Life Raft Survival

10 August 2010 By Janine Ketterer
Photo courtesy of Winslow Liferaft Co.

The ditch bag is packed and the life rafts are ready to go. But the thought of abandoning ship and having to use those emergency items generally isn’t in the forefront of a crewmember’s mind mid-charter while whipping up the guests’ favorite meals or heading across the Atlantic to begin another busy season. However unlikely the situation may be, it happens. Fires break out, systems fail, accidents occur and, inevitably, some ships sink. Crew then must abandon their floating home for a life raft, with only a ditch bag and their hopes to be rescued as quickly as possible.

The unthinkable has become reality, the crewmembers are dressed in proper kit for the weather; they have the ditch bag, have successfully abandoned ship and are safely in the life raft…so now what?

Every life raft is outfitted with a SOLAS Immediate Action upon Entering a Life Raft Card. The instructions are:

1. Get away from the sinking ship

2. Look for and gather other survivors

3. Check out the proper functioning of the life raft

4. Open kit and read instructions on survival

5. Do not be alarmed by continuing hissing of valves after initial inflation

According to The Grab Bag Book, by Michael and Frances Howorth, as soon as the steps from the SOLAS card have been completed, you should immediately move into the secondary actions phase. The Grab Bag Book advises that the first of the secondary actions is to identify a person in charge. This person should be the captain, however if s/he is incapacitated, someone else must be chosen.

Once a leader has been chosen, a lookout should be appointed to keep watch. Then others in the life raft should begin to unpack the grab bag and go through the equipment on hand.

Next, all aboard the life raft should take anti-seasickness pills. A full health assessment of everyone on board the life raft should be completed to ensure anyone needing medical attention receives it in a timely fashion.

If there are other life rafts in the vicinity, The Grab Bag Book recommends connecting the life rafts with lines.

Next, the person in charge should arrange duties among those in the rafts. Someone should be a lookout to keep an eye open for any danger, useful debris or rescue. A different person should be appointed to keep watch on other passengers inside the life raft, as well as look after the supplies.

It’s important to test equipment on board the life raft. The EPIRB should be on. If you have a VHF radio, you will need to conserve batteries. The Grab Bag Book suggests sending a Mayday signal as soon as possible.

Be sure that all aboard the life raft have proper protection for the current conditions, heat or cold. Apply sunscreen and wear sunglasses.

Next, the person in charge will need to make decisions on food and water rations. It’s recommended that the first day no one except children drink or eat, unless medically necessary. It is important to begin collecting rainwater and dew and, if you have a watermaker in the life raft, start making water as soon as possible to ensure supplies do not run too low. The Grab Bag Book recommends that no one eat unless they have water to drink. Some believe that drinking your own urine can sustain you; however, the opposite is true, it is extremely detrimental to your health. Also, do not drink seawater as it will dehydrate you more and can cause delusions.

It is of the utmost importance to keep morale high while awaiting rescue. As the hours pass, extreme conditions, the lack of food and seasickness and fears can take hold and play tricks on the mind. The Grab Bag Book suggests playing card games – if you have them in your ditch bag. (read more on packing the perfect ditch bag here) – singing and joking to ensure everyone is focused.

As time passes without a rescue, you may have to collect water and catch sea animals for food. Your ditch bag should contain the tools needed to perform these tasks.

The human spirit is resilient and can perform in incredible ways when the fight or flight mechanism is at work. The Grab Bag Books says “Remember: No one is a survivor until they are rescued.” Keeping the hope of rescue alive with all on board the life raft may be the most important tool for survival.