You're likely to be far safer on your boat at sea than on any of our highways today. There are circumstances, however, that could force you to abandon your vessel. An uncontainable fire could break out. A collision with sunken debris could quickly flood your boat and overwhelm your bilge pumps. Plumbing can leak and seacocks have been known to fail. These are all rare events, but they are not out of the realm of possibility and should be prepared for.
In the midst of sinking far from land, you may have only a scant few minutes or less to assess the situation and then abandon your boat. It's very possible that this amount of time would prove insufficient to prepare properly for leaving. Moreover, you're likely not to be in the best frame of mind to rationally assess and assemble what you'll need. An abandon-ship bag, or "ditch bag," prepared in advance with the appropriate contents, provides the sailor with the tools and materials necessary to survive and signal for rescue. There's also a great deal of comfort and solace in knowing that you're ready.
In assembling your own abandon-ship bag, you'll find there are many factors that will influence the individual items you choose to include. The type of sailing, how far from shore, where you travel, and how many people are on board shoud be taken into account. If you have a life raft you'll want to consider the equipment already packed inside the raft. Some of these items you may want to duplicate, others you may not. If you don't have a life raft, (or if the emergency equipment in the raft is on the meager side), and plan to rely on your dinghy to keep you afloat, your bag will need to be more comprehensive.
If you've abandoned ship, your primary concern is to summon help and be rescued. With this in mind, prioritize the items in your ditch bag accordingly. Flares, EPIRB, VHF radio, handheld GPS, signal mirror, whistle, etc. should be given preference over other contents. If your rescue is not immediately forthcoming, your second priority then becomes survival. Water, food, medicine, and clothing, anything that helps you to survive should be the next most important items in your bag.
On Serengeti, we carry a four-man, offshore life raft and have two packed abandon-ship bags ready to take with us. We keep our full first aid kit, in a bag by itself, stored beside the ditch bags, and have one other empty bag handy. The first packed bag is our primary abandon-ship bag. In this we store our 406 MHz EPIRB (the item we think will get us rescued first), a handheld GPS, a VHF radio, flares, extra batteries, a compass, mirror, a Swiss Army knife and a Leatherman tool, some water, canned food, a cutting board, and important papers such as passports and money. The second bag holds additional water and food, clothing, and numerous other survival items. The empty bag is designated strictly for our cats. It's our plan to stuff them in the bag and ensure that they can be safely transferred into the life raft with us.
It's important to make sure that your ditch bag is not too heavy and that each person in the crew can lift it. The strongest person on board can be injured, or even overboard, leaving the job of transferring the bag to a weaker crew member. This could be another reason for dividing your ditch bag items into two, easier-to-carry bags. Make sure that nothing in the bag has a sharp point or edges that could puncture your raft. For instance, if you include a small speargun for fishing, cover the tip with a tennis ball. Try to pack all items in zip-lock freezer bags.
If you've properly prepared in advance, there are many tools available to summon help once you've abandoned ship. Regardless of your location, if you have a 406 MHz EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon), you can summon help with the assistance of orbiting satellites. Your coded signal identifying you and your boat will be relayed via satellite to the nearest rescue station around the globe. A handheld VHF radio can help any sailor contact nearby boats or land-based stations. After contact has been established, your exact position can be relayed to the rescuers if you've also packed a GPS. Handheld and parachute flares, dye markers, and signaling mirrors will help you be seen. A whistle or horn can also draw attention to your location.
When packing food in your bag, include high-energy items loaded with carbohydrates and sugar, but low in protein. Proteins require more body fluids for digestion, as do dehydrated foods. Hard candy, cereal, canned fruits, and evaporated milk are all good items. Multiple vitamins are also an excellent addition to help provide nutritional needs.
As you pack your bag, make a list of the contents and note the date they were placed there. Down the road this will make it easier to decide if you need to replace the batteries or refresh the food supplies and water.
We should all evaluate our individual sailing situations and prepare a plan for abandoning ship should the need arise. The abandon-ship bag plays an important part of any such plan. Once you have your ditch bag assembled, run through a practice drill of abandoning ship that involves the entire crew. Hopefully you'll never need in a real life situation to go through the steps you've practiced. But if you do, at least you' ll know that you have the items necessary to facilitate a speedy rescue and ensure your survival.
Sample Abandon-Ship Bag Contents
The following is a list of the type of items you may want to include in your own abandon-ship bag. Remember some of these items may be duplicated in your life raft.