In early April 2021, Lisa Callaghan was delivering her Sydney 38 ‘Mondo’ from Sydney to Port Stephens with three crew members when they experienced a medical emergency onboard.

Here Lisa recounts the events of that delivery and a few lessons learned from the incident:

Based on the forecast favourable conditions we decided to depart Sydney at 6pm on Saturday night. There were four of us onboard.

Shortly after we left a bit of breeze came in so we decided to put the headsail up to make the trip a bit faster, and because it’s more enjoyable than motoring the whole way.

After putting the sails up, around 8pm, we started our first watch. We had two people down and two up at all times.

It was during the 10 – 12pm watch when this incident happened. 

I had taken the first watch so, was down below at the time with my watch partner when one of the crew members who was steering seemed to become a bit disorientated and ended up doing an accidental 360. I could hear the conversation between the two crew members on deck; he apologised and they seemed to get back on track, so I stayed in my bunk.

Then it happened again. The crew member who was steering became very disorientated, fell down to his knees and then started to lose consciousness. The other crew member tried to rouse him, which he could for a few seconds, but he was in and out of consciousness and his speech was slurred. 

By that point everyone was up on deck, all wearing offshore gear with lifejackets and tethers, including the crew member who was now pretty much fully unconscious. 

We got him into a comfortable and safe position at the stern and tethered him to the yacht. I then nominated a crew member to sit with him and monitor his condition, and  put the other crew member on the helm so I could call for help.

Initially I called ambulance NSW to get advice about what to do with the patient, and then contacted the police and Marine Rescue NSW via radio to coordinate help to get the crew member medical assistance.

I was instructed to set off our EPIRB so they could accurately track our location and then head towards Lake Macquarie, which was our closest port.

After getting instructions I made a plan and communicated this to the crew onboard. 

As I am most familiar with the yacht, I decided that it would be best for me to take the sails down and secure these. We turned on the autopilot while this was happening so the crew member on the helm could assist with this, and then motored to Lake Macquarie.

It was about a two hour motor to meet Marine Rescue NSW who were waiting with paramedics. They came onboard and assessed the crew member before deciding he should be taken to the hospital for further treatment and monitoring.

He was still unconscious at that time, so was put on a stretcher and transferred to the Marine Rescue NSW boat and then to the hospital.

We continued our way to Port Stephens, but during that time were in consultation with the police about his condition, which seemed to be deteriorating.

After arriving in Port Stephens we were relieved to learn that the crew member had come around and was doing well. 

Apparently the cause of the episode was a bad reaction to a new brand of seasickness pills he had taken before departing on the delivery trip which had reacted badly with some of his other prescription medication.

The next afternoon, once the medication had gone through his system, he was back to normal and discharged from the hospital. 

Lessons learned:

Lisa has dissected a few of the lessons she learned from this event:

  1. We did have a number of difficulties with communication along the way because our radio had been switched to low power by my boat partner while they were doing some work on the rigging before the trip, so when I was using this a distance offshore the communication was not clear. Luckily there was another yacht close to us that acted as a go-between with Marine Rescue NSW so we could receive their instructions, however in the future I would make sure to check that the radio communication was correctly set-up before departing for a longer trip.
  1. After transferring the crew member, the police were looking for assistance to identify him so they could contact his next of kin and retrieve his medical history. He was a new crew member, and I realised I didn’t have enough details for the police to properly identify him. I did have his AIS number, some basic contact information and his club member details, however this was not enough to help the police with their enquiries (especially at 2am!). Even his personal EPIRB (which was on his body) was not of assistance. We really needed his full residential address and emergency contact details in order to help.
  1. When the incident happened, my first call was to the ambulance. However, I was advised that it’s better to make the first call to the police, at least in this situation (where his condition was stable). The police need to coordinate the search and rescue, so by speaking with them first you save a bit of time in getting help, and can then be put through to the ambulance to discuss interim medical treatment.