Sailing after a heart attack: Paul's story

After recovering from a heart attack, maritime enthusiast Paul resumed his adventurous life. He tells Lucy Trevallion how he did it.

Paul Covell

Climbing up Mount Kilimanjaro, around 5,000 metres above sea level, Paul Covell, then aged 66, wondered why he was slower than his companions. “I got very breathless and was always at the back of the group, but put it down to my age,” he says. “There were eight of us, and we had to leave at midnight with head torches to arrive at the summit at eight o’clock in the morning. It was probably the toughest thing I’ve done in my life.” 

Paul, now 78, didn’t know that three of the four main arteries supplying blood to his heart were up to 80 per cent blocked. So he went on to his next adventure – cycling the south-west coast of Britain with two friends. 

I called 999 and they asked me three questions: ‘How old are you, where are you, and what sort of pain is it?

Again, he was at the back of the group, but put it down to being the oldest cyclist. “I did eight days of rigorous cycling, and got as far as a guesthouse in Taunton, where I had terrible chest pains,” says Paul. “I called 999 and they asked me three questions: ‘How old are you, where are you, and what sort of pain is it?’ I answered. They said: ‘We’ll be down in two minutes.’”

Paul was having a heart attack and was taken to hospital for tests. He found out about his blocked arteries through an angiogram, and was told he needed coronary bypass surgery. “It really came as a shock,” he said. “I was so lucky to be alive. The most depressing thing was that everyone had been commenting on how fit and well I was. I thought nothing could happen to me.”

Following the surgery, Paul, who lives in Buckinghamshire, did a two-month cardiac rehabilitation course at Mount Vernon Hospital in Middlesex. “I found it so useful,” he says. “In a group you tend to push yourself more, compared to when you’re on your own. With a physiotherapist in the room, it felt like a controlled, safe environment to do that.”

Paul Covell

A passion for sailing

Most of all, Paul was motivated to return to sailing. “I have a passion for the sea,” he says. “You won’t keep me away from it.”

Paul first discovered this love of the sea aged 16, when he joined the merchant navy. He was an apprentice with Manchester Liners, which carried general cargo to Canada and returned with grain. He soon became a navigating officer. “I was young, travelling to foreign lands,” says Paul. “I’d crossed the North Atlantic 52 times between the age of 16 and 21. It was a very exciting period.”

In the Southern Ocean you’d be under the spectacular Southern Lights, with whales or dolphins swimming by

At the time, navigating officers weren’t allowed to wear glasses and Paul’s eyesight without them wasn’t good enough, so he switched careers. He worked his way up in the printing ink industry, becoming a marketing and sales director before he retired.

In his mid-40s, Paul returned to the sea and learned to sail. He loved it so much that he signed up to sail around the world aged 61, as part of BT Global Challenge, deemed ‘the world’s toughest yacht race’. During 177 days at sea the team dealt with a collision, skirted a Caribbean hurricane and sailed past icebergs.

During his recovery from the heart attack, Paul often thought back to this trip. “I remembered some of the magical nights there, when I would sit on the deck, looking up at the stars, listening to the swish of the water,” he says. “In the Southern Ocean you’d be under the spectacular Southern Lights, with whales or dolphins swimming by.”

Paul Covell

The road to recovery

But Paul’s journey back to the water wasn’t smooth. “After three months, I went to my local swimming pool,” he says. “I remember walking down the disabled ramp into the water, confident I could swim again. I did two strokes of breaststroke and had a pain in my chest. You have to listen to your body, so I walked straight back up the ramp again. I felt I had failed, and was bitterly disappointed.”

At times like this, Paul says he would take a moment to “go into a corner and cry”. But after that, he says: “I would try to focus on how to handle it. You think of all the alternative actions you could take, make a calculated judgement on how best to handle that situation and move forward.”

I decided to try to squeeze all of the juice out of the lemon

Paul prepared for sailing in small steps, gradually building up his activity levels with land-based activities like walking, tennis and badminton. “Because if I had a problem I could easily stop,” he says. “When you’re out on the sea, you can’t just stop and get off the boat.” 

He was scared he’d never sail again, and although he spoke to people who’d recovered from heart surgery, he couldn’t find anyone to speak to who’d led such an adventurous life before their operation. “I really had no idea if I’d ever get back to where I was,” he says.

Nine months after his surgery, Paul sailed again, on a week-long trip from Palermo in Sicily to mainland Italy. He felt euphoric – to him, this signalled that he’d made a full recovery. Just three months later, he completed a 54-mile London to Brighton bike ride for the BHF. “It’s amazing what these heart ops can do!” he says. “After that, I decided to try to squeeze all of the juice out of the lemon.”

Paul Covell volunteering at the London 2012 Olympics

Taking on new challenges

Aged 73, Paul did an MA in Maritime History at the University of Greenwich, partly to increase his expertise for the work he was doing, giving lectures on cruise ships. Was it hard to return to learning in his 70s? “No, you’re never too old. Anyway, everyone seems younger than me these days,” he says, “I just love a challenge.”

He also volunteered for the London Olympics in 2012, where he was based in Stratford, welcoming guests into the stadium and showing them to their seats. Paul felt very fortunate to see events such as Usain Bolt winning the 100m sprint.

If you work at it, it's amazing what people are capable of

He says that before his heart attack he “was bloody stupid” and thought he was healthy, as he was always quite slim. Now, he reads Heart Matters for tips, and is more mindful of eating healthily and being physically active – trying to walk, cycle, ski and sail regularly.

He admits that he is very lucky to have such a supportive family, including his wife Gea (pictured above, with Paul), their three children and six grandchildren. His eldest daughter is particularly interested in nutrition, and helped him cut down on saturated fat by eating less cream, cheese and fatty meats.

“There are many things in later life that you have no control over,” Paul says. “Take control of your own health because that’s the most important thing that you have. Go out of your way to find out all the information, from reliable sites on the internet, your doctor, your pharmacist – really get involved. And then decide how you’re going to manage it. “The splendid thing is that I virtually got back to doing the same adventures I did before. After the news about my blocked arteries, I thought my life would be limited. If you work at it, it’s amazing what people are capable of.”

5 top tips for adventurers after a heart event

1. Take your time

The length of time it takes to start or resume an activity after a heart event will depend on how damaged your heart is, and whether you have heart disease. Follow the guidance of your cardiac rehab team.

2. Train for it

Paul says: “For the last climb I did, I was walking around my neighbourhood with weights on my back to find out just what limit I could go to.”

3. Ask about appointment options

Some GP surgeries offer Skype appointments that you can have while you’re abroad if you need to. Ask about this before you go.

4. Check your insurance

Make sure you’ve got adequate travel insurance for your adventure.

5. Take your notes

If you’d like to, take a copy of your medical summary (a timeline of your medical history and any medications you are on). You can either write this yourself, or ask your GP to provide it well in advance of your trip. You could also take your hospital discharge summary.

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