Survival at Sea

Conditions of survival at sea are perhaps worse than those of any other environment and make the sternest demands. Planes and boats carry survival equipment, but even getting into a life-raft in a heavy sea can be difficult.

Once any emergency supplies of food and water run out, sources are not reliable – so any possibilities of obtaining food from the sea and collecting drinkable water must be exploited to conserve supplies as long as possible.

Not all fish are edible and some are even dangerous to handle. Shark dangers are often exaggerated, but should not be ignored. Appropriate action is needed to avoid or deter them. A difficult coast can make even a final landfall hazardous, so heed the advice on lessening the risks.

Four-fifths of the earth’s surface is open water – probably the most frightening of all environments, and most difficult in which to survive. In cold water the human body soon becomes chilled and even in a boat wind can chill the body rapidly. Alone in cold water your chances are not good without equipment.

If you know your location and the main ocean currents you may be able to predict where they will carry you, though it will be very slowly. Warm currents, such as the Gulf Stream, across the North Atlantic are rich in fish and sea creatures. Coastal waters are also often rich in sea foods – but there are dangerous species, such as sharks and poisonous species, mainly living in shallower water near lagoons and reefs in warmer climates. Fresh water is a bigger problem if you have no means of distilling sea water.

Lifeboat drill

Lifeboat drill is carried out on every ship soon after it sails and should become a well-rehearsed procedure. Passengers are instructed in how to fit lifejackets, how to proceed to their lifeboat stations and what to take with them. Sailors in small boats should also devise such a drill and instruct everyone on board. Safety equipment could include rigid boats, simple rafts, inflatable dinghies, lifebelts or lifejackets.

If the signal is given to abandon ship put on warm, preferably woollen clothing including hat and gloves and wrap a towel around your neck. Clothes will not drag you under if you end up in the water and they will help you ward off the worst enemy – exposure! Take a torch if you can and grab chocolates and boiled sweets if they are handy. Do NOT push or shout or you may start a panic. An orderly embarkation into lifeboats and on to rafts or dinghies will be faster in the long run and establish a calmer attitude.

Don’t inflate your lifejacket until you leave the ship or plane. On small boats lifejackets should be worn all the time. They are brightly coloured and are usually equipped with a whistle, light, marker dye and when for use in warmer waters, a shark repellent. If you have to jump overboard, first throw something that floats and jump close to it.

Abandoning ship

Abandoning a ship or ditching from a plane, it is essential that you take what equipment you can with you. A lifejacket or belt will save a lot of energy that you might otherwise expend in trying to keep afloat. But even without one it is not difficult to float in the ocean. The human body is of lower density than salt water and anyone who has learned to relax in the water is not in immediate danger of drowning. However, panic or fear make relaxation difficult and many find floating difficult under these conditions. Without a lifejacket or lifebelt, air trapped in clothing will help buoyancy – a good reason for keeping your clothes on despite the frequent advice that you should strip them off.


Man overboard

If you have been swept overboard, your first aim, apart from keeping afloat, will be to attract attention. Sound travels well over water, shouting and splashing can be effective. Wave with one arm above the water (NOT both, or you will go under). Movement will make you more noticeable. If you are wearing a lifejacket, and on a small boat you always should wear one, it will probably be equipped with a whistle and a light, as regular-issue ‘Mae West’ usually are.



Swim slowly and steadily. If you are abandoning a sinking boat or aircraft get upwind and stay clear of it. Keep away from any oil or fuel slick. If there is a fire and you have to enter the water, or swim through flames, jump into the water feet first and up wind, swimming into the wind using a breast stroke, try to make breathing holes by splashing the flames away from the head. If the fire is not too extensive it is best to swim underwater until clear of that danger.

If there is a danger of an underwater explosion while you are in the water, the risk of injury will be reduced if you swim on your back.

If within sight of land don’t battle against the ebb, relax and float until it turns and helps to carry you to land. If the sea is too rough to float on your back adopt the technique shown below:



  1.  Floating upright in the water and take a deep breath.
  2.  Lower your face into the water (keeping your mouth closed) and bring your arms forward to rest at the surface water level.
  3.  Relax in this position until you need to take in more air.
  4.  Raise your head above the surface, treading water and exhale.
  5.  Take another breath and return to the relaxed upright floating position.





Flotation ‘bags’

You can improvise a short-term floatation bag from a pair of trousers. Knot the bottom of the legs and sweep them over the head so that they fill with air. Then hold the waist of the trousers below the water to trap the air inside, making the legs into water wings to lean on.



Immediate action

Once you are clear of the wreck and have got your bearings inflate your dinghy or look out for a lifeboat or raft or wreckage which can offer support. If there is no boat or dinghy, grab as much flotsam as possible to use as a raft. Tie it together with anything that is available, such as ties, belts, shoe laces, spare clothing. Salvage any floating equipment.


