How to Survive 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.