Andrew McIrvine is a consultant vascular surgeon at Guy’s and St.Thomas’ Hospital, London, and at Darent Valley Hospital in Dartford, Kent. He is a past president of the Section of Surgery, Royal Society of Medicine and served as a council member of the British Medical Association.
Most surgeons seem to enjoy a high-octane hobby outside of the hospital. It gives a similar adrenaline buzz as the operating theatre.
Vascular surgery is considered one of the most technically demanding branches of surgery. Vascular surgeon often get called when other specialties encounter excessive bleeding. They need to act decisively and quickly. When things go wrong on a boat the same applies, you have to come up with the right solution immediately.
Both sailing and surgery require an analysis of complex variables to achieve the result. There are a lot of surgical situations where you have a number of ways to investigate and treat and the same can be said of sailing, where you have a number of variables such as wind and tide to predict. Correctly predicting how those variables change is the route to success. Sailing is probably the most complex sport and surgery is similar in respect of medicine.
In both sailing and surgery you have to put your knowledge and your technical skill on the line. In sailing you can decide which way to tack for your benefit, and in surgery you can choose different procedures. In both cases, once you have gone down a path, you have to stick with it. If everything goes right it is very satisfying, if everything goes wrong it is pretty depressing. Other doctors can simply do another test, prescribe some new pills, and say come back in a week. Sailing is the same, you can’t dither around and have a look at the weather forecast again – you have to make a decision and live with it.
I am also very used to working with teams – teams of nurses, other doctors and theatre staff. Essentially a surgeon leads a team in theatre much as a skipper leads a team on a boat.
It was an excellent series of races. The standard of racing is very high indeed – it is a pro-am nation versus nation sailing competition, combining the tough disciplines of offshore racing with the cut and thrust of short course yacht racing. The waters of the Solent and the Channel are navigationally complex and the races features a varied range of courses – windward-leewards, round the cans, an overnight offshore race and a race around the Isle of Wight. It is considered to be the world championship of amateur sailing and it only takes places every two years.
This year we were the top British boat but sadly the team didn’t perform as well as we had hoped. The French won over a very challenging week. Luckily the camaraderie was good and we didn’t have any Brexit jibes!
By tradition, the race is run in light winds but this year was different. My boat, La Réponse (a Beneteau First 40), copes well with stronger winds but unfortunately the other boats in my team were better equipped for light winds. The last day of the Cup was a light wind day which would have suited the team better but the sailing was then cancelled. Such is sailing!
The new wind farm under construction off the South Coast was one of the race markers. It was slightly disconcerting that we could feel the vibrations of the piling coming through the ocean.
The week is great fun but difficult because of the relentless nature of the races, three on one day, two the next and so on. As a vascular surgeon, I have often worked during the night, which means I am not phased, as some people are, about staying up all night in an offshore race. Working through long hours and through the night is less of a problem for me than for some.
Cowes Week is challenging for another reason – the social scene can be difficult to manage! On an evening we can be invited to as many as five parties and of course, the recovery time is longer as one gets older! I had a good crew of 10 to 12 family and friends and we knew we had a good chance of doing well. I would have been very disappointed had it not gone our way. We were delighted to finish first in our class after a long week on the water.
I am also the Secretary General to the International Maxi Association and Admiral of the Royal Ocean Racing Club. Put it this way, I’m not very good at relaxing on a beach!
I’m 65 now and conduct only elective surgery. I was very open with my Trust about my extra activities and the time needed to undertake the job. Trusts would be mad not to offer some degree of flexible working to more mature surgeons. We retire, return on middle of the scale pay but bring a wealth of experience and expertise, able to teach, to train, to lead. I’m not entirely sure when I’ll fully retire but I have a good bunch of people around me in theatre who will tell me if I’ve lost it!
The IMA secretary role is a paid position so I’m required to take extra time off to fulfil this – around four to six weeks a year. My position at the RORC is essentially that of a trustee, advising the current commodore and chief executive if required. I am involved with the club’s strategic decisions and have a particular interest in increasing the international outlook of the club. Nearly half of our 4,100 members are from overseas.
I am also due to be president of the International Association of Vascular Surgeons in 2017 (this is an academic ski club for vascular surgeons from all over the world – I like to be busy!)
Marry another doctor – no-one else will believe what you are up to at crazy hours. (I have been married to my wife Deborah, a retired consultant anaesthetist, for 41 years.)
To my son – Don’t do medicine. He seemed to have taken this advice but is now a second-year medical student aged 34 after gaining two other degrees.