In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, we discussed the unusual case of Louis Jordan, a sailor whose boat capsized off the coast of the Carolinas and who survived 66 days at sea with little ill effect. Special circumstances and Lady Luck played a huge part in his success, but most in this situation won’t be as fortunate. This final article of the series will examine survival strategies for the stranded mariner in a life raft.
Hopefully, your vessel has a life raft that you can deploy before it sinks. If you find yourself in a life raft abandoning a sinking ship, the first thing you need to do is get away from the ship itself. If you’ve seen the movie “Titanic”, then you probably remember the sinking ship sucking down people in life jackets and all sorts of other debris. You want to paddle into the wind away from the wreck in case a fire starts—this is because burning oil on the water and the toxic smoke it creates will spread downwind. Once the ship has gone to the deep and fire is no longer a risk, check the water for anything that might be useful—anything not bolted down to the ship may rise to the surface to be snatched up and utilized by survivors. Many modern life rafts have survival kits and paddles built in.
Unless land is in sight, it is wise to stay as close to the last known position of the ship as possible. This is where all rescue efforts will begin, so the closer you are to where the ship sank, the more likely you will be found. This is especially useful if you sink in widely traveled areas or shipping lanes. The key is to be where you can be found.
If you’re in a remote part of the ocean, the direction that birds fly in may help you determine where the nearest land is. Seabirds will fly from land in the early morning and fly towards land in the evening. Also, water will appear lighter as it gets more shallow and wave swells decrease in size.
The direction of the wind may help you find land. Wind usually blows towards land in the day and away at night. Dry land absorbs heat from the sun faster than the water. Warm air over land will rise and cool air over the water rushes in to replace it. At night, water cools more slowly than land. The warmer air over the water rises and the cool air from the land rushes away.
If you’re approaching land, try to find sandy stretches of beach. Rocks and coral below the surface may tear the bottom of your raft or cause injury if you get out of the raft. Paddle sideways in rip currents and you should make progress to shore.
If you’re not close to land, don’t exert yourself. You need to protect your body, conserve your resources and limit your consumption. Many modern rafts have a canopy, but If you are in an open raft you’ll want to erect some sort of shelter from the elements using anything you can—a tarp, part of a sail, even spare clothing. If it’s hot, you can dampen your clothing with sea water to cool off, although this can cause skin irritation over time. If it’s cold, put as much clothing on and usually anything that can serve as a windbreak.
There are commercially made anti-exposure suits that are made especially for this purpose. Also, realize that the floor of your life raft will be colder than the walls, so don’t sleep lying down if you’re in cold weather. If it’s hot, the floor might help keep you cool, especially if you have cover. Keep the inside of the raft as dry as possible.
A canopy can also double as a rain catch to collect fresh water, which is going to be your biggest struggle. The first day in the raft, don’t drink any water at all. Come up with a water rationing system and stick to it. The minimum amount of water necessary to stay in decent shape is 1 liter a day. It’s possible to survive on as little as 2 to 5 ounces a day, although this will weaken you over time.
Regardless of what you may have read, you can’t drink sea water. It will dehydrate you due to the large amount of salt it contains, but you can get condensation from sea water if you have a few supplies. You’ll need a pot, a smaller pot, some plastic wrap or sheeting, and 1 or 2 weights.
Fill the larger pot with sea water and put the smaller pot in the larger pot. Cover the whole thing with plastic and put a weight over the center of the smaller pot. Condensation will occur on the inside of the plastic sheet. Because of the weight, it will drip into the smaller pot, which you can drink from. They call this contraption a solar still.
Save whatever food you have for at least the first day or two. You can go a long time without food, so ration it out slowly so that it will last. You might be able to catch curious fish, sea turtles, or seabirds, which you’ll just have to eat raw. Inedible parts may be used as bait. Louis Jordan said he caught fish by wiggling dirty clothes in the water and scooping them up with a fishing net. I haven’t tried this, but it apparently works. Using flashlights at night may attract fish.
Be aware that too much protein may cause you to use your body’s water to digest it. I’m told that fish eyes contain fluid that you can ingest safely.
Can you eat seaweed? The answer is often yes. Many seaweeds are part of the diet of coastal inhabitants around the world. Generally, green, brown, or red seaweeds can be washed and eaten raw or dried. Avoid the parts that are round and filled with gas; only eat the leafy parts. If you’re not sure, you can touch the seaweed to your lips and wait for a few hours to see if there is any ill effect. Be forewarned that seaweed tends to have a laxative effect and take some “getting used to”.
Another useful item for the raft is some sort of signaling device, a hand mirror can reflect the sun and be seen from a passing plane or boat. Some newer rafts come with a beacon.
There’s a lot more to survival at sea that what is mentioned in this article, but you get the idea. Have as many supplies available as possible that you can fit into your raft, and you’ll have the time you need to get rescued. It won’t be easy, but you’ll have a shot.
I hope that veteran seamen will weigh in on this topic; feel free to comment below.
If you missed the first parts of this series:
Joe Alton, MD