Where does it hurt? Miles from anywhere!


What’s the first thing a trained remote first aider does when confronted with a serious situation?

Take a deep breath.

So that’s what we did. After some practice.

August saw a series of unfortunate events around the Nielsen Park Surf Club. In the space of two days there were explosions around a campfire, people cast violently up against rocks with severe injuries, any number of burns, sprains and punctures, snakebites and half a dozen casualties simultaneously with everything from broken bones and sucking chest wounds to chronic vagueness. Thankfully, with the assembled skills of the NSW SKC members, directed by Bruce McNaughton, every casualty made a near miraculous recovery and walked away from the carnage with no lasting effect. Except maybe the vagueness.

On a blustery August weekend a dozen of us gathered for two days in Chris James’ wonderful café overlooking the beach for Bruce’s Remote Area First Aid course. By turns swept by strong winds, blasted by the sun and lashed by sheeting rain, we had as many changes of weather as bandages.

The week before, Bruce had taken a group of us through the Senior First Aid certification refresher: profoundly valuable but presumes being less than half an hour away from an ambulance. Essentially, modern first aid aims to stabilise the injury until the Penthrane can get there.

In the nature of our chosen passion though, medical help is often far further away and just raising the alarm can take hours or days. The combination of a wilderness sport with potential for all kinds of complex injury means a sea kayaking expedition needs to be self-reliant if anything goes wrong. Each of us that weekend aimed to learn enough to be useful in a remote incident, and maybe even save a life. Thanks to Bruce, we learned a lot more than we expected and became much more confident in our ability to handle what may come.

And so we hunkered down, going through everything from managing breaks and abrasions, spinal injuries and hypothermia to diabetes, heart attacks, burns and venomous wildlife. There are things you can do with a triangular bandage which are undreamed of in normal company. Perhaps fortunately, emergency childbirth seems to have slipped from the syllabus.

Bruce is a highly effective teacher and his years delivering first aid courses shone through with his superbly paced and practical tuition, tailored to a sea kayaking context. The group was enthusiastic and worked well as a team on the complicated situations.

We improvised with paddles, Thermarests, jackets, paddle floats and sleeping bags. It is amazing how you can make a robust stretcher with a couple of paddles and a pair of jackets, or some paddles, rope and a ground sheet.

The theory was punctuated by practical exercises, which included liberal use of Bruce’s kit of gory prosthetics and fake blood, much to the consternation of several passers-by. These were challenging and we often forgot that first injunction: take a breath, calm down.

The weekend finished with the certification exam, which included both practical and theoretical questions. One particular notable question reminded us why we should always remember (as one does) to carry thirty or forty flares to mark out a runway for aircraft. On reflection possibly that wasn’t so practical.

Here’s what Bruce had to say about the weekend:

“In August, 12 club members attended a First Aid Course for personal improvement and to increase their skill level and hopefully – never to help anybody.

It was good to see from the Trainer’s point a group that had on their mind to learn. They threw themselves into all aspects of the course and I think we covered every possible situation that may arrive.

It gave them confidence in themselves and confidence in their fellow paddlers if anything may eventuate.  Team work was a big thing although some may be solo paddlers and it made them aware what was achievable with limited help, support and equipment”.

Fellow participant Chris Walker added:

“For years I’ve been paddling, trekking and venturing out in the wilds of Sydney streets thinking my first aid knowledge was up to scratch – until I attended the First Aid Course run by Bruce.

Little did I realise that, in the twenty years since I was a surf life saver and highly skilled in first aid, most of the knowledge I’d accumulated was either wrong or, worse, now considered dangerous practice.

It made me realise how much I’d been depending on “the other bloke” to have all the gear, knowledge and common sense in first aid. I’d even hired Sherpa guides in Nepal hoping they could take this load off my shoulders. Now at least, if somebody’s heart stops beating, or they get a scald on the hand from too hot a cup of tea or even a fracture, I do really know what is best practice”.

And Graeme Auld had a more direct experience:

“I booked for this course because I knew Bruce and I thought it might come in handy some day.

Like most people I didn’t expect anything to go wrong amongst the people I know. Then about a month before the start of the course, there were two falls at home (one fatal), a collapse due to a brain abscess, and a heart attack, all happening to close friends of our family in the space of a week. I realised then that the course possibly has more relevance to everyday life than it does to our sport and things can go wrong for anyone. I recommend everyone does the training”.

Overall it was a terrific weekend: great company, brilliant setting, Bruce was an excellent (and patient) trainer and the course material was spot on, except for the bit with the forty flares.  We all hope we never have to use what we learned, but I’m sure I speak for the other course members in saying I feel now that I have the skill to deal with a range of challenging situations with confidence. This is not just a vital skill for the wilderness but for life.  A couple of weeks later my daughter broke her arm and I was very glad I’d done the course!