Lost at Sea: 8 Tips for Surviving Open Waters

Ever dreamt of sipping cocktails while sailing on a yacht? Or getting on a cruise ship and hopping from one destination to another? 

Better brush up on your survival skills first before tossing all your savings to sail the seas. 

Getting lost at sea is rare, but it’s not unheard of. Just in case your ship decides to make its best impression of the Titanic, it’s worth learning how to keep yourself alive should you find yourself stuck on a flimsy liferaft with nothing but water as far as the eye can see.

It’s a nautical nightmare that’s all too familiar. As grim as it sounds, some steely survivors have lived to tell the tale. 

In this article, we share tips on how to survive being stranded at sea, so hoist your sails and get ready to embark on a journey to survival!

Preparing for the Worst

Before setting sail, it’s important to conduct necessary safety checks to ensure a smooth-sailing journey. As with all emergencies, preparation will give you the best odds of survival. To guarantee a safe trip, here are some things to consider:

If You’re Boarding a Ship

  • Weather assessment: Always check the weather forecast before departing from port. Aim for sunny skies and calm seas when scheduling trips or deciding which days you want to travel.
  • Safety equipment: Make an effort to locate emergency exits, fire extinguishers, life jackets, and liferafts before the ship sails. Ensure that the ship you’re on is well-equipped to handle maritime emergencies. The ill-fated RMS Titanic only carried 20 lifeboats to accommodate 1,178 people, nowhere near enough for its maximum capacity of 3,547 passengers and crew.
  • Track record: A reputable shipping company will have a good track record of adhering to safety regulations and standards. Investigate the shipping company you’re boarding to determine if they’ve had a history of accidents, mishaps, or safety violations. This will give you an idea of the level of service you can expect and help you decide whether or not entrusting your safety to them is worth it.

If You’re Sailing On Your Own

  • Navigation tools: Triple-check the performance of all your navigational tools. Make sure you have maps, charts, a GPS, compass, and binoculars to help you navigate and stay on course.
  • Communication devices: Inspect the ship’s communication system before sailing. Check for satellite phones or VHF radios to contact other vessels or call for help. Emergency communication devices like flare guns must also be on board to use as distress signals for passengers lost at sea.
  • Fuel and provisions: Ensure that the ship has enough fuel and provisions to cover all passengers’ needs for the entire trip. Always pack extra food, water, and fuel to account for unforeseen circumstances.
  • Maintenance checks: Before setting sail, conduct thorough maintenance checks of the ships’ hull, engine, and other operational systems to ensure everything is in perfect working order. Do these maintenance checks regularly to extend the lifespan of your vessel.

When Tragedy Strikes

So you’ve done your preparations and are off to the high seas. You may have fulfilled your end of the bargain, but plenty of things can take down a ship faster than a cannonball to the hull. From rookie mistakes to Mother Nature’s wrath, here are the top reasons why passengers turn into castaways:

  • Falling Overboard – What is most likely to cause someone to fall overboard? Man overboard scenarios happen for a bunch of reasons: (1) rough seas, (2) nausea, (3) intoxication, (4) losing footing on a slippery deck, (5) climbing a ship’s ratlines to fix the sails, or (6) deliberate suicide attempts. The affairs surrounding man overboard scenarios in the cruise industry are legally complex, making it difficult to hold them responsible for negligence leading to such incidents. Even if a ship is in perfect working order, passengers are still responsible for taking precautions to avoid falling overboard.
  • Adverse weather conditions – Strong winds, lightning, and roaring waves can make navigation difficult and cause damage to the vessel, increasing the risk of capsizing or collision. You can be loaded with resources, but you still gotta keep your eyes on the horizon and your wits about you when the weather starts acting up.
  • Fire – Fires are the most common hazards that occur on board a ship. Although you’re surrounded by water in every direction at sea, fires on a ship can go from zero to inferno real quick. Keep a close eye on potential fire hazards to prevent any sparks from turning into an all-out blaze.
  • Navigational error – Sometimes, sailors’ brains aren’t firing on all cylinders, whether it’s because they’re tired, distracted, or just plain lazy. When that happens, the slightest miscalculations can lead to maritime mishaps like misreading charts or getting navigational instruments mixed up.
  • Improper loading and stability issues – Think it’s worth sneaking in an extra pound of luggage? Nope, not when everyone has the same idea. Overloading the vessel can lead to stability issues and raise the likelihood of capsizing. So stick to the rules and don’t push your luck.
  • Miscommunication – When crew members aren’t on the same page, breakdowns in communication can lead to delays in emergency response and unwanted accidents. Always keep a clear head out at sea because no one wants to end up as shark bait.
  • Collision – Ever been out on a ship’s deck in the dead of night? It’s pitch black. Despite the ocean’s vastness, low visibility can increase the chances of traffic congestion and navigational errors that lead to collisions with other ships, rocks, or icebergs. Sound familiar?
  • Equipment failures – Malfunctions in machinery, like engine failures and valve ruptures, can jeopardize the safety of the passengers and crew and cause the vessel to lose control. Pay attention to your precious cruisers, and don’t forget to give them a little TLC now and then. It might just save your butt someday.
  • Piracy – Pirates aren’t all swashbuckling sailors that look like Johnny Depp. In the real world, piracy is a serious threat, especially in areas with limited maritime security or weak law enforcement. Pirates can board a vessel and hold crew and passengers hostage with the intent of theft, ransom, or other criminal activities.

How to Survive Being Lost at Sea

You may have done everything to prepare for the worst, but sometimes Mother Nature has other plans. 

Don’t lose hope if you find yourself stranded at sea with a wrecked ship, rough waves, and an empty stomach. While it is a dire situation, there are foolproof strategies you can use to turn this disaster into a tale of survival. Let’s get to it!

Stay Afloat

Your top priority after surviving a shipwreck is getting out of the water as fast as possible. The longer you’re in the water, the greater your risk of hypothermia, exhaustion, and drowning.

Swallowing a bunch of saltwater will also be inevitable as you try to keep yourself afloat. This will cause your health to deteriorate rapidly due to severe dehydration. Eventually, you’ll develop blisters on your body from being underwater for too long. If you can’t stay dry, these blisters can lead to infections, or worse, attract bloodthirsty marine predators.

The point is that you shouldn’t waste any time getting on a lifeboat during the first signs of a maritime emergency. Most survival stories of being lost at sea are from castaways who’ve managed to stay adrift on a liferaft or a boat. 

Without either, we’ll give you a generous estimate of surviving for 3-5 days without help, at which point you’ll likely succumb to dehydration. That is, unless a hungry shark devours you first.

Build a Shelter

So you’ve managed to escape a shipwreck by snagging a liferaft with your quick wits. If you’re not in an enclosed raft, the next thing you’ll want to do is to build a makeshift roof to protect yourself from exposure.

Most shipping lines and cruise ships are required to carry lifeboats stocked with emergency supplies and survival guides for shipwreck survivors. Modern survival dinghies or lifeboats come equipped with an enclosure or roof that passengers can also use to collect rainwater.

If you’re not so lucky, you can fashion a roof with plastic, a ship’s sail, or even the clothes on your back. Secure the makeshift shelter with anything you can find — nails, hooks, string, or paracord.

Find Freshwater

Dehydration will be your biggest threat if you’re stranded at sea. Remember, humans can go a few months without food but only a few days without water. Keep dehydration at bay with these tried and true methods:

  1. Collect Rainwater

At sea, rainwater will be your best resource. All shipwreck survivors who’ve survived upwards of 30 days at sea managed to do so by drinking rainwater. Collect rainwater with a makeshift cup, canvas, or plastic secured onto the roof of your raft. If you have none of those, you can lay your clothes out to drench in the rain and wring them dry to collect the rainwater.

  1. Use a Solar Still

Some lifeboats come equipped with a solar still to turn salty seawater into drinking water. If you’re lucky enough to have this device on board, this could be your lifeline to survival. A solar still works by using heat from the sun to trigger the evaporation of seawater inside the device and then collecting the condensation that comes out as freshwater.

Think it’s too good to be true? That’s because it is. Although the mechanism works, it has its limitations. Emergency solar stills don’t yield much distilled water, and they quickly wear out, especially in stormy weather conditions. Nevertheless, having one on board can spell the difference between life and death in a survival situation.

  1. Drink Turtle or Bird Blood

Disgusted already? When you’re lost at sea, desperation sets in very quickly. Drinking turtle or bird blood can be a last resort if you can’t count on rain to fall. Turtle and bird blood are 70% water, which can quench your thirst better than seawater. Jose Salvador Alvarenga, who spent 438 days stranded at sea, claims he drank turtle blood to stave off dehydration and survive. 

While we’re on the subject of hydration, here’s a word of caution: don’t drink your own pee to relieve your thirst. Despite what you may have seen in survival movies, drinking pee will only cause undue stress on your kidneys, as it consists of a mix of sodium, chloride, and urea. In short, it’s best to forget it and spare yourself the disgust.

Gather Food

Don’t celebrate too soon if you happen to have a food supply on your lifeboat. If you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature, your luck can run out in a flash. No matter how good you are at rationing your supplies, you’ll eventually run out of food if help doesn’t arrive in time.

