Select Page

In our series of Safe Skipper blogs on first aid at sea, here are four common emergencies skippers should be prepared for at sea. Knowing how to cope with them could well save a life, while not knowing could result in an avoidable tragedy. In this blog we look at what to do in the event of a crew member choking, drowning, or suffering from hypothermia or fatigue.



If the larynx is blocked and the victim cannot breathe, give several strong blows between the shoulder blades while supporting their chest. If this fails to relieve the obstruction, try abdominal thrusts by standing behind the casualty, clasping your hands together, positioning them on their abdomen and pulling inwards and upwards four or five times. If the casualty becomes unconscious, begin CPR.


Someone who has been recovered from the water and is unconscious should be treated for drowning as follows:

  • Check for a blocked airway and signs of breathing.
  • Begin CPR if there are no signs of breathing.
  • When the casualty begins breathing, place them in the recovery position.
  • Treat for hypothermia and shock.
  • Remove wet clothes if possible and keep warm with blankets or warm clothing.

Monitor the casualty closely and when they regain consciousness be aware of the risks of secondary drowning, where the lungs are damaged after inhaling water. This can occur up to 3 days after the accident, so a casualty who has recovered from near drowning should always go to hospital for a check up.


Normal body temperature is 37ºC.  A person becomes hypothermic if their body temperature drops below 35ºC. The same applies to those suffering from hypothermia as to those suffering from seasickness and fatigue. That is, you should be alert for the early signs and take what action you can to remedy the condition as soon as possible.  At sea, hypothermia can occur gradually after prolonged exposure to cold, wet and windy conditions on deck, or more suddenly after immersion in the sea.

Early signs of hypothermia include: shivering, slurred speech, clumsiness, irritability and memory loss. The sufferer develops pale skin, slow breathing and a slow pulse. The next stage, severe hypothermia, is complete collapse and unconsciousness and if unchecked, the heart eventually stops.

Treatment of hypothermia:

  • If the casualty is breathing, put them in the recovery position, ideally below deck.
  • Keep the casualty horizontal and commence warming. Be gentle, as a hypothermic person’s internal organs are sensitive to physical shocks.
  • Replace wet clothing with dry warm clothing, sleeping bags or a space blanket.
  • You can warm the casualty by applying warm towels to their head, or by lying another crew member alongside them to share body heat.
  • Applying hot water bottles is also recommended but keep the temperature below 46ºC / 115ºF.
  • Give the casualty warm, sweetened non-caffeinated drinks.
  • Keep monitoring the casualty’s temperature, if it drops below 32ºC then severe hypothermia develops and you have a major emergency to deal with.

Signs of severe hypothermia are as follows:

  • Casualty stops shivering.
  • Skin appears blue or grey, partly swollen.
  • Pulse is slow or weak.
  • Casualty loses consciousness.
  • Little or no breathing.
  • Pupils may be dilated.

Treatment of severe hypothermia:

  • Send MAYDAY. The casualty needs urgent hospital care.
  • Handle with extreme care. The casualty is at risk from cardiac arrest.
  • Check for signs of breathing. If the casualty is not breathing, commence basic life support starting with rescue breaths and then chest compressions and the CPR cycle.
  • Re-warm slowly. Take care not to burn the casualty.
  • Monitor pulse and breathing constantly.
  • Do not rub the casualty’s skin or give them alcohol.


Fatigue can be a major problem at sea, as people begin to make mistakes when they are tired, whether incorrectly plotting a position, slipping on deck or becoming short tempered with others.  On a long cruise, it is a good idea to agree a watch system which everyone on board keeps to.

See also: Common medical emergencies at seaFirst aid at sea basics.

Gybing a sailing boat

Gybing is the sailing manoeuvre used to change a boat's direction through a following wind. As with the tacking manoeuvre,...

Essential boat engine checklist

Boat engine checklist Engine oil level check Even if you have checked it previously, confirming the engine oil level is up...

Saildrive maintenance

There are less maintenance tasks to carry out on a saildrive transmission than on a traditional inboard shaft drive system with its associated stern gear. However, there are a few critical things that require maintenance, as recommended in detail by the engine manufacturers, and should be adhered to.

