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This article is taken from James Mandeville's book: IT'S ALL ABOUT SURVIVAL - The Ultimate Survival Book, an excerpt from the chapter on "Survival at Sea," and is reproduced with the kind permission of the publishers. ©2013 All Rights Reserved Worldwide – Unauthorized use of this material is not permitted.
It could happen to any of us – would you know how to survive?
Helpful advice for survivors
A life raft is not a sailing vessel, however portrayed in the sales literature; it is merely a set of rubber tubes with the sole purpose of keeping survivors out of the water until rescue. A new raft smells strongly of rubber and glue, which makes almost anyone entering it feel nauseous. It does not usually have a solid floor and this places a great strain on the body of any survivor using one. They can be punctured (all the world's oceans are littered with debris that can range from freight containers that have fallen off ships to tree trunks) and rafts are very difficult to repair when wet, which is most of the time. As with all vessels, they risk being attacked by sharks. The survival equipment provided with the raft is basic. Anyone who wants to know exactly what it is like to survive in a life raft should read Steven Callahan's book "Adrift." Although now out of print, the book can be bought second hand – an absorbing survival story and feat of human achievement.
Once onboard a life raft, the sequence of events may vary, depending on conditions.
( See also, Life raft regulations):
If you are in a cold climate:
Water – your most important need
With it alone, you can live for 10 days or longer, depending on your will to live and on your body fat. When drinking water, moisten your lips, tongue and throat before swallowing.
Short water rations:
When you have a limited water supply and you can't replace it by chemical or mechanical means, use the water efficiently. Protect fresh water supplies from seawater contamination. Keep your body well shaded, both from overhead sun and from reflection off the sea surface. Allow ventilation of air; dampen your clothes with seawater during the hottest part of the day. Do not exert yourself. Relax and sleep when possible. Fix your daily water ration after considering the amount of water you have, the output of solar stills and desalting kit and the number and physical condition of your party.
If you don't have water, don't eat. If your water ration is 2 litres (3.5 pints, 0.5 US gallons) or more per day, eat any part of your ration or any additional food that you may catch, such as birds, fish and shrimp. The life raft's motion and anxiety may cause nausea. If you eat when nauseated, you may lose your food immediately. If nauseated, rest and relax as much as you can and take only water. To reduce your loss of water through perspiration, soak your clothes in the sea and wring them out before putting them on again. Don't overdo this during hot days when no canopy or sun shield is available. This is a trade–off between cooling and saltwater boils and rashes that will result.
Watch the clouds and be ready for any chance of showers. Keep a tarpaulin handy for catching water. If your skin is encrusted with dried salt, wash it in seawater and let the rain shower you off. Normally, a small amount of seawater mixed with rain (brackish water) is safe to drink but be aware that over several days your ability to taste the concentration of salt will decrease and you must be careful that you are not drinking water with a higher than safe level of salt. You can drink salty water safely for two or three days if the salt content does not exceed 2.5 g per 0.6 litres (0.09 ounces per pint). In very rough seas, you cannot get uncontaminated fresh water from rain as the spray from the waves will get into everything even your open mouth.
At night, secure the tarpaulin like a sunshade and turn up its edges to collect dew. It is also possible to collect dew along the sides of the raft using a sponge or cloth; squeeze this into the mouth but only swallow a small amount at first, as it will have a strong taste of rubber that will make you gag. As you get used to it you can manage to drink a little more. The rubber taste will not harm you. When it rains, drink as much as you can hold and fill up all possible containers; do this even if you are weak and feel lethargic.
When desalting kits are available in addition to solar stills, use them only for immediate water needs or during long overcast periods when you cannot use solar stills. In any event, keep desalting kits and emergency water stores for periods when you cannot use solar stills or catch rainwater.
Water from fish:
Drink the aqueous fluid found along the spine and in the eyes of large fish. Carefully cut the fish in half or snap the spine to get at the fluid along the spine. Bite into a fish eye, spit out the cornea (like a bit of thin plastic) and swallow the liquid. If you are so short of water that you need to do this, then do not drink any of the other body fluids you may find in the fish. These other fluids are rich in protein and fat and will use up more of your reserve water in digestion than they supply.
In Arctic waters, use old sea ice for water. This ice is bluish, has rounded corners and splinters easily. It is nearly free of salt. New ice is grey, milky, hard and salty. Water from icebergs is fresh but icebergs are dangerous to approach and they can tumble over without warning. Use them as a source of water only in emergencies.
Never drink seawater. Do not drink urine. Do not drink alcohol. Do not smoke if you have limited water supplies. Do not eat unless water is available.
Sleep and rest are the best ways of enduring periods of reduced water and food intake. However, make sure that you have enough shade when sleeping during the day. Tie yourself to the raft if the sea is rough but it is a good idea to do this as a routine anyway when sleeping as the ocean can quickly change. Close any cover and ride out the storm as best you can. 'Relax' is the keyword — at least try to relax.
Fish is the main source of food in the open sea. There are some poisonous and dangerous ocean fish but, in general, fish are safe to eat when not feeding near reefs. Nearer the shore, especially around coral reefs, there are fish that are both dangerous and poisonous to eat. For example, the red snapper and barracuda that are normally edible but poisonous when taken from the waters of atolls and reefs. 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 white canvas or tarps (even during the day). The fish will fly over your raft and hit the tarp you set. They will fall stunned into your raft if you are lucky.
Do not handle fishing line with bare hands and never wrap the line around your hands or tie it to a life raft. The salt that adheres to it can make it a sharp cutting edge that is dangerous to both the raft and your hands. Wear gloves, if you have any, or use a cloth to handle fish and to avoid injury from sharp fins and gill covers. Gut and bleed fish immediately after catching them in warm regions. Cut fish that you do not eat immediately into thin, narrow strips and hang them to dry. Dried fish stays edible for several days and often fish that does not taste very good when sampled just after the fish is killed may be more palatable after a couple of days drying. Fish not cleaned and dried may spoil in half a day. The organ meat (especially the liver) is most nutritious and easily digested so eat it at once. Fish with dark meat are very prone to decomposition. If you do not eat them all immediately, do not eat any of the leftovers. Use the leftovers for bait.
Never eat fish that have pale, shiny gills, sunken eyes, flabby skin and flesh or an unpleasant odour. Good fish show the opposite characteristics. Sea fish have a saltwater or clean "fishy" odour. Do not confuse eels with sea snakes that have an obviously scaly body and strongly compressed, paddle–shaped tail. Both eels and sea snakes are edible, but you must handle the latter with care because their venom is fatal. The heart, blood, intestinal wall and liver of most fish are edible. Also edible are the partly digested smaller fish that you may find in the stomachs of large fish, wash these first with seawater and then fresh water.
Shark meat (don't eat the liver, which is too high in vitamin A) is a good source of food whether raw, dried or cooked but apart from the obvious dangers of tangling with even a juvenile a shark, unless you have a spear gun or firearm it would be extremely unlikely you could kill one. A wounded shark will be aggressive and more likely to attack your raft. Shark meat spoils very rapidly due to the high concentration of urea in the blood; therefore, bleed it immediately and soak it in several changes of water. People prefer some shark species to others. Consider them all edible, except the Greenland shark whose flesh contains high quantities of vitamin A.
Helpful fishing hints:
Your fishing should be successful if you remember the following important hints:
All birds are edible. Eat any birds you can catch. Sometimes birds may land on your raft, but usually they are cautious. You may be able to attract some birds by towing a bright piece of metal behind the raft. This will bring the bird within shooting range, if you have a firearm.
If a bird lands within your reach, you may be able to catch it. If the birds do not land close enough or land on the other end of the raft, you may be able to catch them with a bird noose. Bait the centre of the noose and wait for the bird to land. When the bird's feet are in the centre of the noose, pull it tight.
Use all parts of the bird. Use the feathers for insulation, the entrails and feet for bait and so on. Use your imagination. It is easier to skin a bird than pluck it in this situation.
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 carried inside female turtles).
The turtle should be bled as soon as possible after you kill it to preserve its meat. (If unbled, the meat will spoil faster and won't be as easy to dry.) The organs are best discarded with the exception of the heart, which is edible. You will need a knife to remove the meat from the turtle. A knife can be improvised from metal or plastic; tin from a can, for example, makes a good blade. Start by cutting the head off the turtle to bleed it. Then insert your blade in the crack between the top and lower shell at the neck. Move your blade in a sawing motion to cut all around. If you can't open the shell, cut off all the legs and dig your hands inside to grab the meat. Don't forget the eggs if it's a female. Turtle bones contain marrow, which is nutritious; crack the bones open to get at it. In cold climates the fat can also be chewed. In hot climates don't eat the fat, use it for skin lubrication (or as bait for fish or birds). Having said all of this, it is unlikely one could deal practically with a large sea turtle on a life raft, so try to catch a smaller turtle if they are around.
