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Go freelance and make the world your oyster

GP Dr Claire Bailey was able to sail around the world ­ at very short notice

Well it is not very often that you are given the opportunity to sail around the world, especially on Christmas Eve at 10pm.

I had just settled in for a family Christmas when I got a call from the US asking if I was free to join the crew of Cheyenne on a non-stop around the world trip.

Cheyenne, to those who may not know, is a 120ft carbon fibre rocket (sailing catamaran) that currently holds many of the world speed sailing records. I had failed to get on the crew for the last record attempt and had given up hope when I got the call.

We were to take part in a new race starting from Qatar in the Middle East in just four weeks' time with a prize of

$1 million for the first boat ­ the highest purse in sailing so far.

I am a freelance GP and have spent the last three years working in the NHS and with the Royal Navy. I have been a sailor for 20 years and done a lot of offshore racing, including world speed record attempts.

Luckily I had not booked myself up with work for the New Year so I had the flexibility to be able to say yes. I thought how different it would have been if I was a partner trying to arrange time off at short notice.

So after putting together the medical kit I flew out to the Middle East.

Qatar is an odd place ­ a desert peninsula in the middle of the Persian Gulf ­ and certainly had never hosted or even seen racing boats of this kind before. In fact, a well-known travel guide gives it the title of the most boring place on the planet to visit. I didn't agree with this opinion and thought eating dates in the desert at sunset was quite romantic.

In total, four boats entered the Oryx Cup. This may not seem many but there are only five or six of this kind of racing boat in the world.

Before I knew it the race had begun and I was on a diet of freeze-dried food, sleeping four hours a day and only

having two spare T-shirts for the next two months.

Oh, I forgot to mention I was the only girl on the boat, and for the 13 crew there were only eight bunks.

Our route took us past Iran into the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka. We passed by just after the Tsunami and saw the effects despite being 1,000 miles offshore. Roof tops, trees and straw houses drifted past for three days.

We only really had two medical problems on the whole voyage and both were in the first week. The navigator had a nasty olecranon bursitis from leaning too hard on the charts. And one crew member suffered a violent allergic reaction to the latex seals on his drysuit.

The tropics were left behind all too quickly and we entered the Southern Ocean. The next five weeks were spent being constantly hosed by huge waves and freezing despite wearing everything we owned. As we emerged around Cape Horn I got the chance to change my clothes for the first time in four weeks and realised I had lost more than a stone in weight. But I was still enjoying myself.

However, it doesn't really matter what you think when you are that far south because if you want to quit or things go wrong, nobody is coming to get you.

We managed to survive hitting a hammerhead shark, shredded sails and an electrical fire before starting to head north again, passing the Falkland Islands and dreaming of warmer climes.

Suddenly at 6 o'clock one morning there was a huge bang. We were travelling at 30 knots (about 40mph) and came to a dead stop. The mast had fallen down due to a corroded fitting and crashed into the side of the boat.

Luckily no one was hurt. The process of cutting away the sails and rigging began. We stood and watched as more than $2 million of equipment sank to the bottom of the ocean and realised our race was over.

Six days later we were rescued and towed into Belgrano naval base in Argentina. Although this was a huge disappointment, we were glad to reach land safely.

Now, after a spell of skiing rehabilitation in Chamonix, I have returned to work as a freelance GP. I sent myself on the hot topics course for GPs as a refresher and to relieve the guilt of not working for three months. Only medics could think this way!

I would have no hesitation in recommending a year or two as a freelance GP for anyone who's newly qualified. Financially there is no real disadvantage, especially as now you can contribute to the NHS pension scheme.

Freelance work allows you to experience many different working environments and gives you the freedom to do that thing you always wanted to do before settling into a more permanent contract.

There is no excuse ­ just do it!

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