Knowing a few sea survival techniques is worth the effort. The ocean is, after all, one of the harshest environments to survive in. And for anyone that travels international, having to survive at sea is not so far fetched.
70% of the world is the ocean! That means if your plane goes down, chances are that it will be over water. And if you like cruises, fishing, diving, or any other ocean activity, well.. you get the picture.
In this article, we will go through the sea safety and survival skills you need to have the best chance.
- Surviving the Cause
- How to Survive a Sinking Ship
- How to Survive a Plane Crash in Ocean
- How to Stay Afloat in Deep Water
- In a Liferaft
- How to Fix a Leak in a Liferaft
- Without a Life Raft
- Planning for Survival at Sea and The Will to Live
- Attracting Rescue at Sea
- Signs of Land when Lost at Sea
- Survival Navigation at Sea
- How to Find North Using the Sun
- Navigating with the Stars
- Finding Direction with the Moon
- How to Make a Compass
- Movement at Sea
- Using the Current
- Using the Wind
- How to Swim Long Distance with Survival Backstroke
- Creating Shelter
- How to Drink Sea Water to Survive
- Catching Food at Sea
- How to Fight a Shark
- Embarking on Land
- Swimming to Shore
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Sea Survival Techniques
Survival in Sea – Surviving the Cause
Before you can start surviving at sea, you will have to survive what put you there in the first place.
Two major reasons for this will be if your boat is sinking or your plane crashes.
Chances of surviving a passenger plane crashing in the ocean are slim, but not impossible. Getting off a sinking boat is easy in comparison, so let’s cover that one first.
How to Survive a Sinking Ship
When you suspect you may need to survive a sinking boat, take the following steps:
- Put on warm clothing. Wool is best.
- Cover as much of your body as you can and put on a life jacket.
- Gather whatever survival provisions you can and get to a lifeboat.
Note: Do not exceed the maximum passengers in a life vessel. Have the healthy hang off the side and swap often.
If you need to jump off the boat, throw something that floats in first and then jump close to it. Once you are in the ocean, inflate your life jacket.
Once in the ocean, get away from the sinking vessel, upwind if you can. If you are too close to it, it is likely to drag you under.
How to Survive a Plane Crash in Ocean
If your plane is crashing into the sea (or anywhere), the same initial steps apply. Put on warm clothes and a life jacket. Gathering provisions will be harder but do it if you can.
To be honest, there isn’t much you can do in a plane crash except to follow the pilot’s/crew’s instructions. If the pilot is down you may need to land the plane yourself. Get to the controls and radio for help.
Using the Radio to Call for Help
- Put on the headset if there is one.
- Check the steering wheel or instrument panel for the talk button.
- Press the button and use the international distress call of “Mayday! Mayday!”
- Give your situation, destination, and plane call numbers. These should be on the top of the instrument panel.
- Let go of the talk button and listen for a response.
- If there is no response, try again.
- Try three to five times waiting ten seconds between each time for a response.
- If there is still no response tune the radio to 121.5 and try again. 121.5 is the international emergency channel.
Once you have made contact with someone, follow their instructions to land.
If you cannot contact anyone, you’ll have to try land the plane unguided. The first thing you will want to do is make sure you are flying straight.
Like cars, every model of plane is different, but they will all have the same basic functions.
- The Yolk is the steering wheel.
- It has the same effect as if in a car but is much more sensitive.
- It also allows you to control pitch.
- Pull back to pull up and push forward to dive.
- To fly steady you want to keep the nose about 8cm below the horizon and the wings even.
- This is the red dial on the instrument panel.
- It indicates your altitude.
- The small hand shows your height above sea level in thousand foot increments.
- The large hand shows the same in hundreds.
- The instrument with a small plane on it.
- The nose of the plane is the direction you are going.
- Usually in knots.
- 120 knots is cruising speed.
- Below 70 knots and you may stall.
- Controls thrust.
- Pull it towards you to slow the plane and descend.
- Push it away to speed the plane up and ascend.
- Usually on the lower part of the panel.
