Emergency at Sea, What to Pack for Survival

News & Tips: Emergency at Sea, What to Pack for Survival...

Ever had a bad day on the water? Where the boat is sinking or swamped or run aground— broken down in some fashion—in good weather or bad? It’s a safe bet that every veteran boater has, sooner or later, run into a bad situation. Some are prepared and others not. If the boat is disabled, can you survive the night and better yet, not suffer.

shop saltwater gear banner2Fishing and boating has been characterized as a string of misadventures, broken up by occasional great trips. Even fishing guides, for all their years on the water, are not immune. Every guide has a story to tell about an awful day on the water. They know bad things can happen out there.

During summer, a dunking in the water and the risk of hypothermia is far less if land can be reached in a timely fashion. And that varies with the latitudes. Up in the Great Lakes, summer water is still cold, while down on the Gulf Coast, it can reach more than 90 degrees. Even so, it’s best to reach solid ground.

If you’re stranded and dry, an overnighter might only be a tiring inconvenience, the subject of a good story in later years. The same can happen even in winter, if you’ve brought a few necessities. It’s always best to prepare.

floating vhf marine radio
Cobra Floating VHF Handheld Marine Radio

Think food, water, heat, shelter, a signaling device and cell phone or VHF handheld marine radio. That’s really basic stuff, mostly found around the house. Find a plastic zipper bag and stuff it with goodies. How hard is that? But first, my own cautionary tale, where we realized we’d need a little more.

My Cautionary Tale of Boating Survival in the Gulf of Mexico

During a recent November I ran the boat over a barely submerged crab trap in the Gulf of Mexico. In a shallow bay that chicken wire trap wrapped around the boat’s propeller, and tight. The engine revved down and stopped; we were stuck. This wasn't an abandoned ghost trap coated with many pounds of heavy, sharp oysters... no, I’d hit a working trap in broad daylight with a buoy attached. While cruising along, studying the shoreline, heading east into a rising sun. Thump! I clambered out into chilly, thigh-deep water and went to work with trusty eight-inch fish pliers. I tugged at the wire. Hmmm. Last time this happened was about 18 years before, in Texas while running the boat at night.

Now, there was a problem. My pliers had long tines but the cutters were getting dull after years of nipping too many wire fishing leaders. Snip. It was slow going. It could have been worse, like no pliers at all. And we were in fine weather and calm water. But I had to jam those pliers way into the torn wire, dodging angry crabs, to make perhaps 40 cuts. My fishing buddy offered his new pliers, but he'd dunked them a month earlier while wading, and they were too stiff to use. Mine were oiled but dull. Snip. Finally the mutilated trap was unwrapped and we were free. On we sped.

Which left me thinking, what if we’d been unable to remove the trap? It was a Monday, and we didn't see another boat. We were far from any marina, sketchy cell phone service, and the motor disabled. Were we prepared to spend the night? Neither of us smoke, so we had no matches. It wasn't quite winter, so I’d left the survival bag at home. We had nothing but a modest lunch. There was a small patch of level high ground a mile back in the marsh we could have reached with my trusty push-pole, but other than that, nothing but a sea of marsh grass, wet mud and wild hogs for at least eight miles. And the Gulf of Mexico. It might not have turned out bad for us, but my buddy is 75 years old with bad knees. If coastal fog had rolled in, as it can for days at a time, all boating would have ceased.

Prepare for the Worst and Hope for the Best Boating Conditions

coast guard safety listSafely back home, I dug out the survival bag neglected since last winter. It was time to examine and repack. I started carrying that bag after January 1991, when there were fatalities on the Texas coast, a big jonboat with four people. Hypothermia and exposure got all but one of them... they said the survivor swam and then crawled back under marsh grass all night. We heard other grim tales as well from that stretch of coast, anglers or duck hunters caught in cold fronts, who tried and failed to beat their way back across open water when cold fronts hit. I figured if that crew had just stayed near shore, wrapped up in a tarp, and rustled up a hot meal over a fire, they'd have been just fine. It wasn’t exactly Minnesota.   

That’s when I put together this little survival bag with my favorite soups, a new folded tarp and waterproof matches. I figured a marooned boat on a shoreline could provide enough gasoline for any fire, regardless of wet driftwood. Squeeze the gas bulb with a fishhook stuck in the clip, and you can fill a coffee can with high octane. Or flammable corn juice, anyway.

