Survival at Sea

Survival at Sea

A vessel goes missing at sea with no sign of boat or crew and no idea what caused the accident. The authorities start a search and rescue attempt but nothing can be found. They act with their heads and call off the search. Friends and family are hoping against hope that that their loved ones will be found and no amount of evidence or lack of it will convince them otherwise. This dilemma has happened many times in maritime history and no doubt the same problem will occur countless times in the future. How do you make the decision to call off a search, who is qualified to do so, how long do you leave it before making that critical judgment?

Cheeki Rafiki

Search for Cheeki Rafiki called off after 2 days

In one of the most recent sailing accidents, four young sailors lost their lives when their yacht took in water and capsized in mid-Atlantic, while returning from a regatta in the Caribbean. Initially the United States Coast Guard called off its active search after just two days, but after protests from friends, family and many different organisations it was resumed. Sadly the sailors were not found, but who can say how long a search should be carried on for? There cannot possibly be a relevant set of guidelines in such a predicament and the stories that follow show that it is possible to survive against all the odds.

Steve Callahan

76 days on a life raft

In January 1982 Steve Callahan set off from the Canary Islands in a 6.5 meter self-built boat, aiming to cross the Atlantic to the Bahamas. Six days into his journey the boat was damaged and started to sink, leaving him no option but to take to his 5-foot life raft. With eight pints of water and three pounds of food, a solar still, a spear gun, sleeping bag and some navigational charts, he contended with malnourishment, sunburn, numerous shark attacks and a leaking life raft, until he was rescued by fishermen off the coast of Guadalupe, after over two months at sea. During this time he drifted approximately 2,898km. Callahan was an experienced sailor with good knowledge of shipbuilding, but the most significant factor for his survival seems to have been his sheer determination to live.

Tony Bullimore

One bar of chocolate and an air pocket

In January 1997 Tony Bullimore was rescued from underneath his capsized Exide Challenger, in the Southern Ocean, during the Vendee Globe single-handed around-the-world yacht race. He managed to survive in an air pocket in the upside-down boat, in pitch darkness, with only one bar of chocolate and some water to sustain him. After five days, with no sign that he was alive, the search teams feared that he had drowned, but amazingly his will to live kept him going. It is thought that he would have had only one more day’s supply of air before it ran out. Apart from mild hypothermia and dehydration he was surprisingly fit and well after his ordeal and was not put off sailing by his experience. In 2005 he skippered a team that came second in the Oryx Quest and in 2007 he was involved in another yachting record attempt.

Alone in a category four hurricane

When Tami Oldham Ashcraft set out with her fiancé, to deliver a yacht from Tahiti to San Diego, she little thought that she would be ending her voyage alone. Halfway through the voyage they were hit by a category four hurricane, with 50-foot waves and 140 knot winds. Ashcraft was knocked unconscious and when she came round hours later she found that her partner’s safety line had snapped and he had disappeared. With incredible presence of mind she rationed her supplies, made a makeshift sail and mast and managed to steer a course to Hawaii, forty days and 1,500 miles away. Amazingly she continues to sail.

Charlie Holland

32 days on dangerous seas

A five day trip was what Charlie Holland and his partner had planned, but it turned into a terrifying 32 day ordeal after running out of fuel, breaking their topmast and wrecking their sail in a wild Atlantic Ocean. Although they had previously sailed every ocean in the last ten years, they had never experienced such perilous conditions. They became exhausted from constantly strugging to keep above water and feared that they would drown. Fortunately after four days they encountered some cargo ships who provided them with enough food, water and fuel, to limp as far as Halifax. Elated to be safe, they nevertheless had the knotty problem of how to deal with the $75,000 of damage sustained by their boat.

One month in a bathtub

Two days before Christmas 2008 a Thai fishing boat was hit by a storm off the coast of Australia. Eighteen of the crew members were washed over the side and were last seen swimming in the open sea without life jackets, but two Burmese actually survived, drifting in what was basically a bathtub for almost a month after their vessel sank.

WW1 plane crash in the South Pacific

During WW1 Eddie Rickenbacker and his crew were flying from Hawaii to their base in the South Pacific when their plane crashed into the ocean. The eight crew members, in three life rafts, ate chocolate bars, oranges and fish caught with a hook and line. Only one member of the crew was lost, due to starvation. The rest survived for 20 days before they were rescued.

What more could possibly go wrong?

In autumn 1982, 5 sailors set off on a routine sail from Maine to Florida. Only two of the five already knew each other and immediately there were differences of oppinion between two of the men who were both heavy drinkers. After the second day they were hit by a storm during which the two drinkers lashed the steering wheel in the middle of their night watch and went back to sleep. As the vessel filled with water the crew untied the life raft which immediately blew away. Luckily they had an inflatable zodiac on board but one of the girls was caught in the rigging as they tried to board it. She suffered lacerations on her arms and legs, almost to the bone, becoming exhausted and by the third day she had severe blood poisoning and died the following night. Although the storm had calmed, they were now surrounded by hundreds of sharks. Two of the men were now drinking sea water and becoming incoherent and delusional. One slipped over the side thinking he could see land, the other took a dip to cool off. Both became victims to the sharks. On the fifth day the two survivors were spotted by another vessel and rescued.

Can you survive on jellyfish?

Shark fishing in a rip-tide area isn’t the best idea. Two friends found this to their cost when they were swept out to sea, losing their rods and bait. They had no water, no shelter from the blazing sun and no equipment, just the occasional jellyfish for food. A close encounter with a shark convinced them it was not sensible to cool down in the water. After an incredible 6 days, by which time they had scratched dying messages to their families onto the boat, they managed to signal to a passing vessel. Both boys needed hospital treatment and one’s condition was so poor that he could only have survived for a few more hours.

Three teenagers survive despite a memorial service

Three teenagers were swept off course when rowing home in a small metal dinghy from Atafu Atoll. After an extensive search they were presumed dead and their grieving family and friends held a memorial service for them, unaware that the boys were still drifting in the vast ocean. Surviving by drinking rainwater and eating raw fish and the occasional seagull, they drifted 1600km and were rescued 50 days later by a passing tuna boat. Their rescue was just in time, as they had started drinking sea water and had severe dehydration, starvation and sunburn. Nevertheless, after hospital treatment they were happily returned to their delighted families.

Poon Lim

The record holding sea survivor

Poon Lim, a 25 year-old Chinese seaman on a British Merchant ship, is the record holder in sea survival. After being torpedoed by a Nazi U-boat he jumped from the sinking ship, found and inflated the life raft and began rationing himself to two tinned biscuits and a few sips of water each day, estimating that he could survive for almost a month on the supplies. By the second month he was catching fish, seagulls and sharks, whose blood quenched his thirst and swimming twice a day for exercise. On the 131st day he spotted more sea birds and kelp and two days later he saw a small sail on the horizon, which heralded his rescue. He was in the Amazon River, having crossed the Atlantic. Incredibly he had lost only 10kg and could walk unaided after his rescue.


Survival depends on many things; how prepared and how lucky you are; whether you can think outside the box, or whether you just give in to a seemingly hopeless situation. Certainly determination to survive is of the utmost importance, but better still - try to avoid that situation in the first place!


Author – Dee White

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