Plankton is very nutritious and is also essential to prevent scurvy for long time castaways. It isn't found in all oceans but as whales (whale sharks and manta rays) feed on large quantities of plankton, any area where these fish are present 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 well. Any type of clothing trailed in the water will also work. Sea anchors are ready–made natural plankton nets.
Don't let the smell put you off; although plankton has an unpleasant odour it tastes OK.
Seaweed requires a lot of fresh water to be digested. Do not eat seaweed unless you have sufficient drinking water. Seaweed (or algae) of various types are found floating in most oceans. They can be tasty (albeit, salty) and are rich in proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Most seaweed is edible, however some green or blue algae, Cyanobacteria, which is found in most oceans, can be highly poisonous. Most types of seaweed are found in coastal areas either drifting or still attached to rocks. (Don't collect dried seaweed washed up 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 it up with a net or any type of home–made hook or rake. There are many types of seaweed, but the ones usually found offshore are often tough and might be hard to eat raw. You can dry them in the sun, then chew on them (if you have a lot of rainwater, you might want to rinse them too).
Whether you are in the water, a boat or a raft, you may see many types of sea life around you. Generally, sharks pose the greatest danger. Although other animals, such as, whales, porpoises and stingrays may look dangerous they are unlikely to bother a life raft floating in the open sea.
Of the many hundreds of shark species, only about 20 species are known to attack man. The most aggressive are the great white shark, the bull shark, the hammerhead, the mako and the tiger shark. These sharks will bite chunks out of humans to test their edibility; such a bite will be fatal in a survival situation. After some fairly extensive research, I have not come across one single, substantiated account of a shark deliberately attacking a life raft to get at the occupants (doesn't mean it isn't possible). Great white sharks and tiger sharks have been known to actively hunt and eat humans in the open ocean. Other sharks known occasionally to attack man include the grey, blue, lemon, sand, nurse and oceanic white tip sharks. Consider any shark longer than 1 metre (3.3 feet) dangerous enough to inflict a fatal wound in a survival situation.
There are sharks in most oceans and seas of the world. While many live and feed in the depths, others hunt near the surface. The sharks living near the surface are the ones you will most likely see and most sharks come to the surface to feed at night. Their dorsal fins frequently project above the water. Sharks in the tropical and subtropical seas are far more aggressive than sharks in temperate waters.
All sharks are basically eating machines. Their normal diet is live animals of any type and they will strike at injured or helpless animals. Sight, smell or sound may guide them to their prey. Sharks have acute senses and they can detect blood in the water in concentrations as little as 4 parts per million. A shark most likely does not know the smell of human blood or associate it with food, however, a shark will smell human blood and come to investigate. They are also very sensitive to any abnormal vibrations in the water and even the sound of an electronic wristwatch can catch their attention as can any electrical current from other equipment. The struggles of a wounded animal or swimmer, underwater explosions or even a fish struggling on a fishing line will attract a shark; never wear jewellery as flashes of light from it may look like light reflecting from fish scales. Urinating into the ocean will also attract sharks, so if you are relieving yourself over the side of the raft, try to release urine in small bursts to allow it to dissipate, rather than releasing a litre of shark bate into the water in one go.
Sharks can bite from almost any position; they do not have to turn on their side to bite. The jaws of some of the larger sharks are so far forward that they can bite floating objects easily without twisting to the side.
Sharks may hunt alone but most reports of attacks cite more than one shark present. The smaller sharks tend to travel in schools and attack in mass. Whenever one of the sharks finds a victim, the other sharks will quickly join it.
Sharks feed at all hours of the day and night, they are most active at dawn and dusk, but there are no fixed rules. Many reported shark contacts and attacks were during daylight and many of these have been in the late afternoon, especially in murky water when a shark will not see so well and is more likely to take a sample bite from anything to test if it is edible. A sample bite from any shark can be fatal. Some of the measures that you can take to protect yourself against sharks when you are swimming in the water are:
If you are in the water and you see sharks:
When you are in a raft and see sharks:
When you are in a raft and a shark attack is imminent, hit the shark with anything you have, except your hands. You will do more damage to your hands than the shark. If you strike with an oar, be careful not to lose or break it.
