Customizing Your Boat’s First Aid Kit

In many parts of the world, we’re heading into the off-season for boating. It’s that time of year when we’ve squeezed every last ounce of boating from the season, when our haul out checklists dance in our heads, and winterizing plans can be found skittering through our consciousness. We’ve had amazing summers filled with day sailing, racing, cruising, fishing and dock parties. We’ve gathered enough stories to regale our mates at the Club bar all winter. During any of the exhausting mental gymnastics of preparing your boat for the hard, did thoughts of your boat’s First Aid kit pop into view?

Before you lock that hatch cover for the last time and head down the ladder, there’s one more thing I would like you to do. Grab your First Aid kit and take it home. On your way, ponder when the last time was you looked inside your kit? Is the case cracked, yellowed and the hinges are broken? Have the contents gotten wet and are now dried out, brown and crusty? Are some of the supplies left over from the Nixon Administration? If it hit the proverbial fan, would you have the supplies you need in an emergency and are you confident using them?

Winter, or hurricane season for the salty among us, is the perfect time to go through the three Rs of Emergency Medical Kits. Review, Replenish and Recombobulate – or maybe even a fourth R, completely Revamp that tired old friend.

First, REVIEW Your Boat’s First Aid Kit

Boat's First Aid Kit

Sometimes a neglected First Aid kit can come a little unhinged… Don’t let this be your kit!
Photo credit Shelly Galligan.

Let’s start by seeing what we’ve got to work with. First, inspect the container itself. Is it intact? Is it waterproof? Will it protect your investment within and keep it safe for when it’s needed? If not, it’s time for a new container, bin or a soft sided dry bag that will fit into your available space.

Next, inspect each of the supplies within your kit. Check the expiration dates and make sure the packages are intact. If the packaging has been compromised, pitch it out! I’m often asked if it’s acceptable to keep items past their expiration date. I don’t like waste on multiple levels and we sailors tend to be frugal, so if something has expired, yet the package is intact and you can’t bring yourself to throw it out, be aware of that date and if you’re comfortable with its safety, use it up as soon as possible. If not, get rid of it. Always err on the side of caution.

The same is true of medications. Medications can lose their effectiveness over time, especially in hot and wet environments. Keeping meds in a cool, dry place will help them retain their potency, yet it’s challenging to find such a place on a boat. Though medicines lose effectiveness over time, many medications can retain most of their original potency after their expiration dates. The exceptions, those that should not even be considered past their dates are nitroglycerin, insulin, and liquid antibiotics. It’s a judgement call to hang onto meds past their dates. Think not only of the cost of replacing them, but also how important it is that they work well when needed. I personally would feel comfortable keeping meds such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or Ibuprofen (Advil) for a year or two past their expiration dates. Meds like aspirin, meclizine or diphenhydramine (Benadryl) are inexpensive and I want to count on them 100% when I need them. I would replace these immediately if they were expired. When in doubt, check in with your friendly neighborhood pharmacist or healthcare provider. Here is a bit more information on that subject from the Harvard School of Medicine.

Moving forward, after you’ve examined the container and the contents of your kit and tossed out all of the oldie moldies, let’s take a minute to think about what your unique needs are. Start with what kind of boating you do and how long you’re away from access to a reprovisioning source and medical care. I often speak with a sailing slant, however power boaters are absolutely included. Our basic needs are the same, but a boat that can get back to shore faster may require fewer onboard supplies.

What Kind of Boater Are You?

When pondering custom marine medical kit needs, I often think in terms of three different groups of boaters: those who day trip/day sail; near shore boaters and offshore boaters. The day trippers go out for afternoon jaunts, buoy race or do short distance races, and booze cruises close to home port. Near shore boaters cruise the Great Lakes, Chesapeake or Caribbean and perhaps longer distance racing such as the Chicago Mac, Trans Superior or Regata del Sol, staying within easier range of US Coast Guard rescue. Offshore boaters spend time long distances from medical care or out of USCG rescue range. They make serious passages, do offshore deliveries or races like Newport to Bermuda or the Transpac. There is a lot of gray area and overlap in here, but give it some thought and decide where on the continuum you land.

