Survival at Sea: How Prepared Are You?

A jumping humpback whale in front of a sailing boat.

A shipwreck at sea can happen to anybody. In the United States, 658 people died as a result of boating accidents in 2021 and 2,641 people were injured. Many deaths were due to damage to the boat.

The sailboat Raindancer is a case in point. Just this past March, a crew of four friends aboard the 44-foot sailboat was making their way from the Galapagos Islands to French Polynesia, a 3,500-mile journey.

About 1:30 p.m. on March 13, during a pizza lunch, Alana Litz, one of the crew, saw a Bryde’s whale breach on the port side. The whale, about the same length as the sailboat, came crashing down on the craft, shredding the reinforced hull. 

Within seconds, the Raindancer crew realized that plugging the gaping holes in the hull was impossible. Their sailboat was quickly sinking. The four grabbed safety equipment, emergency gear, food and water and threw them into their lifeboat. They clambered aboard and cut the line connecting them to the sailboat just before it sank, only 15 minutes after the crash.

The four friends were at sea in the lifeboat.

Quick thinking and the right survival gear can make the difference

One crucial piece of equipment in the lifeboat was a portable marine VHF radio. Raindancer also had a subscription to the Starlink internet system, enabling them to broadcast their distress over the internet.

Their distress signal was picked up by officials in Peru, who alerted the U.S. Coast Guard, who then signaled the nearest vessel, a civilian ship called Rolling StonesRolling Stones picked up the shipwrecked survivors before dawn the next day, after 10 hours in the lifeboat.

Miraculously, all survived, uninjured and in good spirits.

Perhaps most concerning about this incredible tale is that this type of animal collision is not unusual. According to the International Whaling Commission, whales have collided with boats 1,200 times (accounting only for the reported ones) since 2007.

That said, shipwrecks happen for many reasons other than animal encounters. Boat collisions, onboard fires or explosions, faulty equipment and weather can be major contributors.

If this happens to you, are you prepared? 

Several organizations make safety at sea their focus. They offer guidance on equipment and courses to help boaters prepare for accidents. Among them are the U.S. Coast GuardBoatUSUnited States Power Squadrons, the National Safe Boating Council and the Water Sports Foundation. Based on these expert sources, here’s a summary checklist of essential survival gear and equipment that you should stow before your next high-seas adventure. (The list is long, but this infographic nicely summarizes the essentials.)

1. Flotation Devices

If you aren’t wearing a PFD, find one and put it on as soon as possible. Better yet, if in a dive boat, and you have time, don a wetsuit to protect against the cold air and water and any sharp debris floating in the water. If thrown from the boat before grabbing a life jacket, look in the water for floating debris or floating plastic containers.

2. Grab Bag of Survival Items

Call it whatever you like (ditch bag, abandon ship bag, panic bag), this bag is a collection of essentials in case of a shipwreck. It should be one of the first things you grab (hence its name). Here’s a partial list of what should be inside (or attached): a personal locator beacon, flares, gloves for holding them, a first aid kit, a headlamp and batteries, a signaling mirror, a whistle, sunscreen and lip balm, survival blankets, warm clothes, a sharp knife, a bailer and sponge, fishing line, tackle and a cutting board, cable ties, a ship line, toilet paper and hand sanitizer, a solar power bank, a handheld GPS or compass, a diver’s slate, water, food and a can opener, waterproof matches, and a portable marine radio (see details below). If a GPS isn’t an option, it’s vital to have a compass and a paper chart, as those will help you identify where you are.

3. Life Raft

Life rafts are mandatory on vessels over 13.7 meters but should be on the essential gear list for anyone on an open-sea adventure. The safest ocean-going life rafts meet SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) Convention standards. SOLAS rafts must have a boarding platform, safety gear and ample interior space. Life rafts should have ballast, sea anchors, a flotation-activating painter line, backup manual inflation, a well-ventilated canopy, storage containers and a double floor to insulate from cold water. Rafts should be serviced annually.

4. Marine Radio

A VHF Marine Radio allows instant communication between your boat and other boats, marinas, bridges and the United States Coast Guard. Although not required in recreational boats under 65.5 feet in length, the radio is an essential safety item. Radios are used to monitor the weather and to make distress calls. Channel 16 monitoring is required and is the primary distress call channel. For open sea adventures, both a fixed (attached to the boat) and handheld VHF radio (one that can be taken with you on a life raft) are essential gear. Use Channel 16 to broadcast a Mayday call immediately upon distress.

While this list of items may seem daunting, the United States Search and Rescue Task Force does a nice job of summarizing the essentials: “Appropriate clothing (most important in cold water), flotation device, water (or reverse osmosis pump), first aid kit, signaling and communication device, and food (and/or fishing/hunting equipment), a knife, seasick pills and sunscreen. A sea anchor might also be useful during storms (and to catch plankton).”

Don’t forget scenario planning

A well-trained mariner knows that when their craft is disabled and sunk, hypothermia and drowning are not the only threats. Others include:

  • Fire and explosion. Whether because of a collision or the malfunction of an onboard engine, stove or heater, fire can sink a craft. In the wreckage area, there could be fuel spills that catch fire and are a threat to anyone overboard. Underwater explosions cause concussions and drowning.
  • Sharks. Most sharks are harmless. Those known to attack humans are the bull, tiger and great white sharks. The biggest risk of a shark attack is due to the noise and commotion of the explosion or crash causing the shipwreck. Afterward, the risk is minimal.
  • Wind and currents. The chance of steering your life raft toward a land destination is usually quite low. Wind and currents dominate. Unless you are in sight of a large land mass, it may be best to wait to be found.
  • Sun and salt. Sun exposure causes dehydration, so creating a sunshade is essential. Long exposure to direct sunlight also can cause partial or permanent blindness. Salt exposure irritates and can burn the skin. Rinse with rainwater whenever possible.

Survival training and survival equipment in good working condition are essential to surviving a disaster at sea. At the start of each boating season or before a major voyage, crews should review, replace and update survival gear appropriate to the size of the craft and crew and rehearse what to do for worst case scenarios.

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