Medical emergencies at sea
Medical emergencies at sea can be exacerbated when underway. Noise, vibration and constant motion accelerate mental and physical fatigue. Fatigue can cause judgment errors and loss of situational awareness, which can compound problems created by rough seas or bad weather.
Serious medical emergencies at sea could include diabetic shock, strokes, heart attacks, broken bones and severe lacerations. While you can not foresee some illnesses, you can anticipate problems if you know the medical history of the crew and passengers.
For instance, fatigue may worsen some diseases and acute illnesses, making adequate rest important. The effects of alcohol may likewise adversely affect acute or chronic illness.
Assessing medical emergencies
When someone is sick, first decide whether intervention is necessary. Many self-limiting illnesses need no special treatment, while other illnesses require the person’s removal from the vessel. For example, on long voyages, you can overcome seasickness (caused by irritation of the inner ear) simply with time. However, on short cruises, returning to port will cure the problem. Several over-the-counter motion sickness medications may also help.
Calling for help
Following assessment, if you need outside help, call the U.S. Coast Guard. Press the red button on the DSC-VHF marine radio linked to the boat’s GPS to send an automatically formatted distress alert to the Coast Guard. You can also call the Coast Guard on Channel 16 or use 911 on your cell phone. Many cell phones have GPS and can provide your location.
Serious medical emergencies
In serious medical emergencies caused by illness or trauma, use the American Heart Association’s Chain of Survival to assess the patient. Is the person breathing? If not, the first step is to call for help. If you’re on the water, activate your DSC-enabled VHF radio’s distress button or declare a mayday on Channel 16. When on shore, call 911. If you have CPR training, begin compressions: Press on the center of the person’s chest, fast and hard. (Use an automated external defibrillator in conjunction with CPR, if possible.) If the patient is breathing, look for external bleeding and apply pressure to slow or stop it.
Notify the Coast Guard or local authorities whenever someone requires assistance beyond standard first aid. All boaters should take a CPR and first-aid course. Check with the American Heart Association or American Red Cross for a course near you.
Traumatic injuries include lacerations, bruising, sprains and fractures. Lacerations require attention to stop bleeding, and adequate cleansing to prevent infection and removal of any foreign material, followed by application of a sterile dressing from the first-aid kit. Bruising, while painful, can be treated with an ice pack. Sprains require icing and wrapping with an elastic (Ace type) bandage to limit movement and provide support. Splint any fractures until the injured person can be transported to a medical facility.
Encounters with some marine life can cause injuries that require medical attention, such as fish carrying dinoflagellate toxin; stingrays, barracuda, sea wasps, Portuguese man-of-war and sharks; and fire coral, sea urchins, and barnacles containing mycobacterium marinum. Simple cuts by contaminated barnacles could have life-threatening results. Have medical personnel treat them immediately.
Many traumatic injuries result from fatigue and loss of attention, so getting adequate rest and avoiding alcohol are important while at sea. Alcohol is a contributing factor in many injuries. Before you go on a long cruise, consider consulting a physician so you’re equipped to handle any medical emergency that could potentially arise.
Stay safe on the water
Learn how to handle common emergencies while underway. Take our Emergencies on Board seminar to keep yourself and your crew safe.