July 2, 2009. Palm Coast, Florida.SHARKS IN THE CANAL!!
You know, the story here keeps changing…when we got here, Sky and I took one look at the green, zero-visibility canal teeming with life and thought immediately, ‘Wow, what a bullsharky-looking place! And wow—the only shade anywhere around the canal for a big alligator to rest on the bottom during the heat of the day is under our boat and under our dock!’ However, everyone around here told us that sharks don’t come in here, and they have only seen an alligator once every few years during big storms. So last week, we saw a big 7-foot alligator idling around in the canal before it disappeared in the twilight, and today we saw a 5-foot shark (a bull or a blacktip) swim casually past the boat. It makes me a lot less happy about going back under the boat to clean the propellers! If I didn’t know better I’d think the neighbors were trying to encourage my demise, except that they have all been so nice to us—one of our neighbors, David, sent me a photo of the Southern Wind graphically altered against a nebula shot from the Hubble space telescope called ‘The Cosmic Voyager.’ Hopefully we’ll never be that far off course! Zero cross-track error is our goal!
A supporter of ours named Jonathan, an ER Nurse in L.A. (who is also an experienced transit captain, having spent years sailing the breadth of the Pacific) gave me great ‘rule-of-thumb’ advice about swimming in unknown waters. You never know if the seemingly calm, placid water you are about to dive into to survive the blistering heat has had 10 huge tiger sharks show up every afternoon at 5 PM for the last thousand years, so always seek local knowledge—but if none is available, never go in the water if you can’t see the bottom clearly from the deck of your boat! The dark, tannic waters of this canal looked sharky from the moment we saw it!
But that is the consequence of having a canal teeming with life. Now that we are living in Dennis and Jeannette’s old house (they moved across town and are letting us stay in their house where the boat is docked), we have taken to fishing off the boat in the evenings—after 6 PM, we are DONE working on the boat and we often take a break before dinner to fish, since a lot of the crew are just learning and we will have to provide a lot of our protein this way during our journey! Tonight we caught a stingray, which we let go right away—she was gravid (pregnant); you can see the large bulge in the middle of her body from the base of the tail forward—and I caught my first ever tarpon; which we also let go. Fascinating and Beautiful, respectively, but so far we have caught a lot of fish but none that are much good as food! We SEE them in the water, big red drums, but so far they seem to be mocking us!
June 30, 2009. Palm Coast, Florida
A day that began with a storm and ended with a beautiful sunset that turned the evening sky into flames!
Lightning and thunder crashed all around the house at 6 AM, rattling the windows and making the power flicker. Afterward, we managed to continue work as usual on the boat. It is so exciting that we are doing finishing work now—carpeting, paneling, running water lines and plumbing, painting, etc; we can really see the boat coming together!
We finished putting up the carpeting in the Scorpion Cabin—that’s what we call the twin cabin on the port side of the aft cabins; when we were hustling medical supplies onboard during the floods here, we stored many of them temporarily in this cabin, and a day or so later we came upon a scorpion that must have taken refuge from the floods in one of the boxes and got carried aboard. For the next few weeks, that dark, warm cabin piled floor to ceiling with boxes looked like the ultimate scorpion apartment complex and made us a bit cagey about going in there and rummaging around. We never saw another one, but forever after we refer to that cabin as The Scorpion Cabin. Hopefully it will never live up to its name again!
The heat and humidity combine into what is called a ‘Killing Heat.’ A couple of years ago, when I was in Ireland, a rare heat wave drove temperatures in London above 100 degrees, and hundreds of people died—mostly elderly people without air conditioning (not a common household appliance then in England), as they (and infants) are much more vulnerable to overheating. The heat here is even stronger—high humidity, and when we are working on deck, and especially down below decks without the fans turned on, sweat pours from every pore on our bodies. Clothes are soaked in moments, paint trays have a rain of salty water into them…it is BRUTAL. We drink 5-10 liters per day and it flows right out of us.
