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Click here for Merit McCrea – WHEELHOUSE SCOOP

Wednesday, July 19, 2017
Transmorgrification in the fleet
Tuesday, August 08, 2017
Bluefin will be Bluefin

Man down!
Just about everyone who has fished the sportboats for a few years has a medical emergency story. Someone aboard has had something happen, that at minimum, has required the boat to turn around and head for home immediately. Sometimes these stories include the chopper dropping a litter to the deck with an EMT aboard. But if you have never seen it go on, you may wonder how such a situation gets dealt with. What are the details? And what most commonly leads to such a situation?

This Friday we had just such a situation, perhaps the fifth I've been aboard for. An angler simply went down, fortunately not hard, the crew caught him on the way down — he sat, then lost consciousness. What then? What do you do, hours from the dock?

First things first: basic rescue and stabilization mode. You have to determine how bad it is. CPR? At this point, having people aboard who know basic rescue and first aid suddenly becomes very important. Just the captain is not enough.

In a lot of instances, you'll find a passenger who is highly trained, either as an EMT or otherwise within the medical field, and they are often very quick to recognize the situation, respond and take charge. That's a big relief. It wasn't the case in this situation, however, and there was a strong language barrier, plus the people he came with didn't really know him all that well.

It was down to us crew and our basic CPR and first-aid training. Christian Geisler was the one on deck with the best background and he was tasked to be the front rescuer once it was determined our patient didn't need CPR. That's key, as CPR is a last resort. Our patient had a pulse and was breathing, but one needs basic first-aid skills to determine this.

Nevertheless, he was unconscious and unresponsive, so it was time to put him in recovery position, minimizing the chances of the situation becoming worse, and contact the Coast Guard, activating the EMS system.

Calling the Coast Guard for help

Channel 16 is monitored by the U.S. Coast Guard, and as an emergency channel, it is set up with a series of "repeaters" that capture and boost the call coast-wide. In the central and northern parts of the SoCal coast, it's Coast Guard Los Angeles Sector that handles the call.

Once hailed, the Coast Guard will walk the caller though a series of questions as to the situation, location, vessel description and such. They will also, once it's determined the situation is safely stabilized, switch your VHF radio traffic from channel 16, to channel 22a. It helps to be able to successfully make such a switch, not loose contact, and if you do, be able to transition back to channel 16 and re-establish contact.

The Coast Guard has on call, a medical technician who will ask further questions, provide instruction as to how to find those answers and provide instruction as to how best to treat the patient, meanwhile helping Coast Guard rescuers determine the best course of action, whether dispatching a chopper or having you head to shore, along with where to exactly.

In the westernmost Channel Islands, the logistics of chopper dispatch and range can make rescue arrival close to two hours distant. In fact, rescue 80 miles to sea from San Diego can be quicker, under an hour away. It helps to know these things about your area of operation.

In the western Channel Islands' case, it's most often best to head post-haste for Santa Barbara rather than wait for the chopper. But the Coast Guard will determine the best course of action for your situation for you, given your onsite weather conditions and such, and then advise you accordingly. If you end up making the run to shore with the patient aboard, the Coast Guard will set up a communications schedule with you.

Between making those first communications and patient care, the initial task-load can be overwhelming. Quickly finding out what your resources are and delegating tasks is key to managing the situation. For sure, you should make sure everyone aboard is aware of the situation ASAP, so you find those with training and skills and they can step forward and assist.

How do rescue situations arise?

It has turned out, the situations requiring emergency medical attention aboard a sport boat most often seem to stem from anglers with pre-existing medical conditions. The angler's schedule gets fowled up by the change in daily routine — the early departure, unusual waking hours and such.

Perhaps the extra preparation distracts the angler from remembering to take medications on time — or the change distracts the angler from being able to adequately monitor how he or she is feeling throughout the day. Perhaps sea sickness comes into play and confounds the situation.

In the end, our patient recovered during transit, understood what had happened and declined further emergency assistance. By the time we were docked, he was game to carry his own catch and gear, but was given assistance anyway.

It was the best outcome one could hope for, thanks to all who helped — especially Stardust crewman Christian Geisler, who assisted and monitored our patient's recovery full-time, along with the Coast Guard and their emergency medical personnel.

* * *

Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California party boat captain, he also works as a marine research scientist with the Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at:

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