Eight Survival Techniques Boaters Need To Know

Eight Survival Techniques Boaters Need To Know

If an emergency occurs while you’re out on your boat, will you be prepared to handle it?

Even if you have all the right safety equipment aboard, every time you launch a boat there’s a certain amount of risk involved. It’s actually pretty low – the most dangerous part of the average boater’s day is their drive to the marina or boat ramp – but the types of emergencies you’ll face while on the water differ from those on land. Even though there are around 12 million boats registered across the United States, just 600 to 700 or so fatalities take place each year on the water. That’s a pretty darn good record. And most people already know rule number one: always stick with the boat as long as it remains afloat, even if it’s upside-down or swamped because it’s a lot easier to spot than a lone person in the water. Beyond that, learn these eight important survival techniques for mariners and you’ll help keep those low statistics down.

survival techniques
If you have an emergency at sea, will you have the knowledge and gear to make it until the cavalry arrives? Photo courtesy of USCG, District 11.
  1. Water, water, everywhere… – If you fish offshore, you probably run for miles at a time in the open ocean. If you suffer a power and communications loss, you could end up stuck at sea for an unknown amount of time. If this happens to you, focus on the water — not the stuff you’re floating around, but the water in and for your body. You can go for weeks without food, but dehydration can strike in a matter of hours so always have some extra freshwater stowed aboard. Ration what you have (an average adult should drink at least one liter of fresh water per day) and collect what you can. Water can be collected with a plastic tarp, rolled into a large open-ended cone. Let it sit overnight, and in the morning hours, dew will collect on the tarp. Place a cup or bottle at the bottom of the cone, and shake the edges so the dew runs down the sides and into the container. Water can also be obtained from fish. If you can catch one, eat the eyes immediately because they’re over 90-percent water. And always remember: drinking saltwater is the kiss of death. It’ll dehydrate you in a matter of minutes, and drinking it causes dementia. Drinking soda, coffee, and alcoholic beverages should also be avoided, as these liquids actually sap more moisture out of your system then they replace.
  1. Communications breakdown – When you’re in trouble on the water, you need help, and your usual forms of communication aren’t working, you’ll need to have a plan B. You almost certainly have flares, but if they’re aerials, do you know how to best signal with them? When a boat or boats are within signaling distance, shoot off two flares about 10 seconds apart. Send just one into the air, and someone who sees it may wonder if it was an accident or fireworks. But two flares spaced 10 seconds apart leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind. See Flares & Distress Signals: What You Need to Know, to learn more.

Without flares, you need another way of signaling distress. Waving your arms isn’t a good way to attract attention, because people often think you’re just waving. But if you hold a blaze-orange life jacket in each hand as you wave, there’s no mistaking the cry for help.

survival techniques
Flares are your best way of attracting attention with a visual signal. Handheld flares aren’t often misinterpreted, but aerials are a different story. Photo courtesy of USCG, by Trey Clifton
  1. Overboard! – If you ever end up in the water for an extended period of time, you need to float in such a way as to conserve body heat as much as possible. Instead of kicking and flailing, keep your legs and arms close to your body. Ideally, you’ll want to curl up into a ball. Do your best to keep your head dry, since a huge amount of body heat is lost from the head, and if you have any dry clothing or items use them to cover your head if at all possible. Minimize movement, and tuck your pants legs into socks or shoes to minimize water flow around your body.
  1. Ditch It – Every boat should have a ditch bag, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. That goes for bay and lake anglers as well as oceanic voyagers because getting stranded miles from the boat ramp can be just as deadly on land as it is at sea. Read Safe Boating Tips – Ditch Bag for Boaters, to get the skinny on what belongs in there.
survival techniques
Having a properly stocked and prepared ditch bag is an essential safety measure.
  1. Personnel Recovery – If someone ends up in the water, getting them back aboard — be it your boat or into a liferaft — can be a lot tougher than it sounds. Entering the water and swimming to them should be the last thing you do, yet it’s also the first thing many people think of. Instead, recover a person in the drink by throwing them a floating object tied off to a rope. As long as they can grab it and hold on, you can then pull them back to the boat or raft. If this doesn’t work and if you have some form of propulsion, attempt to maneuver down-wind of the victim so your boat doesn’t blow over the top of them. When someone’s too panicky to reach or hold the object and you absolutely must enter the water to retrieve them, swim beyond the victim and approach him or her from behind so they don’t attempt to climb on you. If at all possible, grab a lifejacket strap or an article of clothing, and drag the person through the water backward.
  1. survival techniques
    Staying afloat until you can be located is usually a better bet than trying to swim if land or another target isn’t within sight.

    Hope Floats – When you end up afloat in the water without a PFD, your main problem is still going to be hypothermia because most people can keep their heads above water without expending much energy. Yet people often drown before hypothermia even kicks in. Why? Because they expend far too much energy trying to swim, instead of just trying to float. Unless you have a reachable target, such as land, flotsam, or a boat, concentrate on floating – not swimming. Floating on your back with your legs and arms spread out takes the least amount of energy.

  1. Going Ashore – If you’ve survived a boat sinking and have made it to land, you may now face a new danger: getting ashore in a surf. Beaching yourself in a strong surf is easier said than done and can result in tragedy; use these techniques to make it through the surf:
  • Look for a landing point where you see as little white-water and spray as possible. If the shore is rocky, look for spots where the waves rush over instead of crashing on the rocks.
  • Swim diagonally toward shore in the troughs. As large, breaking waves approach, face them and duck under the water. After the breaker passes, resume traveling towards shore in the next trough.
  • Bodysurf to make the final approach on sandy beaches, with your hands outstretched in front of your body.
  • When you must make landfall on rocky or coral terrain, surf the final wave(s) in a sitting position with your feet forward. If and when they impact, bend your legs to absorb the shock.
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When waves are washing you towards rocks, keep your feet forward and use your legs to absorb the impact.

Let’s reiterate: when all is said and done, modern boats are amazingly safe vessels and applying this knowledge in an emergency will probably never happen. But if it does become necessary, knowing these eight critical survival techniques is a must.

Get more great boating information and tips from Lenny Rudow on BD.

Lenny Rudow
Lenny Rudow …has been a writer and editor in the marine field for over two decades, and has authored seven books. He is currently the Angler in Chief at Rudow's FishTalk Magazine, is Electronics and Fishing Editor for BoatUS Magazine, and is a contributing editor to several other publications. His...