June 28, 2009. Palm Coast, Florida
Ah, Sunday again! Not a moment too soon—we had a long, brutal week of work! Noah spent some time hanging over the side in harness touching up the port side hull; I think we made him paranoid about alligators coming up underneath him but he survived unscathed—this time!
We kept our normal Sunday ritual today; sleep in a little, then clean up the boat for the next week’s work—in only a couple of hours when we start work , chaos reigns aboard and it becomes very hard to find tools or navigate over piles of lumber, coils of wire, trays of paint and other boat-building debris so even though we constantly clean as we go and tidy up at the end of every day, half a day on Sunday going over the whole boat from stem to stern saves us hours of work otherwise lost tool-hunting during the following week.
Normally we would try and muster the energy to go to the beach for a couple of hours and lie in the sand, but for the last few evenings we have been working on a side project—Sean found a film contest sponsored by Converse and Target where the theme is about turning dreams into reality, and we have entered.
It is the first film project that we have all worked on together, and everyone pitched in like we do on everything else—Jon drew the titles, Jamie drew over 700 frames, I did the voice over, Ryan and Jamie recorded the sound effects…and all in the evenings after putting on our usual 10-14 hours on the boat! The film was due to be submitted online at 1 AM tonight so Sunday was not quite the day of rest it usually is, especially for poor Sean—by the time editing was done (at 12:55 AM!) he was practically falling apart at the seams!
Tonight, I decided to try out a newly available form of relaxation—there is a Jacuzzi bath tub in Dennis and Jeannette’s house and it turns out that a few bubble go a long way in a Jacuzzi tub…I nearly fell asleep, but I could feel the soreness of the last two months easing as I luxuriated. Sky reminded me to enjoy it while it lasts…tomorrow we go back to the boat with a vengeance!
June 24, 2009. Palm Coast, Florida
Well, when it rained 30 inches in 5 days here, everyone here said ‘it never rains like this at this time of year!’ It set an all-time record for rainfall here in Palm Coast. Now the heat has well and truly arrived, and everyone is saying ‘Wow, it never usually gets this hot until much later in the summer!’ Naturally…must be because during the rains we happened to have large construction holes cut in the deck, and now during the heat we are doing hot, heavy work below decks! The heat index was 105 yesterday, and we felt every degree of it! I spent most of the afternoon installing our mast boot—the seal around where the mast passes through the deck; normally this is a bad leak point and hard to seal because as the mast flexes, it opens the seal, so several hours were spent bullet-proofing it for storms! We also re-sealed the hatches in the salon ceiling, but after hours laid out flat on the top deck in the sun, I was wrecked—and looked it!
June 21, 2009. Palm Coast, Florida
Today marks the longest day of the year, and for us it surely was! We got up before dawn an piled into our rental jeep to head down to the beach and watch the sunrise over the water—a novelty for those us from the west coast, but we were thwarted by low clouds on the eastern horizon. Still, as we staggered out of the house in the pre-dawn (already in the high 70’s), the sky was a deep purple and shapes of houses and trees loomed out of it suddenly as we drove down the road to the Hammock Dunes beach nearby.
The sand is made of crushed clamshells and is multicolored; when we come here on Sunday afternoons to lie in the sun and recharge our solar batteries for another long week of work in on the boat, we never get fine sand stuck to us, which is nice, but we DO leave the beach with hundreds of little shell shards suction-cupped to us, and they are surprisingly hard to dislodge (since we discover them in our hair, on our backs, and other hard-to-reach places hours after we leave the beach).
We were all too tired to be chatty, and the pre-dawn is never a time for idle conversation—pre-dawn is when the world holds its breath like the audience at a concert, waiting for the first notes of the symphony while the conductor stands with hands raised, waiting to bring the whole orchestra into life. I think I understand why, at an intuitive level, so many religions originated with worship of the sun. The moments before it arrives above the horizon are filled with such expectation and faith (that it will, in fact, come up!) that every sunrise becomes a religious experience.
