Stay alive when you’re lost at sea

Stay alive when you’re lost at sea

Over the weekend I started watching Jaws, and while a classic film that’s entirely unrealistic, it did get me thinking about the water. Because there’s a point where they blow their engines and their boat is suddenly dead in its tracks. Of course, in the movie there’s also the giant great white shark trying to eat them, a wholly unlikely situation. But what stuck with me is a fact that many in the audience would have missed.

Without their engine, this particular boat would have been stranded in the middle of the ocean. And after destroying their radio, these characters would have been faced with a very dire situation. It’s survival at sea. Knowing what to do next, and being smart with the actions you take - could very well mean the difference between life and death.

Get confident in the water

Growing up my parents put me through swimming classes and we lived near a rather large lake, so I quickly got very comfortable floating in the still waters or paddling around on the surface. I was in the swim team and yet never made state, but as I got older it hit me just how few people are confident swimmers. If that’s you, take the time to do a handful of lessons. Swimming isn’t difficult, but it does require a bit of a knack. You don’t want to be trying to figure it out when you’re bobbing on the surface, trying to stay alive.

Find something that floats

Without a boat, you’re not going to survive very long in the water if you’ve got to swim the entire time. Perhaps you can tread water for twenty minutes, or an hour. But what about when it takes two. Or six. Or an entire night in the ocean? Look around, and find something that floats so you can hold onto it when you need a break from swimming. Preferably something large enough that you can climb out of the water entirely, as the cold temperatures of the water will eventually drop your body temperature too. A chunk of floating debris is good, a life jacket is great, and a small canoe would be perfect.

Prioritize fresh water

The biggest concern you’re going to have on the ocean is the lack of fresh water. You’ve got maybe 3 days you can make it without a drink, so any fluids you do have make sure to treat them sparingly. Small sips spaced out over the day, instead of chugging it all down at once. And if you’re lucky enough that it rains, try to collect and store as much of the water as possible. Just please, remember that you cannot drink sea water. It’s got too much salt in it, which will only accelerate your dehydration and can send your struggling body into shock. Distilling the seawater is an option, heating it up and letting the steam condensate, which provides you with perfectly drinkable water.

Don’t forget to eat

In the ocean is a bounty of fresh food, but you’re going to have to catch it. Often, fish will trail a boat seeking shelter in the shade. You can catch them with a line and hook, or even a small net if they’re close enough. Seabirds are another option, as are turtles and even scraping the barnacles off the hull of your boat with a knife. Catch and cook whatever sustenance you can, while you still have the energy to do so. It’ll only get harder later, when you’re hungry and starvation is quickly setting in. Set trailing lines that you don’t have to monitor all the time, and check them at different intervals during the day.

Stay in your shelter

Toasting your body under the sun isn’t a smart idea, and neither is getting blasted by freezing rain and biting winds. You need protection from the elements, whether that’s a sail you’ve rigged up as a makeshift roof, or simply staying below deck when the conditions are bad. Most boats will have a cabin for this purpose, if not, you’re going to have to construct one yourself to give you a little relief. Look for a canvas tarp, or whatever is available, to give you the shelter you need from the elements, so you can stay alive.

Signal your rescue

The most likely ending to such a scenario is that your rescuers will eventually find you. The ocean is a large expanse, but it can be scouted very quickly from the air, especially if the coastguard has your last known position. Your job is to find ways to signal to those searching. A radio is obvious, as is the flare gun most boats do carry. In a pinch, look for a reflective surface, like a mirror or polished piece of steel, reflecting the sunlight off such a surface can be seen over several miles, and might just catch the eye of your rescuers. Having a whistle is smart too, as the sound will carry much farther than your voice. 

Seek out land

While you’re drifting there are many different currents in the ocean, and it’s likely that at some point in time you’ll spot land. It might be muddy waters, a flock of birds, or the fact you can see the green of the trees on the horizon. Go towards the land. Once you’ve beached you’ll have improved your odds of survival exponentially. With more space to move around, as well as more natural resources that you can tap into before help arrives. It also gives you a large canvas (the beach) to spell out any help message to those searching.

Getting lost at sea is a fear of many, and a situation that gets played out in a variety of different movies. But you can increase your survival chances by following these tips, so you’re never at the mercy of the ocean, no matter what else has gone wrong.


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