Packing the Perfect Ditch Bag

5 August 2010 By Louisa Beckett
Photo courtesy of Ocean Medical

Among a yacht’s most important equipment is an item that, hopefully, you will never need to use. It’s the bag of emergency supplies you keep on hand to grab if you are forced to abandon ship, also known as...the “ditch bag.” Typically kept in a cabinet in the wheelhouse, the ditch bag is packed with items that go beyond the contents of the basic survival kits mandated by the yacht’s flag country and certifications.

“Each country will have its own specifications depending on the yacht’s length and whether she is operating commercially or not. If she is carrying commercial life rafts, then they will already contain either a SOLAS B or SOLAS A pack,” said Mandy Boughton, sales office manager for Ocean Safety in the U.K. “In addition to this, a ditch bag [containing] more personalized equipment, depending on the people onboard or the specific [cruising] area, is a good idea.”

The perfect ditch bag for an explorer yacht venturing to Antartica would not have the same contents as a ditch bag packed for a yacht operating in the Med during the summer season. (The former might include some form of thermal protection.) But there are some survival items that would come in handy for crew in any region – and could even make the difference between life and death.

The first thing to consider is the bag itself. Chris Wahler, marketing manager for ACR Electronics in Fort Lauderdale, warns against using a bag that could fill with water and sink the minute it is opened. “It should have some flotation in it,” he said. ACR’s RapidDitch bags are made using closed-cell foam for buoyancy. He also recommended that as much of the equipment in the ditch bag as possible be buoyant on its own. “Test the bag with the gear in it to be sure it still floats,” he said. Attach a strobe light to the outside, in case the bag should get separated from the crew.

“Typically what we find in a ditch kit is equipment to supplement what’s packed in the life rafts,” Wahler said. This can include sponges for bailing, paddles, flares, orange smoke, marker dye, a signaling mirror, fishing line and tackle, a knife, MRE rations and fresh water. “We’ve heard some folks put in suntan oil and seasickness pills,” he added.

Communications equipment is vital. Wahler reports his company has seen increased interest among yacht crew in wearing Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) such as ACR’s AquaLink series. In addition, some captains will put a PLB in the ditch bag. If it’s properly registered, once activated, it will signal to the authorities that, “We’re in the life raft.”

A waterproof handheld VHF radio can be another valuable addition to the ditch bag, even though it only works on a line-of-sight basis. Be sure to include spare lithium AA batteries for use when the VHF’s rechargeable batteries die. A satphone can make a long-distance call for aid, if you plan in advance and program in the appropriate emergency numbers for the area where you are cruising. The satphone should be stored in a waterproof pouch, and it should be reserved strictly for emergency use. “I’d hate for someone to pull the cell phone out of the ditch bag and find the battery was all used up on casual communications,” Wahler said.

“The perfect ditch bag would also include a comprehensive medical grab bag,” said Rebecca Castellano, sales manager, USA/Caribbean for Ocean Medical International. Typically, such a bag already is already on board as part of the yacht’s medical equipment. “Our Medical Kit is packed with a Medical Grab Bag,” Castellano said. “Our yachts tell us they want to take our grab bag along with their ditch bag. It’s designed as a ‘grab-and-go.’” Packed with everything from diagnostic tools to a fluid replacement kit and thermal blanket, the Medical Grab Bag is intended to be used by first responders to stabilize a victim in an emergency.

In Castellano’s experience, many yacht crews also keep oxygen and a portable defibrillator on hand in case they need to abandon ship. “Ninety-five percent of the boats keep them together with the ditch bag,” she said.

Boughton, whose company, Ocean Safety, offers a wide range of nautical life-saving equipment, said, “[Ditch] bags can be a very personal thing.” She provided the following list of additional gear you might want to pack in the perfect ditch bag, including some important personal items.

  • solar still
  • watermaker
  • charts
  • compass
  • multi-purpose tool
  • playing cards (to keep up morale)
  • waterproof notebook
  • spare glasses (Wahler also recommended including reading glasses)
  • laminated copies of passports
  • credit card
  • a copy of the yacht’s papers

Wahler pointed out that that if you are rescued by a commercial freighter, “Their next stop is your next stop.” He added immunization records to the list, to give to the immigration authorities in the country where you end up. He agreed that cash or a credit card is essential in the perfect ditch bag. “[Once you're rescued,' You'll probably want to spend a good night in a hotel and be on the next flight out in the morning...and [you'll need to] be able to pay for it.”

For more information, Boughton recommends consulting The Grab Bag Book: Your Ultimate Guide to Liferaft Survival by Frances & Michael Howorth.