In this case, you’ll have to learn how to fish.

Fish collect at the bottom of boats, so you can scoop one out if you’re fast enough. If not, you can create a makeshift fishing kit with a line of string and a hook made from a small piece of metal. Attach some bait to the hook, like leftover food, worms, or seaweed. Otherwise, you may be fortunate enough to get on a lifeboat with a functional fishing rod on board.

Once you’ve snagged a fish, try drying it under the sun for a few hours to improve taste. Preserve its guts to use as bait next time, and if you’re not having much success with fishing, catch turtles and seabirds to eat instead. 

Worried about the taste? Fret not. Over time, your body will start to crave the vitamins and minerals it’s been missing, so fish eyeballs and raw meat will eventually taste like candy.

Fight Off Predators

Sharks don’t see humans as food, but sometimes they’ll get curious and take a bite. Unfortunately, what may seem like a nibble to them can be a life-threatening wound for us. To spare yourself from a Jaws scenario, here are some tips for dealing with sharks in the water:

  • If you see a shark, stay as still as possible and avoid flailing and splashing. Sharks are attracted to movement and noise.
  • Try to maintain some distance when a shark starts to approach you. If possible, keep an object between you and the shark, like a paddle board or boat.
  • If a shark does attack you, keep calm and don’t turn your back. Using a sharp object as a weapon, aim for its most sensitive areas like its eyes, gills, and nose.

Use Celestial Navigation

Signal for Help

When it comes to signaling for help, mobile phones are perhaps the most unreliable communication devices for those stranded at sea. They have a short battery life, are network dependent, and aren’t very good at indicating your location to coastguards.

Instead, signal for help using the following emergency communication devices that are likely on most lifeboats.

  1. Distress Beacons – Handheld distress beacons usually come in the form of a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) or an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). They have worldwide coverage and can send a distress signal to coastguards indicating your location for up to 48 hours.
  1. Flares – Flares are excellent visual distress signals that can be deployed quickly. Orange and red flares are commonly used to signal for help, with orange being more visible during the day and red at night. Read the instructions before launching, aim carefully, and look away before you fire to protect your eyes.
  1. Whistle or Air Horn – A simple device like a whistle or air horn can be highly effective at getting attention in low visibility. All you need is a good set of lungs. Reserve your energy for when a ship or aircraft is close enough to hear you.
  1. FlashlightTactical flashlights have powerful beams that allow you to send emergency signals via Morse Code from afar, even in the dead of night. You’d be lucky to have one on your person after a shipwreck. Their only con is that they’re battery-dependent, so use yours sparingly.
  1. Mirror – In the absence of any of the signaling devices mentioned above, you can always use a compact mirror to reflect sunlight in the general direction of potential rescuers. On a sunny day, a mirror’s reflection can be seen up to 10 miles up in the sky, enough to grab the attention of a passing aircraft.

Maintain Mental Fortitude

You probably won’t have a 400-pound Bengal tiger to keep you company like Pi Patel did in Life of Pi, meaning you’ll need to get more creative with keeping your mind busy. The reality of being lost at sea is that your sanity can be the first to go if your mindset isn’t strong enough.

Distract yourself from hopelessness by thinking of friends and family back home, counting stars at night, and concentrating on keeping yourself alive.

Steven Callahan, a shipwreck survivor who drifted on his raft for 76 days, once shared that he kept his mind occupied by carefully observing the schools of fish that swam up to the bottom of his raft at night. Having been stripped of most of his resources, he poetically described it saying, “It was like seeing a glimpse of heaven from a seat in hell.”

After his 76-day ordeal at sea, Callahan became an advisor for the movie Life of Pi, using his experience to ensure that the film was grounded in realism and accuracy.

Final Thoughts

And there you have it — 8 foolproof tips for surviving the deep blue! Should you ever find yourself lost at sea, always remember that survival is not just a physical feat but a state of mind. You’ll need a bullheaded type of tenacity and tons of dumb luck to survive the dizzying expanse of the sea.

If all else fails, you can always resort to the tried and true method of befriending a volleyball. All jokes aside, being lost at sea is no laughing matter, but with the right tools and a strong will, you can overcome even the most daunting of challenges. 

So good luck out there and happy sailing!

What’s your favorite survival tale about being lost at sea? Share them in the comments below!

Advertising and Affiliate Disclosure

We put a lot of effort into all of the content on tactical.com. We are able to provide this content for free because we earn money for advertisements on this site. We also earn small commissions for sales generated via our affiliate links. While these commissions do earn us income, they do not cost our readers anything additional. Clicking on our ads or links helps support our staff and we sincerely appreciate your support.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.