Nautical First Aid

By Greg Stoll - Turner, Oregon - USA


Your First Aid Kit

Editor's Note: This month we welcome another new columnist, Greg Stoll. Greg is a Firefighter and Paramedic who knows a lot about his subject. We are lucky to have him sharing his knowledge about this too often overlooked aspect of boating. Be sure to Read Greg's introduction and bio.

Bill had just purchased his first sailboat. It was a lifelong dream of his to own one, and when an ad came up in a local paper for an old fiberglass 16’, he jumped at the chance. It took a little bit to get it up and running, but finally Bill had it sailable. He decided to take it out for the first time on his local lake with a fishing buddy of his named Steve. Neither man had much sailing experience.

The wind was moderate and steady; Bill and Steve quickly figured out how to make the boat go and were soon tacking with the best of them. After an upwind run to the end of the lake, they decided to test out the downwind capabilities of the boat. Everything went fine until Bill let his attention slip and accidentally moved the tiller. The boat turned just enough for the main to catch wind on the other side; the boom swung violently and hit Steve square in the head. Steve immediately swore at Bill and then reached for his head. What he felt was warm and wet. Bill looked at Steve with wide eyes, then grabbed for the small first aid kit he had purchased from his local marine store. He opened it and found only a few band aids. There was nothing even close to the size of Steve’s head wound. Bill didn’t know what to do.

Would you?

What’s in your first aid kit? A few bandages? Maybe an ice pack? Do you even have one?

A well equipped first aid kit is the physical foundation of good layman medical care on a boat. It lets one treat most common wounds and illnesses found during boating. A smaller first aid kit is good for day sailing; a bigger one is required for overnighting and voyaging. Let’s discuss what one would find in a good kit.


A pile of first aid supplies is nothing without somewhere to keep them. You can build your first aid kit in all sorts of containers. Some of the most common are tackle boxes and canvas bags.

Tackle boxes: You may be surprised to learn that a number of Fire and EMS agencies carry their medical supplies in medical “tackle boxes” made by Plano. Yes, the same people who make your fishing tackle box make boxes for medical supplies. Truthfully, there isn’t much difference between the two products. Any small tackle box will do well.

Bags: My first aid kit is built inside an old canvas bag I picked up at the local military surplus store. Look for one that zips (so the contents don’t spill) and has a variety of pockets and pouches for different supplies.

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Your bag doesn’t have to be big to be useful

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If you can find a bag or box that is waterproof or at least water resistant, get it. You will be happy when the contents are still dry after a good knockdown.


Band aids: Band aids are useful for patching all sorts of smaller cuts and abrasions. Various sizes are available, from ½” wide all the way up to 2”. Keep a variety of sizes and types aboard for covering smaller wounds. Fabric bandages seem to stay on when wet a little better than the plastic ones. I keep 1” and 2” bandages in my kit. I also have 10 butterfly bandages for closing large wounds until they can be treated (stitched) at a medical facility. You can find these at any pharmacy. I keep them in a zip lock bag so they don’t get lost in the kit.

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Bandages and gauze pads can be kept in a ziplock bag. The zippered kind is less likely to come open accidently

You can fit quite a bit into a small plastic bag

Gauze: Gauze comes in a wide assortment of shapes and sizes. I keep some sterile 4x4’s (gauze pads 4” x 4” square) and a few rolls of 4” gauze in my kit. Use the 4x4’s to pad the wound and the rolled gauze to wrap the wound and keep the pads on. I like to keep a couple larger dressings in my kit for big boo-boos. Common sizes are 5”x 9”, 8” x 10” and 10” x 30”.

Coban is a very effective wound dressing

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Coban: Coban is a wonderful product that is a sort of woven material impregnated with a rubbery substance. It generally comes in rolls from 3” to 6” wide. The great thing about coban is that it sticks to itself, eliminating the need for tape. Use it to wrap wounds and keep splints on broken bones. The best place to find coban is at an equine (horse) or farm supply store; it’s sold in a variety of colors as “vet wrap”.

Tape: I keep some rolls of plastic medical tape in my kit for land-based wounds, but really the best thing for small boat first aid kits is electrical tape. It’s plastic and waterproof, and will therefore stay put when wet. Wrap it over band aids to keep them in place until you get dry.

Hot and Cold packs: Hot and cold packs are a wonderful invention that allows us to have the needed heating and cooling far from home. They are plastic bags with a powder and a separate plastic bag of water inside. To activate, break the bag of water inside the larger pack and mix with the powder. Cold packs are good for soothing bruises, sprains, strains and fractures. They also help to keep swelling down. Hot packs are good for pulled muscles and helping to rewarm a hypothermic person. Do not use them just because your hands are cold. You can find hot and cold packs at most any good pharmacy or grocery store pharmacy section. I like to carry at least 2 of each.

Emergency blankets: These are the small silvery plastic blankets used to keep warm in emergencies. They are only a few dollars at most any outdoor store and can literally be a lifesaver. Have at least one in your kit; enough for everyone on board is ideal.

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Pocket CPR masks provide effective protection for the rescuer and patient during rescue breathing

Pocket mask: I keep a pocket CPR mask in my first aid kit to be used when someone isn’t breathing. With the diseases out there today it is no longer considered ok to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on anyone but a close family member. A pocket mask with a good one-way valve will protect you from the inevitable vomiting that comes after a few minutes of rescue breathing, and will allow you to keep going long after you’ve tired of making the seal with your own mouth.

A good pair of trauma shears are a must for any first aid kit

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Trauma shears: These are the scissors commonly carried by firefighters and paramedics for cutting seatbelts and clothing. You may remember seeing infomercials 10 or 15 years ago for scissors that are strong enough to cut through a penny; these are those scissors. They are useful for cutting clothing off to expose a wound (like cutting the leg off a pair of pants to see a fractured bone) and for gently removing the wet clothing from a hypothermia patient. At work I carry a product called “Rescue Hook” made by Benchmade of Oregon City, Oregon. It’s a little more expensive, but is much more effective and more compact.

Gloves: Gloves are a must for any injury or illness involving blood or other bodily fluids. Remember, you may be treating someone who isn’t a member of your family; they may be complete strangers. Conversely, a complete stranger may be treating you! Latex is available, but Nitrile is better due to problems with latex sensitivity. The ones you use for epoxy work will be fine. Put in at least 10 pair.

Medications: A complement of standard over-the-counter medications is good to bring aboard. I like to carry Ibuprofen (Advil) and Naproxen (Aleve, Midol) for common pains (headaches, etc) and chewable Aspirin for folks having chest pain. Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is good for those having allergic reactions, and Meclizine is the standard for motion sickness. Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) has been getting a lot of bad press lately for its ties to the meth problem, but is still effective at treating congestion and plugged ears. Sunscreen helps for preventing burns.

Last but certainly not least is training. The best medical supplies in the world are no good without the knowledge and skill to know when and how to use them. Take a First Aid Class from your local Red Cross or Community College. Hospitals are also a good source for first aid training. Be sure and get your CPR card too.

In the coming months we will cover how to use all these items as well as the signs and symptoms of many common medical ailments and injuries.

Let’s hope you never have to use your new knowledge.

Greg Stoll

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