In the tragic wake of two sailors dying in the Chicago Mackinac race July 18 and the seven fisherman who perished in the Sea of Cortez over the Fourth of July holiday, I thought it might be timely to talk about the unforeseen circumstances that can occur on any normal day on the ocean.
I’m not releasing any guarded secrets when I reveal that it’s a slippery environment out on a boat and with a little wind and wave action, things can start to move quicker.
I’m fortunate that the only substantial injury I’ve sustained around a boat was a broken thumb. I was dropping the mast on my Hobie 16 when something slipped, so I grabbed my head (duck and cover) to protect my noggin from the bouncing 26-foot aluminum spar. I was on land at the time, so it was off to the hospital for the likes of me on that sad and painful Christmas Eve.
Other than that small accident, my experiences with the medical concerns of sailing have simply been some bouts with common seasickness. I’ve suffered with this condition forever and do what I can to not let it inhibit my fun. I usually take a Dramamine and then I’m good to go, but I’ve seen others not fare as well.
It’s always sad when a person who is clearly excited as we pull from the dock, starts to turn an unhealthy shade of yellow as the first ocean swells make their presence felt. I pretend I don’t notice, because I know talking about it makes it worse, but one formally gregarious guest has now fallen quiet – eyes glued to the horizon because they read somewhere that it will help. They don’t want to spoil anyone else’s day but they will be vomiting in front of their friends in about, ummm, 20 minutes.
It’s fine and even a little funny to talk about it later, but seasickness is horrible. It defines misery and can be dangerous if it incapacitates someone at the wrong time.
It’s not completely clear why some people are amazingly unaffected and others so sensitive but many doctors feel that diet, particularly hydration is a key component to not becoming sick onboard.
“What’s happening is that the brain is receiving a lot of information that it can’t resolve,” said Michael Mellman a doctor of internal medicine and an avid sailor. “There’s an overwhelming amount of sensory input to the brain that tries to keep us upright.
“What the eyes see is motion and the horizon and then there’s a balance center in the ears that tells the head its position relative to the body. There is also the sensation of the bottom of the feet that tells the brain what type of surface you’re on and what it’s doing and whether it’s moving or not.”
In addition to motion sickness medication, Mellman packs a few other must-haves for a boater’s medical kit. The reality of getting knocked, bruised or cut on a boat is more than we like to admit to ourselves, but the first aid kit needs to have the necessary ingredients.
The doctor suggests packing a tourniquet and know how to use it, as well as a squirt bottle filled with fresh water, butterfly strips and interestingly, a bottle of superglue. Mellman has been a doctor for a number of professional sports teams and superglue is a part of an athletic doctor’s arsenal.
“If you go into the emergency room these days they rarely sew things together that they can glue,” he said.
“There is a medical grade product that’s similar to Superglue. The Superglue Company would never recommend it for that application, but we all carry it. For lacerations that aren’t terribly deep, it works well.”
In these mostly cold waters of the Pacific, it’s also good for boaters to have a basic understanding of hypothermia in case of a man-overboard situation. In the dead of winter, water temperatures in Santa Monica Bay are less than hospitable. Even in the summer, it’s rarely a bathtub out there, so being aware of our limits is important.
In regards to hypothermia, all authorities state that wearing a life jacket dramatically increases one’s chances of surviving a long stay in cold water. The Coast Guard used to use a general slogan called 50-50-50, which stated that if you are in 50-degree water wearing a life jacket, at 50 minutes you have a 50 percent better chance of survival then if you weren’t wearing one.
Rescue worker Mario Vittone wrote that the time spent out of the water, after rescue, is extremely important as well:
“I lost count of the number of survivors I annoyed in the back of the helicopter because I wouldn’t let them move,” he said. “I had a rule – if they came from a cold-water environment – that they laid down and stayed down until the doctors in the ER said they could stand.
“It didn’t matter to me how good they felt or how warm they thought they were; Because the final killer of cold water immersion is post-rescue collapse.”
The moral of the story is that local boating is for the most part a very safe pursuit, but when venturing into a situation where medical help is not readily available, we, as boaters, need to have a contingency plan – a decent first aid kit and some basic understanding of normal injuries and conditions.
Mellman’s kit is probably a bit more stocked than most of ours but it’s also properly packed.
“You should have an antibiotic on board,” he said. “Get one from your doctor. I also carry a little bit of Tylenol/Codeine. It’s good for a few things – pain, diarrhea or a cough. The other thing I carry is a bee-sting kit [prescribed]. It’s not necessarily the bees we’re worried about two miles out, but it’s for a severe reaction of any kind.
“Someone can get a food they adversely react to or an antibiotic or asthma. The contents within a bee sting kit basically allow you to buy time for a severe reaction to many different things.”