- If the plane has a retractable landing gear there will be another leaver between the seats. Most likely near the throttle.
- It looks like a tire.
- Some planes have a fixed landing gear so there will not be this leaver.
- Use these pedals when on the ground.
- The upper ones are the brakes.
- The lower ones control the direction of the nose wheel.
- The right pedal will move the plane right.
- The left one will move the plane left.
How to Land a Plane in an Emergency
- Slow down to about 90 knots by pulling back on the throttle.
- Let the nose drop to about 11cm below the horizon.
- Deploy the landing gear (if applicable) unless landing on water.
- Find the longest and smoothest place to land that you can.
- If you have enough fuel, fly over to look for obstructions, then circle back to land. Give yourself a wide birth.
- Line up the landing strip so that it is just off the right-wing tip at one thousand feet.
- As you approach to land pull back on the throttle.
- Do not let the nose drop more than 15cm below the horizon.
- The rear wheels should touch first at about 60 knots (stall speed).
- Pull all the way back on the throttle ensuring the nose doesn’t dip too steep.
- Gently pull back on the yolk as the plane touches the ground.
- Use the pedals on the floor to steer and brake.
- If you are going into an obstruction (e.g., trees) let the wings take the impact.
- Once you have stopped get everyone out as soon as possible.
Assuming you have landed in the ocean and are still alive, get out of the plane. You do not want to sink with it.
Swim upwind from it so you do not get dragged under by its pull.
Also, whether you are abandoning ship or surviving a plane crash:
- If there is a chance of underwater explosion swim on your back.
- Swim under any danger, e.g., fire.
Instruction for how to swim on your back using the survival backstroke is later in this article.
How to Stay Afloat in Deep Water
Once off and away from the sinking vessel, you need to know how to survive adrift at sea.
How to Survive at Sea in a Liferaft
Whether your liferaft is inflatable or a hard boat, there are things you must do to ensure surviving a disaster lost at sea.
- Secure all passengers and equipment to it
- Do not jump into it
- Check for leaks daily
- Waterproof everything that requires it
In addition to the above, if in an inflatable liferaft:
- Wait until you are clear of the wreck before inflating it unless you can board it and stay dry
- Inflate the liferaft so it is firm, but not too hard. Compensate for the surrounding temperature (heat makes air expand)
- Check inflation daily
- Make sure nothing can puncture it
To board a liferaft from the water
- Move to one end (not the side)
- Put one leg over the edge and roll inside
If the liferaft has a line attached
- Grab the line from the opposite side of where it is attached
- Brace your feet against the liferaft and pull yourself in
- Expect the other end of the liferaft to come up
- You can adjust this technique to right an overturned liferaft
To help someone else on board
- Hold them by their shoulders
- Have them lift one leg over the end of the raft (if possible)
- Roll them in
How to Fix a Leak in a Liferaft
If you are in a hard life raft (not inflatable) you are more likely to get a leak on impact with the water.
When you see little bubbles in an inflatable liferaft, it is a sign of leaks.
In either case, place plastic it across the leak on the outside of the boat. Water pressure will help to hold it on place, but also try to seal it with duct tape, glue, etc.
Duct tape can repair small cracks also.
How to Survive in the Sea Without a Life Raft
When you don’t have a liferaft, your first priority is to get one! If there is one nearby, attract attention using noise and light.
When there is no liferaft, build one with whatever you can, e.g., wreckage from your crash.
How to Improvise a Flotation Device with a Pair of Trousers
When there is no other option, you can use your clothing to stay afloat.
To do it with your trousers:
- Knot the bottoms of the legs
- Hold the trousers behind your head by the waistband
- Bring them over your head in front of you in a sharp motion to fill them with air.
- Hold the waist below water to trap the air.
- If you need more air, go underwater and breathe into the pants.
Planning for Survival at Sea and The Will to Live
Ok, so you have survived the initial crash and are floating in the ocean.
Now you need to survive until rescue arrives. But it may take a while.
For most people, there will be times that you feel like giving up. The moment you give up is the moment you die. You must keep your will to live.
