First Aid for Offshore Fishing

Be prepared when a medical emergency strikes at sea

first aid training offshore
Sufficient training is key to knowing the proper steps to take in a real-world medical emergency—on land or at sea.Courtesy D-Dey Response Group

You’re putting together your boat’s safety equipment: life jackets, EPIRB, life rafts, flares—check. But another important item to consider when outfitting your boat is a marine medical kit, and the training to go with it.

What many boaters don’t realize is that there is a huge difference between a first-aid kit and a true medical-emergency kit. Sure, you can grab a Band-Aid for a cut, and a first-aid kit could probably handle seasickness or even a minor injury or wound long enough until you hit the next port. But when you’re miles offshore, a short amount of time could be the difference between life and death in a real medical emergency.

As the master of the vessel, the captain is responsible for everyone on board. So, it is up to him to determine what tools could possibly be needed in case an emergency medical situation arises. He might not be a doctor, but if he is medically trained—and he should be!—and has a legitimate medical kit on board, it could help save someone’s life.

Time is of the Essence

Mariners often have the common misconception that if you’re on a day trip offshore of the United States, the Coast Guard will dispatch a helicopter if there’s a medical emergency. If the vessel isn’t in distress to the point where people’s lives are hanging in the balance, then the helicopter rescue you might be banking on is highly unlikely.

Medevacs, especially those at sea, are extremely dangerous for everyone involved, and even dispatching a helicopter for a vessel in distress has multiple risks associated with it. Although the Coast Guard’s primary function is search and rescue, it is not an ambulance service.

The men and women in the search-and-rescue service use their best judgement and risk-management training to determine if a rescue mission is justifiable. Only when the Coast Guard determines that a life is actually in danger—and there is no other option—will a helicopter evacuation be considered. And even if you did get it approved, water rescues take time.

The captain needs to be able to evaluate the situation and use the tools available to decide whether a life-threatening emergency exists. And if it does, are you prepared to handle it? First responders waiting for you at the dock will almost always be your best option.

With a proper medical kit that includes a commercial-grade tourniquet, sutures, oxygen and an array of antibiotics, specialized equipment and some realistic training, you can likely stabilize and safely transport a distressed passenger or crew member to shore.

Evaluate your Needs

Before you begin assembling the items for your medical kit, first consider your boating habits. Are you cruising internationally or boating locally on day trips? Items needed in a kit for a boat traveling outside the United States or for long distances could be significantly different—and much more comprehensive—than one operating near shore in U.S. waters.

Next, think about the medical needs of those who are regularly on board. If someone has a heart condition, then a maritime-rated automated external defibrillator is in order. An AED is a lightweight, portable device that delivers an electric shock through the chest directly to the heart. This shock can stop an irregular heartbeat—such as those that cause sudden cardiac arrest—letting the heart resume its normal rhythm.

Restoring a normal heart rhythm after an episode must be done quickly; failure to do so will reduce a victim’s survival chance by up to 10 percent for every minute a normal heartbeat isn’t present.

Allergic reactions are also something that should be considered. Anaphylactic shock comes on quickly and can be fatal in extreme cases. Although not all allergic reactions result in anaphylaxis, not all reactions are as simple as a runny nose or an itchy rash either. The captain should always know what, if any, allergies everyone aboard has.

Here’s another must-have: At least one or more EpiPens on board. Used in emergencies, they treat serious allergic reactions quickly; they increase breathing ability and heart stimulation, raise blood pressure and reduce swelling in the face or throat. Although these pens are expensive, this high dose of injectable epinephrine can save a life.

"A bunch of expensive medical equipment, medications and supplies are of little use without a properly trained crew."

Explore your Options

A bunch of expensive medical equipment, medications and supplies are of little use without a properly trained crew. Include as many people as possible when taking a medical-training course so that in an emergency—on your boat or someone else’s—you can work together should someone fall victim to illness or injury.

There are a handful of companies that offer advanced medical training and specialized, customizable kits. Do your research and ask around. Some might be geared more toward the sport-fishing industry than others, and the kits range from simple to extremely comprehensive. Ask lots of questions and discuss with the boat owner what the training involves and the timeframe available so you can make an educated decision on a plan that works for you.

Finding a reputable company geared toward maritime emergency medicine will create a relationship that ensures that your needs are met, the equipment is serviced and tested annually, and that your training stays up to date.

Many boaters are lucky to have never faced a medical emergency at sea. Some might even think it’s rare, but if you ask around, you’ll be surprised how many horror stories there are. And in a sport where we normally promote positive vibes, in this case, thinking of the “what ifs” is not only being realistic, but being prepared.