"Looks like low tide," my crewmate Laurie said. She adjusted her sun hat as we stood contemplating the dinghy drag across a long, hot expanse of sand at Playa Dominicalita, a small blurb mentioned only as an alternate anchorage in our cruising guide to Costa Rica. A mid-morning walk under lilting palm trees had been cut short by the mounting tropical heat. Sweat beaded on our foreheads as we watched several pangas roll in the Pacific swell out in the anchorage. Past these, the only cruising boat, our 26-foot Westerly Centaur, rocked obliviously in front of a frothing reef. "This looks like it could be a little interesting," I said, looking out at the crashing waves.
One on each side, we carried our beloved fold-a-boat over the burning sand toward breakers collapsing over sharp volcanic rocks. The 14-foot tide had gone out, leaving us to pick our way among the tidal pools of a reef that had appeared in our absence. Another set of waves crashed ahead. Timing the breakers was going to be crucial, as past launches had proven. We knew how well the fold-a-boat performed in this kind of conditions: basically it came apart and the pieces washed ashore. The two of us walked up to our waist in the churning water armed with the strategy to walk the dinghy out as far as possible to aid it into the whitewater, wait for a break in the sets of waves, clamor in, and row like mad.
The waves receded into something of a lull, and we pushed the small plastic folding dinghy off the rocks and farther out into deeper water. I stepped down off a small, rocky shelf following Laurie who was now in deeper water. Suddenly a sensation that I can only compare to a red-hot nail shot from a nail gun pierced the inner heel of my left foot, just below the ankle. Between the blinding pain and approaching wave set, my brain ran through the options: Sea urchin spine? Sharp rock? Stingray? Deadly other?
Crumpling with pain, I heaped my newly bleeding condition into the dinghy as my able crewmate rowed for all she was worth. Lumped in the bottom of the boat, I saw the bow climbing skyward and higher still before several gallons of seawater crashed over us and filled the boat. I made a half-hearted attempt to bail while Laurie kept rowing. When we were beyond the break, I inspected my foot and the small pencil-diameter hole that looked much more benign than it felt.
Past the breaking waves, she also inspected the neat, deep, puncture wound while I fought off nausea and a genetic predisposition for fainting. I tried to keep my leg elevated for the row out, managed to get aboard our boat, and promptly collapsed on the cabin sole. What had happened to my pain tolerance? It seemed as if none existed. The hydrogen peroxide came out, the alcohol, the Neosporin. I limped up into the V-berth and elevated my throbbing foot for the next houran hour best noted for its intense writhing, a shot of tequila, and an unsuccessful attempt to elevate my leg with the spinnaker halyard through the hatch. Soon I had retreated to the cockpit, the coolest part of the boat, to wince and writhe the afternoon away.
A flock of pelicans followed a fishing boat that skipped through the anchorage toward a mooring. Feeling like a little local knowledge might go a long way, I motioned the boat over. It was the standard 18-foot panga powered by the ubiquitous 75-hp Yamaha Enduro. Central American fishermen can be found alarming distances off the coast with these single-engine craft, traveling in pairs in case of engine problems. Coming down the coast, we had seen many fishing vessels waiting under makeshift plastic tarps on the hot ocean. Often the fishermen would come over, just to have something to look at while waiting for fish to bite their lines, which were marked with Styrofoam floats and poles wielding flags of tattered T-shirts.
Two men idled alongside. "Tengo un problemo medico, aqui," I said holding up my foot. The older of the two shook his hand side to side in the international signal of extreme pain and winced a sun-creased face.
"Es un Rayo Bravo," he said indicatingaccording to our Spanish/English dictionarya stingray of extreme anger, power, and ill temper.
"Es serio? No mortal?" I asked having had ample opportunity to ponder my small fragile space in the cosmos. "No," he said before launching into a flurry of first aid procedures that involved a lot of hand gestures and words which eclipsed my capacity for Spanish at the time.
Laurie took over the communicating, allowing me to return to pain-management duties, and at the end, offered a translation. Basically I was to boil water, pour it into a compress, and hold that on the wound. The idea was that this would draw out the toxins. However, there was another ingredient in the works. Apparently one of the men had a sister-in-law up on the hill who had a special powder. When put on my foot, this concoction would make the pain go away almost immediately. We were, and especially I was, interested so Laurie set off in the panga headed for the shore.
By now the surf was pounding the shore in long-breaking combers. The boat sat stern to the waves with the driver frequently looking behind him. After a few more waves he gunned the engine and the whine of the Enduro disappeared behind the following wave. The boat dashed through the water and slid up the beach. Some more men appeared from beyond the trees to help drag the boat past the high-water mark. Then the group, including Laurie, walked beyond sight.
An hour passed. It was an hour filled with grimacing and failed philosophical ruminations about pain and existence, which came repeatedly to the conclusion that the foot is a sensitive thing. The panga came back out through the waves, pulled alongside and dropped Laurie off. With many thank-yous from the stricken, helpless gringos, the boat sped back to the beach, leaving us bewildered at the panacea we now possessed: a plastic bag full of ash from a cooking fire, complete with rusty and burnt nails, pieces of unburned charcoal, and fine, powdery ash. Ready to try anything, and following the directions of our boat-calling doctors, she put the ash in the coffee pot and brewed up a pot of gray, heavily pulped, bubbling liquid, taking care to remove the rusty nails from the mixture. When the brew had boiled for an extra long bit, we poured it into a compress and held what looked like boiled dirt on the wound.
I had planned to devote the next day to limping around the boat. Instead I found a deep, blue bruise on a tiny looking wound, accompanied by full sailing capabilities. Whether it was just the venom wearing off by itself, or the curing qualities of the concoction, I will hopefully never learn. But if, Neptune forbid, I do happen to step on a stingray again in some far-flung locale, applying boiling ash is something I'd consider again.
- Most injuries from stingrays result from stepping on the fish while wading in ocean surf. Simply shuffling one's feet through the sand is enough to scare the burying fish away, as is probing ahead with a stick, or other long object. The venom is located in one or more spines on the fish's tail. The animal thrusts its tail upward and forward driving the spine into the foot or leg, releasing venom that causes immediate and severe pain.
- If you are stung, it's likely to be a white-knuckle affair. Pain is severe and reaches its maximum intensity in less than 90 minutes. It should, though, be confined to the area of injury. Nausea, vomiting, sweating, diarrhea, cramps, and respiratory distress can also result.
- Soak the wound with a hot compress using clean, hot water to break down the proteinic toxin. Stingray injuries should be irrigated with water, and submerged in water as hot as can be tolerated for 30 to 90 minutes. Care should be taken to guard against infection which can develop from bacteria in seawater, or from the spine itself. The injured area should be kept elevated for several days.