When we think of a desert, wide expanses of sand immediately come to mind. But do you that the biggest desert of them all does not have any sand, at least not on the surface? It is the oceans and seas that comprise the harshest and most unforgiving desert on the planet. Covering three fourths of the globe, getting stranded at sea is one of the most frightening and probably the hardest survival experience one can ever hope to experience.
Many many people have found the waters of the sea to be their final resting place, their watery grave.
Some have survived after a mid-ocean shipwreck and been rescued or found land, floating in dinghies and life rafts for days and weeks and sometime for months. Everything is out there to kill you. The relentless Sun sucks out all body fluids, sunburns turn nasty and angry, the intensity can cause blindness. Life rafts are provisioned with some survival food, enough for maybe three or four days. Life becomes extremely difficult when the food runs out. Despite all the fish in the water, it might be very difficult to catch one. Probably the worst is thirst. Despite being surrounded by so much water, drinking sea water will dehydrate you further, will fry the kidneys, induce madness and ultimately kill you in short order.
In the immediate aftermath of a capsize, it is drowning that kills most people. The immediate solution is to keep calm and find one’s way on to some kind of floatation device, a life raft, a dinghy, a length of log, a piece of wood, anything. Once you are out of the water, you can start assessing your situation and focus on the many other things that can kill you. Hypothermia, for instance. When you are cold and wet and it is windy, hypothermia is just waiting to sneak in. And water cools the body down around 30 times faster than air!
When you see that a capsize is imminent, try and gather as much gear, clothing and equipment as you can.
Once ‘stabilised’ on a floatation device, the rules of survival are pretty much the same as those on land. You need shelter from the elements, food to eat and water to drink. You should know how to signal for help – there might be passing ships or aircraft that can effect rescue. Navigation becomes extremely critical in order to be able to reach a land mass.
Most modern life rafts are equipped for one, two, four, six or twenty people. Most are inflatable and inflate on deployment. Most are also designed to leak so that the inflated tubes do not burst when the trapped air expands due to the heat of the Sun. SO by definition, overnight the raft would lose a lot of air and if not re-filled would ensure a quick descent to the bottom of the ocean – with you inside. A lot of the time will be spent in inflating the tubes. Also, most modern rafts come with a set of emergency equipment like flares, fishing kit, dehydrated meals, water cans, signal mirrors, etc. However, I always insist on having a Survival Kit always with you. Try and salvage this from the vessel you are evacuating from and carry it with you if possible. This Kit will provide you with additional gear and equipment for survival, stuff that you will be more familiar with compared to the ones that come with the life raft. If you can also grab a sleeping bag, that will make the nights much more comfortable ... even if it is wet. And grab anything else that will help you stay afloat – buoy, life jackets, even a wet suit. Plastic containers will act as water storage containers later, but will help you float for now.
When the ship is in the process of going down, swim away from it as far as you can. As it goes down, it will create a vacuum and if you get caught in it, you will be sucked underwater along with the ship. Once it has sunk, you can swim back to it to find floating debris that you might find useful.
Adapt, improvise, innovate and overcome.
As long as you are in the water, try and stay afloat by expending the least amount of energy. The tendency is to panic, but that is counterproductive. If you can see land and the current and wind is in your favour, you might make an attempt to swim it. But it will be a lot of hard work and a lot of energy wasted. Unless you are sure of making landfall, do not separate yourself from your floatation device. Remember that floating is easier in sea water compared to fresh water, you do not need to thrash about to stay afloat. By spending energy you will hyperventilate, tire yourself and ultimately drown. Float on your back, that is the easiest. If you find your legs pulling you down, let them. “Stand” in the water. You could also float on your stomach but breathing in such a position requires some effort.
Do what you will, but try and get onto your floatation device as soon as you can.
Once settled in, assess your situation, your gear, the equipment there exists, maps, if any, etc. You do not know how long it will be before you are rescued. Ration your food and water to last for as long as possible. It is better to have stuff left over when you are rescued than to run out of food and water and then rescuers find you a few days later starved or dehydrated to death. Food is the lesser of the priorities, water is critical. Find your water making device ... solar still, hand pump, whatever. Without water, you are history. Food comes next. There are fish in the water, some poisonous, but most edible. And there are killers in the water. Sharks have got themselves a bad reputation thanks to some films, but they are not as vicious killers as they are made out to be. One problem you will face with sharks is their bodies. They usually bump their prey and your life raft will look like prey to them. Their skin is like sandpaper and a few bumps might mean a perforated raft. Take something and beat them with it ... chances are they will go away.
Your chances of getting rescued diminish with each passing hour.
A floating life raft is a very difficult thing to spot. And even if rescuers know the coordinates of your last location ... where your ship sank ... by the time rescue is mounted you might have drifted a few miles. Even if you have drifted 10km from your sunken ship, the search area translates to 400 sq km; a awful lot of water in which to spot a small raft. Even with emergency beacons and radios, planes have flown over a castaway, not being able to spot it. Bad weather and high waves makes life all the more difficult.
Learn the art of navigation at sea. If you do not have a GPS, you will have to device primitive instruments to figure out where you are and in which direction you are headed. Ideally, you would know the lay of the sea before you began your sail. In which case you would have an idea of your position and possible land masses. A map is ideal, but no life raft will keep marine maps for all the routes, in all the seas in the world. You need to have your own map for the route you are sailing in.
Finally, re-establish your relationship with the One Above. You may not be religious or might know Him or Her by different names. Whatever it is, start talking. Sea survival is extreme and life rafts to have a life. They will not last forever. You have to find dry land to plonk your feet on before the raft disintegrates, before your water runs out, before your fishing kit breaks down, before you succumb to salt water sores, scurvy, etc.