Vitamin Sea

The sea and proximity to sea air has long been associated with being beneficial for us and cultural ideas and practices based on this belief abound: from taking in the sea air to unwind and feel rejuvenated, to Victorian seaside convalescent homes viewed as a means of preventing tuberculosis, to the healing effects of sea water advertised in coastal spa towns for those suffering from skin conditions and aching joints. Much more recently, the appeal of ‘wild swimming’ is also based upon beliefs we hold about the mental and physical healing properties of water; be it saline, geo-thermal or punishingly cold! I confess that I have often found myself claiming the health benefits of water when telling people what it is I love about pilot gig boat rowing and why I brave the English Channel for a dip anytime between February and November without a wetsuit. In fact, I found myself taking my first sea swim of 2020 last weekend. A few friends and I collectively built the courage to submerge ourselves in a cold, cold sea in Studland (Dorset), where the only other things in the sea were fisherman’s bouys!

Definitely colder in than out! The 1st February is the earliest time in the year I have ever swam in the sea without a wetsuit and my skin was certainly tingling for a hour afterwards.

But I am at the stage in my pre-race planning, with my departure only 11 weeks away (!), where all talk with medical professionals is about how the sea’s environment and ocean racing is going to present challenges to my health, wellbeing and survival chances (if I end up in it)! It’s all getting rather technical and exhausting and feels a long way from the romantic allure of sun, sea and wave.

Right from the very beginning of my Clipper race journey the medical and health implications of my intention to sail across oceans has been openly discussed in fine detail with my GP, oral med consultants at Bristol’s Dental Hospital and Clipper medical staff. I was determined that my OFG, a rare condition I have had since I was a teenager, was not going to prevent me from joining the race and therefore, I have taken all precautionary steps available so I now have copious prescriptions for medicines that I will take onboard. But ultimately, if I get a bad flare-up, I will be asked to leave the race and I totally understand why.  I do not want to be a ‘passenger’ and effect team morale by not being able to fulfill my role in the team.

But it doesn’t stop there! I have worn prescription glasses most of my life and this is now a technical point that is taking both time and money to address for the race. In discussion with my local opticians we are debating the merits of daily contacts, monthly contacts, prescription sports glasses with inter-changeable lenses or regular prescription sunglasses. My options are limited by my prescription and the conditions I will be living in whilst aboard Punta del Este. Currently, myself and the staff at my local high-street opticians are thinking that I take my two pairs of regular prescription glasses and be prepared to get them trashed (due to the weathering effects of salt water on the lens tints as well as the strength of the sun’s rays in the Caribbean), but invest in a pair of prescription sports sun glasses with removable lenses. I am keen to hear from sailors who have had similar issues to weigh up, so do get in touch if you can recommend a particular brand or solution for those of us who are reliant upon prescription glasses!

Another huge facet of health and wellbeing at sea – and one which most of us race crew don’t really consider before we start our Clipper training –  is personal hygiene; how to avoid (at best) or minimise (more likely), body odour given that all crew are unlikely to get anything other than a weekly wet wipe ‘wash’ and opportunity to change base layers. This I where merino wool far exceeds other fabrics for minimising smell and my team mates and I have been debating the merits of different merino wool underwear brands for months…as well as seriously long-lasting anti-perspirants and different types of footwear. The consensus is that although they are significantly more expensive, leather footwear is kinder to one’s feet and therefore, to one’s team mates!

Of course, there’s the almost taboo topic among some, which has meant female race crew have had to form our own Facebook Group called ‘Clipper Girl’ to discuss all things related to the biological facts of our bodies! This is not an issue to take lightly and one that has caused some women considerable anxiety and always been a topic among ourselves during training. Like all other female crew, I’m hoping to avoid having to deal with periods at sea, but following a number of appointments with my GP to discuss options, there was no ‘obvious’ intervention. The same goes for the conversations with my optician and with my oral med consultants at the hospital about the best course of action for managing my less than 20:20 vision and OFG…It’s quite a task!