Never give up!
I know that is much easier to say from behind my computer than it is from the middle of the ocean, but it is still true.
The longest survival at sea so far is 484 days!
Reference: Guinness Book of World Records
The will to live is very important and applies to ALL survival situations. You must keep a strong will to live and have faith that you will live. Different things motivate different people. Common ones are family and god.
Of course, having blind faith is not enough. Having the will to live also means being proactive in your survival. Always be vigilant for things that will help you, as well as pre-empting problems. If you are in a group, assign lookouts on short shifts. Look out for signs of life, land, rescue, leaks, and anything that could be useful.
How to Survive in Sea – Attracting Rescue at Sea
From the very first moment you become stranded at sea, you must be on the lookout for rescue. It is your best chance of survival, and the sooner you get it, the better.
Your liferaft may have some signaling devices. There are various types of flares. Follow the instructions on them. Check out some signal flares here.
If you have nothing else, improvise. A mirror is an effective signaling tool. Use it to reflect the sun towards a possible rescue ship or plane. In fact, you can use any screen, e.g., your smartphone.
Most life jackets will have a whistle and lights. You can also use these to maintain contact with other survivors in other liferafts. View the best lifejackets on the market.
If there is no land in sight, or you are near shipping lanes, wait at the crash site for at least 72 hours. You can keep your position by making a sea anchor. Tie weighted objects to a line.
How to Survive Lost at Sea – Signs of Land when Lost at Sea
Besides a fast rescue, your best chance of surviving at sea is to find land. So if you see it, or know where it is, head for it.
Signs of land include:
- A constant wind with a decreasing swell. Land is wind-ward.
- A green tint on the underside of clouds.
- Isolated cumulus clouds.
- Muddy water indicates silt from a large river mouth.
- Lighter colored water indicates shallow water.
- Seabirds fly away from land before noon and return to it in the afternoon.
- Odors and sounds of land including smoke, vegetation, surf, animals, etc.
Survival Navigation at Sea
Maybe you can not spot land, but you know where it is. Great! You need to navigate there.
In this section, you will learn how to survive being lost at sea using survival navigation.
With today’s technology, there are easy ways to navigate, such as GPS. But batteries run out, and salt water is never good for electronics. Still, a good marine GPS can’t be beaten. Check here to see the best in today’s market.
Knowledge of map and compass navigation is an excellent skill to have for life in general. You can learn more about that here. A reliable compass is essential. My favorites are by Silva. Get yours here.
The navigation I want to look at in this article is survival navigation for the sea. That is, when you do not have a GPS or even a compass.
How to Find North Using the Sun
Here are some basics of sun navigation:
- The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
- In the northern hemisphere the sun is due south at midday. In the southern hemisphere it is due north.
Now for something a little more accurate, how to tell direction with a watch.
For this method you need an analog watch. I’ll explain how to do it with a digital watch after I’ve explained how to do it normally.
Hold your wristwatch in front of you like a compass, and line a small twig or something similar along the edge of it. Your aim is to cast a shadow toward the center of the watch.
Now turn the watch until the shadow splits in half the distance between the hour hand and 12 on the watch face. In the Northern hemisphere, 6 is pointing north. In the Southern hemisphere it is opposite, i.e., 12 points north.
If you do not have a twig you can still do this, but it won’t be as accurate. In the Northern Hemisphere, point the hour hand towards the sun. The center of the angle between the hour hand and twelve o’clock mark is the north-south line.
In the Southern Hemisphere, point the 12 mark towards the sun instead.
If you only have a digital watch you can still use it in the same way. You have to estimate where the hour hand will be. Use 12, 3, 6, and 9 o-clock angles to guide you to the other hours, and smaller increments for half/quarter hours.
Note: Your watch must be set to the time zone you are in. So if you were flying internationally and have no idea where you are, this may be a problem. Also, make sure your watch isn’t set to daylight savings.
Navigating with the Stars
Navigating by the stars is more accurate than doing it by the sun.
