Survival Situations - Ocean
Of all the places you could be stranded, the ocean may be one of the worst. Depending on how you were stranded and what supplies you have access to, the survival difficulty will vary drastically, but it's not impossible. There are cases of people surviving for over a year adrift at sea. With a little determination, survival knowledge, and luck, you can escape Davy Jones' locker too!
Supplies You Need to Survive
Welcome to our equivalent of an ocean survival master list. Your survival kit needs to include a decent amount of supplies, so pay attention!
When there's a limited supply of (drinkable) water available, food can be a bit tricky. The body needs water to digest food and uses the water held within your body to do this. To make this even more problematic, protein and carbs require even more water to digest than other types of food. This means you will need to balance your water and food consumption and ensure your survival kit includes some easy-to-digest foods. Some non-perishable, waterproof-in-the-right packaging options include:
- Canned Foods (soup, veggies, etc.)
- Dried Fruit
- Nuts, Seeds, & Trail Mix
- Peanut Butter
- Protein Bars
Depending on when you're set adrift, you may need to protect yourself from the sun, wind, rain, cold, or some cursed amalgamation of them all. Ponchos and space blankets are great options to shield yourself from the elements, and long-sleeved clothes are ideal for keeping warm and avoiding sunburns. Be sure to include extra layers, gloves, and sunglasses. While sunglasses don't seem necessary for survival, the ocean reflects enough light to deep fry your eyeballs. So slap those babies on and pretend you're on a cruise. Might as well take care of your mental health too.
I usually group light and fire together. But since it's inadvisable, and borderline impossible, to have a fire on your raft, we'll stick to just light. While at sea, light serves a purpose beyond just seeing at night. Light can be used to attract fish (i.e., your means of food and water) and signal for help. Just make sure your light source is waterproof and have extra batteries away from the ocean so they don't corrode.
Medication & First Aid Gear
It's a little bit difficult to survive if you don't have first aid supplies. Within modern civilization, mild injuries and illnesses are simply an inconvenience. Out in nature, though, even minor injuries can have lethal consequences without proper care. So to avoid a slow and feverish death from infection or some other preventable ailment, you need some life-saving equipment and general first aid supplies. Additionally, you should ensure that your kit is a waterproof first aid kit so you don't have to worry about the salt water ruining your supplies.
- Chest Seals
- Hemostatic Gauze
- Pressure Bandage
- Space Blanket
- Aloe Vera
- Antiseptic Ointment
- Cold Pack
- Motion Sickness Medication
- Saline Solution/Eye Wash
- Triangle Bandage
First and foremost, get yourself a good dry bag. You need to keep all your gear in working order, and some items will deteriorate rapidly when in contact with salt water. Some dry bags will even double as a flotation device, and since it's a little challenging to fit a separate life vest into a survival kit, I'd find one capable of floating.
Other random gear you need include paracord, a survival/first aid guide, fishing line and hooks, and shark repellent.
This section boils down to pretty much one thing: a compass. It may seem obvious, but if you have a general idea of which direction land is, you can orient yourself.
In an ideal situation, you would be on a lifeboat with a cover to protect you from the elements. However, if it doesn't have a roof or you're adrift on something else, you can erect a simple shelter using a tarp or your space blanket.
If you want to be rescued, you need at least a few signaling methods. Emergency whistles, signal mirrors, and flares are standard devices used for signaling.
I recommend having both a dedicated knife and a small multi-tool. Then, if you drop one, you'll still have the other. And if line fishing isn't getting you anywhere, you can attach one knife to a piece of driftwood or other long object and make a spear.
Welcome to the most difficult part of ocean survival: finding water to drink that won't help the sun shrivel you to a crisp. The only way to get drinkable water is by bringing it yourself or using a solar still. So keep at least one bottle of water in your kit. As for solar stills, many lifeboats come with one onboard, you could buy one separately, or build your own from the steps found in the "water" subsection.
Before you can worry about staying alive, you need to focus on staying afloat.
Getting Out of the Water
If you have a lifeboat, great! Chuck your survival kit inside, clamber in, and check it over. If you don't have a lifeboat, gather wreckage, lash it all together, and do your best to keep yourself dry. Anything that floats is fair game!
Swimming in the Water
Even in warm waters, hypothermia can still sneak up on you, waves can shove you under, and you can quickly run out of energy.