Initially, when I started my race training with Clipper 2 years ago, all talk of health and wellbeing at sea was focused on sea survival – all crew have to do the RYA Sea Survival Course as part of our Level 2 training – (i.e.) the extreme end of the health and wellbeing spectrum at sea – but as my day of departure draws ever closer, my consideration of health and wellbeing at sea has become more mundane, but no less important. A consideration of personal hygiene, dental health, multivitamin supplements and dietary needs, as well as a consideration of medications for the kit list to alleviate the all-too common ailments at sea: sea sickness, sun burn, heat stroke, skin infections, conjunctivitis and other eye infections, burns and scolds, dehydration, low mood and stomach upsets.

The other common crew ailments are more likely to arise from accidents – particularly broken ribs – usually from falling out of one’s bunk or being thrown around below deck when tacking or (crash) gybing and burns/scolds when on ‘mother watch’ in the galley. This is why Clipper drill it into us that we always have one hand for yourself and one for the boat when moving around above and below deck, particularly in bad weather when bruises, cuts, cracked ribs and broken bones are not beyond possibility; a lesson I learnt the hard way during my last level of race training in the English Channel! I have found myself instinctively learning the motion of the Clipper 70 yachts, anticipating how they jerk and spin – especially when gybing and from the wash of a big ship or sudden squall. This is also why crew on deck shout down to those ‘off watch’ below deck when a tack or gybe is about to take place so they can brace themselves for the manoeuvre. On the Clipper 70s we also use two sets of foreguy preventers to limit the swing of the boom to prevent crash gybing and we always wear life jackets and three-way safety harnesses tethered to the jack stays that run the length of the deck. Health and safety are paramount and drilled into us during training; especially with how to safely move around and work on deck.

As part of our sea survival training we had to learn how to deploy and enter a life raft from the water; much easier said than done and a lot of bailing is necessary!
We had to practice different means of treading water to conserve body heat and energy.
A requirement is that we have to digest this book from cover to cover prior to the race.

Given that the race is now over halfway through with all teams racing beyond Papua New Guinea in Leg 5, as far as I am aware, the only medical emergency so far (touch wood) has been a crew member aboard UNICEF who had suspected appendicitis so had to be disembarked in Durban upon departing for Leg 3 from Cape Town. Historically many transatlantic yachtsmen used to have an ‘elective appendectomy’ in order to avoid the possibility of this trouble at sea. Fortunately, now antibiotics can usually hold up the situation until help is at hand. All crew aboard UNICEF will have had the medical attention of the ‘doctor’s-surgery-by-sat-comms’, PRAXES. For more than 22 years, PRAXES has provided 24/7 remote medical advice to people operating in some of the most extreme and remote locations around the world. PRAXES will be on hand in the event they have to guide my Skipper over a satellite phone through complex medical procedures and help him diagnose injury or illness to his crew during the race. It is a source of some comfort.

Having said that, absolutely nothing could have fore-warned Clipper about the recent coronavirus outbreak, which has also had a huge impact on this race given that in this current leg – Leg 5 – the fleet were due to race into two Chinese ports. This is the latest official update from Clipper:

Message from Clipper Race Organising team:

03/02/20 – 13:00

“In view of the coronavirus outbreak, the Clipper Race, in consultation with the organising committees in both Sanya and Zhuhai, has amended its race schedule and delayed its arrival into China.

The fleet, currently racing from Australia, will now head to Subic Bay, Philippines, which was previously planned as the second of the three ports in Leg 5.

The estimated arrival window into Subic Bay is 13-16 February. There will now be an extended stopover in this port of a minimum of nine days.

The Clipper Race will continue to work with its Chinese organising committees and has contingency plans prepared should the race route need to be further amended.”

In this edition of the race, three of the eleven teams are backed by Chinese sponsors – Qingdao, Zhuhai and Sanya – with a significant number of Chinese crew aboard each. No amount of sea survival training or stockpiling for the ship’s medical chest could prepare the entire fleet for this. The coronavirus headlines remind me try to keep a sense of proportion and scale (i.e. avoid thinking the worst) and that ultimately, whatever we do in life, we’re never fully prepared (even if we think we are)…and that’s OK.

