No one wants to consider the thought of getting lost at sea. You might think that it couldn’t happen to you, but the truth is, it can happen to anyone. Even sailing experts have been caught in a big storm and left without supplies.
It’s not easy to survive when lost at sea — but it’s possible. Consider Salvador Alvarenga living proof, a man who drifted across the ocean for 438 days. In 2012, Alvarenga left the coast of Mexico in a 25-foot boat, along with a young crewmate named Córdoba. Out at sea, they got caught in a storm. Water flooded the vessel and, soon after, the engine died. The GPS stopped functioning, along with the radio.
In the beginning, Alvarenga would catch fish with his bare hands, digging his nails into their gills. After two months, he caught birds and turtles to eat. Córdoba, unfortunately, was on the decline and died soon after. Alvarenga eventually drifted to an island beach, where he was rescued — 6,700 miles from his initial location.
Thankfully, being forewarned is forearmed. Here’s what you need to know to survive at sea.
How to Survive: Before You Go
The best way to ensure survival when lost at sea is to prepare before you go. Follow the steps below before your next trip.
1. Inspect Small Details
Clean the hull, deck and topsides of your boat before an inspection so you can get an unhindered look. Search for blisters and distortions. Check the propellers for cracks and dings. Damaged propellers can cause unwanted vibrations and issues with your drivetrain. Ensure the propeller is secured in place and replace bearings regularly.
Look at all belts to ensure they fit snugly. One sign of an old belt is black residue nearby. Check cables and hoses, which can crack or get brittle when in storage. You should also search for swelling and cracks on the outer jacket of the throttle, which can be a sign of internal corrosion and imminent failure.
2. Survey the Fluids
Pay special attention to your fuel system, including connections, hoses and tank surfaces. A damaged hose may be soft, brittle or cracked. If you notice worn down or broken components, it’s crucial to replace them before your next outing. Make sure all the ventilation systems, along with the engine and exhaust, are working correctly.
Check the fluid levels on your boat, including coolant, engine oil, power steering fluid and power trim reservoirs. If you take your boat out of storage, change the oil and filter, as well as the drive lubricants.
3. Assess the Deck
Take a look at all the gear you have on deck and consider if anything needs replaced or upgraded.
Review items like:
Rig jacklines between the stern and bow pulpits. Some sailors like shrouded wire jacklines while others prefer flat webbing. No matter what you choose, your line should be taut and easy to adjust. Tape lifeline entry shackles shut to keep them from accidentally opening while at sea.
4. Look Down Below
Down below deck, hidden from the crashing waves, you might feel safe. Expert sailors, however, say it’s nearly as dangerous as up top. Before you head out to sea, install handholds that are easy to grab from any spot. All supplies should be stowed securely. Check that floorboards are still in good condition.
You should have easy access to all the boat’s through-hull fittings. Secure these fittings to prevent water from entering the hull in case of failure. Make a laminated chart of all the access points and tape it to a spot where everyone can see it.
5. Consider Your Electronics
When drifting at sea, electronics are what tether you back to land. Your boat should have a GPS, which uses signals from satellites to track your location. You should also have a chart plotter and a VHF radio with a tall antenna. Invest in a single-sideband radio you can use for offshore communication, including weather forecasts and emergency calls. Satellite phones, equipped with internet access, are becoming an increasingly popular way to get information and make calls.
Invest in an EPIRB — electronic position indicator beacon — which uses a satellite signal to connect to a rescue center. Some boats come equipped with a small computer designed for navigation and communication while at sea. Be sure to bring along a spare mouse and keyboard. Electronics should be easy to access, yet protected from the water.
6. Think About Safety
Prepare your boat for an emergency. One must is a life raft, not just a small dingy. The vessel should be big enough to fit all the crew members on board. Have a dedicated storage area specifically for the raft, near the foot of the companionway. Lash it down to keep it from sliding around.
Set up a grab bag in case of evacuation. Include flares, food rations, a first-aid kit, flashlights and an EPIRB. You should also add a handheld VHF radio. Near the grab bag, stow a couple of jugs of fresh water you can grab in a pinch.
7. Pack the Right Gear
Before your next adventure, pack the essentials. Buy gear that can keep you warm in cold weather. Look for clothing with wicking, which keeps moisture away from your body and dries quickly. Invest in a heavy-duty raincoat and waterproof socks. Look for durable gloves ideal for handling rope. Plus, add a warm pair of gloves for freezing temperatures.
Get a hat with a brim that will protect your face and eyes from the sun, and a warm beanie or winter hat. Look for a pair of durable boots you can wear if you find land. Pack essential equipment like a pocket knife, whistle, headlamp and tether. Plus, you should pack a lot of sunscreen.
How to Survive: After You Go
Once you’re out at sea, there’s nothing you can do to change how much you’ve prepared or what you brought along. Instead, you have to rely on what you have, including your instincts.
