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An unknown illness strikes the crew of a 50m MY.

The following is the story from a Captain of a 50m MY who would like to spread the dangers of Scombroid:

"It was a sunny Thursday lunch time and we were set to depart the shipyard in Malta and head back around to the Marina. 

Not in any particular rush we made the logical choice to have a quick lunch before heading over.

The time was 1200 and the chef had laid on a lovely spread, perfect for a hot summers day; seared tuna, risotto, salad and nibbles. 

Lunch was devoured, the chef and a stewardess headed to the supermarket and pre departure checks were well underway when I get one of those radio calls when you know something has happened but it doesn’t fall into the emergency category. 

Its 1240 now and I get to the Lazarette where the deck crew are prepping for departure and the Bosun is attending to the steering checks and there was the situation. 

Looking very much like she’s succumbed to sun stroke from being outside in the sun all morning on the hottest day we’d had so far, our Bosun is being attended to by a fellow crew member. Red faced, dizzy, headache and close to blacking out when she stood up from eye balling the steering gear, the general consensus was dehydration and some electrolytes, fluids a cold shower and lie down were subscribed.

A few minutes later I was testing ahead and astern when I suddenly had to sit down on the Bridge sofa feeling light headed followed by a throbbing headache. 

Suspecting something was up, I went down to see the Bosun to see how she was getting on. Whilst we were talking my head decided to take on the feeling that it was swelling and I was told that I had gone very red. 

Next thing I was calling all crew to come directly to the crew mess and asked for a hands up from anyone who feels ‘weird’. All hands went up and we started noticing how red everyone was and on closer inspection that most of the crew had a bright red rash from the head, down the arms and back and over the torso. At that point we were lucky because the Bosun had had these symptoms twice before and recognised the rash and correctly diagnosed it as Scombroid food poisoning (something myself and the rest of the crew had never heard of).

A phone call to the chef and stewardess immediately followed and it turned that they too were feeling what they thought was sun burn and dehydration from waiting out on the street for a taxi for too long. 

Scombroid food poisoning is a foodborne illness that results from eating spoiled (decayed) fish. Along with ciguatera, it is listed as a common type of seafood poisoning. The toxin believed to be responsible is histamine, formed as the flesh of the fish begins to decay. As histamine is also the natural agent involved in allergic reactions, scombroid food poisoning often gets misidentified as a food allergy.

What we understood from the Bosun’s previous experience was that an antihistamine could be used to neutralise the Scombroid (a Histamine) but as a subscriber to Medlink I called the hot line for a professional opinion, a much quicker option than calling the agent to find a local doctor available. 

Speaking to the doctor over the phone they insisted we all head straight to hospital as a precaution and whilst on the phone arranged for us to be seen immediately at a private hospital, 19 minutes away. A mini bus was ordered and an officer from one of the only other yachts in the shipyard (who happened to have an old friend working aboard) was summoned to babysit our yacht.

At 1420 I was having a cold shower which did nothing for my fever, had a throbbing headache and a bright red rash from my head to my ribs.

It was clearly the Tuna we’d eaten and the two crew out shopping happened to be at the same supermarket where the fish had been purchased from. At this point I need to clarify that there was nothing our Chef could have done differently in preparing the Tuna that had come vacuum packed and looked lovely when it had been served. 

The Chef, although distraught and wrongly blaming herself for the crew’s predicament, spoke with the supermarkets manager who it has to be said, took the news very seriously, removed the batch of fish from the shelves and called in Health & Safety who quickly tested the suspect Tuna. Later results that same day came back positive for Scombroid. 

The 8 of us in the minibus arrived at the hospital at 1500 and were ushered through to the emergency ward where we found the stewardess who’d been out shopping, on a drip getting a concoction of antihistamine and electrolytes. 

It was a busy time and the doctors at the hospital took the worst looking of us first. Another stewardess was put on a drip and the rest of us, who’s symptoms had subsided by now were given a week long course of 150mg Ranitidine, a Histamine.

Ranitidine works by reducing the amount of acid your stomach produces. It is commonly used to treat and prevent ulcers in the stomach and intestines. It also treats conditions in which the stomach produces too much acid, such as Zollinger-Ellison syndrome. Ranitidine also treats gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and other conditions in which acid backs up from the stomach into the Esophagus, causing heartburn.


By 1800 the same afternoon we were off the dock and sailing around the corner to the marina and apart from some stomach cramps and headaches, we had all made a full recovery.

If the first symptoms had not been felt for another 10 minutes we would have been off the dock and sailing around the busy port of Valletta in the middle of a summers day with a rather incapacitated crew. The swelling I felt on my head and the fever like symptoms I was feeling really knocked me and my colleagues for six. 

I feel that whilst we were very unlucky to contract this, we were also lucky to not be at sea when it happened. 

We were also lucky that one of the crew was aware of Scombroid as we were able to diagnose and treat very quickly without a long drawn out process of diagnosis and panic.

In writing this article I hope to make people aware of Scombroid food poisoning and how, if all of the crew contract it from the same meal, it can impact the running of the vessel (on a short term basis at least)."

Captain 50m MY

This article was brought to you by the PYA. For more information on Scombroid or the PYA please click here or to contact the PYA click here. "The PYA... protecting your interests in Yachting since 1991"

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1 Comments

Williams Nicholas

Williams Nicholas @

Thanks for the Heads Up.

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