The captain of a vessel is responsible for the health and safety of his or her crew and guests. First-aid challenges can sometimes occur that are beyond cuts and scrapes. Are you ready for when First Aid requires more?

At 2 am aboard our vessel, a quiet tap was heard on the captain’s cabin door. We happened to have a doctor on board and he was letting the captain know that a crew member woke up in acute abdominal pain. The doctor noted from the description and location of the pain that it could be diverticulitis or a kidney stone. Our boat was moored at John Henry Marina Resort in Pender Harbour, BC on the Sunshine Coast. In the wee hours of the morning, we began to evaluate the options for clinical help and transport.

It was clear we would need to provide better medical care than we could deliver on the boat. The local clinic in Madeira Park would not be open until after 9 am; however, we determined that this was not an immediate emergency. That said, we did provide her with some medication to ease the pain.

We began mapping out the medical options. The two closest hospitals were in Powell River and Sechelt. Powell River was eliminated since it required a ferry to get there by road. The hospital in Sechelt appeared the better option, though it was still 35 miles away by road, which would require an ambulance or taxi. Again, the crew member did not feel this was an emergency, though she was in deep pain. We elected to call the hospital in Sechelt at 8 am when their clinic opened. The decision was made to transport via taxi to Sechelt, which turned out to be a bumpy and painful ride for the patient and our onboard doctor who elected to accompany her to the hospital. Diagnostics and imaging tests at the hospital revealed the pain was caused by a kidney stone. The best that could be done was to prescribe more pain medication and send the patient home to her doctor in the Seattle area – no small feat from Sechelt, B.C.

We learned a lot from this experience, which is worth sharing. First, we learned that Canada has a free medical information service 24/7. You can dial 811, where medical professionals are standing by to assist with a diagnosis and recommendations over the phone. What about contacting the Canadian Coast Guard on VHF 16? We learned that they do have medical personnel standing by to offer assistance over the radio and cell service. This could have been an option. Calls get routed through the Canadian Coast Guard Rescue Center in Victoria, who determine the best course of action.

Photo of Rescue Personnel on Rescue Boat

The Canadian Coast Guard has a network of local volunteer responders called the Royal Canadian Marine – Search and Rescue (RCM-SAR). Communities raise local funds, along with government provided grants, to purchase boats and safety equipment to aid stricken mariners. The stories of their heroism are legendary. While they are volunteers, they are well trained and typically have a response time of less than 5 minutes before they are in their boats racing to aid an emergency on the water. We could see their emergency boat standing by at the dock just 500 feet from John Henry Marina but didn’t think we had an emergency that merited getting a standby crew out on the water at 2 am. We learned that they are very capable of handling emergencies and helping with next step decisions – like a transport to the hospital in Sechelt.

We also learned the value of emergency travel insurance. During our own extended boat trips, we carry DAN travel insurance designed for boaters. Our immediate situation required multiple cab rides, a floatplane from Sechelt to Vancouver, and then a flight from Vancouver to Seattle and lastly, a taxi to a medical facility in Seattle. Many travel insurance companies will reimburse travel expenses with some caveats. For example, some plans reimburse only for travel from one medical facility to your hometown medical facility. Insurance plans often have other benefits covering flight cancelations and baggage loss. If you are on your boat for extended trips in remote locations, these plans are worth considering.

The kidney stone issue was resolved in Seattle and our crew member is happily back out on the water. If this had happened in US waters, the US Coast Guard would have been a logical resource. We learned from an incident years ago when one crew member broke her ankle. We were in a remote cove in Southeast Alaska and the Coast Guard used the VHF radio to patch us through to their on-duty flight surgeon in Kodiak, AK who advised us on the best first aid procedures and the best means of transport to an area hospital. Within 24 hours, the crew member was in a hospital with an orthopedic surgeon.

Knowing the location of hospitals in the areas you will be cruising is valuable information. We encourage you to be prepared for whatever type of emergency you may be faced with. While you can’t be ready for every emergency, resources may be closer than you think if you reach out to emergency agencies like the Canadian Coast Guard, RCMP-SAR, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Boaters nearby may also be able to help.

Mark Bunzel is the Publisher of the Waggoner Cruising Guide and leads flotilla trips annually to SE Alaska.