Making a Makeshift Lifejacket
While you shouldn't take your clothes off in the water since they provide insulation, you can turn your jeans into a lifejacket if you need help floating. Take your jeans off, zip up the fly, tie the legs together tightly, wave the waistband in the air to fill them with air, and hold the waistband under the water to trap the air inside. You can pull the legs over your head, so it functions like a commercially produced lifejacket.
Floating on Your Back
If you fall into the water and don't have a lifejacket, floating on your back will conserve the most amount of energy while letting you breathe freely.
The deadman is a highly energy-efficient floating method often used in rough waters. You float on your stomach with your head down in the water. Hold your breath for a few seconds, exhale slowly, and lift your head out of the water for a breath.
H.E.L.P. Floating Method
Sometimes, you won't be able to get out of the water quickly. In this case, you'll want to conserve body heat without wasting energy. The H.E.L.P. method, or Heat Escape Lessening Position, requires a lifejacket but will help you fend off hypothermia for far longer than otherwise. This method works by drawing your extremities up into your chest and simply floating. If you're with other people, huddle together in a similar way.
Swimming Towards Land
While you might want to make a mad dash for land as soon as you spot it, there's a high chance you'd run out of energy long before reaching your destination. And a lack of energy doesn't mesh well with staying afloat or surviving. To preserve energy, only float and let the current carry you to shore.
Tying a Safety Line
No matter how careful you are, Murphy's Law dictates that something will inevitably go wrong. At sea, you can roll out of the raft while sleeping, get yanked out while fishing, or be thrown over by a rogue wave. Tying a safety line on yourself and connected to your raft will help you stay near and get back inside your raft.
From this section onward, you will either think this is excellent information, start to feel nauseous, or never want to visit the ocean again. After writing this, I'm personally leaning towards the last one.
You may be adrift at sea for weeks, so you'll need food. As mentioned earlier, it takes a lot of water to digest protein. However, you're unlikely to find much else unless you somehow squeezed a kitchen's worth of food into your survival kit. So, squash your inner vegan (if yours exists cause mine sure doesn't) and prepare for the carnivore diet!
On the bright side, fish will naturally flock to your raft as a means of shade and shelter. You can nab these guys using your line and hook or the spear you threw together. If you don't have fish hooks, just use your knife to fashion one out of nearby materials. You'll be surprised what you can make using your imagination and desperation. Do not handle the line with bare hands or tie it to your raft. The salt buildup will be sharp and risks harming yourself or damaging your raft. To attract fish closer to your hook or spear, redirect sunlight to the water's surface during the day or use your flashlight at night.
Fish are an ideal resource for survival. Organs such as the heart and liver are jam-packed with nutrients your body needs to function. The guts and bits you don't eat can be used as bait to catch more food. Finally, and arguably the most crucial factor, they can be a means of obtaining water. The eyeballs are primarily water, and you can crack a fish's spine like a forbidden glow stick and suck the liquid out. If you're queasy after reading that, don't worry. You're not alone…
Birds might find your raft as a suitable nesting place and land. It's rather difficult to catch birds by hand, but you can fashion a type of fishing hook for birds. Take an aluminum can or other small, sharp material and fashion it into a wide, arrowhead shape. All the edges should be sharpened, and it should be small enough that a bird can swallow it. Attach a line, throw on some fish guts, and wait for a bird to swallow it. The hook will get lodged in the bird's throat, and you'll be able to yank it back down to earth.
Even though it's illegal in the United States, turtle is a delicacy in many cultures and could be your ticket to survival. Turtle meat is nutritious and has a high water content. If you have a fishing line and a plastic bag, you theoretically could land yourself a turtle feast. Scientists have been telling consumers to keep plastic bags out of the ocean since turtles mistake them for jellyfish. If you attempt to jerk the plastic bag in a way that mimics how jellyfish swim, a turtle might be interested (do note that this method is the equivalent of flipping off conservationists). Just be careful with the size of the turtle you go after. If it's too big, you won't be able to pull it into your boat.
If you see a clump of seaweed floating past, grab it because you need your greens, and you won't be finding anything else remotely similar to a vegetable! Even though seaweed isn't always green, they are packed with nutrients. There are no poisonous types of seaweed, but some do contain acids that are literally laxatives. To test your seaweed, take a bit of the seaweed, crush it a little, and rub it against your wrist, lips, and tongue. If you don't feel any tingling or burning after ten minutes and it doesn't smell foul, chew a clump thoroughly and let it sit in your mouth. If there is no reaction, remove any gas balls growing on it and chow down. Ideally, you would wash it in fresh water before consumption, but if you have a limited supply, it's not necessary. If you pull up seaweed that is mushy or smells bad, don't eat it. The seaweed you eat should be fresh, firm, and smooth. If you have a surplus, you can dry it and save it for later. Additionally, seaweed can be home to small, edible critters like shrimp and crabs. Be sure to search it thoroughly.
