Water And Ocean Survival by Gary Benton
Surviving after a mishap in a large body of water is tough business and one mistake can cost you your life. When I attended the United States Air Force Water Survival School, at Homestead Air Force Base, they stressed that water survival was difficult, challenging, and often fatal for the unprepared. While most of us may never intend to buy a yacht and head out to sea, there are a number of different ways we could end up on a large body of water fighting for our lives. If we fish on the Great Lakes or one of the oceans, fly in private or commercial aircraft, or take a cruise, we could find ourselves in the water as a result of bad weather, a collision, mechanical failure, or other emergency.
A lot depends on the type of vessel you are on when the situation becomes an emergency. On a large boat, you’ll have a better chance of survival than if you’re in a ditched aircraft (aircraft landing in water may cause some serious impact injuries). Then again, you’re somewhere in the middle if you’re on a private fishing boat of average size. Commercial aircraft carry life rafts and they are often huge twenty person rubberized rafts (or larger) that work fairly well, if you have the time to deploy them before you go into the water and most of the time you will. The only complaint I have, and I’ve been in one in the ocean, is the fact they ride rough in even mild weather. But, let’s assume you have a raft or small boat because you most likely will end up in one, how can you survive long enough to get rescued?
My first consideration would be both the water temperature and the ambient air temperature, because both will affect your survival odds. If the weather is hot, you’ll need to keep as much of your body covered with clothing as you can to avoid sunburn and sweating, as well as a shelter of some kind if you can make one. Most commercial life rafts come with a canopy made of a light weight rubberized material that is bright in color on one side, orange or magenta usually, and dark on the other, so a type of shelter (the canopy) is packed in the survival kit. The bright color should be placed toward the sky in hot weather, because it will reflect sunlight and help keep you cooler. During cold weather, the dark color (black is the most common) should be toward the sky to absorb the heat from the sun. Once again, keep your body covered to retain body heat and consider huddling with other survivors to help keep each other warm. The canopy is held in place on some rafts by aluminum rods (others may have an inflatable canopy and they are very warm) and once in place, the canopy will actually have sides that can be lowered and tied closed to give you additional protection from the elements.
Next, consider your water supply. If you are floating on fresh water, you don’t have much of a problem, just purify the water and enjoy. On an ocean or large body of salt water, you may have a dilemma. Many of the commercial survival kits will come with water, though they may be packaged in cans about the size of a pop can, pouches, or bottles. Do not ration your water, because it does your body no good if it is not used as needed. It is important for you to drink enough water to keep functioning and that means a quart a day, if possible. Keep in mind at a moderate temperature most people can live for around three days without water and the majority of rescues occur within forty-eight hours, so there is no need to ration your water supply. Additionally, dehydration is a very dangerous situation for a survivor in any emergency, not just at sea. But, how can you find additional sources of safe drinking water?
I would suggest you use your imagination as well as some common sense to procure drinking water. Have empty containers (most survival kits will have empty canteens, water bottles/bags, collapsible bailout buckets, or other containers in them) available and ready to use immediately to store rainwater or to collect ice (need a container with a wide mouth perhaps). Do not drink salt water, because it will increase dehydration and may cause salt water poisoning. However, it you are in a cold environment, you can collect sea water and then let the water freeze. Since fresh water will freeze before salt water, you will see a lump of ice (fresh water) in the container, remove it to use for drinking and discard the salt water.
There are two other methods to collect drinking water and both are found in most survival kits. In the survival supplies you may find chemicals that look like small bricks, only they are used to treat salt water to make it drinkable. These bricks remove the salt and alkaline from the water making it safe to drink. Usually these chemical bricks are a very dark, almost black, color. Additionally, you will most likely find a distillation kit in the survival gear. The kits I have seen require you to inflate a balloon looking container that sits in the water and through the process of evaporation, safe water is collected for drinking. I know from experience you will need to inflate this, using a small hand pump, as soon as you can because it takes a lot of energy. Don’t wait until you’re very weak to start to inflate it, or you may never get the job done. Water from both the chemical bricks and distillation kit do not require purification.
If you have over a quart of water a day to drink, you can now consider food. The survival kit in most rafts will have some foods in it and the kind of food will vary depending on who packed the survival kit. Many of the survival foods will be high in calories, over 2,000 calories per meal is about the average, and there will be some hard candies (energy) in the kit as well. Food in the ocean or large body of water is all around you, but you’ll have to find it and it may be hard to catch. Personally, I’d never worry too much about food because we can go weeks without eating, if we’re healthy. Mostly, food is a psychological factor in survival, or a full stomach is a happy stomach if you will. If you have to procure food, keep the following in mind;
• Fish are always a source of protein in the ocean and saltwater fish can be safely eaten raw. All commercial aircraft will have a fishing kit in the survival gear, so do a little fishing; however avoid eating any fish that does not look like a fish should. Some saltwater fish have sharp teeth, spines, and can be poisonous or cause damage to your raft.
• Pull seaweed from the ocean and go through it closely, looking for small edible crabs, shrimp, or fish. You’ll find some, so don’t waste them, eat them or use them for bait.
• All birds can be eaten, though some (sea gulls) may have a very fishy taste when eaten raw. I’ve always had a hard time getting raw bird of any kind down, but if need be I’d eat it. Birds can be caught with shinny lures, baited hooks, or by using brightly colored cloth. At the odd time, they can be caught by hand, but you will have to be very quick.
