Medical Support Offshore to provide emergency kits, training and 24/7 advice for skippers
Most people take for granted the medical care that is on offer to us in modern society. If we get sick, we can go to see a doctor or to a hospital and get professional help quickly. But what if you are alone in the middle of the ocean, thousands of miles from the nearest doctor? That is the reality facing the eight VELUX 5 OCEANS skippers as they race alone around the world through some of the most remote points known to man. As well as navigators, engineers, sailmakers and cooks, these brave men must also become their own doctors – and in extreme cases, surgeons – trained to recognise and treat any illness or ailment they might pick up during their epic solo circumnavigation. Whether it is an illness such as a fever or an infection, or a physical injury such as a broken bone, the ocean racers have no choice but to deal with it themselves.
The past 28 years of the VELUX 5 OCEANS are littered with examples of sailors who have had to deal with all manner of medical problems. During the 1998/9 race, Russian sailor Viktor Yazikov developed an excruciating infection in his elbow after injuring it on the first ocean sprint. In an amazing display of skill and composure, Yazikov performed open surgery on the infected wound, stopping the infection and ultimately saving his arm. He carried on racing and even beat some of the fellow competitors into port. Even before reaching the Bilbao startline in the last edition of the VELUX 5 OCEANS, New Zealand yachtsman Graham Dalton developed septicaemia during his qualification passage.
Back in the early days of solo ocean racing, sailors had no medical support whatsoever, save from their copy of the Ships Captain’s Medical Guide. In 1969, no-one was on the end of a phone to help British sailing legend Sir Robin Knox Johnston when he got battery acid in his left eye, or excruciating stomach pains that later turned out to be appendicitis. Even in the original VELUX 5 OCEANS race, held in 1982, medical support was limited. In the 1986 edition of the race French yachtsman Jean Luc Van Den Heede sailed to the aid of Finnish competitor Pentti Salmi, giving him antibiotics after Salmi got blood poisoning from diesel fuel getting into a cut. In the Vendée Globe in 1992, Bertrand de Broc was left with no option but to take needle and thread to his own tongue following an accident.
Fortunately, although the VELUX 5 OCEANS skippers may be alone in body, they are far from on their own should disaster strike. Thanks to modern communication technology a team of dedicated medical experts are on hand around the clock to make sure the skippers are given the best advice should something happen. For the 2010/11 edition of the VELUX 5 OCEANS, this responsibility falls to Medical Support Offshore (MSOS), a team of incredibly experienced doctors trained in dealing with emergencies at sea. The team, comprising of founder Dr Spike Briggs, Dr Tommo Thomson and Dr Campbell Mackenzie, have worked on some of the toughest races in the world including the Volvo Ocean Race, the Artemis Transat and the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. They have also provided support to the biggest names in offshore racing including Dee Caffari, Brian Thompson, Sam Davies and Pete Goss.
“At any point at sea during the race, if the skippers have a medical problem, or even just want to chew things over, we are on the end of the telephone 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” explained Dr Briggs. “This level of personal support has been transformed by the revolution in communication during the past 20 years or so. In case of injuries or other problems, the skippers can even send us photos which are a great help in targeting advice.
“We aim to be proactive in helping skippers to be as race-ready as possible, and to be reactive in helping them with any medical problems that will inevitably crop up from time to time. Our role could be seen as one of risk minimisation. Risk cannot be eradicated from deep ocean sailing, but it can be controlled, and consequently I think taking a responsible approach to ocean sailing is imperative. Medical support is part of responsible preparations, and in the event of an accident, it enables proper assessment of injured or sick crewmen, thus committing Search and Rescue resources only when they are really needed.”
Each of the VELUX 5 OCEANS skippers will undergo an intense two-day training programme from the MSOS doctors, all experienced offshore sailors themselves, where they will be taught how to use the medical kits provided to them as well as the physical skills they will need when at sea. All seamen going offshore need to know what to do in the case of a medical emergency – but for the VELUX 5 OCEANS skippers, they must face the daunting prospect of performing the skills they have learnt on themselves.
The MSOS team will also provide the VELUX 5 OCEANS with the design of the race medical kit, advice on medical preparation of the skippers, and tele-medical support for the duration of the race. A medical emergency at sea is among an ocean racer’s biggest worries – but the VELUX 5 OCEANS skippers will rest easier knowing that medically, they are in the safest of hands.