Lost At Sea

The sequence of events that led to the situation you face isn’t going to change anything at this point. The only thing that matters is that you are now stranded in the open ocean and fighting for your life.


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With no life jacket, conserve energy in calm weather by floating on your back with your face above the waterline. Photo: iStock

For all of us who spend time on the water, even the thought of being lost at sea is terrifying, however don’t panic, YOU CAN SURVIVE! By taking the necessary precautions now and prioritizing your actions during an emergency, you can stay alive until rescue arrives, may it be for a few hours, a few days or even a few weeks. Of course, your fate depends on a number of factors, including what resources you have available, if you’re stranded on a disabled boat or floating in an inflatable life raft, or if you some-how ended up in open water without the aid of a lifejacket—the worst possible scenario. Fortunately, greatly increasing the likelihood of safely returning to civilization only requires a minimal investment in safety equipment and commonsense.

The ocean is a featureless expanse and spotting only a bobbing head in choppy conditions is like finding a needle in a haystack the size of Montana.

If your vessel capsizes or catches fire, your only option may be to take evasive action. Yet, statistics prove that rarely do such occurrences unfold in an instant. It’s typically a series of events that lead to maritime disasters. While ironic, this is actually good news. It means when facing rapidly deteriorating sea conditions, the uncontrollable influx of sea water or at the first sign of smoke, you’ll have plenty of time to put on a lifejacket, hail the Coast Guard on VHF ch. 16 and prepare for the inevitable by deploying your life raft and grabbing your ditch bag. These initial actions are unequivocally the most important steps you can take toward surviving at sea and being rescued as quickly as possible. Without the proper safety equipment, you’re on your own and have no one to blame other than yourself.

Never abandon ship but if you’re left with no choice, you better be wearing a lifejacket! Even an athlete in top physical condition can only tread water for hours; with a personal flotation device and the confidence that rescue is on the way, anyone can float for days.

While the cumbersome orange foam lifejackets will keep you afloat, there are far less obtrusive products on the market that you should consider wearing all of the time, including self-inflating life vests that offer unobstructed mobility and greater buoyancy, such as the fashionable Mustang Elite. In any case, without exception there must be an easily accessible lifejacket on board for every single passenger, including youth sizes for children. And if Rover is spending the day on the boat with you, make sure the dog has one, too.

Keeping your head above water is one thing, being rescued is another altogether. This is why every boat should be equipped with an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) like ACR’s GlobalFix. For around $700, this waterproof and fireproof device includes a tether and can be manually or hydrostatically activated to transmit an emergency distress signal directly to a network of satellites with your postion and vessel description. The transmission is routed to the nearest Coast Guard assets who immediately initiate search and rescue operations. Help is on the way. It’s literally that easy.

Safety conscious boaters who regularly head over the horizon should also file a detailed float plan with their intended route and should carry an inflatable life raft. Nowadays there is a selection of compact and affordable 6-man life rafts available in self-deploying canisters and portable valises that are no larger than a typical tackle bag and cost no more than an expensive rod and reel outfit. The VIKING RescYou Coastal is a perfect example and has saved the lives of recreational fishermen and boaters all over the world. Don’t make excuses and find yourself in dire straights wishing you had made this wise purchase.

What you do with the equipment is also important. A life raft or any piece of safety equipment is worthless if you can’t get to it. For this reason, make sure to stow all safety gear where it’s easily accessible without having to re-enter the cabin or engine room of a distressed vessel.

The truth is the vast majority of boaters don’t own an inflatable life raft. If you fall into this category and must abandon ship, you should cling to a cooler, seat cushions or anything else that floats and remain as close to the stricken vessel as possible without putting yourself in greater danger. The larger the target, the easier it will be for rescuers to identify. The ocean is a featureless expanse and spotting only a bobbing head in choppy conditions is like finding a needle in a haystack the size of Montana.

Along with floatation, an adequately equipped ditch bag is an absolute game changer that will allow you to not only survive, but to thrive. The list of essentials in a ditch bag varies from coast to coast given water temperature and other variables, but don’t fool yourself into believing that you should go light, or skip a ditch bag altogether because you boat in a heavily populated region. Additionally, do not disregard a ditch bag if you’re an inshore fisherman who spends his time within sight of land. During an emergency, having access to essential life saving equipment and signaling devices in 10 feet of water is just as important as it is in 1,000 feet of water. Plus, during adverse weather conditions when many boating tragedies occur, most other recreational vessels are off the water and Coast Guard resources may already be in use, resulting in delayed search and rescue efforts.

I store my ditch bag, which offers additional buoyancy and an integrated tether system, in an unlocked deck locker where it’s easy to access in all conditions. I also carry it with me when fishing on anyone else’s boat. Of all its contents, the ACR Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is the most vital piece of equipment. Like an EPIRB, a PLB transmits a distress signal to the same network of satellites. However unlike an EPIRB, a PLB is associated with the individual user and relays position along with personal identification, not the description of the vessel. Personal Locator Beacons are regularly carried on and off the water and operate worldwide, and must be registered with NOAA at

With either device—EPIRB or PLB—the antenna must have a clear view of the sky and GPS coordinates are narrowed down to an approximate 100-yard radius. This is where and when dye-markers, signal mirrors and smoke flares are essential for pin-pointing your precise location. Waterproof strobe, flare gun and chemical glow sticks aid in rescue under the cover of darkness. Remember, the key to survival at sea is being located and rescued as quickly as possible. Without signaling devices, rescue efforts often turn into recovery operations.

Regardless of circumstance, if you find yourself adrift in the open ocean it’s vital you remain calm. You’re stranded and survival relies on keeping your head screwed on straight. Panicking only leads to irrational decisions so evaluate the situation and begin prioritizing.

First, the human body cannot survive without drinking water for longer than three to five days so you have to find a way to stay hydrated. In a life raft, you can collect rainwater by setting out as much material as possible and funneling it into containers.

Carrying a handheld desalinator in your ditch bag is certainly a great addition, and remember fish not only provide a source of protein but they also contain liquid in their eyes and spine. Turtle blood will also keep you alive.

Survival instructors (including the U.S. Army Field Manual) advise against drinking urine as a means of hydrating the body. The salts worsen dehydration. Saltwater too, is absolutely off limits!

In addition to food supplies in your ditch bag, fish are a primary food source out in the open sea, hence the need for a fishing kit. As a backup, you can fashion lines from rope or string, including shoelaces and thread from your clothes. With the use of a knife, aluminum cans may be used to create shiny lures and small hooks.

Sargassum weed is also an excellent resource. Sift through the flotsam to find edible fish and crustaceans. Birds and turtles are edible, too.

Stranded in the open ocean with powerful currents, there aren’t many options regarding the direction you go. While you focus on staying hydrated and nourished it’s best to simply go with the flow. Only when you see land and it is within reach should you exert the energy to swim or paddle toward shore. Instead, focus on making sure everyone is safe while addressing potential injuries. Thanks to your EPIRB and/or PLB, rescue is on the way!

The bottom line for surviving at sea boils down to a few vital factors. With the appropriate safety equipment and the will to live, you can survive until rescue arrives. That’s a fact! Head out to sea without proper floatation or a properly equipped ditch bag with Personal Locater Beacon and an assortment of signaling devices, and you’re rolling the dice every time you leave the dock. That too, is a fact!


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