How long can you survive adrift in the ocean?

Dangers of Open Water

This big fella would definitely limit your time adrift at sea.
This big fella would definitely limit your time adrift at sea.
Stephen Frink/Getty Images

There are many hazards in the ocean if you're sailing or power boating in perfectly soun­d vessels. If your boat was suddenly rendered useless or capsized, and you had to make do in a life raft, those dangers increase while your chances of survival decrease. Here are the three things most likely to give you trouble:

Dehydration: This is going to be your biggest foe. Chances are, if you're stranded in a boat, life raft or just floating in your wetsuit, you won't have a large amount of fresh drinking water stowed away, if any. And, drinking seawater is never a good idea. Most doctors agree that humans can go four to eight weeks without food as long as they have water [source:]. In hot conditions with no water, dehydration can set in within an hour. We lose water in many ways -- through sweat, feces, urine and even breathing. This water needs to be replaced if our organs are going to continue to work properly. If you're in reasonable shape and adrift in ideal weather conditions, you may be able to survive for three to five days without any water at all. You can read more about the symptoms of dehydration in How long can you go without food and water?

Hypothermia: Unless you're in the Caribbean, chances are you'll be in some pretty cold water. For this reason, hypothermia is another thing to watch out for if you're adrift at sea. Hypothermia is when your body loses more heat than it produces and your core body temperature drops. If your boat went down, you're probably going to be wet, even if you managed to make it into your raft. Getting wet will speed up the symptoms of hypothermia. To combat this, dry yourself as soon as possible. Cover up with anything warm -- blankets, sleeping bags or pillows. Most heat is lost through your head, so cover it first. If you're with someone and you suspect hypothermia has set in, keep them horizontal and calm -- reassure them that they're going to be fine. Get into a sleeping bag together or simply hug to create warmth. You can read more about hypothermia and its symptoms in How to Avoid Hypothermia.

Sharks: If you've made it through starvation, dehydration and hypothermia, you still need to worry about sea creatures, especially if you're floating in a life vest or wetsuit. Sharks don't mean any harm, but if they're hungry they may mistake you for dinner and take a bite. You may be able to fend off a shark if you punch it in its nose area, gouge its eyes or pull its gills. Of course, if you're floating neck-deep in the ocean, you'll probably be pretty exhausted, and unfortunately the probability of fighting off a hungry shark isn't too great. But there's always a chance these defensive techniques could work, so it's worth a try. If you're in a life raft or a disabled boat, do your best to stay in it. You can read more about shark defense tactics in Can I survive a shark attack by gouging out its eyes?.

On the next page, we'll look at three different open water scenarios and determine how long you might be able to survive each one.