Lost at Sea, Part 2



In our last article, we discussed the case of a man who was stranded at sea for 66 days without much ill effect other than weight loss. Luckily for him, his sailboat was his primary residence and was able to “right” itself with most of his supplies intact, minus the mast. This allowed him to ration food and water and gave him cover from the elements. Most cases of survival at sea, however, are not as fortunate; it’s important to have an idea of what to do if you find yourself in open water without rapid rescue.

Earth is a water planet, with 70% or more of its surface covered with sea water. Your survival in an ocean disaster depends on your ability to stay hydrated, obtain nourishment, and be protected against exposure to wind and temperature extremes.

Planning for a catastrophic event beforehand will give you the best chance of survival. Before boarding any vessel, you should have a good idea of what supplies and equipment exist for use in an emergency. Your ability to access and use what’s available could determine whether you live or die.

Anyone planning an ocean voyage should file a “float plan” with the marina. Similar to an airplane’s flight plan, it gives people on shore an idea of where you’re going and when you are expected back. In the case of the sailor stranded for 66 days, no one realized he was missing for more than a week after he capsized. The sooner people start looking for you, the better your chances of being rescued.

In rough seas, you should always wear a life jacket (calm seas, also!). Attaching a whistle to it is useful if an individual seaman is thrown overboard. In this situation, a flotation device (life preserver) attached to a good length of rope can be thrown or a crew member sent with one to retrieve the victim.

If your boat capsizes or sinks, rapid action is necessary to increase your chances of survival. If there is time to send out a distress signal, do so. Many of the containers for supplies are meant to float; gather as many together as possible. They can help you stay above water and the supplies may save your life. If you’re in waters that are used frequently by other boaters or shipping vessels (but not in view of dry land), try to stay near the area where your boat sank.

Water Temperature and Heat Loss

Hypothermia, or loss of body heat, is a major cause of death in boating mishaps. Water doesn’t have to be particularly cold to cause hypothermia. Any water that’s cooler than normal body temperature will cause heat loss. You could die of hypothermia off a tropical coast! Average survival times decrease as the water temperature gets colder:

60-70 degrees Fahrenheit: About 12 hours
50-60 degrees Fahrenheit: About 6 hours
40-50 degrees Fahrenheit: About an hour
Lower than 40 degrees:       Less than an hour

To increase your chances of survival when immersed in water, keep your clothes on. Button or zip up. Cover your head if at all possible. The layer of water between your clothing and your body is slightly warmer and will help insulate you from the cold. Commercially-manufactured anti-exposure body suits are useful additions to your emergency boating supplies. Remove clothing only after you’re safely out of the water and then do whatever you can to get dry and warm.


antiexposure suit

anti-exposure suit

Get as much of your body’s surface area out of the water. Climbing onto a capsized boat or grabbing onto a floating object will increase your chances of survival. However, don’t use up energy swimming unless you have a dry place to swim to. The swimming strokes that use the least are the dog paddle, sidestroke, backstroke, and breaststroke; alternate them to use different muscles.



Get as much of your body out of the water as possible!

Position yourself to lessen heat loss. Use a body position known as the Heat Escape Lessening Position (think H.E.L.P.) to reduce heat loss while you wait for help to arrive. Just hold your knees to your chest and cross your arms; this will help protect your torso (the body core) from heat loss.



H.E.L.P. and HUDDLE positions


Huddle together. If you’ve fallen into cold water with others, keep warm by facing each other in a tight circle and holding on to each other.

Without A Life Jacket

The above strategies work well for those with life vests, but what if you don’t have one?

If you end up in the water without a life jacket, a lot more exertion is required to keep above water. At one point or another, you’ll get tired. If you float on your back, it will require less energy to keep your face out of water. Arch your back and spread out your arms and legs; this should allow you to breathe with the least effort.

Another way to “rest” without a life jacket involves relaxing the body in between breaths. Inhale while treading water and then lie face down with arms forward. Repeat when you need another breath.





Inhale, tread water, then lie face down and relax your body






Every ocean in the water has sharks, although only about 20 or so species are known to attack humans. They are attracted to blood, urine, feces, and irregular or thrashing movement in the water. If you are in the water with other swimmers, form a circle facing outward to better defend yourselves. If a shark approaches, slapping the water with cupped hands  or shouting underwater may deter it. Otherwise, try to kick or punch it, especially in the areas of the “snout”, eyes, and gills. Playing “dead” will not discourage an aggressive shark.



Shark skin is extremely abrasive and they often bump into potential prey before they attack. As such, you should make sure to keep your clothing on, including your shoes. Blood from abraded skin will excite them.


Of course, a much better way to survive if stranded in the ocean is to be in a life raft. In a raft, you can use your skills to survive longer and have a better chance of rescue. In our next article, we’ll discuss how to obtain water and food, stay protected from the elements, and search for land while lost at sea.



Joe Alton, MD


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