Nobody likes being sick or injured, but imagine being stricken on a sailboat a thousand miles from anywhere. Offshore sailors have to be ready to deal with any medical circumstances.
Whether you are cruising through the Caribbean or venturing across the Pacific, the time it takes to get to somewhere with medical help could seem like an eternity. In Beer in the Bilges, Sailing Adventures in the South Pacific, we describe how a sailor was bitten by a shark while spearfishing off Suwarrow Island in the northern Cook Islands, and almost died in the three days that it took the skipper to get him to a hospital in American Samoa.
While shark bite may be an unlikely ailment for most sailors, there are a lot of other, more common, conditions that every sailor should be prepared for. In our opinion, when you head off into the blue, you should be prepared for the worst and hope for the best. Here are a few tips.
Preparation is the key.
As with most adventures, the key to success—and sometimes survival—lies in the preparation. Every yacht should have one or more persons trained in first aid and CPR, and the skipper is responsible for equipping the yacht to respond to medical emergencies. What kind of emergencies? Here is a short list of things that can happen aboard a sailing vessel.
- Immersion, including hypothermia and drowning
- Being hit by the boom
- Broken bones
Remember that first aid is only meant to stabilize a person until you can get them medical help. So if an injury is serious enough, you will also need to have a plan to transport the person to the nearest doctor.
And if the situation requires more that first aid, then you’d better know where to get medical advice. That might include a cellular or satellite telephone call to a doctor or emergency center in your home country or at your destination, a radio call to Coast Guard or other emergency services in the area, or reference to medical books on the topic. Here are a couple of books we are aware of.
Get a checkup.
There are other things you can do to be better prepared before leaving on an extended trip. You’ve made a thorough check of the condition of your yacht and everything on your boat (you have, haven’t you?), so get a checkup yourself! And that means both medical and dental. The best time to get treatment for any ailment is at home before you leave.
Also, plan for good health practices and oral hygiene after you cast off your lines. We know people that make sure they take twelve dozen rolls of soft toilet paper on board, but don’t bother to take enough soap or dental floss! Can you imagine having a toothache at sea? You’ve seen how Tom Hanks’ character used a figure skate to deal with one in the movie Castaway. Enough said.
Know the ropes.
You will probably encounter everyday ailments at sea just as you do at home. Make sure you know how to deal with them. We’re not doctors, so you’ll need to check with your own doctor or pharmacist before you go if you are unsure, but here are some examples of common ailments and treatments.
- infection antibiotics
- pain analgesics (e.g. acetaminophen/paracetamol), NSAIDS (ibuprofen, aspirin, naproxen), or opoids
- inflammation and fever NSAIDs (e.g. ibuprofen, aspirin, naproxen)
- constipation laxatives
- diarrhea anti-diarrhea medication
- allergic reaction antihistamine
- muscle and joint pain topical analgesics
Remember that you must be aware of your drug sensitivities and allergies, as well as those of all your crew, plus any medication anyone may already be taking in order to be aware of possible drug interactions.
In the 1980s and 1990s, it was common to see sailors with dabs of reddish-brown staining their exposed skin. We all recognized this as “iodine-itis,” a simple means of treating cuts by the application of iodine. We also talk about our own experiences with this painful remedy in our book.
Cleaning and sterilizing a cut is necessary because open wounds will not heal in a salt environment, with the risk of serious infection. Nowadays there are more sophisticated products available.
You will need to have a first aid kit on your offshore yacht or, better yet, a trauma kit and the training to go along with it. And consider a Burn Relief Kit. Burns and scalds are some of the most painful and complex injuries you will encounter on a vessel.
Don’t overlook local knowledge when it comes to dealing with injuries incurred when exploring in remote destinations.
Residents can often advise you on treatments when professional medical advice is not close at hand. For example, while divers carry meat tenderizer to treat coral and other marine animal stings (it contains enzymes that break down the nematocysts or other foreign material), a Fijian woman once recommended rubbing very ripe papaya on a sting, which worked to great effect since it contains the same papain enzyme.
No matter where you go, proper preparation for your offshore voyage will give you the comfort of knowing that you can deal with medical situations that arise, and let you enjoy your adventure that much more!Featured image by Paul Barker on http://www.sxc.hu