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Surviving at Sea

By: Jeff Durham - Updated: 9 Aug 2013 | comments*Discuss
Surviving At Sea Sea Survival Survival

Finding yourself in a survival situation can be a terrifying experience at the best of times, but survival at sea is probably the most difficult one you can face. You’ll be restricted in movement - whether that would be because your boat has been damaged or you’re floating in the water and food sources are likely to be even more difficult to obtain. You’ll also have to cope with waves and wind and you’re likely to have to battle with extreme levels of heat and cold.

Precautionary Measures to Help you Cope

In the same way as preparing yourself for land survival, much of the precautionary measures you can take for sea survival consist of the same fundamental elements – your determination to live, your specialist skills and knowledge and knowing how to put them into practice to cope with unforeseen hazards. You should also have the correct survival equipment and know how to use it. It’s important to know, prior to your trip, what survival equipment is on board, how many rafts or lifeboats there are and where they’re located in addition to knowing how much water, food and medical supplies each of them are equipped to carry and how many people each of them can accommodate.

Abandoning Ship…Or Not?

The two main reasons for ‘abandoning ship’ are if a fire breaks out and becomes uncontrollable to the point where you’re more at risk of being burned to death than any harm the sea can do to you or if your vessel is so damaged that you run the risk of drowning if you stay on board. Often, however, these are very much a judgement call. That said, you should always stay with your vessel unless it is unsafe to do so. Even if it breaks up into tiny pieces, there may still be a chance of you using some flotsam and jetsam to float upon. This will buy you valuable time, you’ll expend less energy, you’ll stay warmer and you’ll be more visible to any passing boats or planes.

Rescue Chances

This depends very much on a number of circumstances. Having the right survival equipment and importantly, the ability to send out some kind of distress signal is crucial. You’ve far more chance of being rescued if you’re able to send a signal that is received successfully and which pinpoints your exact location at the time it is sent. Bad weather can also severely hamper a rescue situation and obviously, if you’re in a busy shipping lane, it presents more of an opportunity by sheer fact of numbers of a boats or ships simply coming across you. But, as for trying to extricate yourself from your predicament by swimming or paddling to a coast which you know is nearby, this will very much be another judgement call based upon the distance you need to get to safety, the weather, the state of the sea, the wind direction and strength and the means by which you can get to safety. If you’re out in a life raft, for example and you have no true means of knowing whether a distress signal has been received, you can see no visible coastline and are unsure of your location, then you have no real option but to stay put until you’re rescued or you drift to an area where you can see land nearby.


Life jackets are mandatory on all sailing vessels and these flotation devices serve as your best chance against drowning as they’ll help you stay afloat and will help to conserve your energy. Inflatable rafts, where possible, are also the best types of craft to help you survive storms and turbulent seas. If you find yourself in the water, your first aim is to paddle or swim as far away as you can from the vessel in the first instance. This is because as a ship is going down, many people have been sucked underneath it so get as far away as possible if you know it’s going to sink. Only after it has disappeared should you return to the scene to look for any remaining debris that you might be able to climb up onto. And, if you have no other means of staying afloat, you should consider if you’re able to use any clothing as a buoyancy aid.


Hopefully, you’ll be wearing appropriate clothing if you are sailing, but, say, in the event of an air crash, it’s important that you try to grab as much clothing as you can beforehand to lessen your risk of hypothermia occurring whilst you’re in the water. There are other articles on this site dealing with hypothermia which you should refer to and it’s useful to check out any other information you can find related to hypothermia in a sea survival situation. Obviously, if you have access to a life raft or can climb on board a piece of floating debris, doing either of these things will get you out of the water and reduce your risk of hypothermia.

Sun and Salt Exposure

If you’re protected by a life raft, keep your exposure to the sun and salt water to an absolute minimum. The sun will be far more intense at sea as it would be on land and prolonged exposure to salt can cause burns, rashes, boils and sores. If you do suffer any of these misfortunes, resist the urge to scratch the affected areas as they can become infected and if you have medical supplies with you, treat the affected areas.

Drinking Water

If rescue isn’t imminent you’re going to need to ration your water supplies. Normally, we would need a litre and a quarter a day to stay in good shape but if you don’t know how long you’re going to be stranded it’s best to reduce your intake gradually. On the first day, you’re not going to need much water at all as your body’s water retention will be working fine but beyond that, drink about 14oz a day over the next few days then reduce it further to around a maximum of 8oz over subsequent days. This amount will vary depending on the amount of fresh drinking water you have to go around.


Hopefully, you’ll be aboard a life raft and can put some survival fishing skills to good use. Seaweed and plankton can also be eaten. However, it’s important to keep your eating to a minimum as you’ll only require more water with which to digest it and your supply of water is far more crucial than food in keeping you alive. Most sea fish are edible raw but can be poisonous in the tropics. Refer to another article on this site entitled Fishing For Survival. And, although salt water is all around you, you should not drink it wherever possible as too much of it will ultimately result in kidney failure.

Reaching The Shoreline

Hopefully, you’ll have been rescued but if you head for the shoreline, if there’s one nearby, there are a few things to consider. Try to choose a shoreline which is sandy over a rocky or coral one if possible and if you find yourself pushed towards rocks, swim feet first. If the sea is rough and a landing is dangerous but inevitable, remember that waves tend to arrive in sets of 7 so pick your moment to get to safety carefully.

Clues to Finding Land

Even if you have no idea where you are when surviving at sea, nature can give us some clues as to the proximity of land and all of the following are good indicators that land is not too far away:
  • The presence of birds – especially if you’ve noticed a directional trend amongst a flock as birds often fly out to sea in the morning and return to land at night
  • Wind tends to blow towards land during the day and towards the sea after dark
  • Driftwood or vegetation can indicate the nearby presence of land
  • Cumulus clouds are usually formed over land
  • Murky, unclear water or silt can indicate the presence of a river (and therefore, land) close by
There are no real hard and fast rules when it comes to survival at sea as there are so many variables to consider but, in putting as many preparations in place as you can for this eventuality and by having the right equipment and the necessary survival skills, you’ll be giving yourself the best possible chance of survival.

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