How to Survive a Sinking Ship

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.