Survival at Sea
You survived the wreckage, you were able to stay afloat and stay warm to prevent
hypothermia (or even better climb in your raft and stay dry). Now you have to be ready to
survive at sea for an unknown period of time. Like on land, the basic survival rules
apply. You must first protect yourself from the elements, then find water, and food. In
addition preparing yourself to signal for help might increase your chances to be found by
potential rescuers of passing ships and crafts.
Protecting yourself from the elements
After drowning, the highest danger comes from exposure (cold, wind, heat, sun, salt).
The resistance to the elements is also weakened by fear, stress, and the energy spent
during the wreckage.
Hypothermia is the main cause of death resulting from exposure to the
elements. The body heat loss is 25 times greater in the water than in the air. Even in
tropical water, a man immersed (without protection) for an extended period of time will
die from hypothermia. (In the 80s a dive boat sunk in the warm water of the Sea of Cortez.
The only people who survived were the ones who were able to grab their wetsuits. Survivors
still suffered from hypothermia). In cold water, dying from hypothermia might be a matter
In the heat of the moment
If you can, grab as much clothing as possible. Polypropylene will protect you even wet.
Rain gear will protect you in the raft.
In the water
Try to get off the water as soon as possible. If you cant, save your energy.
Avoid all movements that will increase your blood circulation as it will also increase
your body heat loss (it is wrong to believe that moving quickly in very cold water will
help you to warm up. It only exhausts you). The original pain you feel in the extremities
will quickly disappear, frostbite in the water doesnt happen before hypothermia, so
save your energy (On land in cold climates and mountains, frostbites can often happen
before or even without hypothermia).
In a survival raft
Protect your self from the wind. Windchill can very quickly increase the risk of
hypothermia. Use clothing, a sail or tarp made from any fabric available. Stay as dry as
possible. Avoid drinking alcohol, coffee and smoking tobacco (those have a vasoconstrictor
effect). Once on the raft, exercise might warm up cold extremities (and overall body).
Covering yourself with grease or fat might help you preserve your body heat, especially if
you need to dive back in the water. (people swimming across the Channel spray themselves
with grease). For more information read our section on Land Survival.
Important note about rescuing people suffering from
During rescue operations, people have lost their lives after surviving the initial
hypothermia. It is essential to know (both for rescuers and victims) that the internal
temperature can drop 4 to 5 degrees (Centigrade) at the time of rescue. This temperature
drop might last 20 minutes.
When people suffer from hypothermia, the extremities are sacrificed to preserve the
internal organs. The blood circulation then stops in the extremities where the blood
becomes much colder. When rescued, the peripheral circulation (from the extremities) is
re-activated. The previously stagnant cold blood goes back to the vital organs and
provokes this last dramatic temperature drop which is often fatal. So it is essential to
take this phenomena into account while warming up a victim of hypothermia.
Warming up technique
The best way to safely warm up victims is to immerse them in a hot bath (45-50 degrees)
for a period of 10 minutes (the contact with warm water might be very painful to the
extremities (if the victim is conscious), but it is very important to keep the victim
submerged in the bath.
This technique was successfully used on victims who seemed to have died (very stiff
body, and no apparent pulse.
If bath tubs arent available, but hot water is. A shower (with enough water
pressure) or hose spraying water at 60 degrees could be used instead.
If hot water isnt available in large quantity (if it needs to be boiled), hot
pads can be made.
Hot pads arent as efficient as hot baths but they represent the next best
Hot pads should be used as follows:
The most important pad (the first one) should be placed under the neck. If other pads
are available, they should be placed under the arm pits and between the legs (groin area).
Making Hot Pads
There are some special rubber containers made for this use. They were used in the past
to warm up beds during winter nights in Europe. To make a pad, you can use any thin,
flexible waterproof containers that will not melt (the MSR Dromadery water bags we use
during our expedition would be great), skin gourds, inflatable life jackets, scuba diving
BCs, drysuits, car tubes, or even condoms could be used to make those pads. Water can be
heated (stove, fire, microwave, etc.) and placed in those pads.
If hot water isnt available, use chemical warming pads (sold in sports stores).