To treat seasickness:
Cold versus dehydration and starvation
The more serious and immediate threat is thermal, not dehydration or starvation.
Thermal threat is frequently the major problem confronting survivors in life saving craft even in temperate waters. One of the biggest problems on a life raft is that it is not possible to cook anything or heat up liquid to raise the body's core temperature. On meagre rations, with no hot food or drink and limited chance to exercise, it is very difficult to maintain the body's core temperature if the sea and ambient air temperatures are cold. In thermoregulatory terms, humans are a tropical animal and in order to survive outside a tropical environment, we must use clothing and shelter to prevent the body cooling. In a survival at sea situation these are usually unavailable; the survivor is then at the mercy of the elements. As a result, in temperate and subarctic environments, death from a fall in body temperature (hypothermia) usually occurs long before dehydration or starvation comes into consideration.
Longer–term (non–thermal problems) increase the longer the survivor is adrift. These include: motion sickness, dehydration, starvation, sunburn and saltwater ulcers. Lack of nutrition leads to the body catabolizing its own muscle protein. The end product of this process is urea; a toxic substance which is excreted in urine by the kidneys. In the absence of drinking water, the excretion of urea can only be achieved at the expense of body water, thereby increasing dehydration. It follows that when water is scarce, protein consumption (fish or sea birds) will hasten death by dehydration. Survival rations of carbohydrates (sweets), or a mixture of carbohydrate and fat in fudge–like compounds, not only reduce this catabolism, but also provide additional water to the body as an end product of their metabolism.) The survivors should huddle together to conserve body heat, taking turns to be in the centre of the raft. It is important to exercise, this should be discussed and some routine worked out so that everyone gets a chance to exercise. Lying or sitting for a prolonged period will weaken muscles and lead to cramps. Periodically move ankles in a rotating movement. Lift knees up to the chin and then relax the legs down again. Rotate shoulder muscles by shrugging and flex arms and wrists frequently. Work fingers and toes to force blood to circulate.
Can one drink seawater?
Do not be misled on this, the only answer is no. This is why you cannot drink seawater:
Survival manuals consistently advise against drinking seawater. For example, the book "Medical Aspects of Harsh Environments" (Chapter 29 – Shipboard Medicine) presents a summary of 163 life raft voyages. The risk of death was 39% for those who drank seawater, compared to only 3% for those who did not drink seawater. The effect of seawater intake has also been studied in laboratory settings in rats. This study confirmed the negative effects of drinking
seawater when dehydrated.
You should watch carefully for any signs of land. There are many indicators that land is near. A fixed cumulus cloud in a clear sky (or in a sky where all other clouds are moving), often hovers over or slightly downwind from an island.
In the tropics, the reflection of sunlight from shallow lagoons or shelves of coral reefs often cause a greenish tint in the sky.
In arctic waters, light coloured reflections on clouds often indicate ice fields or snow covered land. These reflections are quite different from the dark grey ones caused by open water. Deep water is dark green or dark blue. Lighter colour indicates shallower water, which may mean land is near.
At night, in fog, mist or rain, you may detect land by odours and sounds. The musty odour of mangrove swamps and mud flats carries a long way. You hear the roar of surf long before you see the surf. The continued cries of seabirds coming from one direction indicate their roosting place is on nearby land.
There usually are more birds near land than over the open sea. The direction from which flocks fly at dawn and to which they fly at dusk may indicate the direction of land. Birds are searching for food during the day and the direction of flight has no significance.
Mirages occur at any latitude but they are more likely in the tropics, especially during the middle of the day. Be careful not to mistake a mirage for nearby land. A mirage disappears or its appearance and elevation changes when viewed from slightly different heights.
You may be able to detect land by the pattern of the waves (refracted) as they approach land.
