Surviving in the Open Water

Finding oneself stranded in open water is a terrifying scenario and among the most challenging to survive. How do you navigate when distances are vast and landmarks are few? How do you withstand the tests of scarce resources and a finite timeline when you can’t walk more than a few steps in every direction? These questions are exactly what make preparation even more crucial. Below you’ll learn about prepping for open water survival; if you live near a body of water, pay especially close attention.


Evaluate Immediate Risks

First, you need to determine which factors pose the most immediate threat so you can prioritize what limited time you have. If you’re stranded without a vessel, the first and most critical threat is hypothermia. If the water is less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit (which is common in North America), the average person has a 30-60 minute window before becoming hypothermic and only 1-3 hours before the condition turns fatal.

If you have a vessel–whether a boat or makeshift flotation device–there are still several other life threatening obstacles to prepare for, but hypothermia is not imminent. The most immediate risks are exposure and dehydration. A human can only survive 3-4 days without water and that timeline is reduced significantly when exposed to the sun and wind in an open water environment. Your first priority is to find shelter, especially in the daytime. If your vessel on doesn’t have a covering, try and make one out of garments or materials you may have on board.

Your next priority is hydration. Assuming you have a supply of water available as part of your prepping, it goes without saying that you must conserve as much as possible. If you run out of drinking water, there are methods of making lake and sea water suitable for consumption.

If You Have a Boat

While it is necessary to prepare for anything, extensive boating knowledge is more important for some than it is for others in a SHTF scenario (if you live in Wisconsin, you’re more likely to find yourself on open water than you are in Arizona). No matter where you live, you need to prepare for at least the most basic practices of boating safety and proper survival preparation. You must have: at least three days of emergency food and water rations, basic medical equipment, a functional marine radio to call for help in an emergency, enough life preservers for all passengers aboard and a flare or signaling kit.

If you’re boarding a boat or aircraft that was not prepped by you, find out what survival equipment is kept on board and where. Next, figure out how long the group can get by on what’s available. Tell everyone to take mental pictures of everything they see; familiarizing yourself with as many navigational features as possible so you’ll know at least which direction to head to give yourself the best chance of being rescued.

The open water presents unique survival challenges, but with a little forethought one can greatly increase their chances of survival in an emergency. Proper planning is key in any survival situation, and open water survival is no exception.

by Cherie

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1 thought on “Surviving in the Open Water”

  1. As a pilot who occasionally flew transoceanic, I often worried (needlessly) about ditching as sea. Of course I flew IFR and had the HF on board but when all is going well, many pilots start to wonder ‘what if.’ As such flights were few I usually leased an inflatable survival raft equipped with all of the necessities.

    A brief anecdote:

    A friend who was an electrical engineer and very smart man, once convinced me to take a ride in Mobile Bay in a boat owned by him and a partner. The vessel was in a state of refurbishment by the partners but looked seaworthy. I approached the helm and tapped on the diesel gauges which read EMPTY. My friend saw me do this and remarked that he and his partner were rewiring the fuel senders and not to worry, the bunkers were full. The bunkers were full all right, full enough to get us well out in the bay with land not in sight. We looked at one another when the engines sputtered and quit. Out of fuel, I asked. Sure enough.

    Get on the VHF and call the Coast Guard, I suggested. My friend looked pained. I just installed the antennas, the transceiver is back in the shop, he whined as I looked at him with murder in my heart. Oh well, I remarked, I have a pistol and plan to eat well, I said still shooting daggers at my friend.

    Several shrimp boats were passing by so we waived everything including the dish towel. They waived back – and kept going. The tide was going out and so were we. I don’t know if I was more unhappy with me – or my friend as I contemplated an unplanned voyage to South America.

    We finally flagged down a commercial fisherman who took us in tow. And I never again went to sea with my untrustworthy former friend.

    Turns out that my friend had filled the fuel bunkers a few days previous, but unknown to him, the partner took the boat out and did not refuel upon return.

    Nowadays when I put my boat in the water or board another boat, you can make sure I check the fuel, radios, and survival equipment.



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