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Great Britain crew member, John Charles, reflects on his unforgettable rescue

As one of the greatest challenges on the planet, it is inevitable that the Clipper 2015-16 Round the World Yacht Race crew would pick up injuries during their circumnavigation and the physicians at ClipperTelemed+ and PRAXES were standing by for the duration. One very memorable incident occurred on September 17, 2015, when GREAT Britain round the world crew member, John Charles, was injured during a routine rig climb. With assistance from ClipperTelemed+ (staffed by the physicians at PRAXES), GREAT Britain skipper, Peter Thornton, effectively attended to the injuries Charles had sustained. Thornton reset and splinted Charles’s wrist, inserted stitches to an injury on his upper arm and administered antibiotics and pain killers. As a result, Charles was soon back in stable condition and the team was able to continue racing to Rio. During the Seattle race stopover in April 2016, Charles sat down with us and recalled the events of that memorable day.

You experienced a dramatic incident on the leg to Rio. Can you tell us what happened?

We were sailing from London to Rio and were half way across from the African coast to South America, about a hundred miles above the Equator, and I had to go up the mast to get a halyard back. It had been choppy so we waited for the waves to die down at the end of the day before I went up. Richard Edwards, the cameraman for the race, was with us and he asked me if I would put the Garmin VIRB camera on my head when I went up. Richard wanted me to try to get some footage of the horizon and the boat from the top of the mast, which is about a hundred feet high. I said it was no problem and he was going to film my climb from the bottom and I would film it from the top. As I was getting to the top of the mast, at about 90 feet up, the yacht hit a set of big waves and suddenly I was flying around the top of the mast. I had about ten to fifteen feet of line on me as the boat was rocking from one side to another and I was getting whipped back and forth. I was trying to scrabble on and hold onto anything. I tried to wedge my feet into the mast, which had the main sail up, and my shoes went flying – one went right into the sea and the other landed on deck!

I saw a metal piece of wire that holds the mast up, coming towards me and I put my arms out to try and grab it and it went down my forearm and cut like a cheese grater into my arm. My body kept going and my arm flipped around and I heard my forearm snap and I knew I was in big trouble. This happened in a matter of seconds. Then the boat went – bang, bang, bang – over some waves, and I was flying around again. I didn’t think anything of it at the time but my arm flew back and hit the shroud and I heard it snap. I was actually still filming all of this with the Garmin VIRB and Richard was still filming below. My arm was hanging at a 90 degree angle and I had to grab on with one arm as tightly as I could. Luckily, my right arm is the stronger one and I held on and wrapped my legs around. I was up there for about 46 minutes.

So, what happened next?

Since my arm was broken, it was flapping around and would hit my knee or the shroud and it was so painful, I was nearly fainting. At first, the crew were calling to me from below asking if I could get down but it became clear that there was no way that would happen. They tried to pull me down but because I had knotted myself up behind the main sail and the rigging, it was impossible. They let out the line but I was going nowhere. Finally, my Skipper, Peter, was able to make it up the mast and he had to pull me back up again because I had made knots around myself with the rigging. He took me back up, took me around the sail and through the rigging to untangle me and finally we were able to get back on the deck 46 minutes later and that’s when they started working on me. By this time, ClipperTelemed+ had been informed.

How did Peter work with ClipperTelemed+ once you were on deck?

I remember that I had put on a clean white t-shirt that day and at first I saw a few blood patches but then all of a sudden I had a huge dark patch all over my shoulder. They cut the t-shirt off me and saw that my arm was broken because of the angle it was in and they looked at my underarm where I thought it was only a cut. Peter was told by ClipperTelemed+ that we needed to check this, concentrate on the damage to my upper arm and not to worry about the pain in the lower part of my arm for the moment. Peter had done the training on pigs’ trotters with PRAXES prior to the race so I became his next operation! He put 17 stitches under my arm. At this stage, we were down below in the galley and my arm was giving me more grief than anything but my underarm wasn’t bothering me. It was a numb kind of pain. I was crying out for them to fix the break but the physician at ClipperTelemed+ instructed us to concentrate on stopping the bleeding from above. A crew member was relaying messages from the satellite phone to Peter. He was doing the stitches and getting the messages on what to do and when to do it. After the stitches were done, we addressed the break with adding the support of a metal splint. That was it for ten days until we got to Rio. When I got to the hospital, the doctors there took the splint off and saw that I still had a broken arm but they looked at the stitches and asked where I had them done and if they were done by a professional doctor. They took me to surgery and cut me open to make sure that all the nerves and tendons were still working properly. I had been cut about three to four millimetres away from a main artery and that’s why I was losing so much blood. I have lost a bit of tendon movement and one finger is still a bit numb but that’s it. I am so pleased ClipperTelemed+ was there giving Peter the right information and instructions.

What are your impressions of the service that ClipperTelemed+ provides?

It’s absolutely essential. When something happens in the middle of the ocean it is invaluable to have this type of professional medical advice just a phone call away. All the Skippers and at least one crew member on each team is medically trained by PRAXES before they set off. Some teams will also find they have crew members on board who are professional physicians, but when it comes to remote telemedicine given the stress of the situation, even for them, it is useful to have someone who can tell them what to do and when to do it. If it had been up to me, I was moaning about my forearm and really wanted that to be taken care of first and that would have been a disaster. The physician at ClipperTelemed+ knew exactly what to focus on. In my opinion, that was truly a bad experience made great because all the crew went from novices to people springing into action.

John’s Skipper, Peter Thornton, who treated him on board under the advice of PRAXES, added: “It puts a captain’s mind at rest to know that within minutes of an incident occurring on board that we can speak to a doctor, 24/7, to clarify the treatment and be confident in what needs to be done. Thanks to the training provided by PRAXES in Gosport, and ClipperTelemed+ service on board, I was able to focus on treating John’s injuries, knowing we were doing the right thing. It proved invaluable.”

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GREAT Britain round the world crew member, John Charles (photo courtesy of Clipper Round the World Yacht Race)

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