A lesson in what can go wrong at sea

Last week I got an unforeseen last minute opportunity to go sailing for the bank holiday weekend with a couple who own a Moody 38, called Ty Mor. I jumped at the chance and didn’t think twice about the early start from Swansea marina on the Saturday morning. They had looked at the charts and weather forecasts and created a passage plan that involved 3 days sailing from Swansea to Lundy, then on to Tenby, before finally sailing back to Swansea on the bank holiday Monday.

The Bristol Channel, the area where we sailed for three days and saw only four other yachts.

I felt very grateful for their offer to go sailing with them as it meant I could get some much-needed practice in ahead of my level 4 training in a few week’s time with my ‘real’ race Skipper and Mate (slightly daunted by the prospect!). I was also grateful for the opportunity they had given me to sail aboard a yacht that’s considerably smaller and therefore, quite different from a Clipper 70. A little apprehensive, but mostly excited (and definitely grateful) I had quickly gathered my sailing boots, some thermals, seasickness tablets, sun block and a sleeping bag and driven over to Wales.

The generous spirited couple who own Ty Mor are Susan and Mark Baldwin. They live near Chepstow (so fairly local to me), but I had met Sue through the Clipper training. Sue is going to be a circumnavigator in the race aboard Visit Sanya skippered by Seumas Kellock. Joining us at Swansea marina was another female Clipper race circumnavigator, Kathy Haig, who will be sailing aboard Zhuhai under Skipper, Nick Leggatt. Kathy and I were the novice sailors, both having done next to no sailing prior to our involvement in the Clipper race. Sue and Mark meanwhile, have been sailing all their lives and spend every opportunity they have to be at sea aboard their much-loved yacht.

Sue, studying the charts to locate a safe anchorage as we approach Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel.
I felt in very safe hands with Sue who is already quite an accomplished sailor. She is usually found at the nav station (pictured), whilst her husband prefers to helm.
Sue loves a navigational chart and meteorological data; I’m still learning!
Ty Mor at anchor off Lundy Island; the other yachts were the first we’d seen all day.
Ty Mor is the yacht in the foreground. This is taken at dusk from Lundy where I had been watching seals from the pier.

All was going well, apart from three out of the four of us struggling with seasickness in lumpy seas and the tablets we’d all taken were wiping us out with drowsiness. Despite this, Kathy announced on deck that she was going to go down below to make us all a sandwich during our sailing passage from Lundy to Tenby and we all enthusiastically answered that it was a good idea. There’s nothing like the constant wind chill at sea to make me want to constantly graze on food – mostly easily-at-hand food such as sugary snacks that I’d never touch when ashore: mars bars, digestive biscuits, Pringles, salted cashews, bananas and crisps.

Kathy turned to go down the companionway steps into the saloon from the deck. First one step, then another, moving her hands down the handrail as she did so, then “S***!” A drawing in of air, a closing in of panic, dread replacing nausea in our stomachs. Kathy had fallen backwards from the steps as a big wave in the lumpy seas about us had knocked her off balance, sending her flying backwards so her back slammed against the solid wooden table in the saloon. Sue and Mark instantly jumped up and went down below to assess the situation leaving me at the helm to keep a look out and count the seconds pass by in dread for what they might find.

Sue managed to get Kathy to the couch in the saloon and kept talking to her to assess the extent of concussion and injury. We administered painkillers and encouraged her to sip water. For a few hours Kathy was stabilised lying in the saloon and kept saying she was OK. It wasn’t until she shouted out she needed assistance to go to the toilet that we began to suspect a broken rib or internal bleeding as she was in agony trying to stand up and found she was unable to.

Once Sue had got Kathy ‘stable’, she phoned Kathy’s partner to alert him to the fact that Kathy might not be returning to Swansea. Through all this, Kathy was courageous and kept being upbeat. Sue was absolutely incredible in tirelessly looking after the safety of crew and yacht. She is a very competent sailor and I respect her enormously.

Given we were within a hour of sailing into Tenby and it was now early evening, we decided we’d call the coastguard and ask for advice rather than make a MAYDAY or PAN-PAN call via VHF. Immediately upon doing so, things took a dramatic turn and we found ourselves having to motor in circles and stay offshore so that an RNLI lifeboat could be deployed from Tenby lifeboat station and a helicopter airlift could take place if necessary.