If you ever wanted to be a vampire, congratulations. You sort of got your wish! Turtle blood is dense in protein, iron, and other nutrients and is a good water source. However, don't let your entire diet revolve around blood. Drinking too much can give you hemochromatosis, a condition where too much iron is in your body. This causes fatigue, weight loss, stomach pain, gray skin tone, joint pain, and death in extreme cases.
Even if you don't overindulge in your new vampiric ways, there are other risks you need to be aware of. Bloodborne pathogens are microorganisms that cause various diseases. And, lucky for you, these pathogens can transfer from animals to humans! Welcome to the ocean, where everything's trying to kill you. Ideally, you would boil the blood or avoid drinking it in the first place. Since you're unlikely to have that option, drink it in moderation.
Last but not least for this oh-so-enjoyable section, do not drink fish blood. It has an extremely high salt content and will only serve to dehydrate you further. Stick to fish eyes.
How to Dry Meat
Seafood spoils quickly, so you either have to wolf it all down within the day or find a way to preserve it. While smoking your fish would be the most enjoyable method, it's not exactly doable, which leaves your only option being sun drying. To dry meat, remove as much fat as possible and cut it into thin strips. String the pieces up in direct sunlight with ample airflow and let the sun do the work. Be mindful that most meat needs at least eight hours to dry completely and will take longer the thicker the meat is.
General Fine Dining Tips
- Offshore animals are generally safe to eat raw, but be cautious of parasites, sick fish, and other unsavory occurrences
- Avoid hunting anything too large. You won't be able to haul it onto your boat and may instead capsize it or fall overboard yourself
- Avoid holding fishing line with your bare hands. Salt will build up on the line and cut you
- If you make it to shore, cook everything from here on out. You never know what could be lingering in your food
I personally believe nature is biased against land-dwellers. Why else would seventy-odd percent of the world be covered in water we can't drink? Thankfully, you aren't unequivocally doomed to an ironic fate if you're adrift at sea. There are multiple ways to squeeze freshwater out of the surrounding environment.
While a bad storm won't bode well for staying inside your raft, it will deliver vital liquid that you can collect for later usage. Do not let this opportunity pass! In addition to providing drinking water, you can wash the salt out of your clothes and clean your raft—no need to leave potential hazards aboard when you have the chance to remove them.
As mentioned in the food section, you can find water in a fish's eyes and spines and a turtle's blood and meat. While still gross, it'll help hydrate you.
Old, blue-gray sea ice with rounded edges is safe to melt or suck for water. New sea ice will be salty and only serve to dehydrate you further.
If you're on a lifeboat, it will most likely come with a solar still or chemical distillation kit. Follow the instructions that come with them. If your liferaft doesn't have a still or you're adrift in another way, you can build your own solar still.
How to Build a Solar Still
A solar still boils down to five parts: a larger container that holds the evaporation materials (in this case, salt water or seaweed), a collection cup for fresh water, a plastic cover to keep heat trapped, something to tie the plastic cover down so that heat and steam are trapped, and a weight to slant the plastic over the collection cup. To assemble, simply fill the large container with sea water or seaweed, place the collection cup in the center (with a weight inside if you're using sea water), cover everything with the plastic cover, firmly tie said cover down, and place the weight directly over the collection cup so the water droplets will slide down into the cup.
If you are missing some of the above materials and instead have two empty bottles, you can make another, simpler type of solar still. Simply put salt water in the bottom bottle, duct tape the other bottle on top, and lean your new wanna-be hourglass at an angle so evaporated water will collect in the slanted part of the bottle.
What this all boils down to is that any solar still you build needs a lower area for infected water and a higher reservoir for evaporated water to collect. With some ingenuity, scavenged supplies, and a clear sky, you'll be able to get fresh water. Solar stills can take a while, but if you set up multiple solar stills, you'll be able to produce more. In survival, there's no such thing as too much drinkable water.
