Published: Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race begins Nov 19 in Cape Town at 1600 UTC. The estimated time to reach Abu Dhabi is 20-30 days.

The Volvo Ocean Race makes extraordinary demands on the bodies of the sailors. In strong conditions out on the ocean, the Volvo Ocean 65 becomes a violently unstable platform as it ploughs through big seas at high speed. In an instant, sailors can suffer serious and traumatic injuries if they lose their balance or their footing and find themselves being thrown across the boat.

Dongfeng To Begin Leg 2 Of Volvo Ocean Race Despite Lingering Injuries 1

This is exactly what happened to Dongfeng team navigator, Pascal Bidégorry, who was in the cabin when the bright red Chinese racing machine hit a big wave at the end of the first week at sea on Leg 1 from Alicante, Spain to Cape Town, South Africa.

The impact sent Bidégorry flying across the cabin and it was his neck that took the full force of the impact when he landed.

A tough and taciturn Frenchman with a huge amount of offshore experience, Bidégorry knew immediately that he had suffered serious injury.

The team quickly put in place emergency procedures to assess the extent of his injury. Had he suffered fractures to his neck? Was there a danger that his spinal cord could be damaged? Could he continue in the race or would he have to be taken off the boat – a potential disaster for the campaign?

The task of working out how badly Bidégorry had been hurt fell to the Chamonix-based Dongfeng team sports physiotherapist and sports science expert, Neil Maclean-Martin. Maclean-Martin spent hours on the satellite phone to the boat, from his clinic in the French Alps, carefully analysing Bidégorry's symptoms before coming to the conclusion that the Dongfeng navigator had suffered compression fractures that were unlikely to threaten his spinal column.

Dongfeng To Begin Leg 2 Of Volvo Ocean Race Despite Lingering Injuries

But this is not to downplay the extent of his injury. Whatever the diagnosis, it was going to be hard to continue and it is no exaggeration to say that Bidégorry reached Cape Town three weeks later with a broken body. The pain and damage from the injury had caused almost continual spasms in his muscles from head to toe and it was Maclean-Martin’s job to fix him in time for Leg 2 to Abu Dhabi.

After an MRI scan confirmed the earlier diagnosis – Bidégorry had compression fractures in four vertebrae in his neck – Maclean-Martin got to work trying to coax the Frenchman’s body back out of its crisis state. For a week at the team base in Cape Town he worked, three hours each day, helping Bidégorry overcome his injury. The results have been dramatic.

“If it was not for Neil, I would not be able to set sail tomorrow – there is no doubt about that,” says Bidégorry.

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Maclean-Martin says Bidégorry’s body had reacted like someone who had been in a serious car crash. “We had to work right from the feet upwards, through the calves, the thighs, the hips and then do lots of work on the lower back,” says Maclean-Martin. “Three weeks in pain is a long time so Pascal had been continually bracing his body and we had to unwind all that tension.” He had to be extremely careful as he manipulated Bidégorry’s neck after such a serious injury. “I had to bring my A-game to it.”

Bidégorry was not the only injured sailor in the Dongfeng racing team after Leg 1 of the Volvo Ocean Race in which the Chinese entry, skippered by Charles Caudrelier, finished in an impressive second place, just 12 minutes behind Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing.

Bidégorry’s fellow countryman Thomas Rouxel reached South Africa with suspected cracked ribs that needed Maclean-Martin’s attention, and almost all the crew showed signs of muscle tears and other stresses in their shoulders, forearms and wrists – the parts of their bodies that were worked hardest during 25 days of continuous sail trimming and sail changing.

(Images: Yann Riou / Dongfeng Race Team)