Finding the North Star Polaris
By locating the North Star, you can draw an imaginary line from it to a landmark back on earth. With this, you can steer north.
Finding a landmark in the open sea is difficult, but do your best. You can even use another star lower to the horizon.
The North Star is NOT the brightest star in the sky. The reason it is good for navigation is because it does not move. To help you find the North Star you can use two other constellations. The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia is like an upside down “W”.
Follow the ‘ladle’ of the big dipper up about 5x its length. This is about halfway to Cassiopeia. The bright star you see in this area is the North Star.
Navigating by the Southern Cross
In the Southern Hemisphere, you can use the Southern Cross to find South. The Southern Cross constellation is 5 stars, and the 4 brightest stars make a cross that is angled to one side.
Imagine a line 5 times the distance between the two stars that make up the long axis of the cross. Now imagine a line from this point to a landmark on “the ground”.
This gives true south. True north will be behind you as you are looking at the point.
Finding Direction with the Moon
This is not very accurate but is simple to use and easy to remember.
If it is before midnight, the illuminated side of the moon faces west. If it is after midnight, the illuminated side faces east.
How to Make a Compass
To make an improvised compass you need to magnetize metal. A sewing needle is in most survival kits and is perfect for the job. Anything similar will also work.
There are 2 basic ways to magnetize metal:
- Rub it with a magnet, always in the same direction. Speakers have magnets at the back of them which you can use, but do not break your radio!
- Place it in a coil with a direct current in it.
You can magnetize iron, nickel, and steel. That means aluminum soda cans won’t work.
Hang the magnetized needle on a string or float it in the water on top of anything that is not metal.
How to Survive Stranded at Sea – Movement at Sea
Once you know where land is, you have to get to it. You can paddle, but that uses a lot of energy. It is better to save your strength until actually shoring.
So unless you have a motor, you will need to use either the current or the wind.
Using the Current
The current is more useful when approaching land, but you can use it in open sea also. To use the current, deflate your raft a little so it rides low in the water. Also, keep yourselves low in the raft. Deploying your sea anchor if you have one will also help.
Using the Wind
To use the wind, you will need to improvise a sail. If you do, prevent capsizing by holding the bottom of it with your hands. This way you can release it if there is a sudden gust of wind.
Using the wind is opposite to using the current. You want to ride high, not low. Inflate the raft, sit up, and pull in your sea anchor.
How to Survive a Storm at Sea
To prevent capsizing in rough waters you should keep low. Stream your sea anchor from the bow (front). If there is more than one liferaft in your groups, tying them together will improve stability.
How to Swim Long Distance with Survival Backstroke
When you need to swim long distance and/or stay afloat in the water for a really long time, do survival backstroke.
Survival backstroke is floating on your back as you propel through the water. You use a simultaneous frog/breaststroke kick and a sculling motion with your hands. Your arms and legs move and come together at the same time.
The main goal of the survival backstroke is to conserve energy and reduce heat loss.
To maximize energy conservation, do the survival backstroke very slow. Take short strokes and glide for as long as possible. Only take the next stroke when you feel your legs dropping or you loose forward momentum.
Short strokes minimize heat loss from under your armpits and between your legs. Your arms should not extend beyond your shoulders. Also, at the end of each stroke, bring your arms and legs together. Hold them close but comfortable against your body.
Also use the survival backstroke is if an underwater explosion is likely. You will want to go faster so you can escape the blast, so make your strokes larger. Take your next stroke sooner than normal, but not too soon. Make the most out of your streamlined glide position while achieving the most speed.
How to Survive Being Stranded at Sea – Creating Shelter
Finding shelter when stranded out in sea is harder than on land, but not impossible. You can use any clothing or tarpaulin to shelter you from the cold and sun. If you have some poles you can even construct a roof.
How to Drink Sea Water to Survive
IMPORTANT: Ration any food and water you have in supplies from the start. Even if you are expecting rescue, anything can happen.
Also, always try to live off the sea before using your rations.
Learning how to survive at sea without water means learning how to find water!
