Part of the joy of world cruising is its unexpected moments of serendipity. For instance, I was walking through the manicured grounds of the Lumut Yacht Club in Malaysia when it started raining. I’m not talking about a few drops of drizzle; I’m talking about a monsoonal downpour. So, yeah, I considered hanging out at the club for a while to allow the heavy squall to pass. However, my wife Carolyn was waiting aboard Wild Card with a hot lunch, so I decided to dash out to my boat despite the rain.
The yacht club had been doing some remodeling by the pool, so I grabbed a small piece of discarded plywood to hold over my head as I dashed to the dinghy dock.
It was really coming down! I was in a hurry. I didn’t want to get completely soaked. I had my cellphone, etc., with me. My dinghy was jammed halfway under the dock. I only could see its protruding bow. It was frustrating. I didn’t even wait to bail the dinghy. I just jumped in, untied my painter, cranked up my outboard, and sped off.
I was standing up with the plywood over my head, because I didn’t want to sit down and get my shore clothes even wetter.
Unfortunately, my painter – the poly line I used to tie up my dinghy – had a hockle in it, and was flopping around my feet. Plastic rope does that sometimes when it gets twisted. It can be a bitch to neatly coil. And the last thing I needed was a rope in my outboard prop, so I pushed down the painter with my foot without looking at it.
I was about halfway to Wild Card. I wanted to be careful coming alongside in the slippery rain. Thus, I kept my eyes riveted on fast-approaching boat.
But it is always something, eh? I mean, my painter must of have gotten really twisted with a serious hockle, because it rose up again. I again pushed it back down – this time with more force – but I also caught a glimpse of something horrific out of the corner of my eye…
I was nonchalantly pushing down the head of a snake.
A large snake.
A cobra. A poisonous cobra!
Confession: I don’t like snakes. I don’t like anything about them – the way they feel or look or act. We have little in common. They are cold-blood, and I am not. Perhaps I’ve been prejudiced by the Bible, but snakes aren’t, well, my best friend.
What to do?
I immediately leapt into the bow of the dinghy, and screamed like a frightened girl. Carolyn heard my strangled cry and came topsides – as did others in the harbor. All were puzzled by why I was standing in the bow of my dinghy while it spun in dangerously tight circles in the middle of the harbor.
My leaping forward had been instinctive. I hadn’t had time to think or shut off the outboard. And now, if I jumped into the water, I might be run over. “Prop rash” is never pretty, and can be fatal if you are hit in the head.
We were at opposite ends of the boat, this snake and I, both trying to figure out our next move. “You stay there and I’ll stay here – how’s that sound?” I asked reasonably, as if I regularly spun around in circles with poisonous snakes all the time, ha-ha!
The snake started looking ill. Its head lolled a bit. I, too, felt disoriented. Perhaps we were both getting dizzy – and more and more frightened. The snake slithered a few inches towards the center of the craft.
“Oh, no,” I said. “Not fair, Mister Snaky-san! You stay you side, I stay my side! Happy, happy! Then we both live long life! Okey-dokey! How’s that sound, Mister Snaky-san?”
Around and around the dinghy went, wildly throwing spray as we spun through the anchorage. I’d just refueled. We might do this for another hour before we hit – or bit – something.
The snake then rose nearly to my nipple level, flexed its sinister hood, and came yet closer.
I started making whimpering sounds.
Okay, I’ll admit it. Bravery isn’t my thing. But I’m not stupid, either. I knew that if the snake kept getting closer, I’d have to act – and act with great force. Using the small square of plywood – I savagely smacked the snake in the side of its sloping head. Hard.
For a moment, I thought I’d killed it. I felt of a rush of macho satisfaction. “That’ll teach you to mess with The Fat Man!”
I’d won – or so I thought for a brief instant.
The snake’s main body was in the boat, but its head was lying in the water, still as stone. Yes!
Then, alas, it twitched and shuddered and convulsed – and started writhing again. It was still alive, and not happy at all.
It quickly drew itself back into the boat, coiled itself, and reared back to spring when I hit it harder than I’ve ever hit any living thing before or since. Blood and squishy parts splattered. Again, the head flopped motionless into the water. But this time I was ready. I fell to my trembling knees beside the snake to shovel its cold, greasy coils into the water before it regained consciousness and killed me.
By the time I got to Wild Card, I was a blithering idiot, and oh-so-happy to be alive.
No, meeting a snake afloat is rarely a good thing. But it’s not that uncommon in Southeast Asia. The trick is, if actually bitten, to bring in the snake to the hospital as well as its victim. That’s medically important, as each snake poison as a different antidote.
This is repeatedly drilled into the traveler in Southeast Asia, “…bring the snake, bring the snake!”
