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How to Survive a Sinking Ship

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.


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More Great Links


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  • "List of ships that have sank between 1979 - 2007." 2008.
  • "Local Students Survive Cruise Ship Sinking." Associated Press. April 6, 2007.
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  • "What Should I Do on a Sinking Ship?" 2008.
  • "When Rats Leave a Sinking Ship." 2008.
  • "Why Boats Sink (And How To Keep Them Afloat)." 2008.
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  • Pascoe, David. "How to keep your boat from sinking." 2008.
  • 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.