To make hot pads without any hot water, you could heat rocks (fire) and wrap them in
clothing. If on a sand beach and no rocks are available, you might need to make a fire in
a pit (the size of the victim). When the fire is made place the victim next to it while
preparing a second fire. As soon as the fire has produced some red coils, cover it with
sand and place the victim in the hot pit. Make sure there is enough sand not to cause
burns. Cover the victim with hot sand from the second pit and you can add red coals from
the second fire on top of the sand. While the fire is still lit, you can wet some cloth
and put them very close to the flames. They wont catch on fire but will get hot
quickly. You can use those as pads while waiting for your fire to produce red coals
(Note that in hospitals, hypothermia patients are treated with combination of bath and
IVs (intravenous fluids) to slowly warm up the full blood system).
The main problem is dehydration which is reinforced by skin burns. On a
raft freshwater is probably your most valuable thing. A way to reduce your necessary
consumption is to reduce your body fluid loss. To do so you have to reduce exercise and
sun exposure. Make a sun shade with any type of fabric available. Sails and tarps work
best. If possible set them to shade the maximum surface on the raft while preserving the
maximum airflow. When you get too hot, swimming (always tie yourself to the raft) or
splashing your body will cool you off. Wearing wet clothing will also keep you cooler than
bare skin (it will also protect you from burns)
To avoid sunstroke cover your head and neck (with wet clothing) and minimize your
movements during the day.
The salt water takes away the skin's natural moisture and sunburns accelerate
dehydration. The skin can quickly dry and chap, crack and swell. Protect your skin with
light clothing. Water might help you cool off, but the constant rubbing with salt might
irritate your skin even more (dont apply anymore salt to broken skin areas). Also
make sure you let your clothing dry before night. Even in the tropics, nights can be cold.
If you dont have any sun protective ointments, any type of grease or fat might also
help protect your skin. (Fat can be found in sea birds and other various animals).
On the ocean the sun is reflected by the sea and can cause partial or permanent
blindness. Sunglasses (100% UV protection, polarized glasses are best) are a must for all
watersport activities. If you dont have any sunglasses, you should improvise some.
Indigenous people from the Arctic circle used leather bands in which they cut two narrow
slit for the eyes. Those narrow slits minimize the contact with sun rays. You could use
any type of fabric to make such eye protection.
If your eyes are swollen or burning you can apply wet bandage with light pressure. It
is better to use freshwater if you can spare it. Dont apply the bandage for too
Extended salt exposure will irritate the skin and might burn, produce
rashes, sores and boils. If you can, rinse with fresh (rain) water, and keep the affected
area dry. Avoid any additional contact with salt (seawater). In the case of infected pus
filled sores,. do not break it as they might spread infections.
Castaways who have parts of their bodies immersed for a long period of
time might suffer from swelling and tenderness at the tip of their fingers and toe. It is
painful and is best treated with sunscreen oil (coconut oil). Other types of rashes and
boils might also result. The most affected areas are ones most frequently in contact with
water: hands, elbows, buttocks. These can spread over other body parts. Healing takes a
long time and requires a period of time without any additional salt exposure. Protect all
affected areas from further contact with sea water.
Prevent dehydration (body fluid loss due to perspiration) and motion sickness (also
leading to dehydration. (sleep or rest as much as possible).
Protect yourself from the sun (see section on "Exposure Sun")
Protect yourself against motion sickness. (use pills before getting sick; try applying
pressure on your wrist (accu-pressure point); look at the horizon; often change your
heads position; avoid eating when you are sick or susceptible to be). In the first
storm on a raft, even experienced sailors get motion sickness. There isnt much to do
to avoid it, but it usually goes away after 3 days (or earlier if the sea conditions
improve). The danger is vomiting leading to dehydration and exhaustion.
H20 Consumption: Healthy VS. Necessary to survive
The minimum amount of water considered necessary to stay in good shape is 1.3/4 pts (1
litre) per day. It is possible to survive with 2 to 5 oz (55 to 220 centiliters) per day.
When you will be surviving at sea for an unknown duration of time, it is necessary to
ration the water to the minimum needed to survive.
On the first day, your body still contains much water, so you dont need to drink.
