Friday?"

"Well, I personally would not leave on a Friday. I’ve met too many people on boats who have had some really strange experiences when they tried. I met one guy in Cairns who tried to launch his boat on a Friday. He loaded the yacht on a truck and drove down to the harbor. Right in the middle of town the truck broke an axle. They very nearly dumped the yacht onto the road. He ran down to the wharf and got the crane driver to bring the crane into town and pick the boat up and put it on another truck.

"They got to the wharf and the crane went to lift the boat into the water and its cable broke. Dropped his yacht about half a meter back onto the truck and broke the axle of the second truck. Luckily, it was a steel yacht and they didn’t damage it. Anyway, he never did launch on Friday and has been a real believer ever since."

"I don’t believe you actually would even consider such a stupid superstition." My friend, the Pagan, was actually angry. This was too good to pass up.

"Oh, but I do. There are an endless list of stories about how boats starting a voyage on a Friday have come to grief. It’s not a question of belief, but observation."

"Bull-Bloody-Shit! You’re a bloody nut, you are!" He yelled at me. It was wonderfully entertaining. His face was beet red.

"How about the boat named Black Friday. They launched her on Friday the 13th in California, just to flaunt the superstition? Did you hear about Black Friday? No? Well, it put to sea the same day and vanished. Gone, just like that. Nobody ever found out what happened to it."

He gaped and for a moment I thought he might take a swing at me. Why should anyone get so worked up about such nonsense? Maybe it says something about the name of his boat. He named it Pagan because it is vital not to be thought of as a "believer" in anything.

This morning, about 5:30, I go on deck to look around and there is Mr. Pagan on the foredeck of his yacht. He is also looking around. The sky looks foreboding. It’s calm and heavy feeling. There is bad weather coming. I laugh. It is Friday and my friend is trying to decide if he should leave or not. He must be able to tell the weather is about to come unglued. I watch him scan the sky, hands on hips, jaw thrust forward. Stubborn fellow.

I know I shouldn’t. But it is so tempting. He is such an ardent disbeliever. No, Richard, no.

"See! I told you it wasn’t a good idea to leave on Friday!" I shout over to him, unable to resist the temptation.

I might just as well have shot a gun at him. He leaps into action, cranking up the anchor with a vengeance. In a few minutes, The Pagan heads out into China Straits, my disbelieving realist standing at the helm with a furious expression on his face. Fool.

"That’s just why leaving on Friday has become a superstition," I say to Freddy over breakfast. "Friday is a Man Myth. It does not exist in the real world of Sea. But it is very real for Man, dictating the movements of billions of people.

"Some character gets off work on Friday and has until Monday to get back into the office again. He plans to start his sailing trip on Friday and races down to the boat the minute he gets off work, hops aboard, and leaves so he can make the first leg of his trip Friday night. Or someone wants to clear out and leave port on Friday because the officials don’t work on Saturday and if you miss Friday, you have to wait until Monday to leave.

"People leave according to a day of the week, a totally fictitious belief system, and ignore the warnings of the real world. A storm does not care what day of the week it is."

"So Pagan left because it IS Friday," Freddy laughs. "That’s as bad as NOT leaving because it is Friday."

"Worse, because he must know the weather is going to turn rotten and he left anyway to show me he is not a believer." We guffaw as the rain begins to fall.

In the pouring rain and thundering wind a chain lets go in the anchorage. I poke my head out the hatch. It is almost dark out. The Pagan has returned. It is a shambles, sails strewn everywhere, something about the rig looks broken but it is hard to tell in the driving torrent of rain. I can make out Mr. Pagan’s face peering over at Moira. I’d better stay out his way tomorrow.

A BBQ at the Belesona Slipway. Freddy, at left is talking with Ron. Peter Plattsman sits between his wife and a neighbor. Ester and her husband with their new baby.

Something is happening inside, I don’t know what. It feels like some major readjustment is taking place. I manage to crawl out of bed at 11 AM, feeling shaky.

We go to Samarai and call the pharmacy in Port Moresby (Dr. Cook never called back and is never there when I call). I tell the pharmacist I am Dr. Chesher and we have a lead poisoning case in Samarai and need 500 Penicillamine tablets to begin removal of the lead... (if it is lead). They say they will send the order right away.

We putter around the boat for two days, feeling better and worse and better again. Freddy is almost back to normal.

Knocks on the hull, "Hello, Telegram for you." It’s Abbey Munt’s voice. I go topside.

"Thanks, Abbey, miserable day isn’t it?" The wind is cold, blowing hard from the southeast.

"Indeed. How are you feeling today?" He asks the standard question. It’s been a month, now, since we collapsed.

"Much better, thanks. I’ve ordered the pills to get the lead out. The pharmacy said they had to get them from Australia. Should be here by next week if we’re lucky."

"Come aboard," I offer but he shakes his head.

