treating sailing injuries

Sailing, motor boating and all forms of seafaring are a great privilege that we think all but the easily sea sick should enjoy at some point in their lives. That said, there are innumerable risks associated with taking to the water, and whilst some are expected for anyone in control of any kind of vehicle, there are many dangers that are exclusive to the tides.

In our previous blog post on Seachest we rounded up a collection of comical boating fails, and whilst it's fun to have a laugh about the close misses and minor mishaps, poor safety and irresponsible behaviour in boating can be a fatal cocktail. Even if you are exceedingly careful the unexpected can still befall anyone, so to ensure you're prepared for the worst we present this list of common boat injuries and how to treat them:


There's a fair case that can be made that hypothermia, often called 'exposure', is a far more immediate threat than drowning. The term for when the body temperature drops below 35°C (95°F), its symptoms are obvious and quite alarming; violent shivering, tiredness, drowsiness, fast breathing, cold/pale skin and difficulty in breathing. In low water temperatures, going overboard at the worst moment can quickly become life threatening, as hypothermia will make it difficult or even impossible for you to grab on to a life ring or tread water to stay afloat.

Hypothermia is one of the leading causes of death in boat fatalities, and should always be considered a medical emergency. Treating someone who's been exposed to cold water requires a lot of specific knowledge, and its where common sense can fail you most. Do not attempt to rewarm them rapidly with a hot shower, ask them to move around or even rub their skin rapidly - rapid rewarming can cause serious heart problems. What you should do is get them out of cold/wet clothing, cover them with blankets, get them a warm drink (if they're still responsive) and have them lie still. If they've been pulled from the water unconscious, give CPR if you are trained, and in all but mild instances you should always hail a Coast Guard for assistance.

Head Injuries

The abundance of rapidly moving boat parts and platform shifting waves means head wounds and even concussions are a very common boat injury. Whilst most boating head injuries are likely to be minor, ensure that any bleeding from the scalp is not allowed to profuse by applying for pressure, however you should avoid a broken bone if you suspect there's fracturing.

If the sailor is dizzy or disorientated, then they may have a concussion. This can get very bad if not attended, so make sure the injured crew member or passenger lies down and remains still, is kept at the normal body temperature of 37°C, is kept away from any on deck activity that might lead to another blow to the head ('second impact syndrome' can lead to potentially fatal brain injuries) and that professional medical help is called for if symptoms worsen. Whatever you do, don't let them fall asleep as this can also be fatal.

common boat injuries

Cuts and Lacerations

The shallow ocean floors are unfortunately home to a lot of sharp objects, from naturally occurring sticks and rocks to broken glass and fishing hooks. Even when on deck, the wind and waves can present plenty of ways to be cut or lacerated, and if it strikes a major artery then it can be life threatening.

In all cases of bleeding, your priority should be to wrap the wound in sterile dressing and apply as much pressure as needed to stop the bleeding. For any cuts that bleed for more than five minutes even after applying direct pressure, have an object embedded in them or are caused by a crushing injury, you should continue to apply more dressings until you can seek professional medical assistance.


As well as obvious causes of on-board burns, such as boat fires, boiling water (if your yacht has kitchen facilities) or steam, the presence of antifreeze and other chemicals used in maintenance make burns a quite common boat injury. For all minor burns, you should immediately get the person away from the heat source, cool the burn with cool water for 10-30 minutes (do not use ice, creams or oily substances e.g. butter), cover it with cling film to protect & soothe and give them some painkillers. In all cases where the burns are from chemical/electrical accidents or are to a partial to full thickness, you should get professional medical assistance.


This is quite common on boats, and is often an underlying cause of sicknesses and serious accidents on ships. If you're sailing and/or doing some extreme water activity in conditions of extreme heat and low humidity drink at least 10 eight-ounce glasses of water, protect your skin and check to see if the colour of your urine is darker than usual. If you become dehydrated, stop all activity, get out of the Sun and drink 64 ounces of cool liquids within the next 2-4 hours. If dizziness, fainting or a fast heart rate continue for more than eight hours, seek professional medical assistance.

Broken Bones

With popular cruising routes flooded with fast moving, heavy objects and turbulent conditions, there's a strong likelihood that a trauma injury can lead to cracked or broken bones. In this case, there's not much that can be done by an trained professional; the best you can do is to stop any bleeding (as stated above), reduce swelling with ice, immobilize the broken limb or body area as best you can and keep them calm until they can be treated. You should avoid touching or attempting to put back any bone that sticks out through the skin.

Eye Injuries

The journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine published a study a few years back that noted that damage to the eyes was one of the most common boat injuries. If someone on board suffers from a penetrating or foreign object to their eye, or hyphemas and orbital blowout fractures, you must avoid attempting to remove any objects or treating it yourself as it can cause further damage. If possible you can at least tape a paper cup or eye shield loosely around the eye for protection, before seeking professional medical assistance.

In a future blog we'll look at the best way to avoid and prevent these kinds of accidents when boating. For now we recommend keeping up to date with all our posts via the Seachest Facebook page, Twitter and Google+.

Post By Graham