In survival situations, you want the water your body already has to go further and keep you alive longer. Here are some tips to make your body water go further:
- Keep out of direct sunlight and in the shade as much as possible
- Do not sit or lie on the hot ground
- Keep your shirt on as it will help keep you from sweating excessively
- When you drink water, wet your lips and mouth before swallowing
- Eat less so less water is used for digestion
- Don't burn energy in careless or useless ways
- Breathe through the nose and avoid talking
- Don't get sick
- If the water is safe and it's really hot, take a dip to cool yourself down (check that your safety line is secure first)
What Won’t Work
Lifestraws and similar filters are fantastic devices to carry in survival kits. They work in almost every survival situation...every one except ocean survival. These filters are unable to remove dissolved substances like salt. So no matter how much you love your Lifestraw, it will be about as helpful as a normal, turtle-killing straw.
In addition to dehydration, exposure is what's most likely to clean your clock. This is where your shelter comes in. Some lifeboats will have a roof incorporated into the design, in which case you're set. If not, you need to set up a makeshift shelter to protect yourself. A tarp or space blanket propped up and secured can make a huge difference.
As previously mentioned, everything is trying to kill you, and you will certainly get that vibe after reading this long section. However, despite the massive list of things you need to be wary of, surviving is doable if you proceed with caution and are vigilant.
Various Ailments & Afflictions
While you're less likely to get a severe illness at sea than in the jungle, that doesn't mean you'll automatically get off scot-free.
Dehydration & Heatstroke
Dehydration can come from more than just a lack of water. If it's particularly hot, your body will burn through your water stores faster. And unfortunately, heatstroke and dehydration often come hand in hand. So if you start seeing signs of one, watch for the other.
Signs of dehydration are headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and dark or infrequent urination, whereas heatstroke signs include high body temperature, nausea, and rapid breathing. If you exhibit any of these symptoms, drink more water and keep cool. If possible, take a quick dip in the ocean and stay in the shade.
Symptoms of malnutrition include inelastic, dry, pale, and cold skin, lack of appetite, concentration, and energy, poor wound healing, weight loss, depression, cold intolerance, and muscle and subcutaneous fat wasting away. The best way to treat malnutrition is to replace the missing nutrients. This means you most likely need to eat more organ meat.
I don't know about you, but freezing to death isn't very high on my "ways I want to go out" list. If you begin to notice that you're shivering excessively, are becoming clumsy, or slurring your speech, wrap up in your space blanket immediately, insulate yourself from the cold air and ground, and try to bring your body temperature up.
Photokeratitis - Corneal Burns
If anyone says that sunglasses aren't a mandatory survival item, I've got two words for them: sunburned eyes. It's a real thing that you do not want to deal with. The ocean reflects around five percent of sunlight, and sea ice reflects up to sixty percent. That's enough reflected ultraviolet light to deep fry your eyeballs, no problem. And if you don't have twenty-twenty vision in the first place, you shouldn't be risking your long-term vision like this. If there's pain, a sudden vision change (blurry or temporarily lost), light sensitivity, headaches, swelling, or another survivor says your eyes appear cloudy, congratulations, you have corneal burns. When this happens, shield your eyes and keep them protected from the sun, avoid rubbing your eyes, and remove contact lenses. To relieve pain or discomfort, take an anti-inflammatory medication like Ibuprofen and flush your eyes with a sterile saline solution. Symptoms usually disappear within forty-eight hours. Remember, even if it's cloudy, you can still be sunburned!
This is a disease that often affected sailors in the past. It's caused by a lack of vitamin C in the diet and is characterized by skin hemorrhages and feeling weak. Unfortunately, fruit isn't going to randomly float by your raft. But, on the bright side, there's an easy solution! All the fish you catch will have organs that are dense in both vitamin C and other essential nutrients (if they don't, you've got a whole other, horror movie-ish problem on your hands). And besides, you don't need a lot of vitamin C unless you're consistently consuming carbs, as it requires vitamin C to digest.
In addition to being unable to drink all the water surrounding you, the salt in the water can be detrimental to your skin by causing saltwater sores. These are extremely painful, open wounds caused by saltwater-soaked clothing rubbing salt into pores and broken skin for extended periods. To prevent, keep high-risk areas, such as your rear dry and away from salt water. Saltwater sores are treated by flushing the affected area with fresh water, keeping the site dry, applying antiseptic, and letting the area breathe.
Some jellyfish are harmless, whereas others are capable of incapacitating or even killing you. Thankfully, jellyfish don't have the brains nor brawn to hunt you down. All you need to do is steer clear of them and their tentacles.
However, jellyfish can be borderline microscopic or have tentacles over a hundred feet long. Because of course they can. If you get stung or caught in a jellyfish or Portuguese Man-of-War's tentacles, carefully untangle yourself and swim away from it. Don't treat a jellyfish sting by peeing on it. It's gross and may cause more irritation. Same with alcohol. To treat, remove any remaining tentacles with either gloves, tweezers, or a stick, and soak the area in hot water or vinegar for five to ten minutes. If needed, take a painkiller to reduce both pain and swelling.
