First Aid Kits, the Grab Bag & Life Jackets

Another project to pass the time during Covid-19 lockdown! Updated 2024 to include the grab bag and some thoughts on life jackets.

I have a bee in my bonnet about many of the first aid kits being sold. 

My grab bag, a "Peli" case is expensive but an
ideal container for a first aid kit or Grab bag,
this one was repurposed previously having
cameras and IT gear in it, hence the cut outs.
I purchased a fairly expensive "Offshore" first aid kit from the "swindlery" (sorry chandlery ๐Ÿ˜ˆ) but omitted to check the contents thoroughly or test anything, although I did add a couple of battle dressings and some burn dressings as I knew about those (more below).  

Then the first time I had to use it for a not terribly serious albeit gruesome injury - a finger badly cut whilst trying to adjust the alternator belt (Tip: use a nail bar as a leaver, used appropriately with the "V" end firmly located, it will not slip) - I used the entire supply of wound closures and could have used more, just on one finger. Then with all the blood around the "waterproof" plasters would not stick. 

Fortunately I was anchored just off Newlyn with the dinghy in the water so was able to make temporary repairs and row in and wait for the chemist shop to open to get more wound closures and some sensible fabric dressings that worked fine, and I still caught the tide round the Lizard.

Serious first aid kits for sailing are available from a number of sources and some look really excellent (like those from MSOS) but they are aimed at boats with lots of people on them and are very expensive, I am sure that some suppliers would (or do) do a kit for the solo sailor but again that would come at a price. Update: MSOS do a kit for long distance solo sailors, I have no idea how much it costs. 

I'm not a medic so best check independently, but I would recommend a basic or mid priced first aid kit to start then add to it to make sure you have at least:

  • Trauma / Field / Battle Dressings in 2 or 3 sizes - good for puncture, deep slash wounds, etc. and easier than most to put on yourself, good ones come with a tensioning device to apply direct pressure to the wound. Don't be fooled into buying out of date packs on eBay, a search there and elsewhere will find new long dated ones at much the same price.
  • Burn dressings, paraffin tulle gauze, etc. Burns and scolds are two of the most common injuries on a boat so don't stint on these and include some big ones.
  • Standard & Conforming / elasticated bandages, the traditional triangular bandages in many kits are likely to be a waste of time for the single handed sailor. 
  • Very large, large and medium plasters / wound dressings as used post-Op in hospitals - you will probably have to get them on-line.
  • Wound pads.
  • Antiseptic wipes.
  • Dressing Strip; good quality fabric ones are in my experience much more robust and practical than most others.
  • Standard, finger and other specialist plasters, again I take good quality fabric ones, lots of them, bought on line rather than at the supermarket or chemists they will not break the bank.
  • Wound closures, lots to allow for long wounds and wastage whilst trying to apply them to yourself -  hand and finger injuries are perhaps the most common on a boat and closures can be difficult to apply with one hand.
  • Super Glue.
  • Finger stall.
  • Micropore tape.
  • ZincOxide tape (Gaffer/Duct/Bodge tape will do at a pinch and may be better for serious strapping).
  • Elasticated support tube, at least in knee and elbow / ankle sizes. 
  • A Euro Splint (battens or bits of wood plus gaffer / bodge tape will work but these are better and a lot more comfortable).
  • Eye bath, tweezers, nail scissors, clinical scissors (one side blunt to go next to the body), etc. - most would probably be included in the original kit.
  • In these days of Coronavirus, some FFP2 / N95 masks, hand wash and a test kit. 
  • Some surgical gloves are probably a good idea.
  • Cling film.
  • First aid guide / book.
  • Liquid antiseptic (TCP, Dettol etc).
Remember that if single handed you have to apply things to yourself so, for instance, tape is likely to be more useful than a safety pin or a knot, also wastage is likely to be higher so be sure to take plenty.

Drugs


I carry the following in a sperate container and a small quantity of some in the grab bag:

  • Avomine (Promethazine Teoclate - a serious anti sea sickness pill),  since it's first service there is also some in the life raft survival pack, if the raft has not been serviced they (or similar) will come separately so will need to be in the grab bag. 
  • Stugeron - Cinnarizine - not as strong as Avomine, probably better for the skipper as it is less likely to cause drowsiness or confusion.
  • Analgesics: Dihydrocodeine (on prescription only, on board for the unlikely event that my wife should come on board๐Ÿ˜‰), Ibroprofen (also a NSAID), Paracetamol.
  • Deep Heat, Deep cold, Ibuprofen gel, Voltarol 2.32% (Diclofenac NSAID gel).
  • Naproxen (a stronger NSAID) and Omeprazole to protect the stomach from the Naproxen. Both on prescription for arthritis but not normally needed. Naproxen is good for various injuries to reduce swelling, but used as a last resort as more than a few doses they will inevitably require a.....
  • Starter: Senna, Dulcolax, Laxido (as a last resort - it tastes foul). 
  • Stopper: Imodium.
  • Germoloids or similar.
  • Hydrocortisone Cream.
  • Rehydration formula, you can make one yourself but if you need it badly you might not be thinking straight and ready made is convenient.
  • I am allergic to various insect bites so carry a particularly good stock of the following which can also be useful for a number of other problems, be careful combining antihistamines with anti sea sickness pills, Stugeron for instance is both:
    • Piriton antihistamine (chlorphenamine).
    • Loratadine Non Drowsy antihistamine.
    • Autan insect repellent.

Tip

Be very careful to read the label and to check for interaction between drugs, in 1977, off Ushant heading for Gosport, I took some Kaolin & Morphine Mixture and had previously taken a strong (military issued) anti sea sickness pill (we only had the one type on board): I slept for 8 hours which was a bit of a problem for my sailing companion, there were only the two of us and the 34ft boat was not equipped for single handed sailing, fortunately he coped and I was then rested enough to let him sleep for a long time.
Take good quality waterproof sun block, tanning lotion / cream / oil and some "after sun" in case you omit to use it or you get wind burns. An aerosol spray type is easier to apply to your back single handed, I find Hawaiian Tropic to be excellent. Remember on a sunny day you get the direct rays and the reflections from the sea. I carry a Factor 50 cream, plus Factor 30, 15 & 8 Hawaiian Tropic  Dry Oil Continuous Spray, unfortunately with the Scottish weather over the last few years I have not used much over the last few years.

On long trips well away from land some prescribed drugs such as anti-biotics for a variety of conditions would be a good idea but you will need help from a professionals for that.

Storage


That lot will not fit in a basic first aid kit box so either use a plastic lunch box or get a larger box with a hinged lid, but by far the best is a "Pelli" case, or perhaps a "knock off", which are very robust, waterproof (IP67) and will float if the load is within spec. The contents will be kept in perfect condition and in dire straights everything will be usable after being transferred to a life raft via the water or rescued from a swamped boat. 

They are expensive but very good, consider getting a bigger one and use it as one of your grab bags instead of, or in addition too, the often recommended soft dry bag - but put water elsewhere, you don't want to flood or contaminate the first aid kit. 

Two of my Peli cases ashore for the winter,
the main first aid kit stays on the boat.
An extra box or packet of plasters and some dressing strip for minor scrapes kept separately will reduce the number of times you have to open the main kit(s) and disorganising it / them. 

Tip: bright colours are best for emergency kit, mine are yellow and orange.

I have three Peli cases, one (1200 model) for the primary first aid kit, a larger (1450 model) for my camera, etc. and a larger one again (1520 model) for the grab bag with more of the first aid kit which hopefully will not be needed. 

I also have a soft dry bag with other odds and ends including some water and one of my two powerful "lantern" lights. The life raft also has an ISO 24 hour pack with flares, water etc.

A lot of these cases can be found on eBay, the usual caveats apply, in particular check that it is a real one not "Peli Type", they may be good but are probably cheaper new, also some people ask silly prices compared to getting one new so check on a retail site and make appropriate allowance for wear arnd inclusion of foam etc..

Grab Bags


In my primary grab bag / case I have:
  • Part of the first aid kit, it is organised so that most things are duplicated in the main first aid kit so the Grab Bag does not need to be distributed for most injuries unless things drag on.
  • Dry cell battery pack for the hand held VHF.
  • Spare batteries for the VHF, strobes, etc..
  • LED "hand flare".
  • 2 x parachute flares, I am no longer replacing out of date flares moving to more modern methods, see my page Pyrotechnics or Electronics for Emergency / Distress Signalling?
  • Strobe.
  • Pen sized LED torches.
  • Space blanket in case I don't get the emergency neoprene immersion suit off the boat.
  • Kendal mint cake for emergency rations.
  • Re-hydration powder.
  • Re-arming kit for the primary life jacket.
  • My passport if going out of UK waters and ships papers including the SSR and insurance documents, a credit card might also be a good idea. My wallet and car keys are in a "bum bag" ready to hand, if I were getting concerned I would ware it or put it into the grab bag - these days  car keys that have had a ducking probably won't work.
I have an insulated survival / immersion suit in its own bag stored in the saloon where it is easy to get at.

The EPIRB and hand held DSC VHF are close to the main hatch along with a safety knife (I also carry a traditional yachtsman's knife in most weather conditions - e.g. not when it is hot and I am wearing little or nothing - not a pretty sight), and LED torches.

Stored there the EPIRB can, if necessary, be quickly thrown overboard or into a life raft.

Some would put this emergency equipment in the grab bag,
I prefer it to be immediately at hand from the saloon or cockpit.
 The life raft is after all a last resort so I would likely be activating
the EPIRB whilst on the boat.
Keeping the waterproof hand held VHF in the cradle (powered on with the main VHF radio) ensures it is always charged, is available if I want to have VHF to hand if I go to the front of the boat (e.g. when accepting a tow) or if the main unit fails at an inconvenient time. In an emergency it would fit into a large pocket, be clipped to the lifejacket, harness or belt or slipped into the soft dry bag. 

Tip

This VHF has GPS to give position data for a DSC emergency alert, switch these types on every few days long enough to get a GPS position, that will update the almanac and its current location so that it in an emergency it will get a fix quicker than if it has been off for months and has to download a new copy and start calculating from scratch.
Rather than store my PLB in the Grab Bag I have it attached to my life jacket harness along with a combined strobe and torch, the AIS SART is in the life jacket and is activated if I inflate it. 

The AIS SART is likely to be particularly effective in anchorages, rivers and other busy places so it usually comes with me when I am using the dinghy - most man over-boards have historically been from the tender. It would also serve as "terminal guidance" for rescue services if the main AIS is not working or I'm in the life raft.

Life Jackets


Everyone has there own thoughts on life jackets and mine are somewhat different to the authorities and the RNLI, both as to regards to type and wearing all the time, the later probably influenced by being a 70's sailor when we just did not wear them except in the dinghy or in extremis. Also wearing one all the time during a 3 month cruise would not be fun, especially on the occasional hot sunny day.

As a solo sailor I prefer a manually activated lifejacket with integrated harness for a safety line; the jackstays are located so I would not trail behind the boat if I went over the side and should end up next to the emergency ladders on each quarter but it is highly probable that I could not get back aboard if the boat was moving at any speed - an inflated lifejacket would guarantee that I couldn't. 

There is also an outside risk of being trapped below in an inverted boat or inflation in other difficult positions. Getting back aboard with an inflated jacket could even be an issue after falling in the water when at anchor and that is not the best time to be taking a jacket off. I think these factors outweigh the risk of being knocked overboard and unconscious when there is no one to come back and pick me up, but that is very much an individual decision. 

On a crewed boat there is much to be said for an automatic, > £300, high spec life jacket preferably in my view with hydrostatic rather than water activation. If there is only one person on deck then an AIS or other man overboard alert system becomes even more desirable.
 
PLB on one side and a combined strobe & torch the other, spare batteries
for the latter in the grab bag and in my box of batteries. The AIS SART is
inside the life jacket cover with an activation string round the bladder. 

Tip

Take a sensible number of rearming kits (mine is kept in the Grab Bag) in case life jackets are inflated, for real or by accident and have at least one spare lifejacket. 
And, of course, check everything at least once a year taking particular care that there is no physical damage and that the gas bottle is not corroding, with heavy use my last one was perfect after 4 years but quite badly corroded and was replaced after 5.
Having upper back problems I can't cope with weight on my shoulders so I have one of the lightest most compact jackets available, it doesn't have a lot of the bells and whistles or the flotation capability of heavier and more expensive items but I am prepare to accept that, especially as if I go overboard and am separate from the boat when any distance from help, the life jacket is just going to prolong the agony. 

I might not wear it all the time but it is always
to hand, after 6 years the filling was starting to
come out of the fabric. Time for a replacement.
Having said that, my never used spare (my guests on board have also been 70s sailors) is automatic and with more buoyancy. My other spare is the same as the one I currently use, after 14K nautical miles and about 600 days, it was getting very tatty with the cover deteriorating, but the harness, bladder and replacement cylinder are fine. 

To keep weight and clutter to a minimum I normally just have one safety line that is attached with a cow hitch saving the weight of a second clip, the line is elasticated so I don't trip over it when it is not in use and it has a very neat clip that is easy to operate one handed. If the going is really rough I have a 2nd line immediately available. 

I also carry a very good, lightweight, comfortable and expensive "Spinlock" harness that I may use when well offshore - like many experienced solo sailors I work on the basis that if I go over the side I'm dead (of course deep down we think it is not going to happen to us, but quite a few have been wrong in that belief) so the life jacket is superfluous, of course that does not apply if I have to take to the life raft after a fire or other emergency but hopefully I would have time to get the life jacket on - it does fit over the harness if necessary.

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