How to Survive at Sea: Your Guide to Staying Alive

How to Survive at Sea: Your Guide to Staying Alive

As a company specializing in boating and cruising adventures in Charleston harbor and with staff members who are avid sailors, we have all equipped ourselves with survival-at-sea knowledge. So for those of you who are looking to take boating or sailing on as your next hobby, it’s important to familiarize yourself with survival skills, should you unexpectedly find yourself lost at sea . . .

Below are some of our general tips for survival at sea:

No doubt we have all read or heard of a few amazing stories of survival at sea, many exceeding the limits of human endurance. A few amazing true survival stories that immediately come to mind are: In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of It’s Survivors, by Doug Stanton; In The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whale Ship Essex, by Nathanial Philbrick; The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Arctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander, and the famous, Mutiny on the Bounty, by William Bligh.

Of course, many situations arise that we have no control over, but one thing we do have control over is being equipped for an emergency, should one arise. This entails a few simple steps before you embark on your day at sea that can save your life during an emergent event, such as being sure your vessel is certified by the U.S. Coast Guard and is outfitted with all the required safety equipment. It is very wise to file a travel plan with a friend so someone is aware of your vicinity and when your return may be overdue. These are steps that do not require much effort, but can be the difference between life and death.

When you consider the ratio of land to water (water taking up almost three-quarters of the earth’s surface), it is easy to understand how some people can drift for sometimes months at a time, and never see land, a passing ship or an airplane. This is an immense area of water! However, to the contrary, it is not so easy to understand how some people are able to survive the ordeal of being stranded in a lifeboat, floating at sea for days, weeks or even months. It is nothing short of a miracle in many instances and a basic knowledge of survival can mean the difference between life and death.

Rafts are built to be small, self-contained flotation devices, used for survival, that are usually very cramped. If you are truly “lost at sea” having the wherewithal to engage all your senses, is a huge benefit in a dire situation. Survivors are those that are able to calm themselves from panic. This prepares the rational mind to do its job. A strong emotional reaction will inhibit rational thought in a survival situation.

Remember, the reason why some people who have no survival training live while others who have a lot of survival training die, is always due their mental attitude. An excellent book by Laurence Gonzales (a survival expert) is, Deep Survival:  Who Lives, Who Dies and Why. Experts suggest you remember the word STOP. This stands for Stop, Think, Observe and Plan. Therefore, mental attitude is equally as important as food and water.

If you have food and fresh water in your life raft, do not consume food for the first 24 hours and drink only a minimal amount of water. It is rather ironic that you are surrounded by water, yet you cannot drink it. Seawater contains high amounts of sodium and should not be consumed. At first, when drinking seawater your thirst is relieved very quickly. When the thirst returns it is much worse. Eventually, death will occur from dehydration as the salt level rises in body fluids. This eventually impairs cell function and as a result madness sets in from what is believed to be the ultimate loss of fluid in the brain cells. If you have little drinking water or none at all, try not to eat birds or fish. The body will need more water to metabolize protein than it does other foods. Instead, try to catch fresh rainwater or dew in a tarp or other piece of cloth. Before eating birds or fish, search for seaweed or submerged barnacles. Seaweed is highly nutritious and can support other marine life, such as crabs.

Take note of wind direction and current as well. If other people share your life raft, it is important to maintain lookout duties. Shifts of sleeping and waking should be split so someone is always on the watch for any issues with the raft, and the sight of a rescue ship, plane or land.

There are subtle signs that can be read in the water and air to signal nearby land. As the water becomes shallow, the color will grow lighter. Look to the sky for unusual cloud formations, as well as birds or gulls. Fixed, puffy cumulus clouds in a clear sky may signal land, as air-cooling creates the formation as it rises over land.  Birds and gulls usually stay within a few dozen miles of land. Generally speaking, the greater the number of birds, the closer you will be to landfall. Keep in mind, however, that birds tend to hunt during the day and may not lead you to land until they return in the evening. Tune into your sense of hearing and smell, as well. Listen for the roar of surf breaking on land, as sound will travel further than the eye can see. Engage your nose as well to alert you to the smell of burning wood or a mangrove swamp, for instance.

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