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 ‘The name of the old as well as the new ship speaks for itself – ‘Hope of the Sea’
James Skinner our Spanish Correspondent

Ever since 1982, Spain has been offering direct medical assistance at sea to the crew of the Spanish fishing fleets, particularly those operating off the African coast. For almost 15 years, 900 ships with up to 12000 fishermen were looked after by a container ship turned into a makeshift floating hospital. By December 2000, this unique vessel had spent over 5000 days at sea and had attended to almost 60000 medical casualties including 51 shipwrecks and almost 24000 sailors. By the early nineties, the Spanish government had decided to replace the veteran Samaritan and new plans were drawn up for the construction of a more modern and sophisticated vessel.
The Maritime Social Institute (ISM) that reports to the Social Security sector of the Spanish government, awarded the contract to shipbuilders ‘Juliana Constructora Gijonesa S.A.’ in Gijon for a total cost of 21M Euros, 4-1/4M supplied through European funds. By September, 2001, the ship will have completed its sea trials and will commence service in October.

The ship is based in Las Palmas, Canary Islands and will continue to cover the Moroccan-Mauritania area of activity, although its mandate is to assist wherever the major portion of the Spanish fishing fleet is operating in the world. Its staff compliment include two teams made of two doctors, a nurse, two technicians and three divers that work on an eleven month rotation. Access of patients to and from the ship may be carried via helicopter – stern helicopter pad - or by a specialised system of launching of the ship’s emergency craft

The hospital facilities cater for most emergency services such as an operating theatre, x-ray, laboratory, intensive care unit and special sectors for infectious and burned patients. It can accommodate up to 17 sick patients and a further 30 shipwrecked victims. The operating theatre is pressurised in order to protect from possible inbound infectious air. The convalescing bays are designed for the opposite effect that is, to keep out possible contaminated air.

Most Spanish fishermen are given a thorough medical examination before embarking overseas. This data is held in a large database in the Spanish Social Security HQ’s files. Whenever a casualty is taken on board, a direct link between the ship’s computer system and the database is set up to identify immediately, the patient’s medical history. Should he require emergency surgery, a videoconferencing link via satellite is made available with the mainland and specialists can view and assist the ship’s doctors during the operation in real time.

‘Most casualties are broken bones and amputations with the odd knife wound’, said the Chief Medical officer.
‘We cannot undergo any major surgery as this is a very compact Casualty Unit. We are however, able carry out immediate assistance and within 6 to 10 hours transfer the patient to the mainland hospital in Las Palmas’.

In view of the breakdown of talks between the EU and Morocco Fishing authorities as well as the dramatic reduction of the Spanish fishing fleet for various reasons, a ship of this nature may appear to be a luxury that can no longer be sustained. However, the European Union continues to move in the direction of more co-operation between members in the fishing sector. If further agreements are worked out through the EU Social Security systems, the ‘Esperanza del Mar’, the only ship of its kind, could play a vital medical role at sea for all EU and other fishing fleets. 

© James Skinner. 2001.

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