First Aid

It’s a good idea to have two well-stocked first aid kits on-board; one for day-to-day use and one for incidents. Know how to use them and keep the contents up to date.

The first aid kit contents and level of ability in administering first aid needed, will vary for different types of boat and their usage.  The kit and training should therefore be tailored to the level of self-sufficiency the nature of the boating will necessitate.

Realistically for short haul trips, where help is readily at hand, the same sort of first aid kit as you would have at home or would take on holiday will suffice. This way a boating family will deal with individual needs such as indigestion tablets or antihistamine for allergies. Sea sickness remedies and sun protection are also important for boating.

This will only suffice if, in the event of an injury or illness which cannot be treated on board, the vessel is able to reach the shore quickly or request assistance with the evacuation of the casualty to the appropriate shore-side care easily. Otherwise a more substantial first aid kit and additional first aid training will be needed.

Before you "cast off"

Skippers should ensure that they are aware of any medical problems their crew have or take medication for, ensuring they have enough medication with them. Both the skipper and the crew should be aware of any allergies or contra-indications amongst those on board in case of an emergency.

Crew should be briefed on potential dangers on board a boat prior to departure. On a sailing yacht, the boom, sheets and other trip hazards such as deck fittings, cleats, harness points, jack stays, winches and wet slippery decks are just a few of the dangers. On a fast moving motor yacht, any movement around the boat whilst it is on the plane can be hazardous and extreme caution is required.

Accidents will of course still happen and first aid equipment should therefore be available aboard all craft.

First aid manual

Knowing what is wrong with someone is the first step towards helping them. For this a first aid manual is invaluable and it is essential to carry one with you. The RYA First Aid manual is recommended as it is specifically designed for mariners. The St John’s / St Andrew’s / Red Cross First Aid Manual could also be carried as an alternative.

First aid course

The first aid supplies are of course not much use without the knowledge to allow good use to be made of them. The RYA First Aid Course is designed for sailors venturing up to about 60 miles offshore and is taught by instructors with experience of teaching afloat. It covers the important first aid subjects from a specialist point of view. It also includes hypothermia, drowning, seasickness and dehydration, and how to get radio medical advice and the evacuation of a casualty by helicopter.

If the RYA course is not available try to find one that includes hypothermia and drowning. More information is available from RYA Training.

First aid kits

On all but the smallest boats, it is good practice to have two first aid kits on board. One for day to day use for regular requirements such as plasters from which your crew can help themselves, and a second which is reserved for incidents, so you do not find that something critical is missing at the most inopportune of moments.

Stowage and maintenance

The first aid kit should be stored in a damp proof strong canvas bag, or box which is clearly labelled. Your first aid kit should not be forgotten in your maintenance routine, as medicines will go out of date. Check the contents and dates regularly and retain the instructions for all items.


A very basic first aid kit will be needed for inshore boating. Sun cream and medication relative to the crew needs e.g. sea sickness tablets, headache tablets, asthma treatment plus items to deal with minor accidents: plasters, wound dressings, triangular bandages, gloves, and a thermal protective aid.


Equipment: Gloves, thermal protective aid, triangular bandages, supporting (crepe) bandage, tough cut shears (for cutting clothing), tweezers, resuscitation pocket mask

Medications: Sun cream, sea sickness tablets, paracetamol, ibuprofen, aspirin, antihistamine cream / tablets, indigestion tablets, Imodium (or alternative diarrhoea remedy), re-hydration salts, and medication relative to the crew needs e.g. asthma treatment 

Wounds: Plasters, wound dressings, antiseptic wipes, cling film, eye dressing

First aid best practice and advice is continually changing and evolving. Taking up to date advice and tailoring the first aid kit to the individuals are both essential elements of voyage preparation.

Offshore and ocean

The further offshore you go and the longer passages you undertake, the more you increase the need for self-sufficiency.

A medical history for the crew on board and advice from their doctor on the medicines required, storage conditions and any likely complications would be worth considering.  Nevertheless in general you should think about whether you need to be equipped to deal with eye problems, allergic reactions, cold sores, thrush, severe pain, infections, dental problems, vomiting and diarrhoea, angina and more significant wounds.

A vessel operating commercially is required to carry certain drugs on board by the Merchant Shipping (Medical Stores) Regulations 1995, and is therefore able to obtain certain controlled drugs without a prescription. A private yachtsman is however effectively in the same position as a private individual ashore, therefore whilst drugs such as very strong painkillers and antibiotics may be desirable, such controlled drugs can only be obtained with a prescription from a qualified medical practitioner; illegal possession could result in prosecution.

The training course Medical First Aid Aboard Ships is recommended for offshore passages and Medical Care Aboard Ships is recommended for ocean voyages. Although these are not RYA courses they are offered by some RYA Training Centres, where it is likely the course will be geared more towards yachts than ships.

The Ship’s Captain’s Medical Guide which supports these courses is another good reference book to have on board and MSN 1905 which details the items commercial vessels making such passages are required to carry, could be useful as background reading.

Depending on training items carried might include:

Equipment: Gloves, thermal protective aid, triangular bandages, supporting (crepe) bandage, tough cut shears, tweezers, hot water bottle, splinting equipment, neck collar, needles and syringes, pocket mask for resuscitation, dental care kit, oxygen, defibrillator, suctioning equipment, suture kit, scalpel, forceps, thermometer, scissors, instrument cleaning kit, safe disposal equipment, cathetering equipment, stethoscope, hypothermic thermometer, blood pressure monitor, body bag,

Medications: Sun cream, sea sickness tablets, paracetamol, ibuprofen, aspirin, antihistamine cream / tablets, indigestion tablets, Imodium, re-hydration salts, sterile eye wash, anaesthetic eye drops, antibiotics, antibiotic cream, very strong pain killers, local anaesthetic, laxatives,  cream for skin infections, anti-anxiety medication, eye antibiotic cream, haemorrhoid cream, ear drops, and medication relative to the crew needs e.g. asthma treatment, the treatment for anaphylaxis

Wounds: Plasters, wound dressings, antiseptic wipes, cling film, eye dressing, wound closure strips, wound care kits, tubular gauze, paraffin gauze dressings, burn dressings, surgical tape, and sterile dressings.

Should it be necessary to top up the kit along the way anything obtained overseas should be clearly marked, as to what it is and what it is for, dosage required etc.

“Foreign” diseases

International travel advice should be followed, with necessary inoculations obtained and preventative treatments for diseases such as malaria obtained if recommended. For some countries, where disposable syringes and needles are not generally used, carrying a personal “sharps” kit in case you need treatment in hospital can be advisable.

Related pages

MGN 623:
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