Take the little encounter of my friends Bob and Glenda aboard Nero as another example of the foulness of snakes afloat. It was a Sunday morning in the Indian Ocean, and all was well. Bob was already up, and listening to the SSB weather when Glenda started to make coffee.
“…ouch!” she said, and hastily withdrew her hand from an overhead cabinet.
Her first thought was that there was a broken wine glass in the cabinet, and that she’d cut herself on it.
“Bob, did you break any…”
She stopped in mid sentence. She was staring into the face of a tongue-pulsing snake – only inches from hers.
“Snake!” she screamed, and pushed herself away.
Bob is a large, strong man – a man of action – and he moves fast. Within the blink of an eye, he had his shipboard machete in hand and was hacking away at a small section of snake-tail protruding for the forward edge of the dish cabinet.
This caused the snake within to go crazy, and begin thrashing around – breaking crockery and shattering glass as it attempted to escape. But Bob stood his ground, and it was a good thing, for the snake was fast. Suddenly it was on the galley counter, hiding behind the prior night’s wine bottles.
“Twang!” went Bob’s machete, and only managed to again shorten the snake by a few inches.
“Clang! Thwack! Ching! Clunk! Thud! Smash!”
“Are you okay?” he panted to Glenda, who said, “Yeah. No! I mean, I dunno – this is the first time I’ve ever been dying of snake venom!”
The partially-filleted snake now made a fatal decision to seek the dark, dank safety of the bilge, but Bob was all over it with his flashing machete, and soon he and Glenda and the dead snake were zooming through the streets of Thailand in a tuk-tuk, racing for the emergency room of the Phuket International Hospital before Glenda succumbed.
It only took seconds for the ER staff to ID the snake and administer the appropriate serum.
“No permanent damage done,” smiled the doctor.
Both Bob and Glenda were so happy that Glenda was alive that they didn’t think much about the carnage aboard their vessel – until they returned home. Bob had only remembered chopping at the snake once or twice, while the physical evidence revealed otherwise.
“One thing I can say about the incident,” said a rueful Bob soon thereafter, “is that machete swipes are hell on the varnish!”
Sea snakes are equally bad. They, too, are poisonous. We put grates on our cockpit scuppers while cruising Indonesia so they don’t slither up and attempt to crawl in bed with us. (They, too, are cold-blooded and seek warmth at night.)
The good news is that their mouths don’t open very wide so they can’t bite you on most parts of your body – only between your fingers, your toes, and on your ‘soft bits’ if you will. Yes, it is hard to sleep while worrying that your dozing Johnson will be chewed off by ‘let’s snuggle!’ sea snake!
My first encounter with a sea snake was while anchored off Bali. I saw it swimming toward us from a long way off. It came right up to our boat and circled, as if casing the joint for easy entry.
I’d heard that they couldn’t slither up anchor lines, but this guy evidently hadn’t received that notice. Perhaps the problem was I had chain down. In any event, the snake started climbing up, much to my amazement. I wasn’t sure what to do, but sharing our living space with him didn’t seem like a good idea.
There was a boat hook stowed nearby, and I grabbed it. My plan was simple: flick the sea snake back into the water. This I did, but he swam straight back. I flicked him in again – this time savagely smashing him into our topsides for good measure.
He didn’t appear to notice, and headed straight back, totally unfazed. He was tenacious, and I had to admire that.
This time I really went at it with the boat hook, but the snake had, evidently, learned its lesson. Instead of continuing to climb as I clubbed it, it transferred to the boat hook!
Suddenly, this wasn’t as much fun as I hoped. I mean, a sea snake in the sea isn’t nearly as bad as a sea snake on the other end of a six-foot boat hook. I desperately attempted to fling it off, but not as fast as it attempted to close with me. Yikes!
What to do? I only had seconds.
I flipped the boat hook end-for-end – and bought a little time. Another end-for-end flip. And another! But this sea snake was a bright, extremely fast reptile and was learning the rules of combat a lot quicker than I.
So I tossed him and the boat hook into the water, hoisted anchor, and got the hell out of there fast!
No, I don’t like snakes – even plumber’s snakes. I never carry apples aboard, either, just in case Christian snakes might be attracted to the bait. Some folks believe I’m a tad paranoid, but I think of the gold snake-bite-kit I carry around my neck as, well, medical jewelry.
But, ultimately, you can get used to everything – especially when you begin to understand it. The cobra that was hiding in my partially-covered dinghy was probably just attempting to get out of the rain, for example.
Snakes don’t like rain – anymore than I like snakes.
Fatty and Carolyn are back in the Virgin Islands preparing for their third circumnavigation. Check out Fatty’s Latest book Buy, Outfit, Sail: How To Inexpensively and Safely Buy, Outfit, and Sail a Small Vessel Around the World