The Deep South is no Picnic.

I like the words of Vendée Globe sailor Alan Roura aboard La Fabrique and his realistic description of typical sailing in the Southern Ocean:

“The Deep South is no picnic. I have never been so frightened, taking routes or diversions to round the big lows, enduring front after front with crossed seas and breaking waves, some of which are 8 to 10m high. Going from 20 to 40 knots of breeze without having the time to realize that the boat has already broached. The South has its secrets and calls for you to sail in a way that you need to learn. Above all it forces you to never think you’re more powerful than the ocean.”


Vendee Globe- The Everest of Sailing

Some of my blog posts are more urgent than others and this is one of them. The Vendee Globe is undoubtedly the hardest and most demanding sailing race in the world. It is a single-handed, non-stop race around the world in 60 foot sailboats. The race is now in its thirty-ninth day and this posting is urgent because the leaders are soon approaching Drake Passage – a passage that I crossed six times when I was a doctor aboard the USCGC Glacier. I know the kinds of conditions these built-for-speed sailboats could end up facing and pray they are not confronted with anything like the mountainous seas we faced aboard the Glacier during our last crossing.

The Vendee Globe race was founded by Phillipe Jeantot in 1989. Since 1992, it has taken place every four years. The race is open to 60 foot monohull yachts conforming to the Open 60 criteria. The race begins in Les Sables d’ Olonne, France, then down the Atlantic and around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Australia’s Cape Leeuwin, and South America’s notorious Cape Horn before heading back up the Atlantic to the French port where they began. Competitors in this race are not allowed to receive any outside assistance, nor are they allowed to draw alongside a dock, quay or another vessel, but they may stop at anchor. Many of the sailors choose to withdraw from the race.

In the 1996-97 race one of the sailors, Gerry Roufs from Canada was lost at sea. His boat was found five months later off the coast of Chile. The sailors are often far from any normal emergency response, particularly during the long treacherous stretch of the race in the Southern Ocean, although two capsized boats were rescued by Australian rescue teams in the 1996-97 race. A third capsized boat in this same race was rescued by one of the participants, Raphael Dinelli, who was later awarded France’s Legion d’honneur.

During the 2000-2001 race 24 -year-old Ellen MacArthur almost won the race, but ended up second after striking a semi-submerged container and being delayed in order to make repairs. Yet she arrived to great fanfare as result of being “the youngest ever competitor to finish, the fastest woman around the planet – and only second solo sailor to get around the globe and less than 100 days.”

Sebastien Josse finished fifth in the 2004-05 race in spite of hitting an iceberg—a constant threat while sailing in the Southern Ocean. The 2008-09 race was won by Michel Desjoyeaux, who set a new record of 84d 3h 9’ 8”. This record was eclipsed in the 2012-13 race by François Gabart, who completed the circumnavigation in 78d 2h 16’ 40”.

The race is fascinating to follow on the Vendee Globe website where you can see video footage of segments of the race while it is happening. Some of the sailboats exceed speeds of 25 knots and can sailmore than 500 miles during a 24-hour period. Videos taken off the stern of the boats give one a very good sense of the speeds they can attain.

I’m looking forward to more excitement and incredible feats during the remaining portion of the 2016-17 race.

Blue Iguanas and Stem Cells

Blue Iguanas are an endangered species native to Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean. I just returned from there after having some bone marrow removed from the posterior crest of my pelvis. The stem cells that my body produces, specifically Mesenchymal Stem Cells, will be separated out from my bone marrow and cultured by Regenexx—a company specializing in Regenerative Medicine. The harvested stem cells will multiply in a culture medium 100 fold or more. In six weeks I will return there to have the stem cells injected into my bone-on-bone arthritic knee. If all goes well, the injected stem cells will grow into cartilage that will lubricate and cushion my knee joint and save me from having artificial knee surgery.

