One of the most mentally and physically grueling survival scenarios you could find yourself in is to be adrift in an open watercraft. Whether you’re stuck in a liferaft following a shipwreck or your motor died in an open boat while fishing off-shore, you’re virtually trapped on your craft and at the mercy of the water and the weather. Here’s what you have to do in order to survive, and the gear you should have on board to help you do so.

SHELTER: As unlikely as it seems, it’s possible to die of hypothermia in the summer or in the tropics. If you’re soaked to the bone and temperature drops, hypothermia can kill you in a day or two. Keep some space blankets on board for warmth. Conversely, if it’s blisteringly hot and the sun is unrelenting, you’ll want to have a tarp handy that you can rig to provide shade. As a bonus, both the blanket and the tarp can be used to gather rainwater (see below).

WATER: All that water, and none of it’s safe to drink—this is the great irony of survival at sea. Outfit your vessel ahead of time with a plastic tarp and some containers to catch the only drinkable water you might encounter for days. If you find yourself without a tarp, use any fabric you have on board to absorb moisture that can be wrung out into containers. If your craft has a sail, use it as a bowl to capture the water.
After you’ve been adrift at sea for awhile, all your clothes will be encrusted with salt crystals. At the first sign of rain, give all your clothes and other fabric a seawater bath. Yes, seawater is salty, but not as salty as those concentrated crystals, which will make any water absorbed by the fabric undrinkable. The first water you collect will have a high salt content, so store it separately, and use it to clean wounds or to wash food before eating. Never drink saltwater—it will make you ill and speed dehydration and death.

FOOD: Small fish will often gather beneath a craft, either out of curiosity or because they feel sheltered there. Minus a rod and reel, troll a handline rigged with a hook and anything flashy that can serve as a lure. Try jigging the lure at different depths below the surface, being careful not to snag your liferaft with the hook. After catching your first fish, use its guts as bait to catch more fish. An assortment of hooks, line, floats, weights, lures, jigs, and spoons can be instrumental in the procurement of fish and other aquatic animals as an emergency food resource. Fishing line and hooks have also been used to patch holes in life rafts, and to catch birds and turtles for food. Pack a variety of hook and line sizes to catch both little fish and big ones.

SIGNALING: The most effective signaling device is an emergency position-indicating radio beacon, or EPIRB (pictured above), which notifies rescuers via a global satellite system that you’re in trouble. The next best device is a very-high-frequency (VHF) or single-sideband (SSB) radio. When making a Mayday call, calmly and clearly state your GPS coordinates, the nature of your emergency, a description of your vessel, and the number of people on board. Once you believe rescue is close at hand, use visual signals like aerial flares, smoke, and dye markers. Don’t shoot a flare unless you know someone is close enough to see it, and aim it over the water so you don’t risk setting your boat on fire. Use a mirror in daylight, flashing it at the horizon.

What survival gear do you keep on your boat? Have you ever had to call on any of it in an emergency? Tell us about it in the comments.

Photo via ACR