After you have a handle on what kind of boater you are, consider your potential patients and their personal needs. Consider things like sailing with children, older adults or someone with a diagnosis such as diabetes that may require specialized supplies. For instance if I were cruising with someone with osteoporosis, I would carry plenty of extra splinting and orthopedic supplies to accommodate fragile bones. If I were offshore with a woman of child bearing age onboard, I would carry a pregnancy test in the event she had unexplained abdominal pain.

Kits are not one size fits all or even most. It’s not as simple as calling up the ol’ West Marine and ordering the “best” kit they have. Bigger and more expensive is not necessarily better. Please do not be swayed by claims of kits having 200+ items in them. 472 items is only wonderful if it’s 472 items we really need. Let’s build a kit for who you are and the kind of boating you do. As a professional, I have recommendations for each type of boater and would be happy to work with you.

Second, REPLENISH Necessary First Aid Kit Items

Now that the kit is in pieces all over your dining room table, it’s time to start replenishing. Take a look at what you’ve thrown out. Are you missing any critical items? This is the time to resupply what’s been used or had to be discarded in the review process. It’s the time to obtain any additional items you need. Have quantities of each item that make sense for you. The quantity of each supply/medication to stock is a function of the size of your crew and length of time away from land. Customize for your own needs.

Third, RECOMBOBULATE Your First Aid Kit Using the Two Kit System!

And now we put it all together again. Is your kit organized and functional for your personal needs? I’m a big fan of organizing supplies into two separate kits (or more) depending on your usage. This way, the things we use most often are accessible to everyone and no one is rummaging through the supplies we would need in a serious emergency when they’re just looking for a bandaid.

Your Boat's First Aid Kit

The Nitty Gritty First Aid kit awaiting action.
Photo by Shelly Galligan.

In the two kit system, I like a “nitty gritty”  kit for the things used most often such as regular, knuckle and fingertip bandages; diphenhydramine (Benadryl) oral tablets and topical cream; antibiotic ointment; seasickness medications like meclizine and Motion Eaze; acetaminophen (Tylenol); and Ibuprofen (Advil). For a kit I built for a client recently, the nitty gritty kit is housed in a gallon sized heavy duty, clear zippered freezer bag that lives under the galley sink, accessible to all the crew.  The nitty gritty kit could also be arranged into the clear pockets of a jewelry organizer and hung in the head.

Boat's First Aid Kit

Nitty Gritty tucked away safely under the galley sink. Please keep your First Aid kit in something waterproof, while ensuring all crew members can easily access it!
Photo by Shelly Galligan.

A second “Oh S**t kit” (as Carolyn Shearlock of calls it), kept in a dry bag and organized internally into separate gallon sized, labeled, clear, zippered freezer bags works wonderfully for the supplies needed to handle more urgent or life threatening emergencies. The zippered bags are great because they can be labeled, seen through and are easily replaced if they get gamey. For this client’s needs, I organized supplies into bags for more medications; tools; wound cleansing and dressing supplies; orthopedic supplies; and an additional bag of supplies to stop more serious bleeding as one of the crew members takes a blood thinner. In both the Nitty Gritty and Oh S**t kit gallon bags, similar supplies are separated into quart sized bags within the gallon bags to keep things orderly and easy to find in the heat of the moment.

The Oh Shit Kit Organized into Bags

The Oh S**t Kit organized into bags and ready for storage, preferably inside a soft-sided waterproof bag. Everything clearly labeled and easy to see.
Photo by Shelly Galligan.


REVAMP: How did the First Aid Kit Process go?

Let’s take a step back to the review process. After all is said and done there, did you find your kit was gasping for breath or worse flat line? I’ve assisted clients constructing kits both ways: built from the ground up; and Frankensteined together from multiple old kits, the cupboards at home and the supplies left over from old injuries. Sometimes the better part of valor is to start from scratch and build a new kit. It depends on your personality, perspective on life and pocketbook.

Lastly, and equally critical, become familiar with the supplies in your medical kit, where they’re located on your boat and how to use them with confidence. As a customer of mine said this summer, “You’ve built us a beautiful kit, but you’re the only one on the boat who knows how to use it. Can we gather the crew and have a lesson?” YES! We’re getting together this off-season for a team training. If you would like a kit customized to your specific requirements and the training to use it in an emergency, contact me and I’ll show you the way. As an experienced offshore medical specialist, it’s what I do!

So add one more checkbox to the to-do list, bring your boat’s First Aid kit home and give it a little love this winter. You both deserve it.

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