Doctor at Sea: our Falklands life

Fancy swapping East Anglia for the South Atlantic? The Davieses did - sailing out of the Orwell 10 years ago en route to a new life. STEVEN RUSSELL asked how the adventure turned out.

Fancy swapping East Anglia for the South Atlantic? The Davieses did - sailing out of the Orwell 10 years ago en route to a new life. STEVEN RUSSELL asked how the adventure turned out

IT'S 7.15am and a beautiful late-summer morning in the Falklands. There's not a cloud in the sky, just bright sunshine. The wind is about force three - 15 knots or so. It will probably get up a bit during the day, but tends to die down at night.

“A perfect sailing day today,” muses Dr Richard Davies as he gazes towards the harbour at Stanley, the islands' capital. “Unfortunately, I've got to work . . .”

He's a committed sailor is Dr Richard. In fact, it was a 36-ft steel ketch that brought him and wife Sarah to the Falklands nine years ago. As fate would have it, Sarah fell pregnant during the voyage, so first child John was born about six weeks after their arrival. Second son Jim appeared about two and a half years later.

The growing family has rapidly become part of the 3,000-strong islands community - so much so that before Christmas Richard was elected to the Falkland Islands Government Legislative Council, where his portfolio covers the environment, conservation and housing.

In fact, he and a council colleague are off to the United Nations in New York in June to put a marker in the sand: presenting the Falkland Islands' case that they really don't want to become part of Argentina.

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It seems the Davieses will be staying for a while.

“It a fantastic place for the children to grow up,” says their dad, who is 46. “It's very safe and free. The school is just under a mile's walk, I suppose, and we often let them walk or cycle by themselves, which I don't think we'd dream of doing in the UK.

“I enjoy being in a small community. It has its drawbacks. Sometimes it's a bit of a goldfish bowl and there's not a lot of privacy, but we like sailing and outdoor life, and it's ideal for that.”

The biggest drawback is the distance from family and friends, and the expense of returning to the UK. “It costs us about £4,000 to fly the family back, so this year, for example, we're going to give it a miss. Phone is expensive, mail is slow; but email has been absolutely fantastic for us.”

Richard was brought up in Kenya and did his medical training in Belfast in the 1980s, moving to Ipswich in 1989 to train as a GP. He spent two years on rotation at Ipswich Hospital and St Clement's, and then as a trainee GP at the town's Norwich Road surgery, before joining the Hawthorn Drive surgery as a partner.

He met Sarah when she was training as a nurse in London, alongside his sister, and they married in 1993. Sarah, now 43, worked as a staff nurse at St Elizabeth Hospice in Ipswich.

Her husband had been a keen yachtsman for some years, and the call of the sea could not be silenced. Work had started in 1991 on building Cowie, a 36-ft steel ketch. “The hull was brought up from Falmouth by road to Fox's Marina and we basically spent the next five years fitting her out and working part-time,” he explains.

“We lived on board for the last two years to save money, really, and continued to work - which was a bit of a challenge through winters.

“I wanted to do a circumnavigation and we thought about taking two years off from medicine and nursing, and then thinking maybe about coming back to Suffolk. I knew I'd have to work along the way, to keep the cashflow going.

“Australia and New Zealand were the obvious places, because they at that time were advertising fairly regularly for locum GPs, especially Australia in the outback. But then I saw this job advertised in the Falklands and thought 'That's interesting.' This was about '94.

“I rang them up and said 'Look, I'm actually not coming for a couple of years, but I would be interested in the future.'”

When the chief medical officer was in London a few months later, Richard had an informal interview. He was told he was suitable and that a job would probably be coming up in February or March 1997. “It was more or less a case of 'Turn up then and we'll probably let you have it!' On that basis we decided the first major leg of the trip would be to the Falklands.”

They left in June '96 for the eight-month voyage. “I think we had some trepidations about the long ocean passages, which neither of us had done before in a yacht, and our main worry was the weather when we got down south. It has a very bad reputation. As it turned out, the trade wind passages were easy. It was relatively plain sailing.”

The couple had been trying for a baby for a while, “and then stopped thinking about it. And then Sarah got pregnant into the voyage. It wasn't the most convenient time, but we were delighted. Sarah did have one particularly bad bout of morning sickness and seasickness combined for about five days. I was actually getting a bit worried that she was going to get dehydrated. That was from the Azores to Madeira. We spent a month in Madeira while she got over that stage of pregnancy and began to feel better.

“Our last port was a place called Paranagua in south Brazil. By that time Sarah was six months pregnant. It took us 28 days to get from south Brazil to the Falklands and the weather was pretty bad at times. We had four gales, I think. It was like the North Sea in winter - very changeable, very windy. You had to keep plugging away.”

They arrived in the Falklands in February, 1997, and John arrived safely in the middle of April.

For eight years Richard worked as a GP medical officer: “Like a UK GP doing clinics, but you're also doing non-surgical hospital work. If anyone has a heart attack, for example, I don't only see them at home, I admit them to hospital and view them for clot-busting drugs, and see them again when they leave hospital.

