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Many unfortunate scenarios can cause someone to be stranded at sea. Whatever it may be, knowing how to survive such a situation can mean life or death.
Of course, nobody wants to be lost at sea or even think of it as a possibility. Yet it can happen to anyone when they least expect it.
Equipping ourselves with knowledge and skills is the only way to stay alive.
Here are some essential survival skills.
This is a survival skill for any water-related disaster, whether you’re stranded at sea, or whether you’ve fallen into a flowing river or still lake. The minute you hit the water, your body will instinctively react if you know how to swim. Knowing how to move properly in water will give you the edge over those who don’t have this skill.
Take off shoes, heavy jackets, jewellery and ornaments which can make your body heavier. Too many unnecessary items on your body will make it harder for you to move.
Always swim to the closest floating object you can find and get out of the water as soon as possible. The colder the water, the faster you should get out of it. Hypothermia and shock (both can kill you before dehydration) sets in very quickly in frigid waters.
2. Floating in water
For those who didn’t have the chance to learn how to swim before disaster strikes, you can float. The key idea here is to avoid drowning and conserve energy while you get yourself to a boat, floating object or rescuer.
Since you can’t swim, float towards your target instead of just panicking and sinking. Once you are floating, use your hands or feet to paddle towards the target.
In calm water, floating face up is ideal. Relax your body while spreading your legs and arms out. Keep your gaze upwards instead of staring at your feet. Your body will most likely float naturally.
In rough water it is sometimes better to float face down, as choppy waves will keep splashing seawater into your nose and mouth. Float on your belly but lift your head to catch a breath through your mouth and blow the air out slowly through your nose.
3. Techniques for staying warm
If you don’t have a boat or raft to keep out of the water, staying warm in water becomes essential for survival. Even in tropical waters, your body will get cold fast without food and water. This is what you can do to conserve some body heat:
- Heat Escape Lessening Position – keep your limbs close to your body; if you’re wearing a life vest, curl into a fetal position
- Insulate your head as much as you can by wrapping dry clothing around it
- Alternate between horizontal and vertical positions in the water
- Huddle close to your companions
- Conserve energy by not swimming all the time
4. Create floating devices
In the absence of a life jacket, improvise and make one. Anything that is buoyant can be used as a float. For example, styrofoam or wooden boxes, wooden planks, empty bottles. Bind these together to make them more effective floating devices.
If none of these are available, use a pair of trousers. Tie up the ends of the legs, squeeze the water out then fill the trousers with air by waving it above the water.
Tie up the waist opening. It becomes a temporary floating device. This process can be repeated with any soft objects that you can trap air with.
This skill may sound easy, but not so when you’re doing it the first time while submerged in water. Try to practise this when you’re at the pool next time.
5. Collect and store drinking water
Without freshwater, you can stay alive for only a few days. The hotter it is, the more water you will lose from your body. Dehydration will kill you before starvation.
If you have stored water on your boat or raft, ration it wisely. Taking small sips will hydrate your body more effectively than long gulps. Furthermore, you never know how long you must wait before rescue arrives. The fresh water supply has to last as long as possible.
If you don’t have stored water, there are techniques for collecting it. Most importantly, never ever drink sea water. The high salt content in sea water will double the speed of dehydration, destroy your kidneys and eliminate any chances of survival.
Here are some tips for conserving and collecting water:
- Drink the blood of captured birds and turtles but avoid fish blood, which is salty. However, the liquid from fish eyes, flesh and spine fluid is safe.
- Make a rain catcher and funnel rainwater into a container by using whatever you can find. Rinse the rain catcher with the first raindrops to wash away salt crystals if there are any.
- If you don’t have materials for a rain catcher, use cloth to absorb fresh water when it rains. Remember to rinse the salt crystals off the cloth first. Then squeeze the freshwater into a container.
- If there is no rain, use a dry cloth to soak up the condensation on your raft.
- If you’re stuck in a cold area with icebergs, let a small chunk of ice melt into a container and warm it in the sun before drinking it. Never eat ice. That will cause your body temperature to drop drastically.
- Digesting food requires a lot of water, so don’t eat unless you have water to go with it.
- Reduce dehydration by eating less protein if possible.
- Reduce sweating by staying shaded or using seawater to cool off in hot weather.
- Drinking urine should be a last resort as the salt in it can worsen dehydration.
6. Find food
Don’t wait for whatever food reserves on your boat to run out. Start catching and collecting food from the sea. You may survive up to 6 weeks only without food.
Create makeshift fishing lines with sock thread or shoelaces. Use something small and shiny as the lure, like jewelry or a ring from a can. Use a small sharp object as the hook.
Fish may seek shelter under your boat. Fashion a trap or net to catch them. Once you have caught a fish, use its entrails as bait to catch birds or more fish.
If you find seaweed, pull it up as food. You might find crabs, shrimp or fish in them as well. If there are barnacles stuck on your boat, eat them. Catch a turtle if possible.
If there is no way to cook all this meat, eat it raw. You can always sterilise it with seawater by doing a quick rinse.
7. Create shelter from the elements
Try to keep the bottom of your boat as dry as possible. Having shelter from the rain is also important, as your skin will lacerate easily from constantly being wet.
In tropical weather, stay out of the sun by using whatever you can to create shade. Cover your face and body to prevent sunburn.
In cold seas, layer your clothing to stay warm, huddle with your companions and make small movements regularly to keep your blood flowing. Hide your fingers in your armpits to avoid frostbite.
8. Flip a capsized boat
If the boat is small enough, don’t just climb onto the capsized boat. Flip it upright. Your chances of survival are much higher on a functioning boat.
First, climb onto the hull of the overturned boat. Grab the keel then lean back with all your weight. Once the boat is upright, remove the water onboard.
9. Chase large sharks away
Sharks are attracted to blood, whether it’s from you or the animals you caught. If a large shark approaches your boat, scare it off by whacking it with something hard. Its eyes, gills and nose are weak spots.
Sharks are mostly opportunists and scavengers. They generally don’t like food that attacks them. If it is a baby shark, it can potentially be your next meal.
10. Attract rescuers
Keep an eye out for planes and ships. If you spot one and you don’t have a flare gun, use anything that can deflect sunlight.
The signal can be seen up to 10 miles away on a sunny day. If you don’t have that either, wave brightly coloured clothing in the air or join rafts to increase your visibility.
At night, use a whistle or some lights to get the attention of passing ships. Your chances of being found in the sea are higher if you stick around your downed plane or ship.
11. Find land
Keep an eye out for land as well. You may have drifted close enough. These are some signs of land:
- Smells and sounds of civilisation – smoke, fumes from factories, oil sludge at ports, trash from landfills
- Light blue water is shallow, which hints of land close by
- Muddy water indicates a large river or swampy coastline is nearby
- In the late afternoon, birds fly towards land
- A green tint below the clouds is a reflection of greenery from forests or a coral reef
- Look out for cumulus clouds which tend to form above landmass
If you spot any of these, don’t burn your energy out by frantically paddling in that direction. Pace yourself and rest. You don’t know how far you’ll need to paddle.
12. Create a routine
Fear, hunger, thirst, discomfort, the endless waiting and the uncertainty of survival can drive anyone off the edge. Stay sane by maintaining a daily routine. If possible, keep a journal of your thoughts and observations.
The basic principles of survival at sea can be summarised into these few points: (i) protection against drowning; (ii) protection from the extreme temperature in and out of water; (iii) protection from dehydration; (iv) sufficient food supply.