Support for Kathy was on its way!
Sue, Mark and I were very apprehensive when the RNLI lifeboat approached us. We put fenders on both port and starboard as we had no idea what they were planning to do and we needed something to do with our nervous apprehension!
The Tenby RNLI lifeboat pulled alongside us and two crew jumped aboard with emergency medical kit.
Upon their arrival we were instructed to moor up on the RNLI buoy off Tenby. This RNLI lifeboat man kept us all occupied on deck and communicated with the RNLI vessel, whilst his colleague assessed Kathy in the saloon.
They were brilliant guys and we were hugely grateful for their reassuring presence. Once he’d made his assessment and radioed for a paramedic to arrive by helicopter this man got a well deserved brew – always necessary in a crisis!
Once he arrived, the paramedic ordered that Kathy be taken off the boat by an RNLI basket stretcher back to the RNLI lifeboat station in Tenby, where an ambulance was to be on standby.
Kathy’s feet can be seen on the stretcher as she is safely transferred onto the lifeboat with all the RNLI crew, paramedic, medical kit and of course those key 21st century items, her mobile phone and charger!
Being taken back ashore by stretcher; not how Kathy anticipated her sailing trip would end!
A crowd had gathered to watch as the lifeboat came up the slipway in Tenby.
As the helicopter flew off overhead, Sue, Mark and I sat in silence wondering what on earth was going to happen next and hoping that her injuries were not serious. We were subdued that night and Kathy’s absence was keenly felt onboard.
We spent the night on the RNLI mooring buoy wondering where Kathy was being sent to and the extent of her injuries.
The next day we made an early departure (a bleery-eyed 6am) from Tenby back to Swansea, but still we didn’t know what diagnosis had been made regarding Kathy’s fall. All we knew at this point was that Kathy had been taken to a hospital in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire. As we were one crew member down I had to fight back my fear and take a more active role on deck, which included helming in a force 7.

We made it back safely into Swansea marina and once we’d moored up we learnt that Kathy was to be discharged after one night in hospital with a walking aid and lots of prescription painkillers and anti-inflammatories. She’d had a CT scan, among other tests, but doctors concluded she hadn’t broken any ribs or damaged organs; she was simply suffering from very painful internal tissue bruising. It was such a RELIEF to hear this news, because we knew what was at stake if it was a more serious diagnosis, since Kathy is due to set off on her circumnavigation in the race in 95 days’ time.

Reflecting on the unexpected turn of events, I realised what a valuable lesson this had been for me in the run-up to race start. When at sea ALWAYS expect and try to be prepared for, the unexpected. Danger isn’t just lurking on deck, but moving about the boat down below can be just as dangerous, if not more so.

I had also got to experience heavy weather sailing and the effects that can have on the body and crew morale when seasickness sets in. I was surprised by how calm all 4 of us coped with Kathy’s accident; most of all, Kathy herself! And I marveled at the free emergency service provided by the RNLI, which is run by dedicated volunteers, quite separate from the coastguard. The lifesavers who stepped aboard Ty Mor were such a reassuring presence. I genuinely do not know what we would have done without them and I know I will never see an RNLI lifeboat in quite the same way ever again.

…I also now know far more profoundly, what is at stake by setting off to sail across oceans. If an accident happens to me or fellow crew during the race, we won’t be able to call up the coastguard on VHF radio and wait for an RNLI life boat in order to be rescued. We’ll be relying on our own wits and onboard resources. At best, there will be a voice assessing our medical dangers and guiding us through medical procedures from thousands of miles away via the PRAXES medical support service and, if we’re really lucky, a ship may be a few days away and willing to divert course to offer assistance. It’s a very, very sobering thought.

This companionway may look benign, but in heavy weather can be an accident waiting to happen, as Kathy’s experience taught me.

We had no idea at the time, but Kathy’s rescue made it into the local newspaper – Western Telegraph- with a rather dramatic headline: ‘Helicopter and lifeboat on mercy mission to injured sailor‘.