Why Most Sea Survival Training is Useless - Soundings Online

Why Most Sea Survival Training is Useless


I get asked all the time about survival at sea. Whenever I give a talk on boating safety, at least one person will be interested in life rafts, and survival tactics and whether or not I’ve read one book or another about epic survival on the ocean. Usually, it’s Steve Callahan’s, Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea. 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 Steve Callahan?

Despite my military training in survival (that includes 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 very infrequent circumstances, the only way to find yourself in an extreme survival situation is to completely 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, you really screwed up — at least five different ways.

Despite the hype given to it on the news, long-term sea survival is 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 before I answer, saying, “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 with no chance of rescue? Well, first, you regret every error you made that got you there, and then hope you are as tough and smart as Steve Callahan... and brought a water maker... and a spear.

A pre-packed ditch bag can make an extended stay in a life raft more bearable. 

A pre-packed ditch bag can make an extended stay in a life raft more bearable. 

Steve Callahan’s survival saga was not caused by any such mistakes, however. He was then, and is now, an extremely competent and safe sailor. Callahan was a victim of his time. When Callahan entered his raft it was in February 1982. The COSPAS-SARSAT Satellites that would have detected his EPIRB wouldn’t be online for another seven months. If Callahan had left the Canaries in 1983, his EPIRB would be detected, and his book would have been titled, Adrift: The Worst 7.6 Hours of My Life.

Having said all 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 is to help students understand that being in a life raft — a huge win compared to not being in one — is an awful experience and you don’t ever want to have to do it. Like reading epic survival stories like Adrift, or 438 Days, or anything written by Michael Tougias, time in a life raft will make you understand that “survival” is something you want to avoid, if at all possible. In most cases, it is possible.

I’ve lost my access to the USCG database where I first found this data, but I’m still confident it is accurate; the average time to rescue at sea following a distress call with location data is 4.5 hours. You don’t need to take a class on how to ration the water between 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 go mad drinking the seawater after weeks at sea. There is plenty enough boating safety stuff to learn without worrying about what to do if none of it works.

$15. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, MA, (800) 225-3362. hmhco.com

$15. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, MA, (800) 225-3362. hmhco.com

For those of you who believe that survival tactics and how to live without food and water are terribly important things to learn, I suggest you read Steve’s book if you haven’t yet. Also, Deep Survival, by Laurence Gonzales. But what these books will really do for you is teach you that your life outside of a raft is very good, and — if you are like me — you’ve never had a hard day in your life.

Don’t get me wrong, if you go offshore, you should have a life raft and you should know how to store it, deploy it, use it in an emergency, and how to behave when you’re in it. I’ll be talking about these things and life rafts more in the coming months, and I may even spend the night in one to freshen my perspective on the latest advancements in raft design. And okay, sea survival training is not “useless,” but stay focused: the smart move is to do everything you can to keep yourself out of the raft in the first place.



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Why Go It Alone?

Self-reliance is one thing many boat owners embrace, but that ethos could get you into trouble, writes Mario Vittone. p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; line-height: 11.0px; font: 39.5px 'Meta Serif Pro'} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; line-height: 11.0px; font: 9.0px 'Meta Serif Pro'} p.p3 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; text-indent: 8.0px; line-height: 11.0px; font: 9.0px 'Meta Serif Pro'} span.s1 {letter-spacing: 0.6px} span.s2 {letter-spacing: 0.1px} T here was a time when leaving sight of land came with a good chance of never seeing it again. Before the invention of the marine chronometer to determine longitude, going over the horizon was a risky move. Even with accurate charts and a watch, the sea remained deadly; so deadly that the raised platforms known as widow’s walks on New England homes got their name from the sea captains’ wives, who would pace their rooftops, looking seaward for ships that never returned. Without VHF radios or radar, anyone who sailed offshore was truly on his own. Self-reliance wasn’t a romantic, Emersonian notion; it was a condition. Sailors had only themselves. I’ve met countless sailors who do their best to hold on to the traditional notion of being on their own out there. They speak of self-reliance as part of the appeal of being far offshore, alone in the world with only their skill and wits to protect them. They speak of it as a decision they made to be independent. When I was working in search and rescue, these sailors were the ones who always called at the last possible minute; but they always called. These are the guys who often say silly things like, “Never step off until you have to step up.” They were the first ones to send hate mail when I suggested that being alone in a life raft without having made a distress call meant a sailor had screwed up (“The Truth About Survival Training,” August 2019). “What about a lighting strike that causes a fire?” one man complained. “I guess you’ve never heard of anyone hitting a deadhead in the middle of the night,” another offered. Those who fancy themselves to be like the sailors of yore said I was wrong. Self-reliance, they wanted; blame, not so much. Now, I’m no sailor. While I do love boats and have spent a few years working on them, the bulk of my exposure to modern boating has been through search and rescue. For a long time, I was only on boats that were in distress following a call for help. Perhaps that skews me to one side of this argument, but given that experience, I believe this: The idea that you are self-reliant out there can get you killed, while the idea that everything is your fault is vital to your safety. We are connected in ways our great-great-grandfathers could never have imagined. Our radios can talk to each other. Our boats have alarms and pumps connected to apps on phones. We do not watch from rooftops for sails on the horizon; we log on to websites for real-time information. We are not alone out there anymore. But, make mistakes at sea, and you will, one way or another, invite people ashore to join you in your “self-reliant” adventure. We must never lose the sense of absolute personal responsibility for our own safety. There are rare situations where lightning strikes and submerged containers cause unforeseeable situations, but they are no reason to abandon modern tools and procedures. We don’t take off our seat belts just because there is only a slim chance that oncoming traffic may swerve into our lane. The answer to the rare disaster we can’t predict in boating is a float plan and communication prior to the mishap. I think the last great gains to be made in boating safety are in how we think about being on the water. If you still believe in self-reliance, then Godspeed, but keep your VHF radio on, if only so that your loved ones aren’t walking the rooftops, hoping for your return.


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