What To Do If You Are Shipwrecked

It’s what we all dread, but try not to think about. It can happen without warning, but there are ways you can be prepared.

Items you must always have to hand, “just in case”.

  • A life raft which is regularly serviced and that you know how to launch.
  • Life jackets (regularly checked) for everyone on board.
  • VHF radio for communication.
  • Flares.
  • Emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB).
  • Personal locator beacon (PLB).
  • “Grab bag” with basic survival gear including first aid kit, documents, keys, water, hand-held VHF radio and spare batteries for it. On a long trip when you are far offshore consider some food rations and thermal gear.
  • Sunscreen.

When you know you’ve got a problem

  • Send a “Mayday” call including your position, the nature of the problem, your boat details, the number of people on board and details of any injuries
  • Assess quickly whether you can fix the problem. If you have the knowledge, tools and spares, you may have time to do a quick running repair to get you out of trouble or buy you extra time, but don’t waste valuable time and increase the danger. You may be able to temporarily plug a small hole with things around the boat such as sails, cushion etc.
  • Get everyone to put on their life jackets if they haven’t already done so, grab their “grab bags” and abandon ship, assembling at the stern where the life raft will be launched.
  • Try to keep calm. This allows you to think clearly and conserve your energy. It will also reassure others and help to stop them panicking.
  • Don’t abandon ship unless you are sure that your boat is sinking and cannot be recovered. (always step up into a life raft). A life raft should be the last resort when you have no other option. Your boat will offer you better protection and is a greater target for search and rescue crafts to see.

If you are in a life raft

  • If you haven’t already done so, send a “Mayday”.
  • Set off flares, but only when potential rescuers are in sight. You don’t want to waste your precious resources.
  • Keep yourself hydrated with the water you have with you (but ration it) and keep your energy up by eating a little of your supplies.
  • Examine yourself and your companions for any injuries. Cuts and grazes may be easily treated. Any deep wounds or cuts should be bandaged up with anything clean that comes to hand and if there is bleeding, apply pressure to the wound itself or either side of it.
  • If your life-raft has a cover, try to stay under it to keep out of the sun.
  • If you can see land and you are able to steer your life-raft, then head for it if it is not too far away.
  • Be aware of the psychological challenges of being lost at sea with nothing but open water around you. If you are with others, try to keep your spirits up by playing word games or talking about future plans.
  • Look out for the symptoms of heat stroke, hypothermia, dehydration and concussion.
  • Most life rafts have sea anchors which can help to stabilize your raft, but it will also slow your drifting rate. The more you drift the better your chance of finding land, so use the anchor if the wind picks up but pull it up during calm weather.
  • Try to avoid drinking sea water as it will dehydrate you quickly and the excess salt can damage the kidneys.

If you are in the sea

  • If your boat is still visible, hang on to it and look around to get your bearings.
  • Look for debris you can cling to if your boat sinks completely or anything else floating that you can make use of.
  • Look around for land and try to remember which direction it’s in.
  • Look for other victims and try to encourage them to stay close together. You may be able to make a makeshift raft by tying together bits of wood and other floating items.
  • You need to get out of the water as soon as possible; swimming and treading water will sap your energy and lower your body temperature very quickly.
  • If sharks circle your group, stay together, as an individual is in more danger of being attacked. If anyone is bleeding, make it a priority for them to stay out of the water, as their blood will attract the sharks. Remove any shiny objects which the sharks could mistake for fish scales. If a shark does attack, use any object available to hit its eyes and gills.

If you are on land that isn’t inhabited

  • Seek shelter. You could use your life raft or the makeshift craft you built. Search for natural shelters such as caves or try to build a shelter using bits of wood, branches, leaves, reeds etc. Try not to sleep directly on the ground. Try to mark the shelter’s location with something brightly coloured as a locator point for you, other survivors and rescuers.
  • If your wrecked boat is close to the shore salvage everything you can from it.
  • If you have food and water with you, ration it. In any case start looking for fresh water and food sources.
  • If you do find water, always filter it. It may look clean, but may contain parasites and other nasties which could make you very ill. If you can boil your water, that is even better. Boil it for 20 minutes if possible and never drink seawater.
  • Look for fruit, nuts, seeds and flowers as a source of food. Be wary of berries, leaves, fungi and anything that you are not sure of. Some bugs can be eaten if you have a strong enough stomach but avoid those with bright colours or those easily found in open areas, as these are more likely to be poisonous.
  • Try fishing, but be aware that some fish are toxic and can make you ill. Avoid jellyfish, fish with spikes, fish that puff up and fish with parrot-like beaks. Turtles are nutritious and easy to catch and you can use their flesh, eggs and blood.
  • Do everything you can to attract attention, such as setting off flares intermittently, building fires, using mirrors and reflectors, using body signals and making messages.
  • Stay together, help each other and set up an around-the-clock watch for rescue.
  • Keep cool by dipping yourself in the water (or just wetting your clothes to be safer) and warm by wearing all your clothes, staying in your shelter when you can and making fires.

Author - Dee White

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