It’s a grueling survival scenario: adrift at sea in an open watercraft. Few things are more frightening than being trapped far from shore and at the mercy of the elements. Having the right gear on board is critical to survival, as is being prepared for an emergency and knowing what to do.
It’s a great irony to be surrounded by water and unable to drink it. Having a plastic tarp and some containers will enable you to catch drinkable water. No tarp? Any fabric will absorb moisture that can be wrung out into the containers or used to create a solar still. If your boat has a sail, use it as a bowl to capture water.
At the first sign of rain, give your clothes and all fabrics a seawater bath. While the sea water is salty, it’s less so than the salt crystals that accumulate on fabric and can make collected water undrinkable. The first water collected will have the highest salt content. Store it separately to use for cleaning wounds and washing food prior to eating. NEVER drink saltwater. It will make you ill and speeds up dehydration, often leading to death.
Even in the tropics, hypothermia is a danger when you’re soaked and without shelter. Carry a space blanket on board for warmth, and use the tarp rigged to block the sun and provide some shade when it’s blistering hot. The coverage will help you avoid heatstroke and a painful sunburn.
Signal for help. The most effective signaling device is an emergency position-indicating radio beacon which uses a global satellite system to notify rescuers. A VHF or single-sideband radio can also send out your mayday. Stay calm, and state your GPS coordinates, the nature of your emergency, a description of your vessel and the number of people on board. In the daytime, you can also use a mirror to flash at the horizon, using this visual signal to draw attention to your position.
As an emergency food source, go fishing. Small fish often gather beneath a craft because they like the shelter that it provides. An assortment of hooks and lines on board will help you catch a meal. Troll a handline rigged with a hook and anything flashy that can serve as a lure. After catching your first fish, use its guts for bait to catch more.
People have been known to survive at sea for a very long time in a disabled boat or life raft. National Geographic recently produced a reality television show called The Raft about the scenario. The good news is that as long as you can stay on the craft and not capsize, your chances of rescue are good. Stay calm and remember the basics: collect and drink water, stay warm and dry, and keep signaling for help.