In Part 1 of this series we discussed how to best be prepared for an emergency at sea. In Part 2 we will learn what to do, if you should be “Lost at Sea.”
There is unlikely not another survival situation that can be more savage, more brutal, or scarier, than the thought of being lost at sea. However, if you stay calm, keep your wits about you, you can return home in one piece!
If You are Lost At Sea
- Abandon ship only when absolutely necessary. Use a life raft if available.
- If you must swim, conserving energy is critically important. Grab anything that will help you float. Obviously, a life jacket is your best bet, but failing that, look for plastic containers used for food or fuel, or buoys or even a piece of wood. The key is to find ways to save your energy. Swimming furiously is a sure way to exhaust yourself and drown.
- If you are in a life raft or lifeboat, try to take along as much warm and protective clothing as you can handle — wool and polypropylene and anything that’s windproof or waterproof. You need to stay as dry as you can. Even in a raft, the combination of wind and wet clothes could cause hypothermia.
- Stay Hydrated – Since at sea, fresh water is such a valuable commodity, you don’t want to sweat any more than necessary, so limit both your physical exertion and exposure to the sun. If you can, make a sunshade with sails or a tarp. And if the weather is hot, keep your clothes on and get them wet. That will keep you cool and also protect you from getting badly sunburned.
You cannot drink Sea Water without doing irreparable harm to your body. If you have a supply of water, start rationing right away. You really won’t need to drink much water the first day, no matter how thirsty you feel. Then try to limit your intake to 12 to 16 ounces for a few days, eventually dropping it as low as two to five ounces a day. You can survive, but you’ll definitely become weaker.
Desalinization of Seawater — You can only drink seawater that has been desalinized – or has had the salt removed. Most life-rafts or at-sea survival kits include desalinization tablets. Many modern life rafts also come equipped with Solar Stills, which is a very simple device for removing, or distilling salts and other impurities from any water source, including seawater. If your raft is not equipped with one, you can make one very easily. All you need is a large and smaller container, such as a bowl and a cup, some plastic wrap or something similar, and tape or elastic bands.
- Put the smaller container into the larger.
- Fill with Seawater, about 2/3 up to the top of the smaller container.
- Stretch the plastic wrap over the bowl; secure making a tight seal with tape or elastic bands.
- Put a weight like a rock in the center of the plastic wrap cover, so that it dips down toward the cup in the bowl, but not so it enters the cup.
- Leave the apparatus in the sun. As the Saltwater evaporates due to the solar energy, it will condense on the inner surface of the plastic wrap, eventually dripping down into the cup as drinkable distilled water!
If you should be shipwrecked on a beach, you can make a much larger still, to purify greater amounts of seawater, by using a dug ditch, and a tarp.
Use your stores of survival food first if you have them. These should be rich in carbs for sustained energy. Try for fish if you can, but remember that fish are high in protein, which requires more of your body’s limited water to digest. Seaweed, if available, is a better option. Any bird you can catch is edible.
What About Sharks?
Hollywood would have you believe that your greatest danger when lost at sea is sharks. The truth is, of the many hundreds of shark species, only about 20 are known to attack humans, and if you are stranded in the water you will likely have other more immediate survival concerns than potential shark attack. Still, depending on where you are, sharks can present a problem, and there are things you can do when in the water to minimize the chance of an attack.
Protecting Yourself from Sharks
In the Water Without a Raft
- Stay with other swimmers. A group can maintain a 360-degree watch. A group can either frighten or fight off sharks better than one person.
- Always watch for sharks. Keep all your clothing on, including your shoes. Historically, sharks have attacked the unclothed people in groups first, mainly in the feet. Clothing also protects against abrasions should the shark brush against you.
- Avoid urinating. If you must, only do so in small amounts. Let it dissipate between discharges. If you must defecate, do so in small amounts and throw it as far away from you as possible. Do the same if you must vomit.
- If a shark attack is imminent while you are in the water, splash and yell just enough to keep the shark at bay. Sometimes yelling underwater or slapping the water repeatedly will scare the shark away. Conserve your strength for fighting in case the shark attacks.
- If attacked, kick and strike the shark. Hit the shark on the gills or eyes if possible. If you hit the shark on the nose, you may injure your hand if it glances off and hits its teeth.
When you are in a raft and see sharks:
- Do not fish. If you have hooked a fish, let it go. Do not clean fish in the water.
- Do not throw garbage overboard.
- Do not let your arms, legs or equipment hang in the water.
- Keep quiet and do not move around.
- Bury all dead as soon as possible; weight the body down as much as you can so it sinks far away from the raft and quickly. If there are many sharks in the area, conduct the burial at night.
- When you are in a raft and a shark attack is imminent, hit the shark with anything you have, except your hands. You will do more damage to your hands than the shark. If you strike with an oar, be careful not to lose or break it.
Getting to Shore
If you have been at sea in a raft for an extended period of time without rescue, land in sight and accessible may seem like your salivation. But landing on, or swimming to shore with a small craft may not be as easy as it seems. In fact, it may be impossible. If you have to swim for it, here’s how the Navy SEALs do it.
- Grab your Go Bag, or anything else you think you will need to survive on shore. Use the sidestroke or breaststroke to conserve strength.
- If the surf is moderate, ride in on the back of a small wave by swimming forward with it. Dive to a shallow depth to end the ride just before the wave breaks.
- In high surf, swim toward shore in the trough between waves. When the seaward wave approaches, face it and submerge. After it passes, work toward shore in the next trough.
- If you must land on a rocky shore, look for a place where the waves rush up onto the rocks. Avoid places where the waves explode with a high, white spray. After selecting your landing point, advance behind a large wave into the breakers. Face toward shore and take a sitting position with your feet in front, 2 or 3 feet lower than your head. This position will let your feet absorb the shock when you land or strike submerged boulders or reefs.
Tips and Takeaways on Sea Survival
- Even if you are an expert swimmer, and you are only a few miles from shore, WEAR A LIFE VEST ANY TIME YOU ARE ON BOARD A VESSEL, or know where you can grab one very quickly.
- You should only abandon ship if you know your boat is sinking and cannot be recovered. A life raft should only be considered a last resort. You should stay on the boat for as long as possible as it is a bigger target for Search and Rescue crafts to find you.
- If you were able to send out a distress signal or if you are near shipping lanes, try to stay put. Only paddle for shore if you are sure it is in reach, and you have some idea of where you’re going.
- If you are lost at sea for an extended period of time, capturing rainwater can be critical to your survival. Take a tarp or sail and shape it into a bowl to catch the rain. Even a garbage bag could work. Make sure you have some sort of water catcher set up at all times; you’d hate to lose a chance to collect water during a storm in the middle of the night.
- You can tell if you are approaching land by cumulus clouds which usually form over land, and wind generally blows toward land during the day and out to sea at night.
- Look for birds flying overhead. That is a good sign that land is near, and birds tend to fly towards land, especially at night when they would be returning to roost after feeding.
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