An Rx From the Saildoc

To most Vineyard residents and many visitors, internist Michael Jacobs is the doctor who’s run the walk-in clinic on State Road in Tisbury since 1987. Yet many Islanders don’t know that Jacobs is also an experienced sailor who maintains a second practice – he’s a doctor who looks after patients at sea, even though he’s never on board to treat them when misfortune strikes.

Picture this: the boom of a sailboat  swings suddenly from port to starboard, striking the helmsman in the head. He’s bleeding heavily; the vessel is rocking sharply. Another crewman with no medical training can reach for a medical kit and, following Jacobs’s written instructions, make a quick assessment and save his fellow sailor’s life.

“Most people don’t deal with these problems often,” says Jacobs. “Unless you’re doing it on a daily basis, it doesn’t stick with you. The kits are designed to make people more self-reliant at sea. You don’t have to read and train.”

Through his work with retailer West Marine, as well as Dr. Eric Weiss of Adventure Medical Kits (which are designed for use during other outdoor adventures such as white-water rafting and mountain climbing), Jacobs has created a range of medical kits specifically for use in emergencies at sea, plus a guide book on how to use them. His EZ Care system organizes medical materials in separate containers, using color-coding as well as his own instructions (both of which are trademarked), to help sailors handle a range of emergencies in different conditions aboard any type of private or commercial vessel, whether it’s embarking on a weekend coastal jaunt or an ocean crossing.

The components and costs of the kits vary depending on the crew size, length of voyage, and distance from professional medical assistance. West Marine sells the kits in its stores, through the West Marine Catalog, and on-line at A third edition of a book by Jacobs and Weiss was published this spring: A Comprehensive Guide to Wilderness, Marine and Travel Medicine (Adventure Medical Kits, 250 pages, $15).

The value of a marine medical kit comes with what’s in it and how it’s organized, Jacobs says. “It must be waterproof and it must be packaged so people can identify things according to injury or problem, such as burns, fractures, trauma. It must be compact. You can’t stock a pharmacy; you must choose drugs according to what you’d most likely need for a range of problems.” Equipment must serve at least two purposes to justify the space it takes up. “For example,” says Jacobs, “the Foley catheter can be used for a urinary blockage but also to stanch a nosebleed.”

Jacobs learned to sail at a Boy Scout camp in New York when he was ten, and cruised to Martha’s Vineyard in 1972 aboard an Allied 33 fiberglass sloop. Between appointments at hospitals in Annapolis, Boston, and on the Vineyard, he kept sailing. Yet it was his co-ownership of the multihull Moxie that ratcheted up his seagoing activities a significant notch.

This famous trimaran was one of many multihulls to come from the drawing board of former Vineyard resident and world-renowned yacht designer Dick Newick. Aboard Moxie in 1980, the late Phil Weld was the first American to win the OSTAR, the first trans-Atlantic race for solo sailors. Her versatility and performance set Moxie apart. “She was a very advanced design for a multihull,” Jacobs says. “She was big, and there were few tri’s as big as her then. She looked like a big tennis court. We’d head out of Vineyard Haven harbor in her; a southwest wind would round up around West Chop. Sailors are used to making between five and seven knots, and she’d go twenty. She defied normal expectations. You felt like you were sailing between sea and sky. She was a radical design in her speed and efficiency. The sailing rig made her a challenge.”

In 1987, Jacobs and co-owner Jonathan Churchill of West Tisbury raced Moxie from Newport to Bermuda and back in the Sebago Multihull Challenge, placing first and setting a new speed record. With that, Jacobs stopped racing, but continued sailing, and earned several levels of captains’ licenses from the US Coast Guard.

As his children grew up, Jacobs took them white-water rafting and kayaking. “We’ve trekked Nepal and canoed in the Adirondacks,” he says. He started thinking about how he’d deal with medical emergencies without the resources of  his clinic or the hospital, so he joined the Wilderness Medical Society ( That affiliation resulted in his authorship of the “Survival at Sea” chapter in the textbook Wilderness Medicine, edited by Dr. Paul Auerbach.

Jacobs also speaks on the lecture circuit about topics such as seasickness, amputation, man-overboard recovery, and telemedicine, in which crew members can communicate with medical professionals in real time to handle emergencies. Jacobs is also the program director for Medsail, which, in cruises around the Caribbean (and soon, the Mediterranean), teaches medical professionals and lay sailors to be self-reliant at sea. For details about Medsail flotilla cruises, contact Jacobs ( “My e-mail address really says it all,” he says. “Who I am, what I do, where I live.”