From the January 2007 issue of 48° North by Warren Miller
The water is a warm, tropical, 78°.The wind is in the four square meter sail range and I’m Windsurfing off of Sugar Cove, about a half a mile Paia side of Sprecklesville, Maui.
You bet. Because there are very few windsurfers this side of Sprecklesville. No reef here to ride the small swell that has bent around the island from the south.
The north wind has been blowing steadily for the last three days and I have finally completed more than one jibe in a row, on the long and frustrating mastery of this, “the wind is free,“ sport. (Windsurfers are not smart enough to realize that someone invented standing rigging centuries ago.) I have been sailing for about three hours and have managed to crash on 62 jibes. But I have managed to complete nine.
“O.K. Warren. Talk your way through it.”
“Depress the lee rail to start your turn, as you bear off on the face of that big swell. No stupid don’t step back like you did on your surfboard for all of those years. Pull the mast towards your chest just like those hotshots you watch in those ‘How to Videos’.”
Splat! Crash number 63!
As I begin to get my gear sorted out a searing pain hits my left shoulder, then screams down across my chest, the front of my thigh, and now my ankle and foot feels as though they have been dipped in scalding hot grease.
“I’ve been stung by a Portuguese Man ‘O War!”
The pain takes my breath away, as I realize I am about a mile and a half out in the ocean. I know I have to go underwater to push the board under the boom, do a water start and get to first aid on the beach as fast as the wind will drive me. I know I’m in real trouble as I sheet in and look down and see the long tentacles of the Man O’War stuck to my chest, down my leg and across my foot.
“Don’t try and rub them off, you will only squeeze the poison out of them.”
The poison now begins to really get into my system and my heartbeat and respiration begin to kick into a real scary high rate of speed. I have to start talking out loud to myself — real loud.
“No one I have ever known has died from one of these stings! It’s O.K. Your heart seems like it is going at about 165 beats per minute and your breath is coming in shallow gasps. The beach is getting closer. Don’t get caught in the wind shadow near the beach… Drive hard.”
Luck is on my side. I stagger up on the beach and start hollering for help…“I’ve been stung!”
“Get me something, cuz I really hurt, and I’m scared.”
There are three good ones for a Man O’War sting. Household ammonia is the best. Meat tenderizer mixed with a little vinegar is next on the list. If you don’t have access to either of these, you better find a few of your friends who will tinkle on your stings. The ammonia, in their urine, will take most of the sting out of your body.
Fortunately I located someone with some ammonia, rather than a few people with full bladders. Within a couple of hours most of the stinging pain was gone.
The last time I had been stung by a Man O’War was when I was in the Navy and I was body surfing in Florida in 1944. That was almost 50 years ago when I was only 20 years old so I easily figured out the odds would be that I would be about a 118 years old the next time I got stung.
The next day the wind was a little lighter and, for the first time in my sailing career, I had exactly the right size sail to match the wind velocity. Four point five square meters! With the right rig, I managed four jibes in a row, and with each one my confidence grew towards the attitude that, “Hey, this windsurfing isn’t so hard after all.”
I was now two miles outside, where the big channel swells add to the height of the chop and was talking myself through my fifth jibe in a row when… Splat! “
As I began to get my mast, boom and board back together, that same searing pain hit me in the left shoulder and again shot down across my chest. I screamed in astonishment and gasped for air. As I inhaled, I sucked the head of the Man O’War into my mouth! The hot, searing pain hit me in the roof of the mouth, under my tongue, and all of my gums as I tried to spit it out. My heart was instantly racing faster than I had ever felt it in my life… and I’m two miles off shore.
Thoughts raced through my brain as I staggered up out of a water start and sailed for shore.
“How am I going to put ammonia in my mouth to neutralize the poison? Will I need, or can I get, a ride to the hospital? How long can I continue to function with such rapid and shallow breathing? Will I be able to make it to shore? Will the wind shadow be there so I don’t have to swim the last hundred yards to safety…? Will the beach shore break be safe? Will ammonia be available, because I had to get it from a neighbor yesterday when I got stung? What does meat tenderizer taste like when you take it straight? How can I get enough of anything to stop the pain in my mouth and not swallow any of it?”
Talk to yourself Warren….
“So far, at least I’m still able to think… The water is still warm. My sailing gear is still intact and I’m gliding to make it to the beach through the wind shadow… Drag the gear up the beach far enough so the shore break doesn’t destroy it!… Now walk, don’t run up the steps to holler for help from someone on the porch of their condo…”
Then I realize my wife is shouting at me,
“Quit screaming at me. I’m only two feet away!”
A hundred feet away is the condo where I borrowed the ammonia just yesterday. Fortunately someone is there and as they scramble for the meat tenderizer I realize I have the ammonia bottle to my lips and am swilling ammonia around in my mouth. As I’m gagging, someone hollers at me,
“For gods sakes Warren don’t swallow that stuff.”
Now, I slowly sink to the ground, too weak and scared to stand any longer. My heart is beating off the scale, respiration is too rapid and too shallow to get much oxygen.
Now, babbling and trying to explain to my wife and the other people “I almost swallowed the head of a Man O’War,” I hear someone somewhere off in the distance say, “call 911….”
Everyone at 911 was busy handling the survivors of the Aloha Airlines convertible flight that had just somehow managed to land safely at the nearby Kahalui airport. Someone at 911 did say,
“There are three antidotes for Portuguese Man O’War stings: ammonia, meat tenderizer or some friends who will tinkle on your stings.”
The ammonia slowly began to work in my mouth and the panic was subsiding.
The next morning I was well enough to drive down to Kahalui and buy five gallons of ammonia and a pressure garden sprayer in case I get stung again. I also bought a dozen jars of meat tenderizer. They are both on the front porch of my beach front condo with a big sign on them.
However, according to statistics: I will be one hundred and eighteen years old before I have to use either one or both of them.