Survival At Sea

United States Search and Rescue Task Force

Abandoning The Ship

Inflating rafts have proved to be much more efficient in survival situations than dinghies.  The well-prepared person will have all they need to survive in their raft and signal their position.  A list of recommended equipment is as follows.

Appropriate clothing (most important in cold water), flotation device, water (or reverse osmosis pump), first aid kit, signaling and communication device, and food (and/or fishing/hunting equipment), a knife, sea sick pills and sun screen). A sea anchor might also be useful during storms (and to catch plankton).

During the ship wreck, if you have the choice to only grab a handful of things, your choice should be simple.  Of course all this would depend on the wreckage location, temperature of water, climate and distance from land (supposing that those are known).

The two first threats for people abandoning a ship is drowning and hypothermia, therefore, items taken should address these two problems.  Drowning and hypothermia are the two leading causes of death among all sailing accidents.

Fire and Explosion

In the rare event of a plane crash, (or if two large boats were to crash), there is a possibility for your craft to catch on fire and for the fuel to spread on the surface of the ocean.  In this case you should quickly paddle or swim into the headwind (against the wind).  If you are swimming, swim underwater.  Try to surface where the fuel or fire is the thinnest.  To surface and take your breath, extend one hand out first and sweep the surface (quickly not to get burnt) to clear an area from the burning fuel.  Dive back as quickly as possible.

If there is a danger of underwater explosion grab on to anything floating and pull yourself out of the water, if you can’t you might reduce the risk of injury by swimming on your back.

 Avoiding Drowning

Inflatable rafts have proven to be the most seaworthy crafts to survive storms and heavy seas.  Life jackets (PFD) are mandatory equipment on all vessels and represent the best personal floatation device.  If you are not wearing one and can’t possibly grab one or a rescue buoy at the time your ship goes under, you should try to grab on anything else that might help you keep afloat.  On a dive boat, a wetsuit would be a great piece of equipment to grab (including a diving BC, fins, masks and snorkels).  On other boats, look for anything else that will support your weight and be easy to hold on to (plastic containers used for fuel or food storage, pieces of the boat, etc).

The first objective is to swim (or paddle) as far as possible away from the ship before it goes under.  Ships can suck people under as they sink.  Once the ship has sunk, if you are able to swim or paddle back to the wreckage area, you might be able to find many useful things floating around.

After the Wreckage

You survived the wreckage, you were able to stay afloat and stay warm to prevent hypothermia (or even better climb in your raft and stay dry).  Now you have to be ready to survive at sea for an unknown period of time.  Like on land, the basic survival rules apply.  You must first protect yourself from the elements, then find water, and food.  In addition preparing yourself to signal for help might increase your chances to be found by potential rescuers of passing ships and crafts.

Use Clothing: A life jacket will save a lot of energy, but if you don’t have any and can’t hold on to any buoyant thing, you might be able to use some of your clothing to help you stay afloat with a minimum of energy.  Air might naturally be caught in your shirt (you might even blow in it to add some).  If you have pants on, tying knots on both legs will let you capture air inside and use it as a float. To do so hold the waistband open and swing it open in the air to fill it up and place the inflated pant-legs deep in the water holding on to the waist.  The legs full of air will float you.  It might take a few tries and you might have to repeat this technique every few minutes (as the air escapes through the fabric), but it might save you some energy.  Note: It might be useful to keep on shoes (to avoid injuries later. But boots might fill up with water and add weight).

Save Your Energy:  If you are in the water and have nothing to help you (equipment, clothing) keep afloat, it is important to save your energy. Unless you can swim to shore (within a reasonable distance and the current isn’t against you) you should avoid swimming and save your energy as much as possible. The density of the human body is much lower than the density of salt water (and for women density is lower than men).  This means that it is easy to stay afloat. 

However, fear often causes people to drown as exhaustion and frenzied breathing leads to swallowing water.  A few sips can cause you to drown.  It is important to relax. The easiest way to save energy is to float on your back.  You can become more buoyant by taking deep breaths.  Some people might have difficulties with this technique (ie. diving legs).  If so, lay on your stomach with your face in the water and spread your arms apart.  When you need to breathe, push your arms through the water and raise your head just long enough to breathe. 

This is the easiest way to float (all snorkelers have experienced it. Of course it is much easier with a mask and snorkel as you don’t need to raise your head to breathe).  If the sea is too rough these two techniques might not work. Use the second technique (float on your stomach), but let your legs dive in.  You will almost be in an upright position (more stable in the waves).  Keeping your head underwater until you need to breathe will save you a lot of energy (you don’t need to fight to keep your head out of the water).  Relaxing and controlling your breathing is the key.