1. Set Multiple Anchors
There are several types of anchors, including helix, mushroom and deadweight. The best are helix, as they screw into the seabed. You can improve the stability of your boat during poor weather with multiple anchors, if necessary. One method is to set two anchors, chained together, in a line to anticipate the direction of the wind. Another approach is to place three anchors in a formation of 120°, all of which lead to a single swivel and line at the boat’s bow. Both techniques give the boat little room to swing.
2. Reduce Windage
You want your boat to sway around as little as possible. To accomplish this, take down all canvas, including dodgers and biminis. Remove mainsail covers, mainsails and furling genoas. Attach halyards to a small line and run them to the top of the mast. Even a storm that doesn’t damage your boat has the wind power to destroy canvas, especially if debris is kicked into the air.
3. Grab Your Gear
If your ship starts sinking, you need to act fast. Gather as many supplies as you can. If you’ve prepared your go bag, grab that and the fresh jugs of water. You should also try to take additional items like a mirror, sunscreen and batteries. Head to the raft and get it into the water. Be aware that even expensive life rafts aren’t always leakproof. However, modern vessels come equipped with pumps and a repair kit in case of emergency.
4. Try to Drift
Most life rafts have sea anchors to help keep the small vessel stabilized. However, your goal is to find land, so you want to reduce drag and drift. Pull the anchor up during calm weather to move as quickly as possible. When the wind picks up, you can drop it back down. At a rate of 2 knots — 2.3 miles per hour — you can travel 50 miles per day.
5. Assess Your Ailments
If you make it to land, it’s time to make an assessment. What supplies were you able to grab and bring along? How long will your food and water supply last? Did you suffer from any injuries during the evacuation? Heatstroke is one major cause for concern, with symptoms like a rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, headache, nausea and a confused mental state. Try to find shade during the day, even if it’s your raft’s cover.
6. Look for Shelter
If you reach land, one of the first things you should do is find or build a shelter. Almost all vegetation, including sticks, vines and palm fronds, can be used. If your life raft survived the trip, prop it up against a tree or branch to fashion a lean-to. Cover the ground with palm fronds to keep yourself insulated and dry. You can also search for a natural shelter, like a cave formation or rock overhang.
7. Fish for Food
Near the ocean, fish are a plentiful resource, one that can keep you fed. There are several ways you can catch fish without equipment. Try to fashion a random item into a hook, such as a paperclip, soda tab or sharp twig. Then, attach the hook to a makeshift line, something like a vine, shoelace or thread from your clothing. You will need to add bait to the hook as well. Look for colorful plastic, leaves, dead insects or shiny jewelry. Now, all you need is a bite.
8. Look for Insects
If you’re not having luck with the fishes, you can always head inland to try your hand at foraging. The wild is full of edible treats that can keep you alive. Most insects — which have a crunchy exoskeleton, six legs and a pair of antennas — are safe to eat. Crickets, ants and termites are all up for grabs. However, you should spiders, centipedes and bees.
9. Drink Lots of Water
You can only survive a few days without water. While many believe it’s possible to drink urine in the event of an emergency, it’s a myth. In fact, urine will exacerbate dehydration. You should also never drink seawater. Try to use objects on hand — like a backpack or piece of clothing — to collect rainwater. If you have the right materials, like a container, straw and plastic, you can build a solar still. Condensation will build on the plastic, which is safe to drink.
10. Use Your Smartphone
Keep your eyes and ears peeled for signs of airplanes and ships that can rescue you. If you have a smartphone, use the screen to reflect the light from the sun. You can also use a mirror. The signal, which can reach up to 10 miles, may alert someone nearby to your presence.
11. Stay Relaxed
It can be easy to panic when lost at sea. However, it’s crucial to stay calm — that’s how you stay alive. Being lost isn’t something you can control. Instead, you have to remain rational, assess the situation and make calculated decisions. You can’t predict how long you will be lost and what might happen during that time. Take advantage of every moment of daylight.
Surviving at Sea: What to Do When Lost
If you should ever get lost at sea, try not to panic. In the 21st century, it’s hard to stay lost for long, though it does happen.
Just recently, a crew of eight fishermen was found who had been lost for 10 days. The 60-foot vessel, which originated from Indonesia, was located by the U.S. Coast Guard 170 miles off the coast of Palau. During this time, the boat’s crew had no electricity, food or water.
If the worst should happen, be prepared. Ensure your boat is in tip-top shape and pack the essential supplies. In the event of an evacuation, let your life raft drift and search for land. When you set foot on land, the first three steps are to find shelter, food and water. You need all of these things to survive.
Don’t forget to stay on the lookout for possible rescuers. When you get home, you’ll have quite a story to tell.
Note: This was a guest post.