It is recommended to decrease your water ration progressively. The first 2 to 4 days you
should drink 14oz (400cc). After you should reduce to 2 to 8 oz daily. This will of course
vary with the conditions. (no protection from the sun in a tropical area will require more
water than in the shade in temperate climate.
During such rationing, symptoms such as discomfort, absence of saliva, cracking of lips
and weakness are normal. If delirium starts, the victim needs more water. (This rationing
might not be healthy for a period of over a week, but unless you find alternative source
of water you might have to follow it to survive).
Make good use of your fresh water
When drinking moisten the lips tongue and throat (gurgle lightly) before swallowing.
Use Lightly salted water (first rain) to wash wounds, and rinse face
Food and Water Needs
Digestion requires a lot of water. So if you are low in water and rationing yourself
(adrift in an area without much rain), you should avoid eating. It is possible to survive
much longer without food than without water.
Proteins requires much more water than carbohydrates. So if you need to eat, you should
first eat your carbohydrate food (sugar and starches). The main food you will gather from
the ocean (fish, sea turtles and seaweed) are rich in proteins and should be avoided if
you dont have enough water. Do not eat any dehydrated (dried) food if short on water
(all dried food also requires much water to be digested). Over a long period, you should
eat so as not to suffer from additional weakness and health problems due to starvation.
Fish and other marine animals contain a little amount of water, but only when they are
eaten immediately (fresh and preferably raw (sashimi)).
Some of these water desalination pumps are manually operated and can
allow you to filter from 1 to 3.5 liters per hour. They are one of the most valuable
pieces of equipment you could possibly store in a survival raft. We used one in our Baja
leg and in spite of the time it takes to pump, we were happy to use it for island hopping
in the sea of Cortez (see photo).
Drinking sea water
Everybody who has accidentally swallowed a bit of sea water knows that
drinking a glass of it isnt possible. Drinking sea water is dangerous and will
result kidney failure. This is what everybody thought until Dr. Bombard proved that people
could survive on sea water (we are talking about staying alive, not healthy). Many experts
still disagree with Bombards theory, but the fact that he has survived 63 days on
drifting raft without any other food and water than what the ocean could provide him gives
a lot of credit to his research on sea survival. Bombard doesnt disregard the danger
of drinking sea water. During his testing periods he got sick when he tried to drink more
than 32oz of sea water per day for more than five days. After numerous tests and various
castaway experimentation (drifting at sea for weeks), he came to the conclusion that
people could safely drink sea water in quantities not exceeding 32oz per day. Safely here
doesnt imply healthy, it is rather the maximum amount of sea water a man could drink
without experiencing major health complication or life threatening conditions. Of course
all his tests were limited on himself (although many other people like the crew of La
Balsa expedition and the Incas themselves were known to regularly drink sea water). If you
must drink sea water, follow Dr. Bombard s advice.
DRINK MAXIMUM 32oz PER DAY and start as soon as possible
(dont wait to be dehydrated). Of course adding fresh water would improve your
Collecting rain water
Depending on your location, it might rain daily or very sporadically. In
the tropics, one short rain storm could dump much water. Often the unprepared castaways
have not been able to take advantage of those strong sporadic rain storms (if it rains
daily you dont need to be too concerned). Many have died of dehydration in areas of
heavy rains. Dont wait for the rain to be prepared.
How to collect rain water
Over time much salt will crystallize over all the fabrics you could use to collect rain
(especially sails and plastic tarps). When you expect rain make sure you wash your fabrics
in the sea. (although the sea is salty, it will remove all the layers of salt crystals.
The little salt left from rinsing in the sea will be minimal (otherwise, the rain water
you will collect will be very salty). You should also keep all your equipment to catch
rainwater set up at night when you sleep (by the time you wake up and are ready to set up
in the dark, you might have lost a chance to collect most of the water).
What to use, how?
Any large surface of fabrics such as canvas or plastic are great to catch rain water.
If you have sails, make a giant bowl with them (make sure you rinse them before). In heavy
sea make sure you protect your water collection plant from the waves. You dont want
the ocean to spoil your precious drinking water. If you dont have any sails or not
enough tarps, use anything from rain jackets and pants to garbage bags, wetsuits, life
jackets, etc. Cans and bottles make great containers to store water but are not very
efficient to collect it. You might also collect water from the gutters of your dinghy.