My survival bag went unused for four years. Then, one morning it was called into service. The variables of when and why a survival bag will be needed are impossible to predict, but here’s how it went down:

We were heading east (once again) into a rising sun in a back Texas bay, when thump! We hit a hidden sandbar with our very heavy, shallow-running boat. Hmmm. We got out and walked around in chest waders, dug sand and pushed the boat with bare hands. It didn’t move. You know what they say: When the going gets tough, the tough go fishing. That's what we did, while waiting for the tide to rise and float the boat. Except it didn’t. Sunset came and went, so I pulled out my survival bag. Lucky for us it was a calm and warm night, even though it was early January. We built a fire on the shoreline 50 yards away; the kindling and driftwood were dry enough. Wolfed down several cans of soup and beans. The Austin CEO with us, a college buddy who’d made the cover of Money magazine, was mighty glad to get his third of a can of pinto beans.

It was a nice night for camping. We slept under the stars, the little blue tarp spread over the three of us. We hadn’t had much of a dinner; we lacked hot sauce and so the soup was bland. We had no Advil for headaches or sore muscles, after pushing the boat. And we could have used a pint of Irish snakebite medicine, to while away the evening or allow occasional sleep in moderate mosquitoes.Then I woke up and it was 3 a.m. One of the guys was actually pushing the boat into deeper water; the tide had risen four inches during our 17-hour grounding. There was no need for a light; aided by a full moon, we were soon blasting north up the main bay, dodging white crab trap buoys. Back in town we hit the racks at 4 a.m. and lay comatose until noon. Rising, we found the town and bay smothered in thick sea fog, making boating all but impossible. What if we’d been stuck out there for another day? We should have brought more food…And it could have been so much worse if another of those killer freezes hit the coast. If memory serves, there were a dozen fatalities along the Gulf Coast when the 1983 cold front hit, mostly stranded duck hunters who didn't make it.

At any rate, there’s no way to predict the weird combinations of weather, tides and events that can sink or strand boaters. It’s best to carry that survival bag filled with necessities. If you can’t cross a large body of water in safety, take the long way home. Or camp until tomorrow. If a bay shack or houseboat is available but locked and life is threatened, jimmy a door or pop a window on the downwind side. Don’t count on immediate rescue. Even if your phone works, how many people will jump in a boat on a bad night, run through miles of hazardous, shallow water, especially at low tide or in fog, just to tow you home?

The Offshore Survival Gear List

spotlight browning
Browning High Noon Handheld LED Spotlight

Easier than spending the night is fixing the problem, and a small tool bag on the boat can make a difference. A small wrench to change the prop, tin snips for the next wire trap, a small hammer, spark plug wrench, flathead and Phillips screwdrivers, back-up needlenose pliers, and so on. Wrapped in an oily rag, and then plastic box. Distress flares, flashlight and a loud marine whistle (for heavy fog or night rescues), both required by the Coast Guard. Maybe add a Gerber multi-tool, insect repellant, fresh water, fuel filters and spark plugs. No use getting chewed on all night by bugs in warm weather. Cram this stuff in a plastic zipper bag, and you’re good to go.

If your boat will carry a milk crate, bucket or both, these are handy during an impromptu campout. You can sit on them, carry items ashore, or haul kindling for the fire. They would also save having to sit glumly on wet ground all night. As for lighting a fire, large kitchen matches are far better at lighting gasoline on wet wood. You can stand upwind and pitch matches without getting too close. Once a hearty blaze drives back the night, you can move in closer with the seats, wrap up in the tarp and get busy with dinner. If you've run out of signal flares and a boat or helicopter passes by, you could even light a quick signal fire with gasoline.

You want a waterproof light like the Browning High Noon Handheld LED Spotlight that will illuminate navigation day markers from several hundred yards away. Since we've returned to port many times after dark, a good light has saved us from groundings. A sturdy dive light with four D batteries served very well during our hardest years of running the bays.  

emergancy blanket
Coghlan's Emergency Thermal Blanket

As mentioned, nobody can predict the future. The Great Outdoors isn’t Disney World. If stuck out there, the least you can do is set up a shelter, get a fire going, rustle up hot food and sing around the campfire. Or not.

Just stay out of that cold water. If you get wet, get dry. If you can’t get dry, get warmer, preferably wrapped in a wind-proof tarp, eating up calories faster than you can shiver them away.

So, I’m packed for tomorrow’s trip. The little zipper bag holds a new 8x10 foot tarp, thin rope, Leatherman tool, Manhandler soup, hot sauce, Advil, kitchen matches and lighter in Ziploc bag, waterproof flashlight, small strobe light, snake medicine, a bag of Snickers for fast calories, plastic cups and spoons. Also a half-deflated plastic gallon jug that can be fully inflated for extra buoyancy. You want that survival bag floating, while swimming towards shore. The jug can later be carved into a soup bowl or used to carry gasoline from a stranded boat to the campfire.

You can build a suitable survival bag yourself, using household items that match local conditions. Or buy a ready-made survival kit. Either way you’re set up for a campout, instead of a survival test.