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Samantha Daly

How To Survive at Sea

how to survive at sea

Finding yourself stranded in open seawater is a risk everyone accepts anytime they set foot on a boat or trans-oceanic flight. The tragic 2018 duck boat accident prompted many people to wonder whether they had the knowledge of how to stay afloat in rough water or how to survive at sea. While plane or boat accidents that lead to abandoned ship are extremely stressful situations, with the proper understanding of what to do you can increase your chances of survival greatly when lost at sea.


Here are six keys to remaining alive at sea until help arrives:


Float. Your main priority if stranded at sea is to remain afloat. Find any floating items that will support you within swimming distance, ideally some form of life raft or floating debris. This will make surviving much, much easier. If there is nothing to hold onto to assist in floating, you will have to use techniques to minimize your energy expenditure:

Calm Water Back Floating: If the water is calm, lie flat on your back. Allow your body to float while keeping your head above the water. This expends almost no energy and will allow you to float for the longest amount of time. This would be most ideal if you have access to a life jacket.

Rough Water Front Floating: If the water is rough, you will not be able to float on your back. Instead, lie face down in the water, allowing your body to float. Only lift your head when you need a breath and quickly put your head back underwater. Continue to float like this until the water calms enough to float on your back. Having life vests in this situation is also extremely necessary.

Continue to look for objects to help you float. The rest of these recommendations assume that you are on a life raft or other floatable structure/wreckage.


Find Drinking Water. You can remain alive for many days without food, but you will succumb to dehydration much more quickly. Although you are surrounded by miles of open water, you must identify a safe drinking source for the duration of your time in open sea. Just drinking sea water could hurt you more than it could help. Do not drink seawater  – it will increase the speed of dehydration due to its salt content. This also goes for drinking urine. Rainwater is the best source of fresh water at sea. Use as many containers and fabrics as possible to collect and store rainwater. Rinse all of your clothes in the ocean and ring them out before using them to collect rainwater as the salt water will have built up in the fabric over time. If it has been a long time since the last rain and you need drinking water, another source of drinkable water is fish. Fish contain drinkable liquid in their flesh, eyes, and spine. Cut open the fish, break the vertebra, and drink the water from their spine. Then eat fish meat, which contains a decent amount of freshwater. But, to do this you must know how to catch the fish.


Catch Fish. You’ll have to be creative to make fishing equipment. If you have any kind of netting, that is the easiest option. Otherwise, you can make a fishing line from string, rope, or even shoelaces. An aluminum can or other metal wreckage can serve as a shiny hook to attract small fish. You can use the guts of already caught raw fish as bait on the line to catch more.


Travel at Night. If you are stranded in the ocean, you will likely be in the heat for most of the day as the sunlight reflects off of the water. If you have determined that your best course of action is to try to travel to find land rather than stay where you are, it is best to do so at night in cooler temperatures to conserve energy. This also keeps your body temperature at a lower point when traveling. Even if you do not know how to navigate by constellations, identify a collection of stars you can remember to orient yourself and ensure you are not paddling in circles day after day.  


Avoid Predators. Watch out for sharks! Luckily sharks don’t hunt humans and will typically leave once they realize you are not a seal, but that often doesn’t happen until they bite you. While that is good news if you are on a beach and can access a hospital, a shark bite at open sea is almost certainly a death sentence. Avoid areas along shorelines and near coral reefs, as those areas attract harks. If you have any cuts from the accident that left you stranded, make sure you keep them out of the water to avoid attracting sharks.


Help Rescuers Find You. Your best chance of being rescued is to stay near the location of where you were stranded. If you were on a boat or plane, the rescue party will likely find the wreckage before they find you floating hundreds of miles away. Try to stay near the crash site if possible. However, if you were on a sailboat without a GPS signal or if you were pulled out to sea by an undertow, you will need to try to find land. The best way to signal for help is with a flare gun. If you are lucky enough to have one, use your flares strategically and only when a vessel is close enough to see them. If you don’t have a flare gun, use mirrors or reflective surfaces to signal to boats and planes within sight. The reflecting sunlight is a clear signal that someone is in the water and in need of help to crew members on a nearby vessel.


Understanding the keys to sea survival can make an emergency situation much less overwhelming. It could never hurt you to have more sea survival tips in your survival arsenal. If you are stranded with others, stay together, and work as a team. Your chances of being rescued are better when you work as a group. Always remember to find something to float on as quickly as possible, in order to get yourself out of the water so that you can begin planning your rescue strategy. Be creative in finding food and water and stay optimistic about your survival skills, as a negative mindset can be fatal when stranded at sea.

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