How to Survive a Shipwreck

On Dry Land: Food and Fire

Make use of anything you find washed up on the shore of your desert island.
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Food and fire are next on your list for shipwreck survival. Fire is important for many reasons and provides the following:

  • Heat to dry wet clothes
  • A cooking flame
  • A sense of security and comfort
  • Smoke for rescue signals
  • A means to scare away dangerous animals
  • Smoke to repel insects

Collect your wood -- you need tinder, kindling and larger sticks and logs. The tinder can be anything dry and small. The "hair" from palm tree trunks works well. If you have matches, use those to start your fire. If not, there are many other methods for starting one. You can read all about them in How to Start a Fire without a Match.


As a last resort, use a flare to light your fire. Once you've made your fire, keep it going. Build your signal fire, but don't light it -- it should be large and full of dry brush and palm fronds. Top it with green fronds to increase the amount of smoke, and light it as soon as you hear or see a plane or boat.

HSW 2008

Aside from coconuts and fruit trees, the best opportunity for food will come from the ocean. There are toxic fish that can make you sick, so a good rule of thumb is to not eat the following:

  • Jellyfish
  • Fish with spikes
  • Fish that puff up
  • Fish with parrot-like beaks

Specifically, the following saltwater fish are toxic to humans:

  • Porcupine fish
  • Triggerfish
  • Cowfish
  • Thorn fish
  • Oilfish
  • Jack
  • Puffer

If you don't have a fishing kit from your life raft, try your hand at spear fishing. Bamboo makes for a great spear.

  • Find an 8- to 10-foot bamboo stick.
  • Make two intersecting crosscuts at one end about 6 inches deep, creating four prongs.
  • Separate the prongs by wedging vine into the crevices.
  • Sharpen the prongs with a knife or sharp rock.

­Now you have a four-pronged fishing spear. Actually nabbing a fish is the tricky part. There are two different methods -- diving and standing. If you have good swimming skills, try diving first. It's easier to spear a fish against something, so head toward rocks. If you aren't a good swimmer, try to find a rock to stand on or simply wade into knee-deep water. Fish scare easily, so move slowly and deliberately.

Once you have your fish, cook it to improve the taste. You don't need a skillet or deep fryer -- all you need is a fire and some rocks for a primitive oven:

  • Heat six to eight medium-sized rocks in the fire for a couple of hours.
  • Dig a hole in the sand about a foot deep and a couple of feet across.
  • Carefully move the rocks into the hole without burning yourself.
  • Wrap your fish several times over in large green leaves and tie off with vine.
  • Sit the wrapped fish on top of the rocks and cover it all with sand.
  • After about an hour, dig up the fish and enjoy your cooked meal.

If the fish aren't biting, make a meal from slow-moving conchs and sea snails. The white meat inside the shells can be boiled or eaten raw. Sea snails are found clinging to rocks near the shoreline. Conchs are located in shallow waters and tend to hang out in sea grass.­

In the next section, we'll learn how to make a primitive raft.