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Medicine, polar exploration and ‘a laikiesopie’

Since 1994 Bark EUROPA has sailed with an international crew; all part of the worldwide EUROPA family and every member has their own story to tell. This is the story of Adrián, who sails on Bark EUROPA as ships doctor and who ended up living in El Chalten due to COVID.
Imagine a ship, a big one, classic style, with three masts. Imagine the square rig, full of lines falling from the rigging on both sides. I know, it might seem a bit confusing but isn’t it beautiful? There can be as many details as you like. Plenty of sails of different sizes and shapes, pins all along the rail, and even a beautiful figurehead at the front of the bowsprit. Now, visualise yourself standing on the foredeck, surfing the waves well clipped onto your harness. Feel the cold breeze in your nose and your eyes. The rest of your body is well covered with layers of clothes, it’s cold, windy and wet, but you don’t want to get inside the deckhouse. You can’t stop staring at the horizon. The full moon is rising right behind the glaciers, reflecting on the calm ocean and you are gazing at Antarctica for the first time! After such a long time waiting for this journey, after the adventurous and infamous Drake Passage, there you are, reaching the White Continent on Bark Europa’s deck.

There are a few images that remained stuck into my mind, and today I wanted to share this one with you. Hi, I am Adrián, and I have been on board Europa for the past couple of Antarctic seasons as a ship’s doctor. How did I end up there? Well, that’s a long story...

I can’t imagine my life without travelling. My first memories as a little kid were playing with a globe, reading about great explorers and dreaming of all the places I might go one day, with special affection about wild and remoteness. It wasn’t until the university years when I started discovering the world, sometimes travelling alone, sometimes involved in health or development projects in very diverse countries of Africa, Asia or the Americas… I really enjoyed those times and it definitely was a great start, but when I heard about Bark Europa and the chance to join polar expeditions in the far south, combining medicine and polar exploration… wow, that was a different topic! This image became very powerful in my mind and I suddenly realized that I was about to leave behind my previous life in the Canary Islands to fully engage with a different world.

Nevertheless, one thing is what you might visualize, and another one is the reality. Romantic ideas help sometimes to make decisions but the first time I step on board in Ushuaia, my perception was way more chaotic than idyllic. The ship was getting ready for a two months ocean crossing and she was bustling with people everywhere. Outgoing and incoming crew were working together cleaning cabins, fixing things, loading and storing groceries, sewing sails… and before I could realize it, I had a bucket in one hand and a yellow ‘duckie’ in the other one. Like an operating room, a ship needs that everything is meticulously tidy and even the easiest task has its own procedure. It took me a few days to learn many of those, and still, when I thought I had some things under control, I got confused again: “What the hell means ‘a laikiesopie’?” The mess went on for many days and then suddenly, as a magic trick, Europa was perfectly tidy, shiny and ready to welcome the new voyage crew for another epic journey.

Then, how is being a ship’s doctor? First, I would like to mention that in the medical environment, the combination between medicine and outdoors adventure might be a bit out of the beaten track, however it’s an awesome path once you start walking it. Of course, it’s not the easiest one. All of us have been trained in fully equipped hospitals with all of the unimaginable diagnose and therapeutic resources, and the opinion of colleagues when in doubt. We are used to all of this and it really simplifies our daily practice. But for me, right now is out there in remote areas where I can truly feel this passion for medicine. It’s hard to explain, but in those situations I usually feel a deep connection with how medicine looked like in past times, when doctors just had their keen eye, hands and own experience to solve the problems they face.

At the same time, it is a simple life. I like spending the days assisting the guides in their regular activities, helping doing dishes in the galley, pulling lines, going aloft and contributing to sail the ship together with the rest of the crew. Also, reading in the library during my free time, or just spending hours looking at the ocean feeling the freedom of sailing the world. All together while organizing the medical cabin and solving some common clinical consultations every day. However, once in a while some serious issues happen and it’s important to be mentally ready for them, being aware that we are far away from any medical facility and the supplies we can bring onboard are quite limited. Like many other problems that happen on open seas, we need to be self-sufficient, but it doesn’t mean at all to do it on your own. In the few cases I have needed it, I always have received the support in many ways of all of my colleagues, and we try to solve the situation together, as the community that we really are, and this is something I am very grateful for, the awareness that we might be the only ship within hundreds of miles, but we never sail alone.

We came back from Antarctica on February 2020 and I had three weeks off, ready for holidays exploring the Patagonian mountains in El Chaltén, then I was supposed to come back onboard in March and start sailing along the Chilean fjords in another exciting expedition. March 2020, a date that might sound familiar to many people… Pandemic. Europa had to cancel all the following journeys and I was not allowed to leave the village to come back to Ushuaia. Then it happened that a quarantine in Chaltén was much better than expected. It has been more than a year since I saw the sea for the last time, but living next to some of the most magnificent mountains and glaciers in the world has been a great privilege for me during this atypical year. I have improved my skills in climbing, alpinism and glacier traveling among many other activities. Mountains have become an essential part in my life, more than ever, and I feel extremely thankful for being able to spend the lockdown so close to nature and surrounded by random people that after a while I called friends.

Finally, even if I carefully follow the latest news concerning the pandemic, wishing to come back to ‘normal’ as soon as possible and sail to Antarctica again, I don’t worry too much about the future: nature here taught me that no matter what, the ice from the glacier, sooner or later, it always come back to the ocean.


Written by:
Adrian Ithaca | Ships doctor

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