First of all, never drink sea water. It will lead to faster dehydration. Instead, you need to catch and store rainwater whenever you can. Any plastic will do the trick. A tarpaulin, sails, the raft itself, etc.
Although not as effective, fabric will also work. It will absorb water which you can wring out into containers.
The first rainwater you catch will wash the salt off whatever you are catching it with, so don’t drink that. It is still useful to clean wounds and wash food.
If you are at sea for a while, fabrics will have salt crystals, so wash them out with sea water first. Seawater is salty, but salt crystals are worse!
Catching Food at Sea
If you don’t get rescued or find land within a day, you will want to find food. Fishing is the obvious answer, but you can also eat seabirds, planktons, seaweed, etc.
Small fish will gather underneath your raft. A simple handline, hook, and lure will do the trick. Even a simple survival kit will have a small fishing kit in it. Get yourself a survival kit!
If you don’t have fishing line, any string can work. Shoelaces, paracord, etc. If you do have fishing line, be careful not to cut yourself. Anything flashy makes a good lure. Be very careful with the hook or anything sharp if in an inflatable liferaft.
When you do catch a fish, use its guts as bait.
Do not hang around after spilling blood in the ocean. It may attract sharks.
How to Fight a Shark
The vast majority of shark attacks on humans are mistaken identity. Humans don’t taste good to sharks! Still, they are the king of the ocean, so you want to stay out of their way.
Like most animals, food is what will attract a shark, whether it is real or mistaken identity. Blood and fish are the biggest attractions. So is anything that resembles these, like shiny objects or human waste.
Whether you are in a life raft or not, if you spot a shark, be loud and slap the water.
If you don’t have a liferaft and are in a group, bunch together and face out. Everyone should shout underwater and slap the surface.
When a shark starts circling you, it is a sign of attack. When it comes at you, strike at its gills, eyes, and nose.
What to do When Lost at Sea – Embarking on Land
Once you find land you must first choose a good landing point. This is much easier to do in daylight. It is better to land on the downwind side of an island. Also, select somewhere that will be easy to beach or swim ashore.
As you approach the shore, note the landscape. Look for high ground, vegetation, water courses, etc. It is easier to see these things from a distance so make the most of it. If you are in a group, choose a meeting point in case of separation. Also, secure all your gear to your body and have a floatation aid ready.
As you come in to beach, do the following:
- Stay in the raft for as long as possible
- Take down the sail
- Deflate the raft a little so it rides low in the water
- Keep low in the raft
- Put a sea anchor out to keep you pointing at the shore, unless you are going through coral
- Head for gaps in the surf. Waves usually occur in sets of 7, from small to large
- Steer clear of rocks, ice, and other obstacles
- If possible, keep the sun out of your eyes
- Attempt to use the waves to carry you into shore
- Paddle hard
In Heavy Surf
- Point towards the sea
- Paddle into approaching waves
Once you are past the wave breaks you want to avoid getting swept back out to sea. Make the liferaft as light as possible and take out the sea anchor.
If the under-current is taking you back out, partly fill the raft with water and stream the anchor towards the shore.
Swimming to Shore
When swimming to shore without a raft, face the shore and sit with your feet about a meter below your head. This way, you can take any impact with your feet.
When the waves are big, swim to shore in the troughs between them.
If a wave going out to sea approaches, go under it.
Finally, if you get caught in the undertow, don’t try to swim against it. Instead, swim parallel to the shore until you can swim in.
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Sea safety & survival is an important subject to learn about. If you survive the accident, ration any supplies you may have and stick around the site for rescue. If nothing comes after a few days, and/or you know where land is, head for it.
While navigating the seas you will need all the things of any survival situation. Shelter, food, and water. Try to live off the sea as much as possible before using your rations. Never drink sea water and keep an eye out for anything useful. This includes rescue, raft leaks, sharks, land, etc.
Finally, remember to never give up. The longest person to survive at sea did so for 484 days, and the 2nd longest was 438 days.
Photo Credit: Senior Airman Mariette Adams
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