I get asked all the time about survival at sea. Whenever I give a talk on boating safety, at least one person is interested in life rafts, survival tactics and whether or not I’ve read one book or another about epic survival on the ocean. After I lay down all the ways to stay out of trouble, and how to make sure that help arrives if you do have an emergency, the questions come.
“Could you talk about how to survive in a life raft and what you think about rationing? When should you first start drinking water? Have you ever read Adrift by Steven Callahan?”
Despite my military training in survival (including the extreme ocean type), I rarely find it necessary to discuss open-ocean survival tactics. There are two reasons. One is that if anyone is interested in extreme survival, there are plenty of books to read, and some of them even have good advice (Adrift is one of them). The other reason is that except in infrequent circumstances, the only way to find yourself in an extreme survival situation is to ignore everything else you’ve ever learned about boating safety.
To be clear, if you find yourself alone in a life raft and have no idea if you are going to be rescued, then you’ve really screwed up—at least five different ways.
Despite the hype that long-term sea survival receives on the news, actual long-term survival situations are anomalous. Survival is what happens after you have failed at boating safely. When someone asks about water rationing and what they should do if they need to survive in a life raft, I rephrase the question: “What should you do if you completely blow off everything we know about being safe at sea, make a half dozen rookie mistakes and then end up in a life raft? Well, first, you regret every error you made that got you there, and then hope you are as tough and smart as Steve Callahan.
Callahan was, and is, an extremely competent and safe sailor. He was a victim of his time. When Callahan entered his life raft, it was February 1982. The Cospas-
Sarsat satellites that would have detected his EPIRB wouldn’t be online for another seven months. If Callahan had left Spain’s Canary Islands in 1983, his EPIRB would have been detected, and his book would have been titled something like, Adrift: The Worst 7.6 Hours of My Life.
Having said that, I do have students enter and spend time in a covered life raft. And though I believe I pass along useful information, the primary purpose of the exercise is to help students understand that being in a life raft—a huge win compared to not being in one—is an awful experience to be avoided. Like reading epic survival stories, time in a life raft will make you understand that “survival” is something you want to avoid, if at all possible.
I’ve lost my access to the U.S. Coast Guard database where I first found the following data, but I’m confident it is still accurate: The average time to rescue at sea following a distress call with location data is 4½ hours. You don’t need to take a class on how to ration the water among four people if you’re going to be picked up in time for dinner. You will not be trying to catch fish with your hands, or tackling seabirds that land on your raft, or going mad drinking the seawater. There is enough boating safety stuff to learn without worrying about what to do if none of it works.
Don’t get me wrong: If you go offshore, you should have a life raft, and you should know how to stow it, deploy it and use it in an emergency. You also should know how to behave when you’re in it. Sea survival training is not useless, but stay focused: The smart move is to do everything you can to stay out of the raft in the first place.
This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue.