GP Interview - Setting sail on the tall ships

North Wales GP Dr Paul Nickson explains why he is involved in the Jubilee Sailing Trust, which enables people of all abilities to go sailing.

How did you become involved in the Jubilee Sailing Trust?

A GP colleague told me about it - she's been a ship's doctor with the trust on a number of voyages.

I left my GP partnership in Bethesda, North Wales, in 2006, after 24 years sitting behind the same desk, and was looking for some new challenges as a freelance GP.

During my seven years of freelance work before I retired, I was a locum in the Channel Islands, the Scottish islands and New Zealand, and volunteered in Nepal and Madagascar. My motto was 'find a nice place and see if they need a doctor'.

I hadn't done any sailing before, although I am a keen sea kayaker. It seemed a good way to have a sailing holiday, see the world and be useful.

GP Dr Paul NicksonWhat does the trust do?

The Jubilee Sailing Trust is a charity promoting the integration of people of all physical abilities through the challenge and adventure of sailing tall ships on the open sea. It offers able-bodied and disabled people holidays where they can work together in a unique environment.

There are two ships, both purpose built to accommodate wheelchairs - there were eight wheelchair users on my first voyage.

There are no passengers on board, everyone is a crew member who helps to the best of their ability with all tasks, from hoisting sails and taking the helm, to cutting carrots and cleaning the toilets.

There are also opportunities to 'go aloft'. Those in wheelchairs or with other disabilities can do an assisted climb up the masts when in harbour.

There is a permanent crew of about eight experienced sailors.

What has your role involved?

I've been the ship's doctor on two trips. Fortunately, the role of doctor is not arduous as there is a medical purser, an experienced nurse who deals with routine matters such as sea sickness and minor injuries.

All I've had to do medically has been to acquire some medication for someone who'd forgotten it before leaving Gran Canaria and deal with a lad who had compound fractures of three terminal phalanges, crushed by a hatch.

There is also frequent discussion with the medical purser in a supporting role, for example, about the insulin-dependent diabetic who gets very seasick.

Most trips last about a week, but some are much longer. There's a round the world trip going on at the moment and a doctor is more necessary on longer trips. Most of the time I'm just a crew member.

What sort of people make up the crew on a tall ship?

It's roughly a 50/50 split between able and disabled. A buddy system is in operation, so anyone with a disability is paired up with a buddy, usually someone they've not met before, who helps make sure they know what's going on (for example, if they have a hearing problem) and are in the right place at the right time for an activity.

Some disabled people come with friends, family members or carers, who act as their buddies. There is a system of watches - you're buddied with someone on the same watch.

Among the disabilities I've encountered have been people with rarities such as Friedreich's ataxia and Werdnig-Hoffman disease. More common conditions include MS, rheumatoid or osteoarthritis, cerebral palsy, deafness, visual impairment, diabetes, epilepsy and stroke.

Where have you travelled to with the trust?

I've been to the Canaries twice. And this year I sailed from Mallorca to Malta, having a week's holiday in each place before and after the trip. Many trips start and finish in the UK and there is also the opportunity for longer voyages.

It's a great way to have an outdoor activity holiday where you can meet a great bunch of people.

All of the places on these voyages are subsidised to an extent and there are discounts for doctors, but the trust is a charity, so if you wish, you don't have to take your discount.

Would you recommend tall ship sailing to other GPs?

Definitely. It's a refreshing change and certainly beats chasing QOF points. It wouldn't suit someone who gets very seasick or insists on creature comforts - you sleep in bunks and it can get cramped.

The Jubilee Sailing Trust
The Jubilee Sailing TrustFor more information about the work of the Jubilee Sailing Trust, visit Call 023 8044 9108, or email

There are no special requirements if you want to take on the ship's doctor role, but A&E experience is an advantage. I took expedition medicine courses and the pre-hospital emergency care course, but it's not essential. Flexibility (mental and physical) and a sense of humour are of more value. Medical defence organisations will usually provide cover at no extra charge, but check first. No sailing experience is necessary.

The best way to find out more is to contact the Jubilee Sailing Trust (see box). Explain that you're a doctor, even if you don't want the ship's doctor role. There are taster days for those who live near Poole or Southampton. And if you don't want to go to sea, you can volunteer as maintenance crew, or promote the trust to suitable patients.

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