"I’ve got to get some groceries to the house," he explains and the small boat moves off. "Do come by later, we are having a bit of a BBQ. If you you feel up to it we would be happy to see you this afternoon."

The telegram is from Eugene Corcoran, the chemist I sent the filter samples to.

In PNG Telegramese it states, "Values based on mailagrams per gram of the filter paper you supplied stop average value of two samples stop chromium 150 stop copper 2535 stop nickel 124 stop lead 396 stop letter will follow stop Corcoran."

"Well?" Freddy asks.

"Heavy metal soup," I can still taste the metallic bitterness in my mouth. "Mailagrams, for christ"s sake. Must be...micrograms, parts per million. Copper two thousand five hundred parts per million. A devastating amount of copper and chromium and lead."

"So it was heavy metal poisoning," Freddy seems almost relived. "Well, at least we know."

"Yeah, right, now we know. Of course, this is just what got trapped in the filter. Who knows what the levels were in the water we drank. High enough, obviously. We probably began to excrete the copper soon after we stopped drinking it; the body can handle copper OK. But the lead will still be in us, tied up in the fatty tissue and in our bones. Penicillamine will get it out but we’ll have to be damn careful. If we take too much, too quickly, the level of lead in our blood could get really high. People have died from the treatment. We’ll take it slow and easy. I ordered some urine sticks to test for protein in our urine as we take the pills."

"We should send Corcoran samples of the water and crud from inside the tank to be sure It’s where the lead came from." Freddy suggests, wisely.

"And tear out all the copper water pipe and replace it with nylon. While we’re at it, we should put in a good ion exchange resin filter to prevent this from happening again." I wonder when we’ll be ready to get underway again. I wonder what way we’ll go and what we’ll do.

Born Again

Moira sets sail for Australia

I take Penicillamine tablet number 33. Check the urine stick and it says the old kidneys are OK. Eleven weeks, and we are finally strong enough to go. But go where?

"Where the hell are we going to go?" I ask Freddy for the tenth time in two days.

"I think we should head down through the Solomons and on to Noumea," she answers for the tenth time in two days.

"I need a sign, some firm direction. We keep getting mixed signals....go to Australia....go to Noumea....go to Australia." For the hell of it I tie a piece of thread onto a ring and ask my unspeaking left-side mind what it thinks. I draw a circle with a cross on the page of the notebook. Holding the thread by the fingertips of my left hand I dangle the ring over the center of the cross. "OK, lefty, if we should go to the Solomons and Noumea move the pendulum up and down. If Cairns and Brisbane, move it side to side. If you don’t know move it clockwise around the circle. If you won’t say, move it counterclockwise."

After a moment the pendulum swings up and down. "Go to the Solomons and Noumea."

"Told you," Freddy watches with idyll interest.

In fact, I do want to go to the Solomons, but I still feel like I’m being herded towards Australia. It’s the closest port and It’s off the wind. I’m feeling better but not 100%. Not even 50%. And I’m not sure we should go to the Solomons because we would have to take anti-malaria pills and they might not go well with the Penicillamine tablets.

I play with the pendulum some more and Lefty insists we will be happier in Noumea than in Cairns/Brisbane.

"To hell with it," I get up, "lets get ready to go and we’ll decide later where we’re going. Maybe we’ll get a sign." Freddy and I go on deck and begin to tie down things and get Moira ready for sea.

I break out the bosen’s chair and Freddy winches me all the way to the top of the mast. I look out over the anchorage and down onto Moira’s deck. The view of Moira from up here is always a thrill to me, she’s so lovely. I feel around on top of the mast and find the magic coin from the Shark Priest is still there, looking after our weather, and preventing high seas from harming the Moira.

I check all the fittings on top. All OK. Freddy lowers me down to the top spreaders and I check the mast and shrouds and intermediate fittings there. OK. She lowers me down to the first spreaders. I swing out to port and check the tension on the intermediate and all three end fittings. OK. I swing out to starboard. There is rust on the lower shroud fitting. I tie off the chair and clean the fitting with a bit of emery cloth. There is a nasty looking crack in it.

I sit in the chair for awhile sanding and looking at the fitting.

"What’s wrong?" Freddy calls. I look down to see her squinting up at me.

"The Moirae have provided us with a sign after all," I call down, "There is a crack in the end terminal here."


"It would be dangerous to sail on it too much. It needs replacing," I look at it again. Australia is a port tack. There would be no stress on the starboard shroud. We can replace the shroud in Australia, but not here and not in the Solomons.

"So we sail to Cairns," Freddy makes the logical deduction. She lowers me down and as I approach the deck she murmurs, "and the little angel comes down from the sky," as she does every time we do this.

"Well, I asked for a sign. At least It’s settled. We have no choice at all now." I get untied from the chair and begin to check out the lower mast fittings.

"But It’s a negative sign," Freddy points out.


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