To some sailors, the act of abandoning ship is unthinkable. To others, it's a well thought out, prepared, and practiced maneuver ready to be enacted with only a moment's notice. Which kind of sailor are you?
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.There are common properties that every abandon-ship bag should have to be most effective. The bag should be brightly colored and clearly marked as "ABANDON SHIP." It should be stowed in a convenient location, known to all crew members, and preferably close to the cockpit. Specially designed floating bags are commercially available and have a definite advantage over just stuffing your valuable rescue and survival items in any old canvas bag that would sink to the bottom if it slipped out of your hand. Although these bags float, most are not waterproof. You should have an additional smaller dry bag within the big bag to store any items that can't get wet. Attached to the main bag should be a floating lanyard so that it can be safely secured and not lost in any confusion.
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.
Cost is another determinant that may influence the depth of your bag's contents. There's a lot of great safety gear out there, but few of us can afford to have it all. In making your choice of which gear to include, you must weigh the cost of the items versus the peace of mind you receive by knowing you're prepared. Think of it as life insurance,only in this case, you're the beneficiary.
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.
|"Make sure that nothing in the bag has a sharp point or edges that could puncture your raft. For instance, if you include a smallspear gun for fishing, cover the tip with a tennis ball."|
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.
For long-term survival, water is your body's number-one need. Place water in plastic bottles, but only fill them up to 80 percent of their volume. This will ensure the container will float. If you have larger five-gallon jerry jugs of water that you keep on deck, make sure you remember to take these with you if possible. Tie a long floating line to them, and if not filled up all the way, they will float secured to your dinghy or raft. A portable watermaker or solar still is a valuable addition to any ditch bag.
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. With all this talk about leaving your boat, let's not forget an important rule of thumb. You always want to stay with your boat until you are absolutely sure that your safety is in jeopardy. There have been many documented instances of sailors abandoning their boats, only to have the boat found days or even months later still floating just fine. But in the event that you do need to bail out, take the steps now to make sure that you are not ill-equipped and unprepared.
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.
- Flares - packed in waterproof bags
- Parachute flares
- Handheld flares
- Orange-smoke flares
- Handheld VHF radio in waterproof bag
- Handheld GPS in waterproof bag
- Signal mirror
- Strobe light
- Waterproof flashlight w/ spare batteries and bulb
- Chemical light sticks
- Water jugs or packets
- Manual watermaker
- Solar still
- Graduated drinking cup
- Canned food
- First aid kit
- Seasickness pills
- Sea anchor for raft
- Hard candy
- Swiss army knife
- Needle and thread
- Space blankets
- Rain catcher sheet
- Fishing gear (line, leader, hooks, etc)
- Small speargun
- Fleece blanket
- Assorted clothing
- Sunglasses and hats
Life raft survival guide
- Zip-lock bags
- Spare raft pump
- 100-foot line
- Raft patch kit
- Waterproof pen and paper
- Duct tape
- Leatherman tool
- Mask and snorkel