How would sick VOR crewman Keith Kilpratrick fared had Dr Roger Nilson not been on board?

When Keith Kilpatrick fell violently ill with an intestinal blockage in the middle of the Southern Ocean during leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race, the slight consolation for him was that he was sailing with the one qualified doctor in the whole race. A trained orthopaedic surgeon, Roger Nilson put his navigational responsibilities on hold aboard Amer Sports One to tend to his sick crewmate. But how would he have fared if he had been one of the other Volvo boats? Reasonably well, according to the race’s medical adviser, Tim Spalding, a Coventry-based consultant orthopaedic surgeon and a keen sailor in his own right.

Spalding has been involved with past Whitbread Races, but has seen a marked improvement in the medical competence of the crews in the Volvo Ocean Race. “In the past, some crew turned up at the start line and expected to get everything they needed from a medical text book. One crew in the last race turned up with virtually no medical training.”

He has been impressed by how much more seriously the sailors have taken their medical responsibilities this time. “We advised the on-board medics to spend between one and two weeks in an accident and emergency department in a hospital, because that is where you will find the greatest concentration and variety of acute problems,” he said. Aside from that, the nominated medics (there are two on each boat) have to gain certification in the basic First Aid course from their country of origin, and they must attend a course of seminars and workshops organised by the race organisation.

Spalding said: “They need to be able to cope with anything from injuries to illnesses. The Notice of Race includes a checklist of basic skills, and we make sure they are adequately trained in strapping, plastering, suturing, dentistry, airway management, resuscitation and so on.” One of the pre-start workshops even had the medics practising their stitching skills on some pigs’ trotters. Although the Kilpatrick incident has highlighted the dangers of being far from proper medical care, Spalding says it is the minor ailments that tend to occupy the onboard medics. “It’s not the dramatic things that usually happen. Normally it’s coping with ongoing problems like wrist or back pain through prolonged activity, or skin ailments such as gunwale bum.”

But the Amer Sports One drama has shown how vulnerable ocean racing sailors can be. Each boat takes a standard medical kit in two waterproof suitcases, which is pretty comprehensive, but as Spalding pointed out: “There are some things you just can’t treat without access to proper hospital facilities. If you suffer a major head injury by being struck by the boom, for instance, then there may nbe o possible help out there. But that’s the risk you take in a race like this.”