I have recently read a few books about people whose boats have sunk at sea, and the crew have survived for weeks and months in a tiny life-raft, buffeted by the waves, and having to find sources of food and water.
The books are gripping. The ones I’ve read are:
- 66 Days Adrift by William Butler
- Adrift: 76 days Lost at Seat, by Steven Callahan
- Survive the Savage Sea, by Dougal Robertson
- 117 Days Adrift, by Maurice and Maralyn Bailey
- Sole Survivor, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn
Most of these accidents at sea happened in the 70s or 80s. A common pattern is that a whale hits the sailing boat, causing water to gush in, and the crew has to abandon the boat for the life raft.
Since the 1980s a remarkable piece of technology has been developed, the EPIRB, which stands for ‘Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon’. It transmits your position and a distress signal to all ships and aeroplanes nearby, meaning that you will often be found in a few hours or 2-3 days if you are very far offshore, rather than the 60 day+ odysseys described above.
The US coastguard estimates that the EPIRB has saved the lives of 23,000 people since 1982. One of the most important things a sailor can do is to have multiple EPIRBs on the boat, all with fully charged batteries. Survivors have reported how extraordinarily reassuring it is to activate their EPIRBs as they are getting into their life raft, safe in the knowledge that it is likely that someone nearby will pick up the signal.
However, your EPIRB might be lost, or it might be broken, or there may be a problem on the search and rescue front. In the case of EPIRB failure, you will have to prepare for a potentially long time in the life raft: weeks or months. Based on the accounts above, the four most important things that you need to master are:
- Integrity of the raft
A life raft typically comes with a supply of water in tins, but it won’t last long. When your boat is damaged, and it becomes clear that abandoning the ship may be a necessity, you may have anything from 60 seconds to 60 minutes before the boat sinks. What the survivors grabbed in that time frame were critical to their survival.
Amongst other things, if you have time, you will want to grab large containers of water, filled from the boat’s water tanks. Those will buy you a bit of time when you in the raft, as you figure out how you are going to solve the water problem.
Different survivors have solved the water problem in different ways. William Butler had a manual water-maker, which is a small hand-operated pump that filters the salt out of salt water. This is an ingenious device and it solved the water problem for him and his wife entirely. He and his wife didn’t have to think about water at all, whereas for the other survivors the search for fresh water was a major problem.
You can buy a small manual watermaker for about $1,000, or a slightly bigger one for $2,300. In an ideal world I think you’d want to have the small one packed in your life raft already, and the larger one as part of your grab bag. Once in the raft, you would want to tie the water-makers on so you don’t lose them overboard if the raft capsizes.
The other solution has been to wait for rain, and to form various kinds of catchment areas, like inverted umbrellas, to catch the rain. This is fine if there is a lot of rain, but in many places rain doesn’t come for days or longer.
In the area that Dougal Robertson sank with his family, there was no rain. He had been clever enough when the boat was sinking to untie his dinghy and take that along with the life raft. One of his sons, as they were decamping to the life raft, noticed a fishing line unspooling, and he pulled it in, finding the boat’s jib on the other end. They thought they would keep it, and it turned to be a life-saving find. They cut the jib up, and fashioned a small sail which they put on the dinghy, using one of the dinghy oars as a mast. The dinghy was then capable of sailing, and it towed the raft for 10 days towards the Doldrums, where Dougal Robertson knew there would be rain. This was a remarkable piece of seamanship and navigation.
Steven Callahan was lucky enough to have some solar stills, which are balloon-like devices where the sun heats up a basin of sea-water, leading to condensation on the top inside of the balloon, and fresh water dribbles down on the inside of the balloon into a gutter. This works in hot climates rather than cold.
Small supplies of hydration can come from catching turtles and drinking their blood. At times this source was described by Dougal Robertson as critical for the survival of his crew.
As part of your life raft or grab bag, you would want a few solar stills, as they are reasonably light and you want as many backups for water supply as possible. Steven Callahan survived a long time with solar stills, and his constant challenge was repairing them as they broke under wear and tear.
The life raft will come with a few days’ supply of food, and that will quickly run out. The source of food will be the ocean. The life raft is an intriguing object in the ocean, and it attracts marine life. Small marine life then attract larger marine life who are hungry to eat the smaller fish. The survivors report that typically there was a lot of of fish swimming around their rafts.
You will want lots and lots of very strong fishing line, and lots of hooks. The survivors reported how often their hook and line would get bitten off by a shark, so you will want plenty of hooks to practice and figure out how to fish and avoid the sharks. If your line is too thin, and you catch a big fish, it will snap, so you want it to be strong.
One solution to the problem of sharks biting off your bait and hook is to have a fishing spear, and implant a hook directly in a fish near the raft, and then pull the fish in. Then you can choose to spear a fish that is not near a shark.
Many survivors report turtles coming near the raft, and being able to grab the turtles by the flippers, and eat them. Having a knife is critical for gutting a fish or turtle, and Dougal Robertson reports that the knife that came with the raft was wholly inadequate, and one of the life-saving things he did in the 60 seconds as his boat sunk was to grab a decent knife.