Pockets of rain water might also form in various places (which you can lap if difficult to
transfer into a receptacle).
How to store rain water
Drink all you need from the rain, but if you have been on a rationed diet, drink very
slowly as to not vomit (a normal reaction after forced drinking following dehydration).
Store as much rain water as possible. The first water collected might still contain a
bit of salt (save it separately. You can use it to wash wounds and moisten lips and eyes.
When you run out of containers, think of anything that can be made into a container (plan
this beforehand). To not mention the obvious, fill up your diving BC, and everything that
is inflatable. If you are on a raft. You can partially fill up the tubes of your raft. It
wont sink (rafts are extremely buoyant) but it will even stabilize it more in heavy
seas (you can then pipe the water out when needed (for example with a snorkel or diving
hose)). Even condoms (never leave home without them!) can be thoroughly rinsed and after
fully inflated, they can contain and preserve much water.
Using saline and foul water
When the water is first collected it might contain too much salt to be drinkable, but
it could still be used to clean wounds, humidify lips and rinse the skin (especially where
rashes, dryness and soreness have developed).
Foul water collected on a raft is usually safe to drink but because of the taste it
might cause vomiting. To avoid vomiting is can be absorbed rectally by means of a water
Another beneficial use of water enema: After a long period of dehydration (and diet)the
stomach shrinks and cant hold much water. During a strong rain storm, if you
dont have much container to store water, you want to fill yourself up. You can
absorb up to one pint rectally.
In case of severe dehydration the body will more quickly be hydrated with an enema. It
is a method that has saved knowledgeable survivors. But careful not to use salt water (sea
water is as dangerous absorbed rectally as it is orally).
fresh water in the ocean
In polar regions, ice is easily collected from icebergs. The surface
of the ocean might also freeze and provide ice. If the ice is old enough (a year old. It
is usually blue-gray like on glaciers), it will have lost its salt concentration. You can
melt it to drink, or just suck it. Be sure to taste it first to make sure it isnt
In polar regions, ice is easily collected from icebergs. The surface of
the ocean might also freeze and provide ice. If the ice is old enough (a year old. It is
usually blue-gray like on glaciers), it will have lost its salt concentration. You can
melt it to drink, or just suck it. Be sure to taste it first to make sure it isnt
You might also be able to collect ice on the surface of various
equipment. It is frozen air humidity and can be used.
When very cold, you might also be able to freeze sea water in containers. The salt will
freeze last and concentrate in the middle. You can then break the side and separate it
from the center to get low saline water.
In the tropics dehydration can happen quickly. During the dry season, rains might be
very sporadic (but strong so be ready!). The tropical waters are usually rich in marine
life which can be used not only as a source of food but water as well.
Fish (and other marine animals) contain liquid in their flesh, but remember that if you
are very low in water, digesting proteins will require more than you might be able to
spare (it means eating flesh or drinking blood).
Fish can also provide a source of water. You can drink the aqueous liquid found in the
eyes and spine bones. Those are almost free of salt and a good source of drinking water
(especially if you catch large fish or in large quantities).
To extract the liquid, cut the freshly caught fish in half. Break the vertebras apart
and suck them (no water in shark spines). Also suck the eyes.
You can also suck on barnacles and similar shellfish which are often found on hulls,
ropes (or even whales). Taste first to make sure it isnt too salty. If it taste too
bitter you might want to discard it as well.
The Incas were believed to chew on fish to obtain water. Later, members of La Balsa
expedition also survived by twisting pieces of fish in clothing to extract the moisture
(after removing all the blood). They also suck on the waters from the eyes and bones. Dr.
Bombard even made a machine to press fish and extract the precious fluid they contain.
Solar Stills and Condensation
Modern equipment has come a long way and some new survival raft come equipped with
solar stills and chemical desalination tablets. If so, the solar stills should be set up
as soon as possible (dont wait to be low in water, it is slow process).
To make your own solar still, read our Survival Page on beach surviving.
