South: The ex-prime minister of France, Scopaderm and Waves the size of houses

After 3 weeks stuck in the ice around Antarctica, the Astrolabe broke free and made her escape back to Hobart.  She appeared through the mist like the Marie Celeste.

Back at the hotel, I open my email inbox and wade through the fan mail (only joking).  I find an email saying there will be some VIPs on board, including the ex-french prime minister Mr Michel Rocard.  Oh, and I will be the ship’s doctor, and their ‘physician cover’ all the way to Concordia.  Physician to the ex-prime minister of France… Gulp.  I hear my consultants back in the Emergency Department in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, gasp for breath.

Onboard: Ex-French Prime Minister, Michel Rocard

Onboard: Ex-French Prime Minister, Michel Rocard

My first thought, naturally, is to call my doctors medical insurance in UK to ask if I was covered to be the physician to Monsieur Rocard, a well-to-be 81 year old, on an Antarctic-equipped vessel in the Southern Ocean for a week, heading for Antarctica, through the world’s worst ocean, with no opportunity for helicopter evacuation and waves the size of houses.  I didn’t bother, I knew their answer.  I turn on my sat phone – provided by Steve Yeatts over in the States on behalf of Iridium – thank god I can at least phone a friend.  Fortunately, I carry a list of the mobile telephone numbers for some of the top physicians, surgeons and anaesthetists in UK who have kindly volunteered to assist me by means of advice, during my time South, should an emergency arise.  These are people like Mr David Nott, who performed a complicated and amputation of a young child’s arm and shoulder, who would otherwise have died.  The amazing thing was he had never performed this particular type of procedure and being in rural central africa, carried out the entire operation instructed by SMS text message from a colleague in the UK.  Speed dial 1 is set.

I take a peek inside the pharmacy – a mix of Australian, French, Italian, American and English drugs and equipment.  Thank god for trade names I thought.  Portex chest drain kits, Baxter’s Hartmann’s fluid, Flagyl and more.  We all moan about consumerism and advertising and trade names but here is one example where because a drug company gave away a free bedside touch lamp with their drug’s name, Plavix, written all over it, to one of my brothers who is also a doctor, as a ‘free token gift’, who passed it onto me as a child, fifteen years later sat on a boat in Australia, I remember the trade name and know that Plavix is in fact Clopidogrel and it is of no use to me right now.  That’s effective advertising and brainwashing for you.  Ruthless.  I orientate myself through various other drugs by means of anecdotes and free drug lunches.  I don’t remember the side effects or doses of the drugs, but I do remember the type of sandwich or pizza I ate at each free lunch… hmmmm.  Smokey Bacon.

We all were to sleep on the Astrolabe for our first night on the boat and our last night in Hobart.  Gone is the luxury (and stability) of the hotel we had stayed in for the past few nights.

I was awoken by the gentle rolling of the Astrolabe, even in calm sea in the port, creaking and moaning.

I have various late night visitors who after the same small chat all arrive at the same question- “Can I get it doctor… just one… its all I need”.

It seems I am sitting on a goldmine here in the Pharmacy- Scopaderm, a French licenced drug patch that works quite well against sea sickness.  I say quite well, because it mostly also gives three days of double vision to its bearer.  I think of the ring in Lord of the Rings – the potential power, greed and damage each patch can yield.  A poisoned Chalice.

I think I should quickly start trading patches for dry suit diving trips in Antarctica, visits to Penguin colonies, skidoo rides and more, before Mutiny and the Pharmacy is stormed.  Certainly these are the offers I receive.

We depart later today, Saturday 7th – it will take 6-7 days to reach the Antarctic coast through the world’s most notorious sea.  Here’s going to be a journey to remember and tell the Grandkids… if I ever see them.  I think I have already read the book – The Worst Journey in the World.  According to the Captain, the ice is more treacherous year, and thicker.  It already extends 7 miles from the coastline mainland of Antarctica, which is apparently unusual remembering that it is the height of summer here.

If there was ever a way to travel to Antarctica, it was to be by boat.  I am reminded of tales from my childhood of sailors hundreds of years ago who thought they would drop off the side of the world if they sailed to the edge of the horizon.

When i chat to the captain about Shackleton, he knows the story and like me, was brought up on it.  He laughed out loud and waved his arm around on the bridge.  And said but thats nothing like this… look at all the instruments we have.  I look around and see several old floppy disk drives and pre-CRT monitors with green writing on the screen… things I haven’t seen since the 1980s and take another deep gasp and pretend to laugh along.

I think back to a recent trip I made before i left to see the James Caird boat back home in Dulwich in London.  I had ran my hand down the boat that Shackleton and his men famously escaped Antarctica in.  Incredible.

I tear open a Scopaderm patch and bury my head into my pillow and start to dream about my bed back home.  I click my heels together three times.  Then again.  Nothing.  I think i’ll try again in the morning, maybe they are faulty.