Surviving an Ocean Emergency, Part 3: You’ve Abandoned Ship. Now What?

There are a number of decisions to be made and procedures to follow before, during, and after an ocean emergency. During each phase, a calm presence and preparedness are key factors. How does one stay calm while faced with a potentially life-threatening situation? According to, “Being a good captain involves a certain amount of acting. In emergency situations, the crew of a vessel looks to their leader in an almost unconscious way to determine their own level of anxiety. If the captain projects a calm and confident attitude, the crew will be reassured and since an anxious crew means poor judgment and performance, a captain should do all he or she can to keep the crew calm.” In short, maintaining a calm demeanor may bolster a crew’s ability to make decisions that may result in more lives saved.


Once the decision is made to abandon ship, outlines 15 steps that should take place. Of course, all of this is detailed with the acknowledgement that every emergency provides its own set of unique circumstances and challenges. But this list is a good place to start for both the captain and the crew to consider as an abandon ship process unfolds. encourages crew to:

  • Put on all available waterproof clothing, including gloves, headgear, and life jackets
  • Collect survival kit
  • Note present position
  • Send out mayday message
  • Launch life raft attached to ship
  • Launch dinghy attached to life raft
  • Try to enter life raft directly from the boat (if impossible, use minimal swimming effort to get on board)
  • Don’t forget the EPIRB (emergency position indicator radio beacon)
  • Get a safe distance from the sinking vessel
  • Collect all available flotsam as the most unlikely articles can be adapted for use under survival conditions
  • Keep warm and dry (especially your feet) by huddling bodies together
  • Stream a sea anchor
  • Arrange lookout watches
  • Use flares only on skipper’s orders when there is a real chance of them being seen
  • Arrange for collecting rainwater and ration water to maximum one-half quart per person per day, issued in small increments


Doug Ritter, publisher and editor of Equipped to Survive, recommends a captain stock an Abandon Ship Bag (also called a “ditch bag,” “ditch kit,” “grab bag,” or “flee bag”). Though not cheap and certainly dependent upon the where and what of a boat cruise, the function of this bag is to increase the potential for survival in the open water while improving opportunities for rescue. First and foremost, prior to a trip, Ritter emphasizes that everything should be checked and tested to ensure it works – and that you know how everything works. Another great piece of advice is to fit each bag component with a wrist or tether lanyard to ensure you don’t lose critical safety equipment when you need it most. Ritter discusses the “logistics” of the abandon ship bag, including where it should be stored on the boat, if equipment needs to be split up, the most logical way to divide it up, and how to ensure it is waterproof and floats. “Too often there will be little time to prepare and for an abandonment that will have to be performed post-haste, with no time to spare as water pours in or a fire spreads,” Ritter writes. For more information about the Abandon Ship Bag and Equipped to Survive, visit here.


But what good is all of the forethought if no one knows your vessel is in distress and is prepared to come to your aid? Chief Warrant Officer Jim Krzenski, commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Station Fort Pierce, writes, “When trouble strikes, there are many ways to communicate your distress and seek help. Use your VHF or single-sideband radio and follow the procedures for distress.” While there are three levels of priority communications (distress, urgent, and safety), Krzenski emphasizes that “panicked radio communications can confuse a rescue effort. Learn the proper procedures. Try to stay calm.”

Krzenski continues, “There are a number of distress signals that can be used to attract attention including firing a gun at intervals of one minute (extreme care must be used when firing weapons), a continuous sounding of a fog signaling apparatus, red flares, SOS Morse code, the word ‘Mayday’ spoken over the radio telephone, the international call letters N.C. (November, Charlie), a visual signal consisting of a square flag having above or below it a ball or anything resembling a ball, flames on a vessel, orange smoke, slowly and repeatedly raising and lowering arms outstretched to each side, emergency positioning indicating radio beacon (EPIRB),” and more.

For more information about distress signals, visit here.

Be Prepared

It works for the Boy Scouts and it works during ocean emergencies. Prepare yourself, your crew, and your passengers in the event of a significant problem. Preparedness and demeanor can save lives.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: