First aid afloat

Accidents happen when you least expect them, so it’s always a good idea to be prepared with first aid knowledge and equipment.

close up of CPR training with dummy

Plan and prepare

So, you’re planning your passage and getting ready to head out on the water. But does that plan include reading up on basic sailing first aid or going on a course? 

RYA National First Aid Advisor and Yachtmaster Examiner, Sara Hopkinson, explains why it’s always a good idea to consider first aid.

Boating is a relaxing, carefree experience. Yet carefree should never mean careless, and one of the dangers of chilling out is taking your eye off the ball. Even in calm conditions, it only takes an unexpected gybe, or someone suddenly being taken ill to find yourself in an emergency.

Would you know what to do?

Reacting appropriately to minor or moderate incidents could stop them becoming medical emergencies.

“Most first aid on a boat requires nothing more than people do every day looking after their family,” explains Sara Hopkinson. “But accidents do happen and knowing what to do first can be very important. This is where some first aid knowledge can help.”

Sara provides her top tips on things to consider before getting afloat this season.

Crew checking safety equipment

1. Land and sea are different

Having some land based first aid knowledge is always better than none. However, with the compact nature of some boats, certain things like resuscitation or the recovery position will need to be slightly modified.

The RYA First Aid course is specifically designed for a boating environment. This one-day course offers working knowledge of first aid for those taking to inland waters or up to 60 miles from the coast. 

Topics covered include CPR, drowning, bleeding, head injuries, cold water shock and hypothermia, choosing a first aid kit for the boat and getting medical assistance. All RYA first aid instructors have a wealth of practical boating experience, helping to equip you with all the knowledge you need.

It shouldn’t just be skippers who take the course, as it’s difficult for one person to navigate, use the radio and resuscitate at the same time. The more people with basic first aid onboard, the better an emergency response could be. 

2. Packing a first aid kit

Think logically about what could happen. What would you take on an ordinary holiday a little off the beaten track perhaps?

It all depends on your family’s needs, so you could include bandages, plasters, pain relief tablets, indigestion tablets, diarrhoea medication or allergy treatment. Always remember to take prescription medications and your glasses to read the instructions!

Motion sickness tablets are a must. Seasickness can strike even the most experienced boaters. It’s miserable but can become serious if you get severely dehydrated. Sickness can also cause other medical problems if your regular medication is not absorbed properly.

High factor sun cream is also compulsory as prolonged exposure to the sun, combined with light reflecting off the water, makes sunburn a high risk.

3. Calling for help

In an emergency, your mobile phone might not have enough signal to call for help. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to carry a fixed or handheld VHF radio for out-of-range areas.

Most modern sets have digital selective calling and inbuilt GPS. In a ‘999’ situation a VHF can transmit your position, sending a distress message to the coastguard and any other VHF radios in range.

If you are out of range to the coastguard, a vessel closer to the coast or one which has longer-range communication equipment can relay your message to the coastguard.

Using VHF means the coastguard can co-ordinate the incident response, leaving you and your crew to concentrate on the casualty. They can also provide medical advice from a doctor, organise a helicopter or lifeboat, escort your boat into a marina and arrange an ambulance on land.

woman sat on boat using VHF radio

4. Be aware of cold-water shock

Even if it’s 30°c and sunny cold water shock is a danger. Water temperature off the UK can be as low as 5°c in February and rarely rise above 18°c in the summer.

Cold water shock causes involuntary bodily reflexes when suddenly submerged in cold water. This includes a rapid increase in heart and blood pressure that can result in cardiac arrest, even if you are in good health. A strong swimming ability will have no impact on your body’s involuntary response to cold water shock.  

These initial responses will settle within a few minutes and wearing a life jacket will reduce the risk of water inhalation by keeping your head upright above the water. If you experience cold water shock, stay calm and try not to attempt any exertion until your breathing is under control.

Getting a casualty out of the water is the priority, then an awareness of hyperthermia treatment is paramount.  

5. Always do something 

In a desperate emergency, when resuscitation is required, most people worry that they can’t remember the latest method of CPR. However, advice from the Resuscitation Council suggests that in all cases it’s better to do something rather than nothing.

In serious situations be persistent. There are some extraordinary cases of people surviving through the prolonged CPR efforts of a team. 

Typically, on a boat it will be groups of friends and families, people who know how each other well. If someone starts behaving out of character, act on it. Boating shouldn’t be stressful, and thankfully serious incidents are rare. But getting to grips with basic sailing first aid will ensure everyone on board will be in good hands should the unexpected occur.

Be prepared for the water this season with the RYA’s First Aid course and the RYA First Aid book or eBook.