We had to do some field work in Bequia one day. Unfortunately, the swell increased dramatically in the early part of the week, and by the time we were ready to set off, there were heavy rollers out in the offing. Not having much sea experience, I was already a little bit concerned I might not be the old sea dog I needed to be. We had to set off very early that morning and I made the mistake of only grabbing a breakfast of a banana from the only store open, and we went to the boat. Leslie, the Fisheries Officer was in his turquoise overalls making Black Jack, our boat, ready.
Black Jack was a sizeable tub, a proper wheelhouse and a cabin below. I suppose if the Fisheries Unit had to head to Union Island some sixty miles to the south, it had to be sturdy enough and allow overnighting. We chugged south out of Kingstown harbour, and I remarked to Leslie how it was a bit choppy but not too bad. He just smiled pitifully at me. For when we reached the headland and set out into the deep wide Bequia Channel, great rollers came in from the east and little Black Jack had to ride each one.
Trying to make headway south in this cross current was difficult and the boat struggled to make proper progress. I could feel my stomach was free floating around my abdomen and wished I had weighed it down with some proper food before we started, but I was all right. I swallowed my own phlegm a couple of times, I tried to steady myself against the sides of the boat, I tried to fix myself on the shores of Bequia which looked like it was getting no nearer. People were trying to shout across the noise of the engines and wind and waves, but I could hardly hear them. I just tried to concentrate on staying alive.
Up we went again on another huge roller, twice the height of the boat, a couple of times we were near vertical. And then the jarring bang as we smashed down into the trough on the other side, the sound of the engine whirring as the propeller momentarily came out of the water and a gollop of spray hit the decks. Just time to gather your wits about you and up we went again, another roller coming across. Depending on our angle, we sometimes would be showered in a great spray of freezing cold seawater – it is a fallacy that Caribbean water is warm in March.
It was less than an hour but it seemed an eternity before the north coast of Bequia cut off the worst of the rollers and I was able to concentrate on more than breathing. But so far I had kept the limited contents of my alimentary canal to myself, and I went down into the cabin to get the charts. Bad move. Within seconds I was sweating hard and gulping for air and grabbed whatever I could before reaching for the deck.
We rounded the northwest point and at long last the relentless rollers ceased. Before me was one of the most beautiful harbours in the world, Admiralty Bay. The little town of Port Elizabeth was tucked in the top right corner, but we were not landing, we wanted to survey some of the substrate types in the harbour, so we headed to the opposite side, a shallow bight called Lower Bay.
The engines stopped, and while the field teams got ready to snorkel, I started to look at the satellite imagery and the maps we had created. Tiny waves lapped gently on the side of the boat, the shifting bodies aboard moved it from side to side. My stomach, still rolling around as if out on the open sea, could not handle the new motion, and finally gave up its secrets. Gagging over the side, I watched as a trail of my insides drifted out to sea.
Being sick made me feel no better, and while I bravely managed to coordinate the field session, I was unable to contribute a lot to the day. As we travelled around the bay looking down at the dead coral and seagrass (a hurricane had poured sediment over much of the old reef there, some pollution from land and yachts had probably killed the rest), my body did settle a little, and I began to enjoy myself. Even so I had to lie on the cabin roof as still as I could and hum to myself with my eyes shut to forget where I was.