Food procurement must be done using a lot of caution, due to hooks and sharp points you might use. I suggest you pack all sharp items not actually being used in the survival kit bag to avoid an accidental puncture of the life raft material. Keep in mind your raft is nothing more than rubberized material filled with air and though it has various compartments you don’t want to puncture it. I have inflated the partial compartments of large life rafts by hand and it is a tremendous amount of hard work using a hand pump. All life raft survival kits will contain both a pump and repair plugs. To use a pump, simply screw the nozzle attachment to the pump and then lock the end of the nozzle to the manual inflation valve. But, what if you get a serious hole in the raft? Always repair an air leak quickly, because it takes less energy to do a repair than it does to keep bailing a raft free of water.
All raft survival kits will have a repair kit, which includes patches, glue and other tools. If the hole is too big you may have to float with that particular chamber deflated, but if the hole is small you can use a life raft repair plug. It is a three piece device that is very easy to use (inner part, outer part, and wing nut on an extension wire). You should cut the fabric on the raft no wider than the narrowest part of the plug face, insert the plug and then rotate ninety degrees. Both the inner and outer part of the plug are coated with rubber to assure an airtight seal once secured. After the inner and outer parts of the plug are lined up properly, screw the wing nut down tightly and bend the extension wire downward and around the wing nut. You will then have to inflate the chamber by hand using the pump.
As you drift along you can set out a sea anchor, which is part of your life raft and it is often packed in a small pocket at some point on the outside of your raft. It looks very much like a miniature parachute and its job is to keep your raft from drifting too fast, thus keeping you near the mishap location. Search aircraft will first key in on the spot the boat sunk, the aircraft went down or your last known location, and then gradually they will begin to work out from that spot outward looking for you. So, set the sea anchor properly and that means when you are at the crest of a wave (the top), the sea anchor should be in the trough of the wave (very bottom). This anchor will retard your drift and keep you in the general area for a while longer than if it was not used at all.
There may come a time when you might be near land, but will you be able to tell when it happens? Use the following as a guide,
• Clouds that seem to be alone or hanging over something (land?)
• You hear the sounds of birds, animals, boats, vehicles, or of people (then blow your whistle or pop a flare from the survival kit).
• Suddenly you notice more flying insects, birds other than gulls, and an increase in the amount of seaweed floating around you.
• You smell trees, jungle rot, smoke or other smells associated with people.
• You see more driftwood or debris in the water, along with more vegetation.
As you float, keep your mental and physical health in mind at all times. You can expect to feel isolated and perhaps deeply depressed at times, but remember all efforts will be made to find you. People will be searching and looking, so stay alive until you are found. Some physical health concerns that may come up are:
• Dehydration, which you’ll notice by dark urine, so drink more water if you can.
• Sunburn or hypothermia, keep all clothing on and the sleeves down on your shirt and your pant legs down as well. For sunburn protection use the sun screen in the survival kit and for hypothermia you’ll need to try to stay dry and increase your body heat. A fire will be out of question, so huddle with other survivors and eat hard candies for the energy.
• Immersion foot is caused by your feet being constantly wet. Try to keep your feet as dry as you can and a couple of times a day place your feet on an air chamber to dry out by the sun.
• Salt water boils are normal and painful, but do not pick or squeeze them because it will usually result in an agonizing infection. Use the first aid cream in the survival kit.
• Sea sickness, keep drinking water. There is not much you can do about this illness, except hang tough and avoid dehydration due to vomiting up your fluids.
• Sun blindness, keep your eyes covered with sunglasses or smear some dark substance (if you can find something) under your eyes to reduce glare. You can also make a pair of goggles (see illustration) from cloth, wood, or plastic. This injury is very painful and can cause severe headaches and eye pain.
If you suspect you are near land (noises or you see people) and people you can blow a whistle, pop a flare (avoid burning the raft with hot cinders falling from the flare) or wave a piece of bright material. Keep a lookout on duty twenty-four hours a day and their job is to keep the raft pumped up with air, bail out water, keep an eye out for leaks, as well as watch for rescue aircraft or land.
If a rescue aircraft is near, use a signal mirror to flash into the cockpit of the aircraft, but then move the flash back to the tail of the aircraft, so you do not blind the pilot. If it is overcast and no sun, use a flare from the survival kit or an emergency radio (most kits will have one or two radios with spare batteries) to get the aircrafts attention. If an aircraft sees you it will rock its wings up and down to indicate you have been sighted, or communicate with you over the radio. Due to its limitations, (fuel or rescue capability) the aircraft might fly away, but don’t worry because your position will be sent and another aircraft will soon come for you. A lot of times a large aircraft will fly low over you, rock its wings to communicate your sighting, and then fly away. You can expect a quick rescue following a wing rocking from a search aircraft.
Survival on a large body of water is not all that much different than survival on land, in the jungle or the arctic, believe it or not. The key considerations remain the same, water, shelter, warmth, food, first aid, signals, and rescue. Remember that all life rafts and boats should have a survival kit, first aid kit, and signaling devices. The key difference with open water survival is the lack of a fire, water procurement, and the simple fact you are stuck in the raft/boat until you make land or are rescued.
Take care, stay safe, and remember that survival is never easy, but it can be done with the proper gear and the right attitude—in any environment.