Rafting or beaching techniques:
Once you have found land, you must get ashore safely. To raft ashore, you can usually use the one person raft without danger, larger raft are more problematic. However, going ashore in strong surf is dangerous. Take your time. Select your landing point carefully. Try not to land when the sun is low and straight in front of you. Try to land on the lee side of an island or on a point of land jutting out into the water. Keep your eyes open for gaps in the surf line and head for them. Avoid coral reefs and rocky cliffs. There are no coral reefs near the mouths of fresh water streams. Avoid rip currents or strong tidal currents that may carry you far out to sea. Either signal ashore for help or sail around and look for a sloping beach where the surf is gentle. Avoid landing in mangrove swamps.
If you have to go through the surf to reach shore, take down the mast if you set one up. Keep your clothes and shoes on to avoid severe cuts. Adjust and inflate your life vest. Trail the sea anchor over the stern using as much line as you have. Use the oars or paddles and constantly adjust the sea anchor to keep a strain on the anchor line. These actions will keep the raft pointed toward shore and prevent the sea from throwing the stern around and capsizing you. Use the oars or paddles to help ride in on the seaward side of a large wave.
The surf may be irregular and velocity may vary, so modify your procedure as conditions demand. A good method of getting through the surf in a larger raft is to have half the survivors sit on one side of the raft, half on the other, facing away from each other. When a heavy sea bears down, half should row (pull) toward the sea until the crest passes; then the other half should row (pull) toward the shore until the next heavy sea comes along.
Against a strong wind and heavy surf, the raft must have all possible speed to pass rapidly through the oncoming crest to avoid being turned broadside or thrown end over end. If possible, avoid meeting a large wave at the moment it breaks.
If in a medium surf with no wind or offshore wind, keep the raft from passing over a wave so rapidly that it drops suddenly after topping the crest. If the raft turns over in the surf, try to grab hold of it and ride it in.
As the raft nears the beach, ride in on the crest of a large wave. Paddle or row hard and ride in to the beach as far as you can. Do not jump out of the raft until it has grounded, then quickly get out and beach it.
If you have a choice, do not land at night. If you have reason to believe that people live on the shore, lay away from the beach, signal and wait for the inhabitants to come out and bring you in.
If you encounter sea ice, land only on large, stable floes. Avoid icebergs that may capsize and small floes or those obviously disintegrating. Use oars and hands to keep the raft from rubbing on the edge of the ice. Take the raft out of the water and store it well back from the floe's edge. You may be able to use it for shelter. Keep the raft inflated and ready for use. Any floe may break up without warning.
If rafting ashore is not possible and you have to swim, wear your shoes and at least one thickness of clothing. Use the dog paddle or breaststroke to conserve strength. If the surf is moderate, ride in on the back of a small wave by swimming forward with it. Dive to a shallow depth to end the ride just before the wave breaks. In high surf, try to swim towards the shore in the trough between waves. When the seaward wave approaches, face it and submerge. After it passes, work toward shore in the next trough. If caught in the undertow of a large wave, push off the bottom or swim to the surface and proceed towards the shore as above.
If you must land on a rocky shore, look for a place where the waves rush up onto the rocks. Avoid places where the waves explode with a high, white spray. Swim slowly when making your approach. You will need your strength to hold on to the rocks.
After selecting your landing point, advance behind a large wave into the breakers. Face toward shore and take a sitting position with your feet in front, 2 – 3 feet (60 – 90 cm) lower than your head. This position will let your feet absorb the shock when you land or strike submerged boulders or reefs. If you do not reach shore behind the wave you picked, swim with your hands only. As the next wave approaches, take a sitting position with your feet forward. Repeat the procedure until you land.
Water is quieter in the lee of a heavy growth of seaweed. Take advantage of such growth. Do not swim through the seaweed; crawl over the top by grasping the vegetation with overhand movements.
Cross a rocky or coral reef by using the same technique you would use to land on a rocky shore. Keep your feet close together and your knees slightly bent in a relaxed sitting posture to cushion the blows against the coral.
Pick–up or rescue:
When you sight rescue craft approaching to pick you up (boat, ship, conventional aircraft or helicopter), quickly clear any lines (fishing lines, desalting kit lines) or other gear that could cause entanglement during rescue. Secure all loose items in the raft. Take down canopies and sails to ensure a safer pick–up. Fully inflate your life preserver. Remain in the raft, unless otherwise instructed and remove all equipment except the life preservers. If possible, you will receive help from rescue personnel lowered into the water. Remain calm and follow all instructions given by the rescue personnel.
© James Mandeville May 2013.