Passage planning and pilotage

Passage planning and pilotage help skippers navigate safely from one port to another. A passage plan takes into account all...

Keel maintenance and Repair – Part 2

If you have ever witnessed a boat colliding with a rock or other submerged obstacle you will know that there is an almighty thump and the whole boat shakes and judders. While such hard groundings seldom result in catastrophic keel failure, something has to give and even the sturdiest keels can easily be damaged by such an impact.

Avoiding personal dangers at sea

In order to stay safe at sea, we need to know the risks we are facing and to be aware of any personal dangers we could possibly encounter. Here are six of the most common potential dangers individual crew members should be aware of.

Boat maintenance log

Keeping a boat maintenance log is an ideal way of reminding owners what needs to be done to a boat and when. Read on for some tips,...

How to ensure your boat is in proper working condition

In this article Eva Tucker from Volvo Penta presents a handy check list of all the things that you need to check regularly in order to make sure that your boat is in a seaworthy condition. Including maintenance, safety gear and electrical checks.

How to improve a yacht’s upwind performance

There are several ways to improve the upwind performance of a sailing yacht. Read on for some useful tips including headsail reefing, heavy weather jibs and motor sailing.

Steel hull maintenance

A steel boat owner’s biggest enemy is corrosion. You don’t have to worry about osmosis or rotting timbers, instead rust is the number one issue that will keep you awake at night.

Light characteristics – how do navigators identify lights at night?

How do navigators identify the different types of light around our coasts at night and what are their characteristics?Navigating at...

Boat Handling – anchoring

Anchoring your yacht or motorboat Anchoring is one of the most important boat handling skills. If you can set an anchor...

Man Overboard Drill

How to respond to crew overboard under sail • Keep the MOB in sight • Tack into the heave-to position, do not adjust the...

Leaking decks

Leaking decks are perceived as a nuisance by some boat owners, but if leaks are ignored a much more serious situation may well be developing, especially in the case of boats with balsa or plywood deck cores. So deck leaks do need to be investigated and dealt with.

Galvanic and electrolytic corrosion

Galvanic corrosion is an electrochemical reaction between two or more different metals, in the presence of an electrolyte (note salt water is a good electrolyte).

Narrowboating on the Kennet and Avon Canal

A recently cancelled sailing event I was due to take part in left us with a free weekend in the diary. Given that my wife and I were celebrating a bumper wedding anniversary and the weather forecast was for fine weather, we decided to hunt around for a last minute canal holiday.

Understanding marine sealants & adhesives

Sealants, adhesives and adhesive sealantsThere is a bewildering variety of sealants, adhesives and even adhesive sealants available for...

Sail boat rig checks – Part 2

In part two of Sail boat rig checks we run through some useful rig maintenance tips and then finish with a brief look at what a professional rig check involves.

Capsize – understanding the risks

A skipper should know how their boat will cope with rough seas. By working within known limits and understanding the risks,...

Repairing chips and dings in gelcoat

The gelcoat topsides of a GRP boat can be pampered and restored to their former glory relatively easily when it is ashore. Gelcoat is only a very thin outer layer of the hull, often less than 1mm thick, so you should avoid cleaning it with highly abrasive cleaners, or an-ything that could potentially damage its surface.

Learn ColRegs: Traffic Separation Schemes

Learn ColRegs Rule 10: Traffic Separation Schemes. (c) A vessel shall, so far as practicable, avoid crossing traffic lanes...

Boat maintenance below decks

While most interior maintenance work can be done when a boat is afloat, some jobs such as servicing the seacocks have to be done ashore. It makes sense to do any major interior repairs and improvements with the boat hauled out in the boatyard.

Boat batteries

Under-sized battery banks are one of the key factors behind power failure at sea, as well as the premature failure of batteries, so make sure that your boat battery measures up to the use you want to put it to.

Steel and Aluminium Hulls

The two metals used for hull construction are steel and aluminium. These are both very strong materials and will last a long time as long as they are cared for, which primarily means protecting steel boats from rust and aluminium boats from electrolytic action.

Understanding boat engines

Irrespective of what kind of engine a boat is equipped with and who does the work, the regular care and maintenance of a marine engine is essential. The most common cause of marine engine failure is widely known to be lack of maintenance.