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Chiropractic’s Sea-Faring Ambassador

Dr. David Hayes combined an ambitious research project with a family sailing adventure across the Atlantic Ocean

Dr. David Hayes wondered if he had made the right decision.

It was 2013. He was sailing from the Bermuda to the Azores in his first passage across the North Atlantic Ocean. He discovered he was sailing toward a storm. He altered course, but high winds and big waves walloped his boat for two days. Complicating matters was the fact that he wasn’t alone.

“It’s big waves, big seas and it was dark, a pitch-black night,” he says. “I remember asking myself, ‘Why the hell did I bring my kids [and his wife] into this’?”

Part of the answer to that question dates to 2003. The Université due Quebec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR) professor, and president of the Canadian Federation of Chiropractic, was bedridden after an ATV accident that left him with broken ribs, a separated shoulder and low back pain. During his two-month recovery, he saw a story about a Canadian family who sailed around the world and thought to himself, “Gee, I’d like to do that.”

“During his research project, Dr. Hayes served as an ambassador for chiropractic. Before each sailing rally or leg, he stood in front of skippers and sailors and shared his project. ”

After his recovery, Dr. Hayes kept the idea in his head. A year later, he persuaded his wife, Isabelle, to learn basic cruising skills on a sailboat. They were both hooked and kept learning and earning sailing certifications until one day — many years later — he thought about the prevalence of low back pain within the sailing community.

“All the literature was on sports injuries related to sailing was skewed to athletes,” he said. “It didn’t relate to the more general population, like me, that would like to go sailing at one point. I realized there was no data and we didn’t know, at all, what kind of injuries people were suffering when they were crossing an ocean.”

Dr. Hayes decided to merge his research project and family sailing adventure — narrowing his sailing focus from the world to the North Atlantic Ocean. He unravelled his plan before his colleagues at the sports chiropractic department at UQTR, a program he had helped establish and where he served as director from 2011-13. After his term as director ended, Dr. Hayes had decided to apply for a teaching sabbatical. The plan was to “follow crews that are going to sail across the ocean,” he said. “I’m going to have questionnaires if they hurt themselves during that crossing that they would fill out.”

The department embraced his vision, which included writing a transatlantic crossing medical preparation guide for the Quebec Sailing Federation in order to prepare future crews.

His adventure and research project began in October 2013 and ended in 2015. When it was over, he and his family had completed several rallies on their 41-foot sloop, S/V Morning Haze. They made stops in the Caribbean, the Azores, Europe and the African coast (including the Canary Islands).

After their first offshore passage across to Europe, Dr. Hayes and his family arrived in Lagos, Portugal. They cruised along a river that led them to the marina, which was downtown, and saw thousands of people in the street. “I thought, ‘Wow, what’s happening?’ As you can imagine, being so proud that you’re making landfall on the other side of the ocean is pretty amazing.” Unfortunately, the welcome party wasn’t celebrating their crossing. “It was the FIFA World Cup. Portugal was playing that night so everybody was in the street celebrating.”

During his research project, Dr. Hayes served as an ambassador for chiropractic. Before each sailing rally or leg, he stood in front of skippers and sailors and shared his project. The response surprised him. “The fleet surgeon of [one] race was very happy with the questionnaire. My questionnaire had been adapted from a previous one used in another research project and was further modified because of input I got from him.”

The question he added was about whether an injury was so serious that the Coast Guard had sent a helicopter to evacuate the injured sailor.

Gathering the data required injured sailors to complete his questionnaire, which resembled an assessment form. There were questions about the sailor, years of experience, and detailed questions about the injury, including descriptions, and the nature and severity of the injury. There was even a question about whether the injured sailor had their injury confirmed by a doctor, nurse, physiotherapist or chiropractor. But he learned that collecting the results wasn’t easy.

“After a 21-day passage, the first thing the crew want to do is get to the nicest restaurant and then go to the nicest bar and enjoy themselves.” But his persistence resulted in hundreds of completed questionnaires.

Before the start of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, the largest trans-ocean sailing event in the world. Dr. Hayes shared his project and presented to more than 300 sailors. “I was really proud of presenting myself as a chiropractor. It was really good exposure to have a chiropractor doing that type of research.”

“All the literature was on sports injuries related to sailing was skewed to athletes,” he said. “It didn’t relate to the more general population, like me, that would like to go sailing at one point. I realized there was no data and we didn’t know, at all, what kind of injuries people were suffering when they were crossing an ocean.”

When adventured ended, Dr. Hayes returned to teaching. He reviewed his data and started to see patterns. He submitted his sailing guide to Quebec Sailing Federation. Guide in Health and Safety at Sea: Medical preparation for offshore and coastal sailing helps people preparing to do an offshore sailing passage. It explores all the things a sailor should consider before departure, including consultations with a physicians and other health professionals and the types of injuries encountered when sailing offshore.

What Dr. Hayes learned was that people often postpone preparations. Despite the difficulty involved in making a transatlantic crossing, people neglect their body and what it might need if there’s an emergency. “Most anything can and will happen on these passages. You have to be prepared for everything.”

Recently, Dr. Hayes hired a research assistant to input his data into the software SPSS Modeler/Statistics for analysis. He’s committed to publishing the articles and presenting the finding in the next few years.

Many years after his trip, and those violent storms, Dr. Hayes realizes he made the right decision to sail across the North Atlantic Ocean. He and his family cherish those memories. His research has made him an expert in medical preparation for offshore sailing passages. But he zooms in on a moment that brought him back to his work as a clinician.

He and his family were docked at marina in Samaná Bay, Dominican Republic. One morning, he heard a knock on the hull of their boat. He peeked his head outside. A woman stood there. She said, “I’m sorry to interrupt you but I’ve been told you are a chiropractor.”

Dr. Hayes followed the woman, a South African, to a 45-foot catamaran, where he found her husband immobile after throwing his back out. After realizing that he could treat her husband — there is no governing chiropractic body in the Dominican Republic — he examined the patient. “I ended up lying him on his side and treating him.” He returned the next day to share advice and some anti-inflammatory creams.

People in the marina took notice. The next day, a New Zealander showed up. “I heard you’re treating so and so on his catamaran,” they said. “I’ve got neck pain.” Dr. Hayes obliged, building a practice of about seven or eight patients from all over the world.

“That was the best experience ever. I had people from all over the world wanting chiropractic care. I was just doing it out of fun and loving what I do as a chiropractor.” I had small files for these people. I would walk from one boat to the other and treat people. We stayed there two or three weeks and I did that.”

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