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As sailors, every day we survive school, our jobs, the monthly bills—and some of us may eventually face disease, crippling accidents or some other crisis.
There aren’t many universal or immutable truths about survival, but past survival odysseys do reveal useful concepts and guidelines. Sailors routinely deal with various sorts of emergencies, aiding them when they face even greater crises. Many survivors escape the immediate threat only to fail in the “Well, I’m safe for the moment, but now what?” stage. Appraise risks, develop alternatives for unacceptable worst-case scenarios and accept the steep learning curve required—but don’t give into the fear and angst that everyone feels. Sometimes just doggedly going through the motions can power you through depression and anxiety. After taking care of core needs, you can look ahead, build stocks of water and food, survey the boat, figure how to fix stuff, make tools, and develop strategies to confront possible challenges and exploit opportunities. Eventually, the island that is your liferaft will develop an ecosystem upon which you will depend for sustenance. Entire books have been written describing good leadership, but a balance of firm command and nurturing support of the crew is key. Dougal Robertson and his young family were sailing across the South Pacific in 1972 when their 43ft schooner Lucette was attacked and sunk by Orcas. Early one March morning in 1973 the 31ft sloop Auralyn, on passage from Panama to the Galapagos Islands, was rammed by a whale.
When their upturned trimaran Rose Noelle washed up on New Zealand’s Great Barrier Island in October 1989, these four men were in good enough shape that they had a tough time convincing authorities that they had indeed been adrift for 119 days. When Poon Lim’s ship was torpedoed by a U-Boat in the South Atlantic in 1942, the seaman was the only survivor. These Mexican fishermen survived for more than nine months, from October 2005 to August 2006, after their boat’s engine broke down and they were swept into the Pacific.
To remain safe, whether on board your mother craft or in a survival boat or liferaft, one must prioritize in accordance with what can kill you fastest. The average person in average conditions can live up to about 10 days without water, but you’re a hurting cowboy well before that. Since his 76-day drift in 1982, Steve Callahan has written widely about survival, seamanship, and safety issues, has authored the survival narratives Adrift and Capsized, contributed to Michael Greenwald’s Survivor and other survival manuals, tested safety equipment, and interviewed numerous survivors and survival experts. We need styles that are quick and easy to maintain without having to wake up at the break of dawn every morning to get it right. Is the will to survive something genetic—you’re born with the right stuff or you’re doomed? Typically, in reacting to a crisis, about 15 percent of people either panic or become completely inactive. Still, when facing sudden disaster, abandoning ship, riding tossing seas, re-righting a raft, firing flares or even just adjusting to new smells can conjure disorientation, confusion and fear. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and they are us.” Goliaths who try to crush us early on include fear and depression. The quicker you come to grips with reality, the quicker you can either adapt to it or alter it enough to survive, the better you’ll do. Often, appraising the exact nature of a problem can yield its solution, and persistence solves it eventually.
Instead, they divide it up into achievable bits—first get through the hour, then the day, then the day after that. As the watch ticks ever so slowly, remind yourself that every second, no matter how slowly it passes, adds up to days, weeks and salvation. It takes great patience and practice to learn how to live off the sea like an aquatic caveman, but it is your goal to reach a point where you can continue your survival voyage indefinitely. Every small success—making water, learning how to fish, repairing a small item—can take you to Everest-high peaks of joy and pride.
Survivors often find deep fulfillment in their experiences as they learn they are more resilient than they could have ever imagined. They took to their liferaft and dinghy with only three days worth of emergency rations, and were beset by foul weather and circling sharks until their eventual rescue.

