The will to live

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The question has puzzled and perplexed marine rescue experts for years: Why does one person in a life-and-death situation - in a life raft or holding on to an overturned hull - manage to survive while another, under similar circumstances, seems to just give up hope and perish?

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The "will to live" is a crucial factor in determining how long one can survive a disaster at sea, says retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Richard Dein, who for six years supervised the agency's rescue and survival systems program. "The most fundamental factors are the psychological factors," says Dein, who co-authored several chapters in the Coast Guard's search-and-rescue manual. "And the will to live is the most important."

The psychological dimension of survival is not new. More than 55 years ago, a French medical doctor named Alain Bombard became a "voluntary castaway" when he set off across the Atlantic from the Canary Islands in a 15-foot inflatable raft without food or water. Bombard embarked on what would become a 65-day, 2,700-mile survival ordeal because he was dismayed by the thousands of people who at that time died each year in life rafts and lifeboats.

The doctor's research showed that most perished within just three days; he believed many of them died not from a lack of water or food but because they had given up. Bombard hoped his so-called "experiment" would save lives by demonstrating that a shipwrecked sailor could live for a prolonged period off fish and plankton.

"When a ship goes down, a man's whole universe goes with it," the doctor wrote. "Thirst kills more quickly than hunger, but despair is a greater danger than thirst."

As Dein points out, despair is tied to a person's expectation of survival and rescue. When little hope exists, a victim's will to live plummets. "Your expectation of rescue is very important," Dein says. "Some people give up immediately."

Along with psychological factors, other things that affect survivability include:

  • environmental conditions such as sea state, water temperature and so on
  • the experience and training of the victims, including their "comfort level" in the water
  • the type of safety equipment carried, which may influence a person's ability to stay afloat and, therefore, his willingness to stay alive
  • physiological factors such as age, physical conditioning, body weight and more

"Short, fat people are better survivors than tall, skinny people," Dein says. "Muscle and bone are much denser than fat."

Search-and-rescue forces typically consider a host of intangibles, Dein says, such as the cultural background of the people in trouble. If someone is from Montana and they're on a boat that sinks in the Atlantic, how comfortable are they likely to be in the water? Do they have spouses or children? In other words, do they have a strong reason to live? That, Dein says, can be powerful motivation.

"The criteria for stopping a search is when there is no longer any reasonable expectation of finding them alive," Dein says. "These intangibles are very useful in making the subjective decision of when to stop a search."

Dr. Bombard lost about 55 pounds during his crossing. He became seriously anemic, had diarrhea for two weeks straight, and made out his will. His skin became dehydrated, he developed a rash over his entire body, his toenails fell off, and his vision was affected. "But I got there," wrote the indefatigable Bombard, who turned 28 during the ordeal.

From 1973 to 1976, Dein was the Coast Guard's search-and-rescue officer for Micronesia. When working a case, he made sure his rescue forces searched up to the point where there was no longer any reasonable expectation that the victim could be alive - and then he'd continue the search for one more day.

"And I found people on that day," Dein recalls.

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