In some dry places (little to no rain), nights might bring much condensation (a good
example is Baja in Mexico). You can collect the drops of condensation with a canvas or
plastic tarp (or sail) set as a bowl (to cover the maximum surface area, make sure the
water collected gets funneled the proper way to be stored. (dont forget to rinse the
fabrics. See collecting rain water).
The more active you are the more energy you use, the more food (and water) you need.
Relax as much as possible and try to lay down to save as much energy as possible.
Food and Water. Should you really eat?
Before eating any food, be aware that digestion (especially of proteins and dried food)
requires much water. If you are very short on water dont eat. If you have food but
no water, wait until you can collect enough water (rain or other means) to eat. You can
survive much longer without food than without water. If you really need to eat (after a
long period, dont let yourself starve), you should choose the carbohydrates first
(sugar and starches often contained in survival rations). Proteins (fish, turtles, birds
and algae) although probably your main source of food, should be eaten last is you are low
on fresh water.
Does the sea contain enough food to remain healthy?
Sailors in the past believed that the sea could not provide them enough vitamins. To
avoid suffering from scurvy, they stored fruits and vegetables. Onions have always been a
favorite among sailors. They contain the more vitamins than any other vegetables and if
kept in a dry area, they can be kept for a long period of time.
Dr. Bombard proved his theory. The sea can provide enough food (including the right
vitamins) to men for a long period of time. Fish flesh contains proteins and vitamin A
(and D). Often livers from fish also contain other vitamins like B1 and B2 (be careful
that some fish contains poison in their liver, others contain a very high concentration of
vitamin A which can also be toxic). Vitamin C and sugar can be found in plankton.
Surviving castaways have often use much ingenuity to catch food. Most of what you find
around you can be converted and use to catch, attract or find food.
Fish are plentiful in most oceans and they might be the easiest to catch
if you have a minimum of material to make some basic equipment. Dont worry about
eating raw fish. In many countries raw fish is considered a delicacy. The most famous are
Japan (sushi and sashimi) and Latin American countries (ceviche). (Note: cooking will kill
potential parasites, but healthy fish are safe to be eaten raw).
Fishing lines, nets, spears, etc.
There are many known fishing methods used all around the world. Lines can be made from
any types of ropes or strings (found from various clothing, fabrics, and other equipment),
hooks can be made from metal, plastic, bones, etc.
Fishing at night
Often night time provides the best fishing. This is why many fishermen work at night.
Spearfishing (freediving) at night is also much easier than during day time. Many fish are
attracted by light. Use any possible source of light (electrical or fire) to attract fish.
If not available you might even be able to reflect the light from the moon (full moon) to
attract your preys.
Some fish (especially small sharks because their skin is rough) can even be caught by
hand once attracted close to your raft (bait or light). For more information on fishing
techniques, read our website on Survival
Sailors are familiar with those, they often find them lying on the deck of their boat
in the morning.
Flying fish are found in schools. If you cross their path, you might be able to catch
many at once. They are attracted by bright light. Use anything to that order (see fishing
at night). Use white canvas or tarps (even during the day). The fish will fly over your
raft and hit the tarp you set. They will fall stoned in your raft.
A note about poisonous fish
The castaways are usually far enough from shore that they dont need to worry much
about poisonous fish. Most fish found in open ocean are edible. Poisonous fish are usually
found in coastal areas, particularly reefs. Even some poisonous fish might be edible if
you carefully discard the liver and other internal organs in which the poison or toxins
are usually contained. (often the flesh contains no or much less toxins). When in doubt
only eat fish you know. If you cant be selective, only eat flesh that has not been
in contact with organs. Eat only a small quantity first, wait a few hours checking for
symptoms before eating more. For more information read our homepage on "Dangerous Sea
Organs you dont eat can be used. Some contain oil you can squeeze and rub on dry
skin. Most can be use to bait other fish.
Note: cooking will not decrease the amount of poison or toxins in the fish.
Note: dont forget that fish in the tropics can spoil very quickly (unless dried
properly), discard any fish with you might believe unsafe. You dont want to risk
fish poisoning or even vomiting (loss of energy and water).
Drying fish (or meat)
If you catch more fish than you can eat (or than you should eat if youre short on
water), you should start drying it right away. In the tropics, fish can spoil very
Fish fillets are usually dried by being hanged in the sun. A quicker process (but which
might not retain as much water) is to cut very thin slices of fish and spread them on any
dry fabrics (canvas and plastics) exposed to the sun. (Meat (turtle) can be dried in the
same way, but meat with high content of fat might spoil before being dried). Remember that
dried food will require more water to digest.
Castaways rarely think about eating birds, but all sea birds are edible
(some might be very chewy though). Their meat can be eaten cooked, raw, or dried.
Birds might land on your raft to rest or circle you hoping for food. They can be caught
by hand, knocked with an oar, speared, caught with a net, snared, or even hook like a fish
(using various baits or lure in the water or thrown in the air).
If you cant cook the bird, skin it and eat it raw. In cold weather you can use
the feather to make some insulation under your cloth (down sleeping bags!). Feathers could
even be used as fishing bait. You can use the fat to lubricate the skin. In the arctic
regions, people chew on fat (seals and sea lions). In very cold situation you might want
to chew on the fat of birds (and sea turtles). Bones contain marrow. If you cant
chew on the bone, break it and extract the marrow with something long and thin. The best
way to kill a bird by hand is to hold both wings in one hand (from the origin of
insertion) and with the other hand grab the neck and quickly pull it down (and up if it
doesnt work on first try). The neck will break.
Sea turtle meat is very nutritious and still many indigenous people feed
on them in Central America. Their eggs are also very good (found buried on the beach, or
inside female turtles).
When killed the turtle should be bled as soon as possible to preserve its meat. (Not
bled, the meat will spoil faster and wont be as easy to dry). With the exception of
the heart, organs might be best discarded. To remove the meat from the turtle, you will
need a knife (improvised with metal or plastic if necessary (Tin cans make good blades).
Start by cutting the head off to bleed the turtle. Then insert your blade in the crack
between the top and lower shell from the head. Move your blade in a sawing motion to cut
all around. If you cant open the shell, cut all legs and dig your hands inside to
grab the meat. Dont forget the eggs if its a female. Dont forget that
the bones contain marrow. In cold climate the fat can also be chewed on. Otherwise it can
be use for skin lubrication (or to bait fish or birds).
Plankton is very nutritious and is a also essential to prevent scurvy
for long time castaways. It isnt found in every waters, but as whales (whale sharks
and manta rays) feed on large quantities of plankton, all areas hosting those marine
animals will be rich in plankton. Plankton will often be found on the surface at night
(during the day it might only be found deeper). Any type of net with very small holes
dragged behind a raft will work well. Mosquito nets, cotton fabrics from a tent will also
work great. Any type of clothing trailed in the water will also work. Sea anchors are
ready made natural plankton nets.
Dont let the smell throw you off, plankton doesnt smell good
but it doesnt taste bad.
Seaweed (or algae) of various types are found on most oceans. They are
used in many Japanese dishes. In addition to being very tasty, they are rich in proteins,
carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Most seaweeds are edible, however some green or blue
algae found in freshwater pools can be highly poisonous. Most type of seaweeds are found
in coastal areas either drifting or still attached to rocks. (Dont collect dried
seaweed washed out on beaches). A few types of seaweed can also be found far offshore. In
the Sargasso sea and North Atlantic, the sargassum species are commonly found floating on
the surface. You can drag a net (see plankton) or any type of homemade hook or rake to
collect seaweed. There are many types of seaweed, but the ones usually found offshore are
tough and might be hard to eat raw. You can dry them in the sun (or with fire), then chew
on them (if you have a lot of rainwater, you might want to rinse them too). Some thick
seaweed will require boiling to remove some natural glue (used a lot in the paper
Dont forget that seaweed requires a lot of fresh water to be digested. Do not eat
seaweed unless you have sufficient drinking water. For more information bout seaweed, see
our Survival Homepage.
They might be the least appealing form of food found in the ocean, but
they are edible and even prized by Chinese and Japanese. They cover the bottom of most
sandy oceans and are the easiest animals to catch in shallow water. Some species secrete a
mucous from their skins that can be irritating (especially avoid contact with sensitive
skin areas and eyes). They must be well gutted and cleaned (the skin must be cleaned
numerous times to remove the sticky mucous) before being eaten. Depending on where they
are prepared, they can be smoked, cooked, or marinated raw. For more information about sea
cucumbers see our Survival Homepage.
