When I was younger and more invincible I didn’t think much about medical emergencies on boats. The first time I headed offshore on a boat of my own it never occurred to me to assemble a medical kit, until a sailing buddy of mine, a doctor, asked about it just a few days before my departure. When he found out I didn’t have a kit, he raided a supply closet at the hospital where he worked and brought me two grocery bags full of stuff.
All kinds of stuff—catheters, IV bags full of saline solution, fiberglass casting tape, a surgical stapler and an enema kit, plus a vast array of prescription antibiotics and painkillers. When I complained that I didn’t know what to do with any of these things, he then sat down and patiently went over how it all worked, writing out instructions on how to use each item. He also handed me a copy of The Merck Manual, which is by far the most useful and comprehensive one-volume medical reference you could ever hope to lay hands on.
I spent two years cruising around the North Atlantic with that enormous medical kit and only once had to dip into it on my own behalf. On developing a bad earache during a long passage, I consulted The Merck Manual, diagnosed an ear infection and treated it with exactly the appropriate antibiotic, which thanks to my friend was included in the kit. The rest of the kit I ended up giving away bit by bit to people I met while cruising West Africa, who seemed to need medical supplies much more than I did.
Aside from low-grade cuts and scrapes, I’ve never had another medical situation onboard until this past summer, when I circumnavigated Cape Cod with my wife aboard our cutter Lunacy. We were in the process of departing Nantucket, with me scrambling at the base of the mast to promptly raise the mainsail when suddenly the handle popped out of the halyard winch as I was grinding on it as hard as I could. Damned if that handle didn’t smack me right in the nose as hard as I’ve ever been smacked anywhere in my face.
In an instant, I was bleeding profusely, and as I finished raising the main and turned the boat toward the harbor entrance, I couldn’t help wondering if I should maybe turn back around again and seek help. Upon examining my nose, though, I decided it was not actually broken, but only bleeding, and so I bandaged it, and we continued on our passage to New Hampshire without further mishap.
This seemed a one-off incident until much later in the season, in November, when I was sailing Lunacy down to Maryland. This time I had a friend onboard as crew and we were anchoring in a small cove on the north shore of Long Island Sound just after sunset. At the time he was holding the windlass control, and I was standing by to hump chain manually out of the hawsehole in the event it jammed beneath the deck as I expected it would since the boat had been bouncing around a lot and its pile of anchor chain was greatly disheveled.
Sure enough, the chain jammed, and I promptly reached down to clear it. Unfortunately, through an awful bit of miscommunication, the windlass started grinding first backward, then forward, then backward again while my hand was on the chain. End result: the outermost fingers on my right hand were crushed, not once, but twice, and again my blood was flowing and the pain was excruciating.
Luckily, this was only a flesh wound and nothing was broken. But I found myself remembering all the sailors I’ve met over the years who were missing fingers, or bits of fingers, and realized I’d been very lucky.
I don’t know if my luck is running out because I’m older now, or if I’ve just been too lucky all along, but I’ve realized I need to start thinking seriously again about my medical kit. Of course, I’m hoping some old friend will bring me bags of supplies borrowed from some hospital closet, but I have a feeling I really shouldn’t count on that.
A good medical kit is like a liferaft. You never need one until you do
SAIL’s Cruising Editor, Charles J. Doane, sails on the Maine coast and down in the West Indies whenever he gets the chance. He is the author of The Modern Cruising Sailboat, published by International Marine, and is a contributing blogger at SAILfeed.com