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Common Medical Emergencies Aboard Sailing Race Boats

Image courtesy of Antigua and Barbuda Search and Rescue
Image courtesy of Antigua and Barbuda Search and Rescue

There’s nothing like the wind in your hair, sea spray on your face, and that feeling of sheer adrenalin-pumping exhilaration when the start gun sounds and you’re off racing. Unfortunately, there are downsides to competitive sailing. Boom bangs, sunburn and seasickness, to name a few, can wreak havoc with having fun let alone winning. Here’s an overview of some of the most common medical emergencies racing sailors face and tips to treat and even prevent them.

“We see patients with complaints that vary from sun burn to major trauma,” says Jonathan Cornelius, a paramedic and director of Antigua & Barbuda Search and Rescue (ABSAR). “Some of our more ‘popular’ complaints are dehydration, sun burn, rope burns, and finger injuries. We normally have at least one head trauma per regatta … remember; it’s called a ‘boom’ because that’s the sound it makes when it hits your head. If the worst has happened and someone has hit their head, then you should keep them still and call for help. This type of injury needs to be fully immobilized and properly evaluated in order to rule out a potential serious injury.”

Even apparently minor head injuries may have delayed onset complications, adds Newport, Rhode Island’s Dr. Robin Wallace, who is chairman of US Sailing’s Race Management Committee and an ISAF International Race Officer and member of ISAF’s Medical Commission. “Therefore, careful observation is needed and possibly an emergency room visit after racing.”

Everything from small bruises to deep cuts requiring stitches are other common injuries, explains Dr. Frits Bus, an avid sailor and general practitioner based in St. Maarten. “For the minor bruises and cuts, logically the first step is to stop the bleeding by applying pressure and ice, which is often at hand on a boat.”

Gloves will help minimize rope burns to the hands, adds ABSAR’s Cornelius. For other injuries “perform basic first aid and call for help. When in doubt, bandage what’s bleeding and splint what’s broken.”

“Make sure your first aid kit is well stocked,” advises ISAF’s Wallace. “In addition, consider taking a safety at sea or Red Cross First Aid course.”

For more serious medical injuries such as a heart attack, says St. Maarten’s Bus, “the treatment is the same as it is on land. CPR (cardio pulmonary resuscitation) should be known by at least one crewmember. It would be useful for everyone to take a CPR course.”

“If problems such as dehydration and hangovers are discovered at the dock,” says Pam Fuller, a coordinator for Virgin Islands Search & Rescue (VISAR), in Tortola, BVI, “then convince the sailor to stay ashore and recuperate for the day. Nobody can pay adequate attention if they are under the weather, which not only means bad racing, but it’s also potentially an accident waiting to happen.”

Prevention is the best medicine when it comes to dehydration, says ISAF’s Wallace. “Drink plenty of water during racing on hot humid days.”

One of the most common causes of dehydration while racing is seasickness.

“If you are prone to sea sickness,” says ABSAR’s Cornelius, “make sure you find and take appropriate sea sickness medication before you begin your day. Try to find a ‘non-drowsy’ type of medication and take it as directed. If you start feeling sick while out, remember the basics. Stay in the fresh air, keep your gaze fixed on a distant point, and keep busy.”

VISAR’s Fuller adds, “Keep something in your stomach, but minimize greasy foods. A salami and Swiss cheese sandwich isn’t the best choice on a rough day. Saltines and Ginger Snaps have saved more than one sailor. A ginger ale or 7Up is often more palatable than water.”

The optimal method to prevent sunburn is with protection such as appropriate clothing – long sleeves and a wide-brimmed hat, notes avid sailor and Puerto Rico dermatologist, Dr. Roberto Alfonso. “As for sunscreens, I recommend the highest SPF available. Sunscreens with a 90 or 100 SPF are available over-the-counter as inexpensive as $8 to $12 a bottle. I personally use Neutrogena or Coppertone, but all of them are good.”

Finally, says St. Maarten’s Bus, the best way to prevent medical emergencies while sailing is to have a good crew briefing prior to racing. “Take time to be sure the crew is familiar with the deck layout and inform them of any hazards. For example, point out the worst obstacles like low booms when tacking. Practice movements like tacks and gybes in slow motion. Many injuries happen because new crew haven’t sufficiently practiced.”

Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.

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