Today, a third member of my crew independently used the phrase “my previous life” to describe their life before they came here. So far away from the things that are familiar, working on something that is REAL and will leave a lasting mark in many lives around the world, many of the problems that seemed so important when we were immersed in them now seem more remote—and more than remote; they seem much less relevant to our lives and we wonder why we worried so deeply or hurt so badly or got so wrapped up in some drama or other. Our perspectives have changed. We are developing more perspective every day on the things that truly do matter—friends, service, honor, hope, determination, and family, which in the absence of our own relatives has been filled with each other. I still can’t get over how quickly we have all bonded, and it makes me think we just might survive long ocean passages as friends!
June 9, 2009. Palm Coast, Florida.
Well, once AGAIN in is nearly 2:00 AM and not a creature is stirring except me and our neighborhood herd of armadillo on their nightly ramble past the screened in-porch. Well, that isn’t entirely accurate—also stirring are about a billion insects and frogs, and either a deer out in the bushes behind our house or a swamp monster. It is strange how we are all gradually easing into the whole process of living on the boat together. Over the past 6 weeks, we have literally moved closer to each other and geographically closer to both the boat and nature.
First, Ryan and I got here on April 20 and joined Noah and his friend Bill who came down to help us at the beginning and is coming back—hooray!—next week to help us again; I can’t wait to show him everything we have done and I also can’t wait to have his help again, after two triple espressos in the AM the man works like a demon; he built his own boat from scratch. We all lived in the local Microtel in town for a couple weeks while working on the boat, then my sister arrived, then over the next weeks Nick and John arrived, and a few days later we moved into a house 10 houses down from the house where the boat is docked, and all six of us live here together in 3 bedrooms.
Today Sean Conlin joined us at the house and was initiated into our circle of toil and camaraderie by—among many other tasks on his first day with us—working in the 115-degree sauna20that is our medical storage room (in the bow compartment) to fit huge pieces of Styrofoam insulation into the ceiling and cool it down in there! He must have lost 10 pounds of water weight in there but managed it like a champion!
We have two more crew arriving this week to share this 3-bedroom house, and in 12 days the nine of us we will be moving into Dennis and Jeannette’s 4-bedroom house—right on the canal, with the boat docked RIGHT at the house (Dennis and Jeannette are moving across town and are letting us stay in their current home to work on the boat!!)
As I said, we are literally edging our way onto the boat—and as we get closer to the boat, we get closer to the large nature preserve that is across the canal from the boat. In the Microtel in town, nature was near but more hidden, here at our current house the swamp behind our house teems with life, while the street in front is like a street in Pleasantville…When we move into Dennis and Jeannette’s, the canal with all its constant splashing as predatory fish hurl themselves upon the luckless baitfish that abound in this estuary (and its manatees, dolphins, and who knows what else lurks in its dark waters…) will be literally at our backs.
Our next and last move for a long time will be onto the boat, and then away to points south. I will NOT leave until not only I and my crew, but also the Captains, Welders, Mechanics, Riggers, and other experts from whom we have sought advice and help are satisfied that she is seaworthy to carry us safely on such a long journey. The FIRST rule in all first aid and emergency response training is to ‘Survey the Scene’ to ensure the safety of the rescuers. If we sink we will be of no use to anyone.
I think a big part of getting what passes for wisdom as we get older is just being better able to predict consequences (remember how your decision-making was at, say, 17 compared to what it is now?)….Older people who are wise must look at us youngsters (sort of youngster? Give me that at least!) and just shake their heads.
Every day, the boat still continues to look different from the day before…watching it take shape is like watching a speeded-up film of a plant growing—something that should take a long time but is appearing to happen faster than it should. A lot of the experts we have called in had seen Southern Wind over the years and knew the boat; whenever they asked ‘How long have you all been working on the boat?’ they are shocked when we answer ‘6 weeks.’ They all assumed we had been at it for 6 months because we have accomplished so much work in such a short time!
