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19 December 2001, 11:59 am
Doctor On Board
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Volvo Ocean Race

On November 21 the Amer Sports One thought that crew member Keith Kilpatrick had a case of indigestion, navigator Roger Nilson had other ideas.

Nilson is racing his sixth Volvo Ocean Race/Whitbread Race, but it was his experience as a doctor that allowed him to examine and diagnose the American's potentially life threatening condition of an intestinal blockage.

"After a medical seminar we had I would say that all of the medics in this race could have coped with the situation," explained Nilson in his relaxed manner. "I guess they might have had trouble finding the veins, but otherwise I don't think it would have been a problem."

Once the diagnosis was complete it wasn't long before Nilson realized that he was going to need extra supplies, and possibly to get Kilpatrick off the boat as soon as possible. After a short period Grant Dalton's Amer Sports One made a move north to get within an airlift zone as quickly as possible. "It was like watching an intensive care patient, just at sea. Basically it came at a time when we were on one tack, so I stopped doing the navigating and concentrated on Keith."

Fortunately Dalts' is a pretty experienced sailor and was able to cover Nilson while he tended to ill crewmember. Kilpatrick was taken off at Eclipse Island - luckily already on the road to recovery. However, Nilson's hat as team doctor was not laid to rest yet, with Dalts falling to crack four ribs and, was later diagnosed as, cracking three vertebrae. "Grant wasn't so bad, it was again just a case of making sure he was alright and that he was secure in his bunk."

To some these injuries may seem a handful, but when talking with Nilson you get the impression that 'we ain't seen nothing'.

"Of course the worst thing that can hit any crew is loss of life, in particular from man overboard incidents," explained Nilson. Fortunately no one has been lost after falling overboard since the 1989-90 race when two men were lost overboard from Creightons Naturally and one died. "It was a miracle that they found them at all. As soon as they got hold of the first man he fell unconscious. That was a touch and go situation as to whether he would survive or not," said a matter-of-fact Nilson.

Nilson has many memories from many race, "I remember in the 1977 race on the second leg there were several major problems. One person [Eric Letrosne] fractured his femur," recollected Nilson. "This was a potentially lethal condition as it is possible to lose all of your blood into your leg." Letrosne had been thrown against the life-rails when the boat, 33 Export, broached. Unfortunately it was too rough to transfer Letrosne off the boat to competitor Japy-Hermes, who had Doctor Sarbarly on board. Sarbarly instead swam to 33 Export to treat Letrosne.

"On Flyer in the 1981-82 the skipper had a heart attack. It was actually a full on heart attack and he was unconscious afterwards, but the crew didn't tell anyone until after the race," remembered Nilson. A shocking reminder of the stress the skippers were under even before the high level of financial investment was apparent in the race.

As the race was beginning to see a transition away from an adventure and towards professional ocean racing the stakes were slowly rising. Though the man overboard cases were now far less frequent, injuries were by no means subsiding. In the 1985-86 Whitbread on board Drum crewman Magnus Olsson, now part of the ASSA ABLOY syndicate, had a near death experience. A spinnaker bag was swept off the deck and got tangled up with the propeller. Olsson donned scuba gear and went, in gruelling conditions, under the boat in an attempt to free it. Unfortunately the vigorious actions of the boat whipped away his mask. "He tried to swim out but I think he was trapped below the transom. Luckily he was tied on, but he was unconscious when the crew retrieved him," described Nilson. "That was an unlucky leg as they also had a guy tear all his knee ligaments."

"Even off the water there have been deaths," explained Nilson. "I remember in the 89-90 race there were three deaths in three weeks when we were in Uruguay. A Swedish skipper went to the Canaries and committed suicide - probably because of psychological and maybe financial problems - and a Russian skipper hung himself in a tree," explained Nilson, obviously still vividly remembering that fateful stopover. "The third was one of the crewmembers from the boat I was sailing. Unfortunately he was lost in a motorbike accident."

"On that same leg we had a guy with a compound fracture on his forearm, it was a completely open fracture. This was a very very bad break. We had to operate on board the boat and it was very close to him losing his arm," described Nilson, thankful to have been there to save the crewman's arm.

Ever since the first race the competing teams have had the ability to contact hospitals to get assistance for various medical problems. Every leg sailors experience uncomfortable rashes from wearing wet clothing day after day, or painful skin infections, but these can all be treated with the right anti-biotics and creams.

"I don't know whether being a qualified doctor is better or worse in some ways. With Keith I guess I was probably more stressed than an unqualified crewmember would have been because I knew the potentially lethal consequences of the condition," said Nilson.

These serious conditions can serve only to remind competitors of the dangers they face when they leave the sanctuary of port and enter the unpredictable world of ocean racing
John Greenland/News Editor
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