Poon Lim didn’t have any fishing equipment on his raft, or a knife. He made a fishing line out of some rope that he took apart into its component strands. He made a hook out of a spring from the battery section of a flash-light he had. He used barnacles on his raft for bait. And he turned the top of a tin of food into a knife that used to gut fish. Remarkable improvisation! Poon Lim holds the record for survival on a raft: 133 days.
Maralyn Bailey was also pretty remarkable at improvising. She and her husband had no hooks, and she made a fishing hook out of a safety pin. She noticed that she could scoop fish out of the sea in various ways without using a line and hook. She got a plastic bottle and cut the bottom of the bottle off, and then unscrewed the end with the top. Water could flow through the bottle but a fish couldn’t get through the small hole. She put bait in the bottle, and waited for a fish to enter the bottle for the bait. Then she would scoop the fish out of the water!
Maralyn discovered that she could hold a turtle shoulder in the water and fish would grab onto the flesh on it, and they would hold on while she pulled them onto their raft. She also pulled small sharks on board as they glided by, just grabbing them by the tails and holding on, which is an example of remarkable bravery.
Integrity of the raft
The raft suffers constant buffeting by the waves, and exposure from the sun. Sharks swim back and forth, and whack the raft with their tails, and turtles rub themselves on the bottom of the raft with their shells, some of which have spikes on. Survivors talk about how critical it is to have a paddle or stick and poke sharks when they come near, to prevent them from whacking the raft. They describe how sharks will swim away when poked.
Many survivors report how glad they are that they bought a decent raft, or how much they regret having economized. It seems sensible to get the best possible raft made out of the strongest fabrics.
Because of the fish, and other reasons, holes develop in both the floor, letting water in, and also in the flotation tanks. The rafts come with a manual pump, and many survivors talk about having to be on almost constant pump duty after a few weeks at sea. Dougal Robertson describes how his pump stopped working and they had to keep the raft inflated with their lungs.
The rafts come with repair kits, and a couple survivors mention that the glue in the repair kit has dried up, even when the raft was inspected the year before. So it’s worth double and triple checking the repair kit, and possibly having extra glue and repair material in the grab bag.
If you have a dinghy attached to your raft, as the Baileys and the Robertsons did, you can try to tow your life raft towards a shipping lane, or towards rain. To be able to do this, you need to know things like your position, the prevailing currents and winds, and have a good sense of the geography of the area: where rain may be found, or where a shipping lane may be found.
It’s pretty critical to ensure that there is at least one backup line connecting the dinghy with the raft. One morning Dougal Robertson woke up to see the dinghy sailing off by itself. The rope connecting the dinghy with the raft had chafed through. He knew that the dinghy was his family’s only chance of survival, as it was pulling the raft towards rain. Sharks were circling the raft, but he made the decision in a split second to jump out of the raft and swim through the shark-infested waters to catch up with the dinghy, climb in, and take the sail down. For some reason, the sharks didn’t touch him as he swam through them. He then brought the dinghy back to the raft.
Salt water sores
All of the survivors report developing salt sores, which are areas where the skin peels off after chafing wet fabric for extended periods of time. These sores become excruciatingly painful, and it becomes hard to move. Poon Lim describes that he ‘had as much to fear from his sores as the sea’.
It’s worth researching if there are good solutions to the salt water sore problem. The survivors report that the drier they could keep their skin, the better, and pouring any oil they had on the sores provided some relief.
Many survivors report the frustration of shooting a flare up as a large container ship goes by in a shipping lane, and the ship not stopping. It happened so often that many of them gave up any hope of being rescued by a passing ship.
Some survivors had better luck with fishing ships, which are much smaller, and are more likely to have a look-out on the boat. The large container ships have too few staff to be scanning the horizon for flares. The container ships run on autopilot, and the crew monitor the horizon via radio and radar. They will respond to EPIRB signals though, and many of them have played critical roles in sea rescues since EPIRBs were invented.
Dougal Robertson’s boat sank in 60 seconds after it was holed 3 times by whales. He says he wasted critical seconds trying to stem the flood of water, when he should have quickly realized that abandoning ship was inevitable, and focused all his efforts on the abandon ship process.
Maurice and Maralyn Bailey had 60 minutes to wait as their boat sank, so they had much more time to be methodical about what to take. They had a deflated rubber dinghy on board which they had time to inflate and take with them.
Many of the sinkings in the survivor tales are from collisions with whales. This link suggests running your engine if you see a whale to warn it of your presence; altering course to avoid the whale or whales; and not having white anti-foul paint which may attract whales.
Of the above books, the most compelling three are the ones by Callahan, Butler and Robertson. They are beautifully written and they are gripping: it’s hard to put them down.
An interesting contrast to the epic survival stories told in those books is this survivor story of a solo sailor whose sailing boat was sunk by a whale in the Pacific last year. He activated his EPIRB and was rescued within a few hours.