How to Survive a Shipwreck

Lost at Sea

This deluxe model Ocean Rescue raft from the Winslow Life Raft Company comes with everything you need to survive your sea ordeal.
This deluxe model Ocean Rescue raft from the Winslow Life Raft Company comes with everything you need to survive your sea ordeal.
Image courtesy Winslow Life Raft Company

If your ship is sinking, you need to act fast. Gather as much food and water as you can and get your life raft ready. If you have time, you should grab these additional items:



The good news is that life rafts have come a long way since the small rubber crafts of days gone by. Modern life rafts have tall walls, covers, paddles, insulated flooring, bailing buckets, ladders and a variety of emergency items -- flares, water pouches, signaling mirrors, reflective tape and fishing kits. A good life raft isn't cheap, with a deluxe four-person model costing about $4,000 in today's market.

Life rafts are packed by the manufacturer and require regular servicing to ensure their usability. Unfortunately, even the most expensive life rafts aren't always leak-proof. The ocean is tough on a small vessel, and you may end up with water coming into your safe haven. All modern rafts come with pumps and repair kits for this reason. You'll also make good use of your bailer to help empty your raft of water.

One of the most challenging aspects of being lost at sea is the psychological toll it takes. To look around and see nothing but open water can cause a great deal of mental distress. Additional anguish comes when you see passing boats and planes, or come close to land before drifting away. If you're with someone else, occupy yourself by playing word games or talking about future plans.

Heatstroke is another cause for concern. If your raft has a cover, stay under it during the day. Some symptoms of heatstroke are:

  • Elevated body temperature
  • Confused mental state
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shallow breathing
  • Headache and nausea

If you're suffering from heatstroke, try the following:

  • Get in the shade
  • Blot your skin with a damp cloth
  • Fan yourself
  • Drink cool fresh water

[source: Mayo Clinic]

Drifting is your only hope for finding dry land, so the more you drift, the better your chances. Most life rafts are equipped with sea anchors that help stabilize the vessel. While a stable raft is a good thing, the anchor will slow your drifting rate. Try pulling up the anchor during periods of calm weather and drop it back in when the winds pick up. At a rate of two knots, you can drift as far as 50 miles per day -- in calm weather you can bob in place for hours.


In the next section, we'll look at what to do once you've reached land.