First Aid Measures at Sea: Conscious Victim

Sailing is generally not a very dangerous sport. However, you might be far off the coast when emergencies occur. This means that it is essential that members of the crew know how to apply first aid treatment – quickly and professionally. This is particularly important when you are cruising. In this article, I will give some advice to practical first aid.

Elementary first aid skills should be part of everybody’s general education. But it is not. If you are doing a course with a sailing school, it is likely that it will include some basic first aid training. I would advise you to do a proper first aid course at some point if you are interested in serious sailing.

The International Red Cross organizes such courses in many countries. You will earn a nice certificate, but more importantly, you will bring yourself into a position in which you can safe the lives of other members of your crew. If the Red Cross does not organize courses, you should check with your sailing club or with your doctor where to get in-depth training.

I have outlined the health and safety risks for sailors before, and there are two articles on seasickness on, and a detailed checklist on what to put into a first aid kit. In this article, I don’t want to go into too much detail on what to do in which injury. This should be covered “offline” in sufficient training and a first aid manual that you should always carry on board, since it is really important.

Emphasis on First Aid Training

The following first aid measures are meant to be an introduction to the topic – I encourage you to work it out in more detail yourself. Cuts and wounds that cause strong bleeding are a fairly common health issue at sea. You should aim to stop the bleeding and prevent infections. If the bleeding is severe, raise the wounded limb above the level of the heart if possible. Then gently press a sterile dressing on the wound.

Apply enough pressure to stop the bleeding and make sure not to contaminate the dressing by touching it. Fix the dressing with a bandage and check after a while if blood is coming through. This would indicate that the bleeding has not stopped, in which case you should repeat the treatment over the first bandage. You might want to apply a bit more pressure the second time.

If somebody on board suffers from fractures, sprains, broken bones or other skeletal injuries that cause swelling, immobilize the person. This can be difficult on a moving watercraft, but try it nevertheless. Apply cold compresses and painkillers. Seek medical assistance as fast as possible.

In case of the nasty combination of the two injuries (bleeding wound and skeletal injury, for example, if the broken bone penetrates the skin), you need to combine the treatments and dress the wound to prevent infections. Be careful if you apply a compress: potentially contaminated water is the last thing you want in a bleeding wound.

Seasickness, Shock and Body Temperature

Another common medical problem is shock. It can affect victims of all kinds of accidents. Shock is the reason why you should keep people suffering from injuries under observation. Symptoms of shock include changes in the circulation (weakening of the pulse, falling of the blood pressure, pale skin, shivering and cold sweat), drowsiness, mental “absence” and nausea, respiratory problems and loss of consciousness.

People who suffer from shock are in urgent need for medical care. Prevent them from drinking or eating, keep them warm and at rest. Do not leave the person unattended and seek professional aid as soon as possible.

Related to the conditions under which you sail are changes in the body temperature. Hypothermia is a top-killer in sailing accidents, heat exhaustion often caused due to an overexposure to sun. Try to balance the temperature by warming the person or cooling the body respectively. Hot or cold drinks might also help.

Finally, please mind the articles on that cover related topics: First Aid for unconscious victims; Causes of Seasickness and Treatment of Seasickness; Health and Safety Risks at Sea Part I and Part II; a Checklist for First Aid Kits; and an Introduction to Health and Safety for Cruising Sailors.

Further Reading

Back to "vacation"

Wikipedia on First Aid

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention - Travel Health Advice

Department of State's Travel advice - crucial information for your safety

DMOZ gives First Aid References