There is no guarantee this procedure will work. According to 2015 data contained in Regenexx’s Registry, they treated 1,825 patients with knee arthritis with their proprietary, three-step Regenexx-C stem cell procedure. The average age of their patients was fifty-seven years old. Most were male and only slightly overweight. Their data showed that an average of forty-six percent had significant (50 percent or better) improvement within three months. An average of fifty-five percent was similarly improved after one year. They’re not promising miracles and I’m not expecting any, but for me the rewards exceed the risks (primarily a healthy chunk of change.) Nothing beats naturally-formed cartilage—it’s tough and slipperier than ice on ice.

So why does one have to go all the way to the Cayman Islands to get this kind of treatment? Good question. If I was younger and pumping out a lot of stem cells, I could receive one of their proprietary treatments in the US from a handful of physicians specially trained in their technique. However, I’m seventy-three years old. My body is chewing up stem cells far faster than I can produce them and the success rate of their procedure is directly proportional to the number of stem cells injected into an ailing joint. A few thousand cells probably wouldn’t help me much. My knee is too damaged. Thus, I need to harvest and grow my stem cells. And the closest place to legally grow them is in the Cayman Islands.

It turns out the Federal Drug Administration has determined that growing one’s own stem cells is in effect creating a new drug. It takes about 500 million dollars and ten years to create a new drug approved by the FDA. Regenexx tried to get FDA approval to culture stem cells in the US but failed. They then decided to move their cell-culturing facilities to the Caribbean. I’d love to have lots of double-blind studies and FDA approval for a stem cell treatment, but I’ll settle for the fact that Regenexx closely tracks their results in an ongoing registry.

I heard that one of the Manning brothers—I assume it was Peyton—had a stem cell treatment in Europe that allowed him to continue playing football. If the story is true, and a guy with three neck surgeries was able to return to football and win a Super Bowl, then I would be mightily impressed. But not impressed enough to try an expensive treatment myself. I needed to do much more research and investigation into stem cell treatments before making a decision on a mere anecdote. I’d recommend you do your own research and make decisions based on consultation with your own physician. These treatments are not covered by insurance. Hopefully, someday they will.

There are a number of stem cell clinics in the US, but they’re less experienced then Regenexx and none do stem cell cultures that I know of. And many are outright scams. These disreputable clinics may inject you with stem cells, but they won’t tell you the stem cells are from sharks or sheep. Or maybe even from blue iguanas.

The Benefits of Awe Experiences

Preliminary studies by Jennifer Stellar at Berkeley indicate that of all the positive experiences, only awe predicts a significant reduction in cytokine levels. High levels of this chemical messenger are associated with excessive inflammation and increased vulnerability to disease. Other studies at Berkeley show that simply watching a short video of expansive natural images lead to better results in test of creativity and more persistence while attempting to perform difficult tasks. I recently saw a documentary film, “Antarctica: A Year on Ice”, by Anthony Powell. I think essentially everyone would be awestruck after seeing such a beautiful film.

A study by Arnie Gordon at Berkeley indicated that awe experiences are relatively common, occurring on average every third day. These experiences create a “stop-and-think” moment that makes us more receptive to new information and more aware of others. Awe sensations can be triggered by such things as appreciating the wonders of nature, art, music, acts of kindness or experiencing something vast that is not immediately understood.

In modern society we tend to spend too much time looking at our cell phones or generally being self-absorbed. It’s important that we actively seek out every day awe experiences. It’s not that hard. For example, I have found that if I have a camera in my hand and I’m looking for something nice to photograph, I’m much more apt to see beauty in simple things like patterns, textures, or colors. Watching children experience the world is another frequent source of awe.

I recently heard about something my granddaughter did. I didn’t actually see what Emily did, but I could picture it in my mind. I was a bit concerned about Emily when she was younger because she seemed to be inordinately afraid of dogs, but that seems to have changed now that she is two years old. A friend of my daughter and son-in-law came to visit them and brought along a six-month-old black Labrador. Emily delighted in playing with the dog and chasing after him. She finally tired the dog out to the point where the dog needed to take a nap. She was told the dog needed to go “nighty night.” When the dog laid down to sleep, Emily got her blanket to cover the dog… along with one of her favorite stuffed animals. That act of kindness and altruism was certainly an awe moment for me.