How to deal with illness while sailing and how to administer first aid on your yacht

How to deal with illness while sailing and how to administer first aid on your yacht

How do you deal with illness while on the yacht? Which illnesses should you be aware of and what sorts of first aid are most important while sailing?

Yacht holidays are always a unique experience. But what if someone falls ill while sailing and what constitutes effective first aid? The port might be far away and an unprepared captain could find himself consumed by dark thoughts.


Here, therefore, we look at not only frequent illnesses and how to deal with them, but also at a few points that are worth considering before the trip. As a result, you’ll be able to administer better first aid on the yacht.


On the ship, anything can happen and it is good to be prepared for it.

Yacht First Aid Policy

  • When faced with a serious problem, always try to remain calm, and to calm down others with you.
  • First, ensure that you are sailing safely - make sure that there is someone specifically designated with responsibility for navigation, and then treat the crewman who is unwell.
  • If the patient requires medical help, do not hesitate to terminate the voyage.

Which illnesses are most common on the yacht?

Acute Conditions: 


This is the greatest fear of all novice seafarers and can completely spoil the fun. Seasickness is not merely vomiting, but rather a more serious affliction; in the words of the sailor, “a person may look forward to vomiting, because then at least he won’t feel nauseous”.


Interestingly, 5% of the population is completely unaffected by seasickness - are you lucky enough to be among them? On the other hand, however, for another 5% it is practically unavoidable. For the rest of us, the worst is usually over within 2-3 days.

A man in the grips of seasicknessA man in the grips of seasickness 

  • How do you alleviate seasickness?

Ensure that the patient is stationed in the part of the yacht where there is least rocking, which is above the keel (above the mast, in the centre of the ship) or he can retreat to the cabin. It usually helps if the afflicted keeps his eyes on a fixed point (e.g., the horizon).

Have the patient stand behind the rudder - he’ll be able to see the horizon, which will at least occupy his mind and help to relieve him. It also helps to try to cheer him up, to distract his attention and to reassure him. It can be hard, but the patient should try to eat something light so as not to have an empty stomach.


  • What medicine can be taken for seasickness?

Motion-sickness medications are mostly readily available (e.g., Kinedryl tablets, Torecan suppositories, tablets and injections). Various “Travel-Gum” products are also popular. One can also try candied ginger or ginger tea.

It is most effective to take your medicationat least 1 to 2 hours before you set sail. Some drugs of this type cause unwanted side effects, so it is best to check this out beforehand.


Heatstroke and sunburn 

Heatstroke is caused by high temperatures and high humidity, when it gets to the point where moisture cannot cool the body adequately. This can result in complete collapse and vital systems shutting down. Sunburn is caused by exposure to direct sunlight. There is a risk of swelling of the brain.


  • First aid for heatstroke and sunburn

First aid procedures are fairly straightforward - cooling. Move the patient to the shade, undress him and wrap him in a cool material.


  • What medications can be used to combat overheating?

It is also important to replace any lost fluids, ions and minerals. For example, use a rehydration solution. You can buy it ready-made in a packet which you then mix with water, or prepare it yourself according to the following recipe:


  • 1L of water (preboiled, if possible)
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 4 to 5 teaspoons of sugar
  • (1 teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate)
  • The juice of 1 to 2 oranges or lemons (for the potassium content)

The World Health Organization recommends a ratio of 1 litre of boiled water to:

Glucose 20 g

NaCl 3.5 g

KCl 1.5 g

Sodium bicarbonate or sodium citrate 2.5 g


Falling into the still-cold springtime waters, or a lack of suitable clothing in inclement weather can result in dangerous cases of hypothermia. This involves a reduction in the effectiveness of the whole metabolism, including respiratory and cardiac activity. Severe cases may lead to cerebral edema and death.

In cases of hypothermia, it is important to avoid further heat loss.In cases of hypothermia, it is important to avoid further heat loss. 

  • First aid for hypothermia

In cases of hypothermia, it is most important to avoid any further heat loss. Use a thermal blanket, a (regular) blanket, a hot-water bottle, or a warm wrap - a sheet covered with hot water (be careful not to scald the patient). You can also use the body heat of another crew member.


It is absolutely inadvisable to give the patient alcohol! You may mistakenly believe that it helps to warm up the patient, but in fact it expands the blood vessels at the periphery of the body, and this results in further cooling of the vital organs!


Intestinal complaints, stomach problems and vomiting 

These may be caused by infection, food poisoning, contaminated water, irritation or seasickness.   

  • First aid for intestinal and stomach problems

It is advisable to use the aforementioned rehydration solution to replace fluids, minerals and ions - and also adjust one’s diet so that it is rehydrating.

  • What medication can be used?

Endiaron, Ecefuryl (especially in tropical areas where traditional medicines are not available).

