Your boat’s engine is damaged and inoperable. There is no land in sight, nor any visible signs of a rescue ship heading your way. What do you do? This is a scenario seafaring people don’t want to think about, let alone face head-on at some point in their lives. What may seem like a no-win situation can actually be overcome with carefully thought-out preparation, a reinforced “what-if” plan and, above all, a calm and relaxed mindset in the face of an uncertain outcome.
Back in December 2014, fisherman Ron Ingram survived 12 days adrift by eating fish and fashioning an antenna from a coat hanger to signal the Coast Guard, who rescued him after nearly two weeks lost at sea near Hawaii.
Without question, detailed pre-planning for an unexpected emergency can greatly increase your chances of survival if adrift on a seemingly endless ocean. Your selection of supplies falls into three main categories: signaling and communication, food and water collection, and personal comfort and protection.
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What To Bring
If possible, never go out on the water alone. Two minds complete with two sets of survival skills are better than one. Companionship can also help with mental and emotional distress that can arise from being stranded alone; feelings of hopelessness are detrimental to a survival mindset. If you must travel alone, make sure you file your “float plan.” Notify someone on dry land (a friend or relative) of your headings as well as your ETAs, description of vessel and crew members so they can alert rescue personnel if you don’t arrive.
Whether alone or with a companion or two, you need to take ample supplies. In nautical circles, your supply cache is your “ditch bag,” as in having to abandon a sinking vessel by getting into a life raft. The ditch bag is what you would take with you if you need to jump ship, but it can also contain those things you need to survive if stranded. Regardless of the situation, this kit would need to be customized to the geographic location of where you are planning to set sail.
A high-quality two-way radio, complete with extra fresh batteries, and an EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon) are “must-haves” during your pre-trip planning. Add to your kit a quality compass, flares, a flare gun, smoke canisters and a signal mirror to help in communicating your position to rescuers near and far.
Your top priority is securing fresh water; your body may only survive for a few days without it. Pack a tarp, a collapsible bucket or a plastic sheet to collect precious rainwater if in areas of high precipitation. Conversely, if rain is sparse or nonexistent, be prepared by storing on your vessel a solar still or desalination pump—both of which can extract fresh water from undrinkable saltwater. Purification tablets and a portable water filter will also be essential for securing clean water in an emergency.
Although food is not a top necessity within the first few days of being adrift, you can prepare your emergency kit with essentials to provide you means of collecting edibles from the ocean. A compact fishing kit, a long-handled net and a spear gun will make fishing your easiest choice for food when needed. In addition, a boat paddle can be used to kill birds landing on or around your craft, and you can also use it to skim the ocean’s surface for seaweed and kelp, both of which can provide a tasty and nutritious snack.
Sun and heat are a deadly combination, and these can be especially intense when adrift on a reflective water surface. Sun block, lip balm and a wide-brimmed hat can aid in preventing sun damage to your skin. It’s also important to pack a portable first-aid kit complete with all of the essentials in case of injury.
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Keep Your Wits
These are all “best case” scenarios. However, if your luck goes from bad to worse and your supplies fall overboard or become damaged, you must rely on your wits to use any remaining items to their maximum potential. Conserve energy, eat minimally, protect yourself from nature’s fury and ration any fresh water you may be able to locate.
Always remember: The best item to bring on any voyage is an unrelentingly positive mindset that keeps pushing you to continue and refuses to allow you to give up even in the most wretched of conditions. It’s this “survival tool” that no supply bag should be without.
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This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™ Fall 2015 edition. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.