7 Steps To Survive While Stranded At Sea

This article is an excerpt from the book The Ultimate Survival Manual, by Rich Johnson. You can find your own copy by clicking on the image at the bottom of this article.

For those out at sea, from the casual sailor to professional fisherman, the prospect of not being able to return to shore is a horrifying one.  Dangers include lack of drinkable water, fire on the ship, and getting lost with no land to aid you in navigation.  Below are 7 steps that are designed to help you, and your ship, get back in one piece.

Step 1 – Finding drinkable water.

With so much water surrounding you and none of it suitable to drink, sea water is the ultimate taunt for those dying for a refreshing sip.  What most people do not realize is that it actually is possible to gather fresh water from this vast sea of salt.

You can trap moisture by utilizing tarps throughout your ship to catch rainwater, draining it into containers.  The first drops of rain will wash the salt off of the tarpaulin.  If no tarps are available, you can use other fabrics to soak up the rain and collect it by wringing them out into containers.  Remember – no matter how thirsty you are, never drink salt water.  It will have the completely opposite effect and dehydrate you even faster, quickening you towards a premature death.

If you’ve been at sea for a considerable amount of time, salt crystals will actually gather on your clothing.  When rain begins to approach, give your clothes and other fabrics a bath in the sea.  Though they’ll still remain salty this way, it will be much less than what it was before the rinse and you will be able to drink the rainwater that gets absorbed in your newly-washed clothing.

If your ship has sails, use them to create a bowl to catch rainwater.  Use whatever you can to do this.  Even if you are only on a life raft, the raft itself can serve as a water collector. The first batch of rainwater that each container catches will still have high salt content, so use this water to tend to wounds or wash food prior to eating, rather than drinking water. Make sure to store this water separately.

Step 2 – Navigate using the stars.

Polaris, the prominent star close to the north celestial pole, is easily found by first searching for the Big Dipper in the constellation Ursa Major.  From here, draw a line in your mind connecting the stars at the end of the Big Dipper’s “bowl”, extending the line out 5 times its length to arrive at Polaris.  It is the brightest star in the Little Dipper, so it shouldn’t be hard to find.

If you are sailing below the equator you would have to find the Southern Cross‘ long axis and mentally extend a line down 4.5 times the length of the axis.  Next, locate Rigil Kent and Hadar (2 bright stars) to the left of the Southern Cross.  Figure out the midpoint between these 2 stars and imagine a perpendicular line from that point to the end of the line drawn from the Southern Cross.  When you have found the intersection, you have found the mark for the South Pole.

Step 3 – Go fishing.

If you’re out at sea the most plentiful source of food is right underneath you.  Even if you are in a small raft, fish may gather beneath it out of curiosity or a feeling of security.  If you have the means to you need to try to catch as much food as you can.  Even just 1 fish can satisfy the body’s needs for quite some time and just as importantly – boost your morale.  If no pole is nearby, try trolling a hand-line with a hook and fixing anything flashy in lieu of a lure.  Jig this lure up and down a few meters below the boat (just don’t get the hook caught on the raft!)  Once you catch your first fish, use its guts as proper bait.

Step 4 – Avoid shark attacks.

This seems like a no-brainer, but do you actually know how to do it?  Sure, you won’t get bitten while on your ship, but what if you capsize?  Or need to take a short swim to reach something?  Luckily, sharks don’t normally actively hunt human beings as a source for food.  This means that if you do get bitten by a shark, most likely it will end there.  Once a shark bites you, usually it realizes that you’re not this guy and it’ll leave you alone.  Even if you’re that fortunate, now you have several punctures throughout your leg or arm or abdomen… so let’s avoid the whole thing.  First know that most shark threats are in the shallows, near food sources.  This includes coastlands and coral reefs (very popular for both sharks and divers).  This video from Discovery Channel’s show, North America, illustrates this:

Always dive with at least 1 partner, since sharks are more likely to attack a lone swimmer. If you do find yourself too close to one of these predators, quickly get out of the water by swimming away with smooth, even strokes that won’t attract its attention.  If it wants to attack you will know – it will hunch its back, lower its fins, and zigzag towards you quickly. If you have a spear gun, camera housing, knife, or anything, thrust it to discourage it.  If possible, stab its eyes or gills or even dig your thumbs into the eyes if it gets that close (or is biting you).  Some divers have reported that descending to the seafloor and waiting for the shark to leave has been successful, but you’ll need an air tank for that.

Step 5 – Right a capsized boat.

The smaller the vessel, the easier it is to capsize, but they are also easy to right.  If one does flip on you, crawl up onto the overturned hull and grab the centerboard (keel) and lean back, using your weight against the centerboard as a lever to flip the boat over. When it is upright, crawl aboard and bail out the water.  If the capsized boat is a motorboat without a centerboard, it will be a little harder.  Tie one end of a rope to something secure in the middle of the boat, like an oarlock.  Throw the free end of the rope up onto the hull. Then crawl onto the hull to grab the free end of the rope, facing the side where the rope is tied.  Back up toward the water and lean back, using your weight against the rope to pull the boat over.  Once it’s upright, crawl on and start bailing out the water.

Step 6 – Put out a boat fire.

A fire on a boat is a catastrophe.  You need to have a plan to deal with this before you leave shore.  Follow these 3 steps:

  1. store fresh fire extinguishers in locations near the galley and the engine compartment, the two most likely locations for a fire to originate
  2. If the fire breaks out, move everyone out of the cabin and get them into lifevests.  Call VHF channel 16 to report the emergency and prepare to abandon ship.
  3. Fight the fire with the extinguishers, making sure you keep a clear escape route behind you at all times.  Remember – always extinguish fires from the bottom up.

 Step 7 – Plug a leak.

Probably one of the first disasters you’d think of is a hole in the boat allowing water to flood in.  Maybe you experience a hard rain and water still gets on the wrong side of the hull – this isn’t as bad.  When there’s a leak, however, the problem becomes much more dire. First, find the leak.  If you can’t find it then head for dry land as fast as you can.  Check to see that the boat’s drain plug is closed (if it’s open then you’ve found the problem).  If the leak is a result from a failed through-hull fitting, stop it with a conical soft-wood plug that should be tethered to the hull.  If the hull is fractured due to impact (such as from rocks or reefs), place a large plastic sheet across the leak on the outside of the hull.  Secure the plastic with ropes.  Water pressure will help hold it in place as you carefully head for land. If everything else fails, resort to fixing the crack with one of the most versatile piece of equipment of all survival gear – duct tape.

This article and 332 other skills “That Will Get You Out Alive” can be found within this book.