June 8, 2009. Palm Coast, Florida
Today was a great day…if the Southern Wind had been a human being, today it would have been body-tackled by all of us! SO MUCH got done today! As we have found ourselves saying at the end of every day, ‘Another good day on the boat, a lot got done.’ The day of rest on Sunday made a huge difference; on Saturday everyone strove to work as hard they could and a lot still got done, but I could see that another 6 straight days of hot-weather, heavy work had taken its toll. Although it took us 5 hours to get there yesterday (and 2.5 to get back, we got a little lost on the way out) we managed to (for $5.00 apiece) rent an inner tube and float down a section of the Ichetucknee Springs National Park in central Florida. We rested in the cool clear spring water, drifted by turtles (called ‘Cooters’), looked at mullet and catfish below us, and let the tiredness drain out of us into the water. Plus we snorkeled and splashed around a lot.
Most of us rarely stay up past 11 here; after a full day on the boat and dinner, we are usually DONE. Heatstroke is a chronic, but minor (so far) problem. More Poweraid was picked up tonight to stave off dehydration and tomorrow I’m going to nag everyone all day to drink more water (as everyone should! Practically no one in the developed world is adequately hydrated; now go get a glass of water!).
Seriously, if a patient is not allowed any food or fluids by mouth, I have to give them 2.5 Liters of fluid by IV every day JUST to maintain what they lose lying quietly in bed all day. Imagine how much more you exert yourself every day, or how much we lose when we have to work in hot spaces down below decks…we have our own sauna in the medical supply compartment; seriously it must be about 115 degrees in there because it is not yet insulated (tomorrow for sure we have to get that finished!).
June 5, 2009. Palm Coast, Florida.
It is 2:00 AM in Palm Coast…all my crew that have arrived here in Palm Coast so far are passed out asleep after yet another brutal day getting our sailboat ready to sail south with all our medical supplies. We are so tired at the end of the day we rarely go out except to get something we need at Home Depot, WalMart, Publix supermarket, etc.We cook together in the house we have been sharing for the last few weeks (the boat isn’t ready to live in quite yet!), then nearly every night sit on the screened patio around our little table and talk (often about how to solve challenges we encounter during our daily re-build of our boat, often about what our voyage will be like, and often about nothing at all). Behind our house is nothing but marshland, so the night is filled with frogs, crickets, and other strange sub-tropical marsh sounds. So far we have seen armadillos (a big herd of them came trotting by last night while we were sitting outside), black racers snakes (lots of em’ but our friend Snoop, a fiberglass guy we found here who is helping us glass all the new stuff we built, says they are territorial and keep rattlesnakes away), tortoises, lizards, frogs, alligators (outside WalMart in the run-off pools), dolphins, manatee s, eagles, deer…and we haven’t even set off yet!
Nick’s guitar and acoustic bass arrived in the mail from home today, so we now have two guitars, a bass, and a harmonica! Music… what a fantastic way for us to develop connections with the people we are going to meet; playing music together has been a bonding experience among us as I hope it will be between us and those we encounter along our journey. After dinner, before I went off to go do email, we sat around for a while playing 12-bar blues—so far, we can rebuild a boat together and play music together; I can’t wait till we do our first clinic together! When they pulled me up the mast for the first time the other day when we were working on the rigging, from up there everyone on deck keeping me safe, raising and lowering gear and running lines like a maypole looked like one animal with many parts, moving as a team…adaptable yet adapting together.
