First aid afloat

Accidents happen when you least expect them that’s why it’s always a good idea to consider first aid.RYA National First Aid Advisor and Yachtmaster Examiner, Sara Hopkinson, explains why it’s always a good idea to consider first aid.

First Aid Kit Accidents happen when you least expect them that’s why it’s always a good idea to consider first aid

So you’re planning your passage getting ready to head out on the water, but does that planning include reading up on basic 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.

Accidents happen when you least expect them, yet on the water the unexpected has a habit of unfolding.

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

Would you know what to do?

Being able to react appropriately to minor or moderate incidents to stop them becoming medical emergencies is often simple common sense.

“Most first aid on a boat requires nothing more than people do every day looking after their family,” explains Sara Hopkinson, a hugely experienced yachtswoman and the RYA’s National First Aid Advisor. “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 summer.

1 - Land and sea are different

Having some first aid knowledge is always better than none. Yet even if you have taken a land-based first aid course, the small, compact nature of boats means things such as resuscitation or the recovery position have to be adapted.

The RYA First Aid course has been specifically developed for a boating environment, and one of the huge benefits is that all RYA First Aid instructors have practical boating experience; they understand problems you might face.

This one-day course provides a working knowledge of first aid for all those who go afloat, on inland waters or up to 60 miles from a safe haven. Topics covered include CPR, drowning, bleeding, head injuries, cold water shock and hypothermia, choosing first aid kit for the boat and getting medical assistance.

It shouldn’t just be skippers who do the course. The more people who know basic first aid on a boat, the better an emergency response could be. It’s difficult for one person to navigate, use the radio and resuscitate at the same time! Find your nearest RYA first aid Training Centre at

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?

Big bandages, plasters, pain relief tablets, anti-inflammatories, indigestion tablets, diarrhoea medication, allergy treatment? It depends on your family’s needs. Remember prescription medications and take your glasses to read the instructions!

What about extras for a boat?

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. Rehydration salts can be in the kit too. Being sick can cause other medical problems too if regular medication is not absorbed properly.

High factor suncream is also compulsory as prolonged exposure to the sun, in tandem with the sun reflecting off the water, makes sunburn high risk.

A useful bit of kite usually demonstrated on RYA First Aid Courses is a pocket mask. Costing as little as £5-10, these make CPR easier in restricted boat spaces. 

Having a copy of The St Johns/St Andrews/Red Cross First Aid Manual aboard is sensible too. The book is provided on the RYA First Course, and is excellent for checking symptoms or the treatment to give.

3 - Ditch the phone

Always use VHF radio to get medical advice or help afloat. In a ‘999 situation’, press the Distress Alert button and send a Mayday. The Distress Alert will send the GPS position, saving valuable time. If only medical advice or assistance is required and it is not an emergency contact the Coastguard.

A phone isn’t nearly as good; reception can fail or the battery can run out in the middle of getting help.

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

Being on radio also means other nearby boats can hear, and may be able to help. On a phone, you’re just one white boat in the middle of a very big sea.

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 rises above 18°c in a good summer.

The initial reaction from falling into water is cold shock. The blood vessels in the skin constrict and increase the blood flow back to the heart. This, together with an increased heart rate and hydrostatic squeeze from the water, raises blood pressure dramatically, potentially leading to cardiac arrest or stroke in susceptible individuals. Even in a fitter casualty the inability to breath-hold and a phase of rapid, uncontrollable breathing may lead to the inhalation of water and drowning.

Getting a casualty out of the water is the priority; then an awareness of hyperthermia treatment is paramount. Even mild hyperthermia is a risk, getting cold sitting on deck for a long time, so know what to look out for and how to react.

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, but the Resuscitation Council advise is in all cases it’s better to do something rather than nothing.

In serious situations be persistent too. There are some extraordinary cases of people surviving through the prolonged CPR efforts of a team - another reason it’s important to have more than one person on a boat trained as a first aider.

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 first aid will ensure everyone on board will be in good hands should the unexpected occur.

Now relax!

Find out more about the RYA’s First Aid Course.