How to Survive a Sinking Ship

Titanic Image Gallery A ferry sinks off the coast of Blackpool, England. To see the most famous shipwreck, check out pictures of the Titanic.
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The unspoil­ed b­eauty of the Alask­an coastline was an option. So were the frigid, icy waves of Antarctica. But in the end, the warm, clear blue waters of the Caribbean won out. You've saved your money, bought your sunscreen and practiced up on your shuffleboard. The launch date nears and you're ready to play some slot machines, dance the tango, catch a magic act and marvel at some ice sculptures. That's right -- you're about to go on a cruise.

If you're planning a cruise in the near future, you're not alone. Cruise Lines International Association projects that 34 million adults over 25 years old will cruise in the next three years [source:]. This is great news for the travel industry. But what if the ship you pick strikes a reef or an iceberg? We all know what happened to the Titanic, but is it possible for a modern cruise ship to sink? While it isn't something that happens often, cruise ships can and do sink. Just ask the passengers aboard the Sea Diamond. That cruise ship sank off the coast of Greece in 2007. It took more than three hours to evacuate 1,600 passengers and crew members, but two were never found and presumed dead.

The Web site lists 19 cruise ships that have sunk since 1980. While many of those recorded no fatalities, the idea of going down like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet is enough to keep superstitious travelers on dry land. What's even scarier is that cruise ships only account for a tiny percentage of sea vessels that sink. It's believed that tens of thousands of boats sink every year, although there aren't exact statistics. Many of these are docked boats, but a lot of them sink at sea -- from ferries and freighters to sailboats and yachts.

Would you know what to do if your yacht, sailboat or cruise ship went down? Does it mean certain death? You'll be relieved to find out that you can survive a sinking ship or boat if you remain calm and take the right steps. Heck, you may even be able to prevent the boat from sinking at all if you act fast and have the proper equipment.

What do you do? Keep reading to find out.


Why Ships Sink

So close, yet so far away.
So close, yet so far away.
Stockbyte/Getty Images

Ships and boats are made to float on top of the water, but there are quite a few things that can go wrong to turn your boat into a submarine. Taking on water is inevitable -- large waves often break over the sides, and tiny leaks are common. This water will usually find its way to the lowest point of a boat -- the bilge area. For this reason, boats are equipped with bilge pumps to usher the water back out once it's reached a certain level. Boats often sink while docked, but unless you're like Sonny Crockett and you live on your boat, that's not a life-threatening scenario.

Common reasons a boat might sink at sea are:

Low transom -- The transom is the flat vertical surface that forms the rear, or stern end, of the boat. For outboard vessels, the motor is mounted onto the transom. For larger inboard vessels, you'll find the boat's name on the transom. The idea is for the transom to be high enough that it won't take on water. Sometimes, simple design flaws can leave your transom too low. Improper weight distribution can also lower a transom to the point that waves can come over it and flood the deck. To keep this from happening, don't store all your heavy gear in the stern of the boat. Scuba gear, coolers, fishing equipment and bait should all be distributed evenly along the ship to keep the transom at a safe height. You should also never anchor from the stern side -- it could pull the transom down even further.

Missing drain plugs -- This one seems like a no-brainer, but boats sink all the time because of missing drain plugs. When a boat travels forward, the entire vessel sits higher on the water than it does at rest, with the front higher than the rear. Water collected from waves or sea spray is allowed to exit the boat through a drain located at the rear of the boat at about deck level. Once you're traveling forward, the boat tilts up and the water will flow toward the drain and back out. The problem arises when the captain forgets to stop the drain once the boat is at rest with a small, watertight plug. When the boat stops moving, it sinks lower and begins to take on water through the drain. Carry extra drain plugs and try keeping one near the ignition as a reminder.

Cooling system leaks -- Boat engines are water cooled, pumping about 30 gallons of water through the system per minute for a 300 horsepower engine. If a hose bursts or isn't tight enough, this water can collect in the bilge and once again, you could find yourself sinking. Check for corrosion or obvious splits and breaks in the hoses and fittings of the cooling system before you depart. Replace anything that looks suspect, and you should be fine.

Navigation error -- Simply put, this means striking an object with your boat. It could be rocks, ice, reefs, logs, or anything else large enough to do damage to the hull, or body, of your boat. The best way to combat this is by being careful. Slow down if you see debris and be especially cautious after storms, which can wash in a great deal of foreign objects. If you see something floating, there's a good chance there's more under the surface. If it sounds like you've hit something, stop the boat immediately and check outside and below for holes or leaks.

Stick that plug in the drain and click forward to read about what safety equipment you should have on board.


Boat and Ship Safety Equipment

Worst case scenario -- your boat becomes an underwater attraction.
Worst case scenario -- your boat becomes an underwater attraction.
Jeff Hunter/Getty Images

Having the proper safety equipment on board is just as important, if not more, than being a well-schooled captain. Even the best captain doesn't have a shot at surviving a sinking ship without a life vest or raft. The first piece of gear you'll want to have in working order on any boat or ship is a bilge pump. Unwanted water is supposed to drain from the deck through openings on the side called scuppers, but oftentimes the water finds its way to the bilge.

The bilge pump sucks up the water from the floor of the bilge area and pumps it out through a hose. There are many types of bilge pumps and it's important to get one that's sufficient for the size of your vessel. If a boat has a 2-inch hole a foot below the waterline, nearly 80 gallons of water can pour in per minute. Once that same hole is 3 feet down, the flow can increase to more than 135 gallons per minute [source:]. Many boats sink because the pump they have can't get water out faster than it's coming in, or because the pump is damaged. Regular maintenance of the bilge pump is vital to keeping your boat on the water.

The majority of power boats shorter than 35 feet either have too few pumps or not enough battery power to run them. Most sailboats, regardless of size, have only one pump on board. Bilge pumps are prone to failure because they're so overworked and sometimes improperly maintained. Experts recommend a backup pump for every two you have on board, just to be on the safe side. You should also have several manual pumps in case of an extreme emergency. Bilge pumps are typically triggered to turn on automatically by a float switch. Once water rises to a certain point, the switch floats up and turns on -- crisis averted. Oil, sludge and debris can affect the pumps' ability to operate, so keeping the bilge and pump clean is important.

Life vests and flotation suits are also mandatory for any boater. In fact, at least one life vest per passenger is required by law. Keep the vests handy but secure so they don't have an opportunity to go overboard. Flotation suits are a little more advanced than your average life vest. They're full body suits, with built-in shoes that keep you afloat and insulated -- even in icy waters -- depending on your needs and how much money you can spend. Top-of-the-line floatation suits that will protect you from hypothermia run you about $1,300 to $1,600 [source:].

Life rafts have come a long way in recent years. Modern rafts have canopy covers, paddles, insulated flooring, bailing buckets, ladders and a variety of emergency items -- flares, water pouches, signaling mirrors, reflective tape, fishing kits and much more. They're packaged with all the bells and whistles in cases that look like luggage and are self-inflating. But a good life raft isn't cheap. A deluxe four-person model costs about $4,000 -- well worth the price if you ever need to use one.

Life rafts are packed by the manufacturer and require regular servicing to ensure 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.

On the next page, we'll look at some tips if you're on a sinking ship.


Good Tips for Sinking Ships

This is no cardboard box -- it's a real life vest from the Titanic.
This is no cardboard box -- it's a real life vest from the Titanic.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

You've maintained your boat inside and out. The bilge pump is pumping, the motor is humming and you've steered clear of all rocks. There isn't an iceberg in sight, there's no Celine Dion playing -- all is well. Enter Mother Nature -- a storm comes along, sending your vessel crashing into a shallow reef and before you know it, your boat is sinking.

If you find a hole below deck and you're taking on water, the first thing you need to do is try and plug it. Your goal here is to be able to pump out more water than is coming in. Be creative -- use cabinet doors, table tops, seat cushions or sails. Start with the largest hole if there's more than one. The last resort in any sinking scenario is to abandon ship. Your boat is safer and more visible than a life raft.