Even though fictional works like Jaws and Sharknado portray sharks as mindless murder machines, they are unlikely to attack you unless provoked or mistake you for a seal. However, this does not mean that sharks are poor, harmless, misunderstood creatures. They're frankly terrifying, and by all accounts, they should be viewed as dangerous, even more so when your survival is dubious. On the bright side, there is a surplus of readily available information on sharks, how to prevent their attacks, and what to do if one occurs.
This boils down to a few key points:
- Avoid swimming at dawn and especially dusk. They are highly active
- Don't thrash around in the water - you'll look like an easy dinner
- If you feel something bump against you, it may be a curious shark. Get out of the water
- Any bodily waste should be disposed of far from the raft as it attracts sharks
- Don't look like a seal - i.e., hanging off of surfboards or debris
- Keep sharks in sight ahead of you, and don't let them swim behind you
- Move slowly and deliberately while in the water
- If fish or seals jump out of the water, a shark may be hunting them. Avoid that area
- When near non-hostile sharks, make yourself appear smaller so you don't appear threatening
- Shiny things attract sharks. Don't wear them in the water
- Shark repellents may work, but none are a hundred percent effective
While terrifying, you can survive a shark attack and go home with one more sick story to tell! Keep these tips in mind:
- Hostile sharks will arch their back, move sharply, and move their tail in bigger motions
- If a shark comes off as hostile, make yourself appear larger
- Punch the eyes, snout, and gills. If it backs off, start to back away slowly. Do not turn your back on the shark or thrash around
- Avoid striking the top of a shark. It is heavily armored and will do more harm than good
- Grabbing a shark by the snout and redirecting them may make it pause and not attack
- Screaming underwater and swinging in the shark's direction can intimidate them
- If you have your survival kit or are carrying something else, you can attempt to use it as a shield
How to find Land
If you are a frequent seafarer and know your general whereabouts, all you need to do is whip out your compass and head towards whichever direction you know land will be in. If you have no clue where on God's green earth you are, that's fine! The birds are good for more than food. If you see them flying from the same direction each morning and return that way at dusk, there's a good chance they're returning to land.
Signaling for Rescue
Many boats are required to have an EPIRB, Emergency Positioning Indicating Radio Beacon, on board. These devices send an SOS signal to satellites that notify rescue services of your registered information, such as name, boat, and emergency contacts, in addition to the EPIRB's current position.
If your boat doesn't have an EPIRB, you must use another method to signal passing ships. Emergency whistles, signal mirrors, and flares are a few methods you could utilize. At night, you could either use your flashlight to do the universal distress sign, for which you simply wiggle the beam back and forth, or signal SOS with morse code. To do the latter, you flash your light three times for one second each, flash three more times for two seconds each, and then repeat the three times for one second.
Boats aren't the only thing you should try alerting. Passing planes can be signaled by wiggling reflected light at the cockpit. Planes that notice you should wiggle their wings to acknowledge that they've seen the signal.
What Every Boat Needs
From now on, you should avoid boarding an ocean-bound vessel that's missing these essential items. If nature decides it wants to throw down, you need to be prepared!
- Emergency Positioning Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB)
- Extra water
- First aid kit (preferably waterproof)
- Lifeboat (if you’ll be far from shore or on a multi-day trip)
- Lifejackets (enough for everyone on board)
Various Tips & Tricks
While it's impossible to force every single little nuance of ocean survival into this one blog, I've compiled a few extra tips I think are important.
- If you have a gun and want to use it in the water, do not put only the barrel in the water. This creates a seal that will make the weapon backfire. This is both dangerous and potentially lethal. Either keep the entire weapon dry or fully submerge it
- Lifeboats can expire. And once they do, there's no guarantee they'll inflate or hold together. Be sure to check and replace them as needed
- Ecosystems may form around your raft. This is good for catching food, but be wary of predators that may be a threat
- Whenever you go anywhere alone or that may be dangerous, tell someone where you'll be going and for how long. Ask them to alert the authorities if they don't hear from you by a specific time, as you may require help
- Whenever you're on a group excursion, make friends! This way, if you go missing, people will notice you're gone
The ocean doesn't have to be a source of fear. Instead, take the time to learn about it and how to survive in it. The more you know about something, the less scary it becomes. Just be sure to grab your survival kit before venturing out into the great unknown!