Cruising & Sailing Information

Survival At Sea: What You Need To Do, What You Need To Have

Two boys from South Carolina made headlines a few weeks ago. They had spent six days adrift at sea before being rescued ... off the coast of North Carolina.

The boys, one fifteen and one sixteen, had set out in a small boat with no paddles, no motor, no sail, no food and no water. The fact that they had survived for six days under these circumstances is almost a miracle.

The first lesson to be learned from their experience goes almost without saying: never, never, never set out to sea without paddles, a motor, or sails. No matter how close you think you will stay to shore, no matter how serene the ocean seems, no matter how calm the weather is, you just can't trust that conditions will not change.

Beyond the obvious, that you do need paddles or a sail, what else do you need to survive at sea and what you need to do you to maximize your chances of survival?

The US Army Survival Manual has some very good information on the topic of survival at sea. The first thing, in the words of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is "don't panic." Check the physical condition of everyone onboard. Give first aid as necessary. Take seasickness pills if available as vomiting from seasickness (or any other cause) increases the danger of dehydration.

Next, make an inventory of all equipment, food, water, thermos jugs, other containers, clothing, seat cushions, life preservers, and anything else that may be of value. If you have an emergency radio, turn it on. Have emergency signaling devices ready for instant use. If you have been forced into a raft, be sure to check for inflation, leaks and possible chafing. Make sure the buoyancy chambers are firm (well rounded but not drum tight). Check inflation regularly. Hot air expands so on hot days, release some air.

Throw out the sea anchor or improvise a sea anchor using a bucket, any other large open-mouthed container or a large roll of clothing. A sea anchor will keep you near the place where your boat became incapacitated or where you were forced into the raft, making it easier for rescuers to find you. The sea anchor will also help keep the boat or raft headed into the wind and waves.

If the weather turns stormy, try to rig a spray and windshield. If you are in a raft, see if there is a canopy. If so, keep it up at all times. Keep the raft as dry as possible and properly balanced. Everyone in the raft should stay seated with the heaviest person in the middle of the raft.

If you are in a cold climate, put on as much extra clothing as possible. Keep the clothes loose and comfortable. If you are in a raft, take care to not snag it with sharp objects. Try to keep the floor of the raft dry. If possible, cover it with canvas or cloth for insulation. Huddle with others to keep warm, moving enough to keep circulation going.

In a warm climate, be sure to rig a sunshade or canopy. Cover your skin as much as possible to protect it from the sun. Use sunscreen if available on all exposed skin. Your eyelids, the back of your ears, and the skin under your chin burn easily so do not forget these areas.

Determine exactly how much food and water you have. Work out a rationing plan to ensure you will have something to eat and water to drink for as many days as possible. Keep a tarpaulin or sail for catching rainwater. If the tarp or sail is encrusted with dried salt, wash it in seawater. There will not be enough salt left to harm you. At night, secure the sail or tarpaulin like a sunshade and turn the edges up to collect dew. When it rains, catch and drink as much water as possible. Do not drink salt water.

If you run out of food, see what you can do to catch fish. Most fish in the open sea are edible. You can make a hook from pins, needles, small nails, or any piece of metal. One way to make a wooden fishhook is to cut a piece of hardwood about two inches long, and one-half inch in diameter to make the shank. Cut a notch near one end of the wood in which to place the point. Place the point (a small nail, pin, piece of bone or similar item) in the notch. Hold the point in the notch and tie securely.

You can use shoelaces, string, thin ropes or thread from your clothes to fashion a line. Small fish will gather under the shadow of your craft. Catch them and use them as bait to catch larger fish. Make a dip net to scoop up crabs, fish and shrimp. At night, shine a flashlight on the water to attract fish.

Most important of all, prepare and take with you a survival kit. At the minimum, This kit should contain:

Water or the means to catch and store water.
Food packets and items such as fishhooks and line that can be used to catch fish
Wooden matches and waterproof matches
Pocket knife
Plastic spoon
Signaling mirror
First aid kit
Sun block
Sun hat
Sleeping bag

If you have these items, as well as a couple of paddles, your chances of survival at sea are excellent.

Article by Douglas Hanna. Douglas is a retired advertising and marketing executive and long-time Denver resident. He is the webmaster of, a free resource for information on a variety of subjects. Please visit his site to subscribe to his free newsletter, "Tips & Tricks to Save Money & Live Better."


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