Try and stay calm and listen to the captain's directions. If you're the captain, assign jobs to your passengers. Someone should immediately gather all flotation devices and get the life raft ready. While others block the holes, radio for help and give your exact location coordinates. Have another passenger gather up emergency items for the raft, including:

If everyone remains calm and works together, you have a chance of keeping the boat above water or safely making it into the life raft. The captain's evacuation notice should only come when it's certain that the boat is going down.

If you're on a cruise ship, it's even more important to stay calm. Panic leads to pushing, shoving and trampling, which can lead to other injuries, like broken bones or concussion. Studies have shown that 70 percent of victims of a maritime accident are bewildered and have impaired reasoning, 15 percent exhibit irrational behaviors and only 15 percent stay calm and alert [source:]. Larger boats take longer to sink, so there should be plenty of time to get everyone into the lifeboats. Modern lifeboats are large, often fully covered and sometimes come equipped with motors. Once full, they're lowered into the water mechanically by large davits that hang over the edge of the ship. The International Maritime Organization's guidelines require that all cruise ships be able to get passengers lowered into the ocean in lifeboats within 30 minutes of passengers being gathered on deck.

When a large ship sinks it will probably tilt, making it difficult to make your way to the deck. Hold handrails and go slowly to avoid slipping. Also keep an eye out for objects that could be sliding around. The last thing you want is to be near evacuation and get plowed by a grand piano. Try to stay behind large, fixed objects for protection. You'll know it's time to evacuate when you hear the signal from the captain -- seven short horn blasts followed by a long one. The crew of the ship should be the last ones off the boat and assist each passenger in getting to their preassigned lifeboat.


Sinking Ship: When You're Adrift at Sea

This sinking oil tanker nearly reached the shore.
This sinking oil tanker nearly reached the shore.
D. Falconer/Getty Images

Your ship went down and you managed to get into a lifeboat or life raft. If you were aboard a cruise ship, chances are the mayday signal went out and the rescue boats and helicopters are on the way. If you were in a smaller boat and didn't get a chance to signal for rescue you have different challenges ahead of you.

One of the most difficult aspects of being adrift at sea in a small life raft is the psychological toll it takes. Seeing nothing but open water everywhere can cause a lot of mental distress. This feeling of hopelessness can increase when boats and planes come nearby without seeing you. If you're with others, you should occupy your time by playing word games or talking about future plans. This will help keep your mind off the situation and give you something to look forward to once you get rescued.

Heat stroke and severe sunburn is another cause for concern. Hopefully your raft has a cover that you can stay under during the day. Keep an eye out for yourself and others by knowing the symptoms of heat stroke:

  • elevated body temperature
  • confused mental state
  • rapid heartbeat
  • shallow breathing
  • headache and nausea

If you or someone else is suffering from heat stroke, do the following:

  • get under the shade
  • blot your skin with a damp cloth
  • fan yourself
  • drink cool fresh water

Unfortunately, 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. A stable raft is a good thing, but the anchor will slow your drifting rate. Pull the anchor during 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, even with your anchor up.

Ration your water as best you can and under no circumstances should you ever drink sea water. The salt in the water will do nothing but increase the rate of dehydration. In hot conditions with no water, dehydration can set in within an hour. With mild dehydration, you'll experience the following:

  • lack of saliva
  • decreased frequency of urine
  • decreased output of urine
  • deep color and strong odor in urine

Moderate dehydration:

  • even less urine
  • dry mouth
  • dry and sunken eyes
  • rapid heartbeat

Severe dehydration:

  • no urine
  • lethargic and irritable
  • vomiting and diarrhea

The final stage of dehydration is shock. You'll recognize this if you have blue-grey skin that is cold to the touch.

For more information on survival scenarios, please visit the links on the following page.


Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


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  • "What Should I Do on a Sinking Ship?" 2008.
  • "When Rats Leave a Sinking Ship." 2008.
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  • Sterngold, James. "Safety Board Tells of Fight to Survive Sinking of Fishing Vessel Hit by Submarine." The New York Times. February 13, 2001.
  • Tsai, Michelle. "Abandon Ship! Very Slowly!" April 9, 2007.
  • Villaviray-Giolagon, Johnna. "Surviving the sinking." June 25, 2008.