Going up the mast was the very first activity that had required ALL of us on that task in different roles at the same time, with serious potential consequences, and watching everyone do everything needed with speed and purpose made me feel a surge of trust in everyone here. I really don’t know how I got so lucky in everyone here, except that many people here have survived at least one occurrence of Life Happening, and the kind of people who gravitate towards service to others when they have experienced pain (instead of turning inward and self pitying) are, I suppose, the kind of people who are kind, thoughtful of others, creative, self-motivated, compassionate, hardworking, and of course funny! My dad got to meet Mother Theresa when he worked in her Home for the Dying in Calcutta and said she has a terrific sense of humor; after all, if you can’t laugh at yourself or at life, you’ll be a very, very unhappy person!
Our house is in the canal system in Palm Coast, only couple of hundred feet down the road from our boat, and some of the houses have their own dock on the canal. Our boat, the Southern Wind, is at a dock behind the home of the previous owners, Dennis and Jeannette. They have allowed us to do major construction every day behind their house, let us use all their tools and extra equipment, told us how to do a lot of the repair (a lot of it was stuff we were doing for the first time! I can’t believe Sky knows how to frame, epoxy, fiberglass, paint acid on metal to prepare it for painting, and generally do boatbuilding!), driven me around for hours showing me where to find the marine yard, chandlery, welding shop, Home Depot and all the other places we need to find to get our boat ready!
All the neighbors have been very kind as well; only once have any of the neighbors asked us to desist—you see, we tend to forget what day it is (time has no meaning when you are working as hard as you can all day, every day) and one Sunday at 7:00 PM we were using (simultaneously) an electric planer, a circular saws and a chopsaw, 2 drills, and a metal grinding wheel. Did I mention that these folks have their backyard and dock directly across the canal entrance from us—about 100 feet away? Serious remorse was felt when he very politely reminded me what day and what time it was. We packed up our tools and took off!
The community itself has received us really well, too—my sister says she can’t get over how good the customer service is; we have also made a lot of friends down at the local Home Depot (since we go THERE about every other day). In fact, the radio interview Sky and I did here on WNZF on June 1st was due to Jon at Home Depot, who (after hearing about our project) put us in touch with David Ayres at WNZF who interviewed us on the air about Floating Doctors.
So I have a sturdy, large sailboat, all the medical supplies Direct Relief International provided, and an absolutely AMAZING crew of remarkable individuals who I not only like, but to whom I have already lite rally trusted my life more than once. I feel absolutely confident; everyone’s attitude is so positive, everyone pitches in to work SO hard all day every day…every hard or dirty job has no shortage of willing hands to tackle it. After almost exactly a year since we even started to organize this mission and gain support, we are making it happen! Everyone who comes to see the boat thinks we have been working on it for 6 months because so much has been accomplished in the 6 weeks we have been here! Every day the boat takes a huge stride forward towards being done!
It is getting pretty late and we have to be up in 6 hours to head down to the boat, so I’ll pick this up tomorrow. I was chatting with my mom earlier this evening (she has been our biggest supporter, she is even helping develop and manage our website at the moment!) I think Sky is making a frittata with all our leftover vegetables and she makes the BEST frittata! I need to find an 8-inch peeler log to make a conical plug to fit the raw seawater intake pipe underneath the boat (I’ll hammer it in with a mallet from underneath, good thing one scuba tank I brought happens to be full); then we can remove the frozen (open) valve on that pipe inside the engine room (without seawater flooding into the engine room) and weld a new valve and a filter in its place. Plus we have a list of about 30 job s we are tackling tomorrow. AND we have GOT to find out what keeps biting Ryan when he is sleeping! He is BATHING in insect repellent, none of us are using it, and he is just getting mauled by something!
Just another day!
Something I often get asked when talking to people about Floating Doctors is ‘How did you come up with this idea?
There was no single blinding flash of light and revelation that brought Floating Doctors into being. Rather, the events of my life seem to have swept me inexorably upon a tide of causality towards being here in Florida and readying the Southern Wind to carry me and my crew on a 20,000 mile medical relief voyage. It is not always clear at the time why events unfold the way they do, and sometimes not even many years later! But sometimes hours, months, or years later we are reminded and think ‘Oh, THAT’S why that happened in such-and-such a way!! And today I was thinking about the experiences I have had (both pleasant and painful) and the decisions I have made (both good and bad!) that have led me to be here in this moment, dirty, tired, under enormous pressure—and how I would not trade places with anyone in the world right now!