In 1989, the Butlers took to their liferaft after their 39ft wooden cutter Siboney was sunk by a pod of pilot whales 1,200 miles west of Panama. Fortunately, Maurice and Maralyn Bailey had time to launch their liferaft and dinghy and load them with supplies before Auralyn disappeared beneath the waves. Two of their comrades soon perished, but the survivors lived on seabirds and fish that they ate raw. In an emergency craft, supplies are extremely limited and should be augmented by those in a ditch kit. Hopefully, a crew will remain well rested and warm before any emergency, even in rough weather. With the ocean just out the door, you can always cool off, but shade provided by a canopy, which also helps keep a crew warm, is essential. Without a lifesaving craft that is afloat and functioning, it will be extremely challenging just to live for hours. It’s important to note that most medical problems can be much relieved, if not outright cured, by proper hydration.
Usually, the food in rafts and lifeboats will last a day or two, within which time most ocean survivors are found, providing they carry adequate flares, EPIRB and other signaling devices (LED flashlights, laser signalers). Nobody wants to spend a fortune on a liferaft or other safety equipment that they hope to never need.
Another roughly 15 percent of people will show strong leadership qualities, evaluating various strategies and directing positive energy toward saving the ship or bailing out. True, most ocean survivors are now picked up within 48 hours, but that can seem interminable, and even they can benefit from the confidence gained from being prepared for a longer experience.
Even if it seems pointless, navigating, keeping a log, exercising, rationing “meals,” keeping watch—all of these help feed the realization that your voyage is not over, but instead continues, albeit on a more humble craft. Don’t focus too much on getting down the mountain with broken legs, but upon negotiating the immediate obstacle, getting around that rock, crawling the next yard. You’ve escaped a sinking boat and slogged through recoil, tended to your survival boat, and have learned how to produce water and find food. Some survivors, equipped only with what their pockets held, recognized that their credit cards were worthless, except that they were waterproof and reflective. Similarly, the tiniest failure—putting a small hole in your raft or breaking a knife—can plunge you to the depths of anger, frustration, fear and depression.
Although confronted by their weaknesses, a desire to return to make a better life can give them both a sense of purpose and a reason to hang on. Robertson’s book, Survive the Savage Sea, is a harrowing tale of survival against all odds; a true seafaring classic. Butler recounts the 66-day ordeal in his book 66 Days—A True Story of Disaster and Survival on the Open Sea.
The couple were rescued by a fishing boat nearly four months later, after having drifted for 1,500 miles.
After he ran out, he lived on rainwater, fish and seabirds until rescued off the coast of Brazil. Their boat drifted for nearly 5,000 miles before the men were rescued by a fishing trawler. Should you be so unlucky as to bob onward in a liferaft or boat, fishing lines, leaders, a variety of hooks and a Hawaiian sling or spear gun can be used to hunt within your building ecosystem.
Of course, back in 1982 when I drifted across 1,800 nautical miles of the Atlantic, I found none of those investments a waste of time or money. Two-thirds of untrained people can become productive, but without guidance they may act too slowly or not at all.
As I bailed out of my boat, in my head were freaked out and whiny voices, rational and focused voices, and some were even amused by my film camera that had somehow come on and was capturing a drama no one would ever see. If you are familiar with the environment and equipment, even if it’s a tame version of the real thing, you can confront a challenge with more confidence, sort out priorities, take appropriate action and avoid screw-ups. A hero is not somebody without fear, but somebody who can do what is required despite that fear. Having a sense that you can influence your destiny, even if you cannot control everything that happens to you, is vital.

Hypothermia or overheating, electrolyte imbalances or injuries can harm or destroy rational thinking and your physical ability to deal with problems no matter how much will to survive you wish you had. You may face additional crises, as I did when the fish I lived on broke my spear gun and tore a hole in my raft. Anyone who does not have a “job” will be left to stew in the juices of chaos, fear and depression. The couple survived on fish and water from a handheld desalinator while watching more than 40 ships pass close by without spotting them.
Lim was obviously not scarred by the experience—he was soon back at sea and served as a steward for another 40 years.
In my ditch kit, I also carry chemical heat packs, rubber gloves, compact thermal blankets (foil types shaped like sleeping bags) and a space blanket.
Beyond that, water catchment and production devices can supply at least a liter per person per day (two is ideal).
Good equipment and lots of luck were essential when my mothership went down, but my physical survival was as intricately linked to psychology as it was to gear or luck.
Not only will the things that can go wrong go wrong, but even things that can’t possibly go wrong will find a way to go wrong. Being able to “psychologically split” so that you can set aside unproductive feelings and thoughts to concentrate on positive action appears to come with experience. One captain folded a square of a biscuit paper until it developed a useful angle with which to measure star altitudes and navigate hundreds of miles to safety. All survivors feel touched by things greater than themselves, awakening spiritually, witnessing beauty, grace and wonders that only their struggles could reveal to them. Ruthann McCunn told Lim’s story in the book Sole Survivor: The True Account of 133 Days Adrift.
It may have seemed silly for me to cart around a six-person raft and extensive ditch kit on my tiny boat Napoleon Solo, and to fit her with watertight compartments, but without any one of these elements, I would not be writing this now.
People you might expect—police, doctors, pilots and mariners—are among those who do well during escape. However, one effective weapon against that reality is the firm knowledge that other people have faced equal or worse and come out at the other end.
There are huge swaths of the earth where you can be days away from any rescue, even if someone knows where you are.
Doing so will inspire you to prepare a supplementary ditch kit, with both short- and long-term equipment to deal with injuries, hypothermia and longer-term needs. The solar stills I’ve used are generally slow and finicky, and should be tried before an emergency. Whether you’re on your mothership or in a liferaft, it’s wise to keep an eye on the future, to routinely look around to derail disasters before they happen, to anticipate what else might go wrong, and to work to address it. Embracing new experiences to expand one’s comfort zone is a great life strategy to prepare for disasters. Books like Survive the Savage Seas, 117 Days Adrift, and Kon Tiki taught me that long-term survival at sea was possible. Fortunately, you will have already gotten a leg up by voyaging offshore in the first place, which demands that you routinely solve problems with limited resources in an isolated environment.
When the patching kit states, “Material must be dry prior to application,” as mine did, you might not be laughing, but you must try to find the irony amusing, at least in hindsight. I was inspired by people I’d seen around the world who struggled with unimaginable challenges every day of their lives. Remaining open to the gifts of survival may not be much fun at the time, but it helps to inspire us both to survive and to shape our future when the pain and desperation ends. Despite their plights, those survivors and many I’ve met since have gained valuable insights and found room for personal fulfillment, even laughter. Of course, that’s little consolation when you’re in the deep end, but at least you can cling to the knowledge that you can do it.

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