“It's got its drawbacks in terms of on-call, but it's a very satisfying job compared with a lot of UK general practice. And we also develop our own interests, so I do most of the ophthalmology - the eye work. No eye surgery, but if somebody has an eye problem they come along to see me. And I do occupational health as well.”

After a while Richard felt in need of a new challenge. “I became interested in politics because in such a small community decisions have a big impact. Medical rationing, for example. Couldn't we be doing it better? Should we be involving the public a bit more? It was things like that that made me wonder if I should stand for council. I'd managed to arrange a job share and then I stood for election and got in last November.”

He works as a doctor for 60% of the week and devotes the remaining time to council tasks - some of it quite unusual.

“Last weekend I did the opening speech and welcome at an albatross and petrel conference. The fishing industries in the southern ocean are having a huge impact on seabird populations because they catch them in the nets, on the long lines. The black-browed albatross that breeds here, its population has dropped by about a third in the last 25 years. It's a frighteningly rapid drop.”

The islands face some interesting challenges. “The drop in fishing revenue is one of them. And we've got the budget session coming up, so we are going to have to make some tough decisions. Medical and education are the hard ones that up to now have been ringfenced to a large extent.

“We are short of housing. We need to decide how to proceed, because the provision of serviced plots for people to build on has cost the Government an absolute fortune, and it's a question of whether we can go on doing that or whether we can persuade a private company to do it.

“There's the relationship with Argentina, which under the Kirchnerist government” - Néstor Kirchner is the president - “has taken a turn for the worst. They've taken a very aggressive stance, imposing a number of economic sanctions. Flights from South America go over their air space. They've limited it to one a week, to Punta Arenas in Chile, but we could really do with another, to develop our tourist industry, which is becoming our second main source of income. But the Argentines won't admit another. It's difficult for the Chileans, because they work very closely with Argentina.

“A lot of the big fishing companies have licences to fish in Argentine water as well as Falklands water. They (the Argentinian authorities) have taken to writing threatening letters to the ones who fish in Falklands waters - you know: 'We'll stop you fishing in Argentina.'

“I think all we can do is continue to show we are a small, modern, democratic country and we deserve to have our right to self-determination respected. All the overseas territories - Saint Helena, Tristan (da Cuna), the Falklands - they have a voluntary association with Britain which we greatly value. Argentina still tries to make the claim that we're a colony and that we need to be . . . well, anyway!”

Is it a culture shock coming back to the UK - particularly for the boys, who are Islanders?

“It surprises me how little. I suppose we tend to go to my parents in west Wales, which looks a bit like the Falklands. We did actually spend six months there in 2003, on sabbatical, so that's given them a bit of a connection. And they've got cousins all over the place in the UK. So they don't seem to bat an eyelid. Legoland is the big draw for them. They're rather cross if they don't get to Legoland!

“Sarah and I slot back in fairly easily. It's nice to stock up on things like books and come back with suitcases loaded.”

Richard hopes to make a temporary return to Ipswich in September. “I'm signed on with the primary care trust and I hope to do a bit of GP work, to keep my hand in with British general practice.”

Is the family's future in the Falklands?

“I think it depends upon the children and their education. John's eight now, and in eight years' time he'll be doing GCSEs.” Children can study for GCSEs on the island and, if they get the right grades, are funded by the Government to do A-levels in the UK.

“There's a bit of a question mark. It's quite young, I think, for children to be going off, and I don't particularly look forward to that, though I hope the Government still has money to send people off, when the time comes. We rely very heavily on fishing revenue for Government income, and that has dropped quite a bit, due to a drop in squid catches.”

Richard looks again at that blue sky.

“I feel very settled here, and I think the fact I've been elected to represent people reflects that. I suppose if one of our parents became very ill, we might want to come back to the UK for a bit. But I think we'll always feel that we're based here.

“I wouldn't be surprised if we came back to the UK for a few years at a time to see the kids through university or whatever. I'm fairly lucky in that I've got quite a portable job that is in demand at the minute.

“And we've still got the boat! I'd love to take the kids cruising for a few months, before their education gets too impossible and I get too old for it! I'm in office for four years and one possibility is that at the end of it I might take the boat to Brazil for a few months. I think, as far as we can see, our future is here. We'll see when the boys start thinking about jobs and professions . . .”

The Falklands File

They are an archipelago of about 700 islands in the South Atlantic

They are about 770 km (480 miles) north-east of Cape Horn and 480 km (300 miles) from the nearest point on the South American mainland

Population: 2,913 (2001 census)

Stanley, the capital (population 1,981 in 2001), is the only town

Most of the population is of British birth or descent, and many families can trace their origins back to the early post-1833 settlers

The temperature ranges from -5C to 24C. There are strong winds and fairly low rainfall - and more sunshine than most parts of Britain

Major industries: Fisheries, tourism, agriculture

In 2001, government revenues totalled £52million, with expenditure of £46m

Income from fishing licences was £29.4million, investment income was £7.2m and tax revenues were £5.5 million

The authorities aim to put 10-15% of their income into reserves each year, in order to avoid being hit by any world economic downturn

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