Absorbents (such as charcoal) can also help. Reasec can be used, but because of the way that it works, it is not advised to treat acute problems in the long term. For more serious conditions, an infusion may be necessary.


Asthma and breathing difficulties 

Asthma can be brought on by psychological stress that can easily occur on the yacht. How does asthma manifest itself? The patient may not be able to breathe easily, resulting in a perceived feeling of suffocation. An acute seizure may result in hyperventilation. Asthmatics are usually aware of their condition and will normally have medication at hand.

Inhalation spray used to treat asthmaInhalation spray used to treat asthma 

  • How can we effectively help asthmatics? 

Reassure the patient and help him into a sitting position with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. This position helps the patient to relax and allows the abdominal and intercostal muscles to operate more easily, aiding respiration.


  • Medication such as an asthma pump can also be used; asthmatics will usually carry one of these with them.

Allergies and Allergic Reactions

Allergic reactions can manifest for many reasons - food, insect bites, poisoning, medications, pollen, fungi and chemicals. Symptoms include itching, rash, swelling and breathing difficulties. A strong allergic reaction can result in anaphylactic shock.


  • First aid in the case of an allergy   

Try to find out what caused the reaction and prevent further contact with the allergen. The problem may be a delayed allergic reaction; these can manifest up to 32 hours after exposure to the allergen. Try to cool any swelling of the tongue.


  • What to take

Antihistamines (Zyrtec, Zodac, Dithiaden, or Fenistil ointment). Those with  severe allergies will usually have an EpiPen (epinephrine autoinjector) with them. In the case of anaphylactic shock, it will be necessary to put the patient into the shock position (passive leg raise), call for medical assistance immediately, and prepare to perform CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) on the patient.

Chronic and long-term diseases 

Diabetes and Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) 

Diabetics can suffer from hypoglycaemia, even if they normally have their condition completely under control. This may be the result of a change in eating patterns on the yacht, meaning that sugar levels decrease more rapidly. The risk is also increased by the amount of physical activity the crew member engages in.

Sugar is quick to help with hypoglycaemiaSugar is quick to help with hypoglycaemia 

Symptoms of hypoglycaemia vary.  Among them are: confusion, a state of seeming drunkenness, restlessness, sleepiness, and sometimes even aggression.


  • First aid for hypoglycaemia 

The general treatment is to take sugar, but be careful that complications with breathing can give rise to seizures. A more effective method it is to line the palate with jam or a sugar solution so that it is absorbed by the mucous membrane. Ideally, the diabetic will have a glucagon pen (the opposite of insulin: it is important not to inject insulin in this condition). The opposite is hyperglycemia.


Epilepsy is a chronic condition of the brain and is manifested by epileptic seizures. Seizures may manifest differently, for example, localised tics only, twitching, pins and needles, or temporary short-sightedness. A more serious seizure may involve unconsciousness, convulsions and twitching.


  • First aid in epilepsy

In the event of convulsions, physical injuries should be avoided. Remove any clothing which may result in the patient being hurt. The patient should be placed in the recovery position.


  • What to do with cases of epilepsy

The seizure will usually run its course without any need for further intervention (symptoms of epileptic seizures such as convulsions and shallow breathing actually reduce epileptic activity). There is no need medicate following a seizure. However, after the initial seizure, a doctor's examination is necessary.


Cardiac problems and heart disease 

These include various diseases and conditions - heart attack, stroke and aggravation of chronic problems. Chest pain around the sternum is most common symptom, but pain in other areas, palpitations and shortness of breath may also occur.


  • First Aid for Cardiological Problems

Calm the patient and put him into a sitting position. If the patient is already being medicated for the condition, administer the usual medication. Call for help and be ready to perform CPR (Cardiopulmonary resuscitation).

Symptoms of heart attackSymptoms of heart attack 

Regular illnesses and pains (toothache, colds, inflammation and infections)

Most often, one will be faced with the problem of common, everyday illnesses and pains. When sailing, these can seem more unbearable, often because the solution to the problem is less readily available (for example cooling down, the opportunity to rest well, etc.) and the waves and rocking of the yacht are generally unpleasant when ill.


It is advisable to prepare a well-stocked first-aid kit for these complaints and to include analgesics, broad-spectrum antibiotics, and cough drops, etc.

A word to the wise before the voyage...

These tips will equip you to deal with illness and first aid on the waters. Before you set sail, it's good to know about:


  • The general health of the whole crew and the medications they use. Make sure the entire crew is aware of these in case there are problems.
  • Always include a well-equipped first aid kit on board. Also include medications for common illnesses (e.g., ear infections, colds ...).
  • Inform the crew of where the first-aid kit and medication are stored, e.g., with the rescue equipment.
  • Undergo a first aid course - this will limit the situations in which you have to call help - which may be far away.
  • Consider which vaccinations you need before travelling (e.g., tetanus, or other recommended vaccinations for more exotic destinations).

First aid kitFirst aid kit