The most useful is an EPIRB. The smallest and easiest to carry are a signaling mirror
and a whistle. Those three represent my first choice because of their efficiency (whistles
and mirrors are so small you can always keep them attached to your life jacket and they
nearly never fail even over a long period of time). The EPIRB is an emitter that emits
international distress signals messages and indicates your position. Other useful
signaling devices are flares, water dye, strobe lights, red and reflective fabrics, VHF
radios (and GPS to give an exact position to rescuers), etc.
All signaling devices are important, but the best equipped people arent always
the better prepared. In a survival situation it is essential to think and act according to
the situation. Dr. Bombard proved that castaways could survive 63 days drifting at sea
with nothing. When asked, Vital Arsal, the captain of La Balsa said that survival depends
on the total cooperation of all men. If Ed Gillet had lost faith and stopped paddling when
he ran out of food after 60 days in a kayak, he would have never reached Hawaii. Survival
is about fighting and believing in life.
Some castaways are found at sea, others reach nearby or distant coasts.
If you are in a situation where you intentionally or accidentally reach a coastline, you
might need to be careful with your landing. All sailors know that the greatest danger
isnt on open ocean, but near rocky or coral-lined shores. (you might find many
stories of bad kayak landings in our journals. The book "we survived yesterday"
is also full of tales of dangerous landings). If possible avoid shores with high cliffs.
Lookout for breaking surf and coral reefs. Choose sandy beaches over rocks and coral. If
you are on the windward side of the island, try to paddle around it (to the leeward side)
to find a more protected place (or look for a small bay that will shelter you from waves).
A flat sloping beach might be a better choice than a steep beach (on which big surf could
break violently). If you can wait, dont land at night. If you cant choose your
landing and will arrive in a coral or rocky area, wear protecting clothing if available
(shoes, life jacket, wetsuit, etc). Waves arrive in sets (often of 7), make sure you time
your landing to deal with the smallest waves. If pushed toward rocks, swim feet first. If
high swell threatens to break on you, dont surf it, dive into it (going in the
opposite direction) and once it passes over you resume swimming toward the beach. If you
are in a raft or canoe, the main surf landing technique would be very similar to kayaking.
Paddle hard toward the beach between the waves and back paddle as hard as you can when the
next breaking wave is catching you (avoid surfing, you might capsize). If you have a sea
anchor, let it drag behind you. It will keep your craft oriented in the waves and will
prevent you from surfing (and maybe capsizing). Dont jump in the water, stay in your
raft (or dinghy) until you touch the beach. If you seem to be drifting away from shore,
you most likely are in a rip current (or possibly in an outflowing river estuary).
Dont fight it. Those are usually not very wide, paddle or swim parallel to shore
until you come out of the rip current.
Once on the beach if no human signs are evident, you are now in a coastal survival
situation (much more favorable than a sea survival situation). Note: It is easier to look
for landmarks when you are still on the water than after youve landed on the beach.
Please refer to our Survival Home Page for information on coastal survival.
Note: If you are wearing a life jacket, it might be easier to swim on your back.
It is easier to cover distance with a partially deflated jacket.
Indications to the proximity of land
- Drifting vegetation or wood might indicate proximity of land.
- Birds often fly to sea in the morning and return toward the land at night (some birds
can fly far out to sea).
- Birds usually indicates proximity of land.
- Wind generally blows toward land during the day and toward sea at night.
- Shallow water is clear (in tropics). It might indicate proximity of land.
- Silt or murky water probably comes from a river and indicates proximity of land (the
amazon produces murky ocean for hundreds of miles)
- In the tropics coral reefs or lagoons often reflect themselves in the clouds (greenish
- Cumulus clouds are usually formed over land.
- Clouds often gather themselves over corals islands and reefs.
- A change of pattern in the swell might indicate a change of tide around an island.
If the swell is decreasing but the wind remains constant, it indicates an island
windward (which is protecting the sea).