As long as I can remember, I already firmly knew what I wanted to do-I wanted to be a Medical Doctor and a Marine Biologist. My Dad used to take me to the hospital when he was on rounds; I had a little Fisher-Price toy medical kit, and he would leave me at the nurses’ station to read while he saw patients.
We’d go from ward to ward (I must have been about 5 or 6) but one day he came back and I was not at the nurses’ station. A brief but frantic search ensued and I was found nearby listening to a patient’s chest with my toy stethoscope. No harm was done—as it turned out, the patient was in a coma and the relative who had been watching bemusedly said ‘Why not? Might as well try everything.’ Such are the formative influences of childhood!
My parents, despite both suffering from dire seasickness, also supported my mysterious love of the sea from birth. By age 8, they used to drop me with the deckhands on the sportfishing boats in Marina Del Rey (later they said they must have been crazy) and I began my tutelage of life on (and the life UNDER) the water. I learned an enormous amount of seamanship and secrets of the sea fishing with, and eventually working for (all through high school and college) sport fishing charter boats, commercial fishing boats, field biologists, sport diving boats, Los Angeles Country Office of Marine Education—pretty much anywhere that would let me explore the ocean!
After completing degrees in Marine Biology and History from UCSB and teaching high school biology and anatomy for 2 years, I accepted and graduated from a training position in medicine, surgery and obstetrics at the Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland, eventually living and practicing in Ireland for 7 years. After my arrival in Ireland, I focused my travelling on the developing world, particularly in Africa (a beautiful and often heartbreaking place). Since most of my travelling came after I entered the medical world, wherever I have travelled I have had medical knowledge that could be of use.
While in Africa, I met people from whom I could not be more outwardly differentiated-by color, race, language, economics, religion, or geography. When I can use my training to help ease a suffering or prevent illness, that I have some way I can be of service makes everything that might separate me from the person I can help becomes irrelevant. Human suffering is universal; any ability I have to reduce it allows me to strengthen the bond of humanity (even a tiny, fractional bit) that should exist between all people.
Everywhere I go, I have been a doctor before anything else and I have never had enough medical supplies in my backpack (and I take all I can carry) to meet the need I have encountered. I have never returned to the developed world with even a single aspirin left over. I have seen the most tender care provided in the worst circumstances with no resources, and I have seen patients die of neglect in the most advanced hospitals in the world.
My father, Dr. George La Brot, has brought many stories back from his medical missions to Cambodia, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, and many other places. He has worked in Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying in Calcutta, and from his example I KNOW that it is our choice, wherever we are, every moment to take responsibility for health and suffering to the best of our abilities. I have always been taught to do the job that is in front of you, and though the job may seem impossibly huge, it has to be started nonetheless!
5 years ago, I thought of a way to combine my all abilities-to provide high-quality, free medical care using a totally green vehicle (a properly outfitted offshore sailboat) and began to plan what would become the Floating Doctors.
Dr. Larry Brilliant decided to rid the world of smallpox. After ten years, the World Health Organization was able to declare smallpox eradicated thanks to his efforts.
Dr. Paul Farmer has helped tens of thousands in Haiti and is fighting to rid the world of Tuberculosis.
Dr. Tom Dooley helped tens of thousands of people in Laos with a handful of loyal crew and a small jungle hospital.
A nurse stays hours past the end of her shift with a dying patient.
An anonymous person in a city spends $5.00 less on convenience food and sends the money to a charity instead.
A girl supports her friend’s efforts to stop smoking.
One person can make a huge difference, to millions of people or to a single, unique life- every moment, we can choose to be that person.
The choice is all of ours.
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