I was the Acting Third Officer on Bunga Bindang. There was such a thing as Acting Officers back then. This happens to cadets with more than a years sea time with recommendations from his Captains and Officers. Its a win win situation, the cadet got the experience of doing a real navigating officers job with an increase in his allowance and the company get an officer to helm its ship at a much cheaper cost. Acting Officers earn much less than a real Officer on board. With the advent of the STCW, ISM and the plethora of rules and regulations this is no longer possible. No such thing as acting officers or engineers any more. Now, the stack of certificates is mandatory.
Bunga Bindang is a small coastal ship with two Mac Gregor hatches equipped with its own derricks and a jumbo derrick amidships. It does the Penang, Port Klang, Singapore, Sandakan, Tawau and Lahat Datu route. A complete round turn will take about a month. This was my third and final ship before I go back to the academy for my Third and Second Mates courses, examinations and of course certificates to legitimise my "Acting" title.
On that particular night, we had just left Sandakan where for some reason or other, the Agent there took us for seafood dinner at a quaint restaurant on a cliff overlooking the sea. The food was fantastic and we gorged ourselves on prawns, squids, fishes and crabs. By the time we got back to the ship, its was time to cast away. Since I was on the 12 to 4 watch, sated with good food and tired from the days work, I fell fast asleep. I was woken by the ringing phone at a quarter to midnight for my watch. This was accompanied by a throbbing sensation on my right big toe which I ignored as I rushed to the bridge to take my duty.
As the watch goes on the throbbing pain became more intense. I thought I was bitten by an insect, a scorpion or god forbid a snake. These are some of the stowaways that we sometimes get. They hitched the ride with our cargo. The crates and cargo debris in the hold provided the ideal place for them to cross the oceans with us. I asked my Able Bodied Seamen (AB) to get a torchlight and give my toe and feet a thorough look over for any bite marks but found none. We then moved on to the theory that I might have somehow sprained my toe earlier in the day and perhaps some massage with ointment will be the cure. It just so happens that his relief, an Ordinary Seaman (OS) who have just joined us is known to poses such skills and item.
The OS is a "gerago", a guy of Portuguese descent from Malacca. Tony was his name if I am not mistaken. A man of about thirty, used to be a cook but decided to sail and has just recently taken up massage and foot reflexology. After handing over my watch to the Chief Officer, I asked to hijack Tony to see if he could help with my toe. Tony tried his best technique to manipulate and lessen the pain but the opposite happens. It was excruciating even though he insisted that the pressure applied was very low. After about twenty minutes, he concluded that a few sessions would be required. I concurred as it was the only option available aside from taking pain killers.
By the third session the next day, we had to stop as it has not just increase in pain but has also developed a sort of blue black tones on the toes and its vicinity. I had to use crutches and the Captain allowed me to sit in the pilot chair instead of standing for four hours. Back then, sitting during watch is taboo, mainly to avoid you getting too comfortable that you may fall asleep.
Once we reached Singapore a few days later, upon port clearance, I was rushed to a clinic. The doctor stopped me in mid sentence as I recounted my predicament. Definitely not stings, bites or sprain. You got gout, he says. Huh ? Urine was sampled and the test confirms that I have got gout. He counseled me and explained what it is. Basically a malfunction in my system which causes it unable to process and get rid of uric acid which is a by product of proteins that I consume. This excess acid will somehow collect in my toe where it forms tiny crystals. That is why at the peak it feels as if there's a thousand needles in there and a mere blow from an aircon vent is enough to make me scream in pain. The worst part was that there's no cure. I had to take daily medication and control my food. A long list of items to avoid was provided. Perhaps seeing the look of horror on my face, the doctor tells me that its just a guide. Whatever it is, take it in moderation.
I have tried alternate medication. From celery seeds to black cherries to vile herbal concoctions. It seem to work for a while, now I just take the zyloric. This accompanied with getting real sweat three times a week have ward away gout attacks for almost a decade. I do this as I do not control my food intake. In defence, life is short and I certainly can't survive on boiled veggies alone.
None in my family had gout, so it is not hereditary.The theory is that once I became a sailor, my diet changed drastically. Meat and chicken almost daily instead of fish. More rich foods instead of simple village greens. Eggs, sausages and beans for breakfast instead of leftover rice and salted fish. My system had a shock and was unable to respond to the change in time, the last straw provided by the Sandakan seafood. So, apart from allowing me to be an actor in my profession, Bunga Bindang gave me gout to mark my transition from a cadet to an officer.
This of course is not the end of it as gout leads to kidney stones which led to me being stark naked in broad daylight in front of a shocked Chinese lady.... but that's a story for another post.