Inflating a dinghy

Aircraft and many boats and ships carry dinghy-type life boats. Many are self-inflating and activated by salt water immersion. If they do not inflate automatically, there is a pump provided. There are several inflation points because the dinghy is built in sections, so that if one compartment is punctured the others will still keep the dinghy afloat.


Boarding an inflatable dinghy

Get aboard as soon as possible. If you are already in the water move to the end (not the side) of the dinghy, place one leg over the edge and roll into the dinghy. Do NOT jump into a dinghy from above, you may damage it. To haul someone else aboard a dinghy, raft or lifeboat hold their shoulders and lift one leg over the end, then roll them in. Discourage them from putting their arms around your neck – they could pull you into the water. Then tie yourself and others to the dinghy.



Righting an inflatable dinghy

Most dinghies have righting straps on the bottom and larger ones have a righting line attached to one side, that you can grab from the opposite side. Brace your feet against the dinghy and pull. The dinghy should rise up and over, pulling you out of the water momentarily. In heavy seas, or a high wind, this can be extremely difficult.



Survival Afloat

Ensure that the dinghy is fully inflated. It should be firm – not rock-hard. If it is not you will need to inflate it with your own breath or a pump. The valves are one-way and air will not escape when you take off the protective cap. Check for leaks. Escaping air will cause bubbles under water and above water, will make a hissing sound. Deal with them with conical plug that you will find in the dinghy kit. They screw into the holes and seal them. You will probably also find a supply of rubber patches and adhesive. Make daily checks of inflation and leaks. If you suspect a leak on the underside, swim under and insert a plug.

Rafts, boats and dinghies are built to carry a limited number of survivors. The lives of those aboard will be even more endangered if these numbers are exceeded. The safety of the majority must be the priority. Place the infirm, youngsters and any injured in the dinghy or boat first and as many of the able-bodied as the boat is made to accommodate. The rest must hang on in the water. The fit survivors aboard should rotate with those in the water on a regular and frequent change-over rotation.

Stow all the gear in any stowage places provided and tie everything securely. Check that there are no exposed sharp objects which will damage an inflatable. Ensure that anything that will spoil if wet is in waterproof a container and kept out of the water.

Check all signalling equipment, such as flares, rockets, heliographs, etc. If distress signals have already been sent out you will need them to attract the attention of rescue parties when they are searching for you.

If a distress call has gone out giving your position it is best to try to maintain location, so put out a sea anchor. This should look like a large canvas bag. Streamed out from the boat it will keep it into the weather and slow down drift.

You can improvise a sea-anchor from any weighted object securely tied to a line. Even clothing could be used, possibly tied to a paddle with reef knots. If you do not know where you are do NOT attempt to navigate until you have established your position, but if you can see the shore, head towards it.


Survival Priorities

    • Protection; from the elements and the effects of exposure.
    • Location; try to establish where you are and the best way of attracting rescue.
    • Water; take stock of supplies. Ration it at once.
    • Food; don’t eat, until you have sufficient water. Check all rations, stow them securely. Start fishing as soon as possible.


Even if you are alone keep a log on a daily basis. This will occupy the mind and help keep you oriented. First record names of survivors, date and time and position of accident, weather conditions, equipment salvaged and record sightings and circumstances daily.

In a cold climate

If the water is cold it is essential to get out of it as soon as possible. You need to counter the chilling effect of the wind, especially if you are wet. Keep the boat or dinghy as dry as possible. Bail out all water and rig up an awning to keep out the spray if you can find any material to use for it.

Dry all wet clothing and if there is no dry clothing to wear, squeeze out as much water as possible and then put the clothing back on. Maintain body heat by wrapping all parts in any available material, such as parachute or canvas. If in a group of survivors huddle together to keep warm.

To prevent stiffness to muscles and joints and to keep the circulation going, do mild exercises, such as stretching and arm circling. Be careful not to disturb the balance of the raft or boat by excessive sudden movement.

Most modern dinghies have a built-in shelter, but if yours does not, rig up a windbreak and a spray shield. Stretch any material that is available across to keep out spray and breaking waves. With adequate shelter and warm clothing, exercise will protect against the risk of frostbite.

In a hot climate

Take off unnecessary clothing, but still keep the body covered. If exposed directly to strong sun always keep the head and neck covered to avoid sunstroke or burn. Protect the eyes from the sun’s glare by improvising eye shields.

During the day damping down clothes with sea water will help to keep the body cool but make sure that you are thoroughly dried out by evening, for nights can be very cold and remember that darkness comes quickly in the tropics. Remember also that prolonged contact with sea water can cause sores on the skin.

When it is very hot let some air out of an inflated dinghy, for air expands with heat. You will need to release the valves, Reinflate the dinghy  in the evening when it cools. 




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