Cramps:  If you get a cramp (likely in cold water with added fear), relax and use one of the techniques above.  Try to press your cramped muscle using your thumb or the palm of your hand.  If a second person can help, apply pressure first, then stretch the muscle.  (Divers and snorkelers are used to cramps because of the extra stress caused by fins).

Note: Many people drown near the beach because of rip currents or high breaking surfs.  Read the section on Reaching Shore.

Avoiding Hypothermia

In cold water it is more important to grab clothing material to protect oneself from the elements than food.  Kayakers are highly exposed to hypothermia as well. In the book “Deep Trouble” (recommended reading), Matt Broze describes many situation in which kayakers have lost their lives because of hypothermia.  All people on the ocean should be appropriately dressed for the elements in which they navigate.  The most experienced sailors sometimes forget the basic rules. In 1998, the world famous French sailor Eric Tabarly died because he wasn’t wearing the proper clothing and floatation devices.

The best clothing to fight cold water are dry suits (if worn from the beginning) and neoprene wetsuits (even worn after entering the water).  If you can get to a raft, all the warm clothing (wool and polypropylene) and windproof and waterproof clothing you can take with you is great.  Dry bags work very well, in addition to keeping your spare clothing dry, they can be used as flotation devices. In tropical water, the wetsuit is a first choice because in addition to retaining your body heat in the water, it also increases your buoyancy enough to keep you afloat without any effort.  In cold water, a wetsuit will protect you for a short period of time but it won’t be enough to preserve your body heat over a long period of time if you remain in the water.

Sharks, A Threat Or Not ?

Sharks are interesting and ancient creatures, having been around at least 300 million years.  Sharks sexually mature about age 13 and live about 40 to 60 years.  Most shark females have eight to 10 offspring during their lifetime, while other fish can have thousands.

In history, sailors have always feared sharks.  Are you really at risk of shark attack if your boat sinks?  Studies have shown that very few species of sharks can be dangerous to humans and very few accidents and fatalities are reported every year.  Sharks aren’t the vicious, dangerous animals represented in movies such as Jaws.  However Jack Cousteau said that the White Oceanic shark was the most dangerous to human and had caused the most fatalities. 

It is now believed that white oceanic sharks (the most common pelagic shark found far from shore) is very curious and attracted by unusual noises (such as a sinking ship).  During world war II hundreds of marine sailors were killed by sharks after their ship sunk.  But it is believed that in addition to all the noise (blasting and sinking) made by ships, helicopters flying low over the water to drop rafts to sailors were the main cause of shark attraction.  So it seems like for the castaways, the highest risk of shark encounter happen when the ship sinks.  The survival raft or dingy isn’t believed to attract sharks. 

Experts point out that despite the high profile shark attacks on humans, the sharks are in far more danger from us than people are from them.  Attacks on humans are still rare, amounting to about 10 deaths a year.  Humans, on the other hand, kill an estimated 100 million sharks a year, mainly through fishing activities.  Although sharks typically do not like the taste of human flesh, the reverse is not true.

Some of the most dangerous sharks are:

Bull Shark  –  Scientific Name: Carcharhinus leucas,    Average length: 10/11.5 feet,    Color: Gray,    Habitat:  Coastal, temperate ocean waters; some fresh-water rivers and lakes.

Tiger Shark  –  Scientific Name: Galeocerdo cuvier,    Average length: 10/16 feet,    Color: Grayish brown,    Habitat: Coastal, temperate ocean waters.

Great White  –  Scientific Name: Carcharodon carcharias,    Average length: 12/16 (up to 36) feet,    Color: Gray to blue gray,    Habitat: Coastal, temperate ocean waters.

Leaving The Wreckage Site Or Not ?

Should you try to sail, paddle, swim toward a known coast, or should you stay put until the rescuers find you. This is often a difficult decision and it depends on the situation.  What are your chances to be rescued?  Were you able to send a distress signal?  Did rescuers get it (did they answer you)?  Where you able to send your exact location (did you know it at the time of wreckage)?  Do you have any signaling and communication devices? (it is nearly impossible to find a raft in the ocean without knowing its location if no signaling (or communication) devices are onboard.  Bad weather can also make searches impossible.

In open ocean if you were able to send a distress message from your boat and have low range communication and signaling equipment on your raft, waiting for the rescue party might be the best solution.

If you don’t expect any rescue team to look for you and you can see the coast (especially if the wind or current push you in that direction), you might want to try to make a sail or paddle to reach it.

If you are in the water (swimming with a life jacket or holding onto a floating object), unless you are sure that you can swim to shore (the current is not against you), it might be better to save your energy and stay in place.  Each situation will call for a different action.  It is important to think about everything before deciding to leave the wreckage site.  For example, even if you had not sent any distress signals, it might be better to stay where you are if you were sailing in an area where other ships (shipping lane) or airplanes are likely to come to than to sail away to a very far island you might have seen on a map.

Where To Go

You decided to move, but you are in the middle of the ocean (no coastline on sight). Where should you go?

If you have a map (or happen to know where you are and what is around you), deciding where to go is the biggest decision.  It is possible to sail a raft, but it might be impossible to fight a current or wind to reach the closest island (even if it’s only 50 miles away), but castaways have been able to drift for thousand of miles and reach land.  Sailing in the opposite direction of a known close-by island might be a difficult decision to make, but it might save your life.  Choose your destination based on current and wind.  Avoid small islands, your chance to reach them is not good.  It is better to aim toward a more distant but larger land mass.

Sun Exposure

The main problem is dehydration which is reinforced by skin burns.  On a raft freshwater is probably your most valuable item.  A way to reduce your necessary consumption is to reduce your body fluid loss.  To do so you have to reduce exercise and sun exposure.  Make a sun shade with any type of fabric available.  Sails and tarps work best.  If possible set them to shade the maximum surface on the raft while preserving the maximum airflow.  When you get too hot, swimming (always tie yourself to the raft) or splashing your body will cool you off. Wearing wet clothing will also keep you cooler than bare skin (it will also protect you from burns)


To avoid sunstroke cover your head and neck (with wet clothing) and minimize your movements during the day.

Skin – The salt water takes away the skin's natural moisture and sunburns accelerate dehydration.  The skin can quickly dry and chap, crack and swell.  Protect your skin with light clothing.  Water might help you cool off, but the constant rubbing with salt might irritate your skin even more (don’t apply anymore salt to broken skin areas).  Also make sure you let your clothing dry before night.  Even in the tropics, nights can be cold.  If you don’t have any sun protective ointments, any type of grease or fat might also help protect your skin. (Fat can be found in sea birds and other various animals).

Eyes – On the ocean the sun is reflected by the sea and can cause partial or permanent blindness.  Sunglasses (100% UV protection, polarized glasses are best) are a must for all water sport activities.  If you don’t have any sunglasses, you should improvise some.  Indigenous people from the Arctic circle used leather bands in which they cut two narrow slits for the eyes.  Those narrow slits minimize the contact with sun rays. You could use any type of fabric to make such eye protection.

If your eyes are swollen or burning you can apply wet bandages with light pressure.  It is better to use freshwater if you can spare it.  Don’t apply the bandage for too long.

Salt Exposure

Extended salt exposure will irritate the skin and might burn, produce rashes, sores and boils.  If you can, rinse with fresh (rain) water, and keep the affected area dry.  Avoid any additional contact with salt (seawater).  In the case of infected pus filled sores, do not break it as they might spread infections.

Long Immersion

Castaways who have parts of their bodies immersed for a long period of time might suffer from swelling and tenderness at the tip of their fingers and toes.  It is painful and is best treated with sunscreen oil (coconut oil).  Other types of rashes and boils might also result.  The most affected areas are ones most frequently in contact with water: hands, elbows, buttocks.  These can spread over other body parts.  Healing takes a long time and requires a period of time without any additional salt exposure. Protect all affected areas from further contact with sea water.

Food and Water Needs

Digestion requires a lot of water.  So if you are low in water and rationing yourself (adrift in an area without much rain), you should avoid eating.  It is possible to survive much longer without food than without water.

Proteins requires much more water than carbohydrates.  So if you need to eat, you should first eat your carbohydrate food (sugar and starches).  The main food you will gather from the ocean (fish, sea turtles and seaweed) are rich in proteins and should be avoided if you don’t have enough water.  Do not eat any dehydrated (dried) food if short on water (all dried food also requires much water to be digested).  Over a long period, you should eat so as not to suffer from additional weakness and health problems due to starvation.  Fish and other marine animals contain a little amount of water, but only when they are eaten immediately (fresh and preferably raw.


Prevent dehydration (body fluid loss due to perspiration) and motion sickness which can also lead to dehydration.  Sleep or rest as much as possible.  Protect yourself from the sun.

Protect yourself against motion sickness by using pills before getting sick; try applying pressure on your wrist (accu-pressure point); look at the horizon; often change your head’s position; avoid eating when you are sick or susceptible to be. In the first storm on a raft, even experienced sailors get motion sickness.  There isn’t much to do to avoid it, but it usually goes away after 3 days (or earlier if the sea conditions improve).  The danger is vomiting leading to dehydration and exhaustion.

Water Consumption: Healthy VS. Necessary to survive – The minimum amount of water considered necessary to stay in good shape is 1.3/4 pts (1 liter) per day.  It is possible to survive with 2 to 5 oz (55 to 220 centiliters) per day. When you will be surviving at sea for an unknown duration of time, it is necessary to ration the water to the minimum needed to survive.

On the first day, your body still contains much water, so you don’t need to drink. It is recommended to decrease your water ration progressively.  The first 2 to 4 days you should drink 14oz (400cc).  After you should reduce to 2 to 8 oz daily. This will of course vary with the conditions (no protection from the sun in a tropical area will require more water than in the shade in temperate climate).

During such rationing, symptoms such as discomfort, absence of saliva, cracking of lips and weakness are normal.  If delirium starts, the victim needs more water. This rationing might not be healthy for a period of over a week, but unless you find alternative source of water you might have to follow it to survive.

Make good use of your fresh water – When drinking moisten the lips tongue and throat (gurgle lightly) before swallowing. Use Lightly salted water (first rain) to wash wounds, and rinse face.

Drinking sea waterEverybody who has accidentally swallowed a bit of sea water knows that drinking a glass of it isn’t possible.  Drinking sea water is dangerous and will result kidney failure.  This is what everybody thought until Dr. Bombard proved that people could survive on sea water (we are talking about staying alive, not healthy).  Many experts still disagree with Bombard’s theory, but the fact that he has survived 63 days on drifting raft without any other food and water than what the ocean could provide him gives a lot of credit to his research on sea survival. 

Bombard doesn’t disregard the danger of drinking sea water.  During his testing periods he got sick when he tried to drink more than 32oz of sea water per day for more than five days.  After numerous tests and various castaway experimentation (drifting at sea for weeks), he came to the conclusion that people could safely drink sea water in quantities not exceeding 32oz per day.  

DRINK MAXIMUM 32oz PER DAY and start as soon as possible (don’t wait to be dehydrated).  Of course adding fresh water would improve your physical condition.

Reverse osmosis hand pumpSome of these water desalination pumps are manually operated and can allow you to filter from 1 to 3.5 liters per hour.  They are one of the most valuable pieces of equipment you could possibly store in a survival raft.  

Collecting rain waterDepending on your location, it might rain daily or very sporadically.  In the tropics, one short rain storm could dump much water.  Often the unprepared castaways have not been able to take advantage of those strong sporadic rain storms (if it rains daily you don’t need to be too concerned).  Many have died of dehydration in areas of heavy rains.  Don’t wait for the rain to be prepared.

How to collect rain water – Over time much salt will crystallize over all the fabrics you could use to collect rain (especially sails and plastic tarps).  When you expect rain make sure you wash your fabrics in the sea (although the sea is salty, it will remove all the layers of salt crystals).  The little salt left from rinsing in the sea will be minimal, otherwise, the rain water you will collect will be very salty.  You should also keep all your equipment to catch rainwater set up at night when you sleep (by the time you wake up and are ready to set up in the dark, you might have lost a chance to collect most of the water).

What to use and how – Any large surface of fabrics such as canvas or plastic are great to catch rain water. If you have sails, make a giant bowl with them (make sure you rinse them before). In heavy sea make sure you protect your water collection plant from the waves. You don’t want the ocean to spoil your precious drinking water. 

If you don’t have any sails or not enough tarps, use anything from rain jackets and pants to garbage bags, wetsuits, life jackets, etc.  Cans and bottles make great containers to store water but are not very efficient to collect it.  You might also collect water from the gutters of your dinghy.  Pockets of rain water might also form in various places (which you can lap if difficult to transfer into a receptacle).

How to store rain water – Drink all you need from the rain, but if you have been on a rationed diet, drink very slowly as to not vomit (a normal reaction after forced drinking following dehydration).

Store as much rain water as possible.  The first water collected might still contain a bit of salt (save it separately). You can use it to wash wounds and moisten lips and eyes.  When you run out of containers, think of anything that can be made into a container (plan this beforehand).  To not mention the obvious, fill up your diving BC, and everything that is inflatable.  If you are on a raft, you can partially fill up the tubes of your raft.  It won’t sink (rafts are extremely buoyant) but it will even stabilize it more in heavy seas.  

Using saline and foul water – When the water is first collected it might contain too much salt to be drinkable, but it could still be used to clean wounds, humidify lips and rinse the skin (especially where rashes, dryness and soreness have developed).

Foul water collected on a raft is usually safe to drink but because of the taste it might cause vomiting.  To avoid vomiting is can be absorbed rectally by means of a water retention enema.

Another beneficial use of water enema:  After a long period of dehydration (and diet) the stomach shrinks and can’t hold much water.  During a strong rain storm, if you don’t have much container to store water, you want to fill yourself up. You can absorb up to one pint rectally.

In case of severe dehydration the body will more quickly be hydrated with an enema.  It is a method that has saved knowledgeable survivors.  But careful not to use salt water (sea water is as dangerous absorbed rectally as it is orally).

Finding fresh water in the ocean – ICE – In polar regions, ice is easily collected from icebergs.  The surface of the ocean might also freeze and provide ice.  If the ice is old enough, a year old or so, it is usually blue-gray like on glaciers.  It will have most likely lost its salt concentration.  You can melt it to drink, or just suck it.  Be sure to taste it first to make sure it isn’t salty.

You might also be able to collect ice on the surface of various equipment.  It is frozen air humidity and can be used. When very cold, you might also be able to freeze sea water in containers.  The salt will freeze last and concentrate in the middle.  You can then break the side and separate it from the center to get low saline water.

Solar Stills and Condensation – Modern equipment has come a long way and some new survival raft come equipped with solar stills and chemical desalination tablets.  If so, the solar stills should be set up as soon as possible (don’t wait to be low in water, it is slow process).

Condensation – In some dry places (little to no rain), nights might bring much condensation (a good example is Baja in Mexico).  You can collect the drops of condensation with a canvas or plastic tarp (or sail) set as a bowl to cover the maximum surface area. Make sure the water collected gets funneled the proper way to be stored.  Don’t forget to rinse the fabrics. 


Saving energy – The more active you are the more energy you use, the more food (and water) you need.  Relax as much as possible and try to lay down to save as much energy as possible.

Food – Should you really eat – Before eating any food, be aware that digestion (especially of proteins and dried food) requires much water.  If you are very short on water don’t eat.  If you have food but no water, wait until you can collect enough water (rain or other means) to eat.  You can survive much longer without food than without water.  If you really need to eat (after a long period, don’t let yourself starve), you should choose the carbohydrates first (sugar and starches often contained in survival rations). Proteins (fish, turtles, birds and algae) although probably your main source of food, should be eaten last if you are low on fresh water.

Does the sea contain enough food to remain healthy – Sailors in the past believed that the sea could not provide them enough vitamins. To avoid suffering from scurvy, they stored fruits and vegetables.  Onions have always been a favorite among sailors.  They contain the more vitamins than any other vegetables and if kept in a dry area, they can be kept for a long period of time.

Dr. Bombard proved his theory.  The sea can provide enough food (including the right vitamins) to men for a long period of time.  Fish flesh contains proteins and vitamin A and D.  Often livers from fish also contain other vitamins like B1 and B2 (be careful that some fish contains poison in their liver, others contain a very high concentration of vitamin A which can also be toxic). Vitamin C and sugar can be found in plankton.

Surviving castaways have often use much ingenuity to catch food.  Most of what you find around you can be converted and use to catch, attract or find food.


Fish are plentiful in most oceans and they might be the easiest to catch if you have a minimum of material to make some basic equipment.  Don’t worry about eating raw fish.  In many countries raw fish is considered a delicacy.  The most famous are Japan (sushi and sashimi) and Latin American countries (ceviche). (Note: cooking will kill potential parasites, but healthy fish are safe to be eaten raw).

Fishing lines, nets, spears, etc. – There are many known fishing methods used all around the world.  Lines can be made from any types of ropes or strings (found from various clothing, fabrics, and other equipment), hooks can be made from metal, plastic, bones, etc.

Fishing at night – Often night time provides the best fishing.  This is why many fishermen work at night.  Spear fishing (free diving) at night is also much easier than during day time. Many fish are attracted by light.  Use any possible source of light (electrical or fire) to attract fish.  If not available you might even be able to reflect the light from the moon (full moon) to attract your prey.

Some fish (especially small sharks because their skin is rough) can even be caught by hand once attracted close to your raft (bait or light). 

Flying fish – Sailors are familiar with those, they often find them lying on the deck of their boat in the morning. Flying fish are found in schools.  If you cross their path, you might be able to catch many at once.  They are attracted by bright light.  Use anything to that order.  Use white canvas or tarps (even during the day).  The fish will fly over your raft and hit the tarp you set.  They will fall stoned in your raft.

A Note About Poisonous Fish

Castaways are usually far enough from shore that they don’t need to worry much about poisonous fish.  Most fish found in open ocean are edible.  Poisonous fish are usually found in coastal areas, particularly reefs.  Even some poisonous fish might be edible if you carefully discard the liver and other internal organs in which the poison or toxins are usually contained.  When in doubt only eat fish you know.  If you can’t be selective, only eat flesh that has not been in contact with organs.  Eat only a small quantity first, wait a few hours checking for symptoms before eating more.  

Organs you don’t eat can be used.  Some contain oil you can squeeze and rub on dry skin.  Most can be use to bait other fish.

Note: cooking will not decrease the amount of poison or toxins in the fish.

Note: don’t forget that fish in the tropics can spoil very quickly (unless dried properly), discard any fish with you might believe unsafe.  You don’t want to risk fish poisoning or even vomiting (loss of energy and water).

Drying fish (or meat) – If you catch more fish than you can eat (or than you should eat if you’re short on water), you should start drying it right away.  In the tropics, fish can spoil very quickly.

Fish fillets are usually dried by being hanged in the sun.  A quicker process (but which might not retain as much water) is to cut very thin slices of fish and spread them on any dry fabrics (canvas and plastics) exposed to the sun.   Turtle meat can be dried in the same way, but meat with high content of fat might spoil before being dried.  Remember that dried food will require more water to digest.


Castaways rarely think about eating birds, but all sea birds are edible (some might be very chewy though).  Their meat can be eaten cooked, raw, or dried.

Birds might land on your raft to rest or circle you hoping for food.  They can be caught by hand, knocked with an oar, speared, caught with a net, snared, or even hook like a fish (using various baits or lure in the water or thrown in the air).

If you can’t cook the bird, skin it and eat it raw.  In cold weather you can use the feathers to make some insulation under your cloth (down sleeping bags).  Feathers could even be used as fishing bait.  You can use the fat to lubricate the skin.  In the arctic regions, people chew on fat (seals and sea lions).  In very cold situations you might want to chew on the fat of birds (and sea turtles).  Bones contain marrow.  If you can’t chew on the bone, break it and extract the marrow with something long and thin.  

Sea Turtles

Sea turtle meat is very nutritious and still many indigenous people feed on them in Central America.  Their eggs are also very good (found buried on the beach, or inside female turtles).

To remove the meat from the turtle, you will need a knife (improvised with metal or plastic if necessary – tin cans make good blades). 


Plankton is very nutritious and is a also essential to prevent scurvy for long time castaways.  It isn’t found in every waters, but as whales (whale sharks and manta rays) feed on large quantities of plankton, all areas hosting those marine animals will be rich in plankton.  Plankton will often be found on the surface at night (during the day it might only be found deeper). Any type of net with very small holes dragged behind a raft will work well.  Mosquito nets, cotton fabrics from a tent will also work great.  Any type of clothing trailed in the water will also work.  Sea anchors are ready made natural plankton nets.

Don’t let the smell throw you off, plankton doesn’t smell good but it doesn’t taste bad.


Seaweed (or algae) of various types are found on most oceans.  They are used in many Japanese dishes.  In addition to being very tasty, they are rich in proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.  Most seaweeds are edible, however some green or blue algae found in freshwater pools can be highly poisonous.  Most type of seaweeds are found in coastal areas either drifting or still attached to rocks. (don’t collect dried seaweed washed out on beaches).  A few types of seaweed can also be found far offshore. 

In the Sargasso sea and North Atlantic, the sargassum species are commonly found floating on the surface.  You can drag a net  or any type of homemade hook or rake to collect seaweed.  There are many types of seaweed, but the ones usually found offshore are tough and might be hard to eat raw.  You can dry them in the sun (or with fire), then chew on them (if you have a lot of rainwater, you might want to rinse them too). Some thick seaweed will require boiling to remove some natural glue (used a lot in the paper industry).

Don’t forget that seaweed requires a lot of fresh water to be digested. Do not eat seaweed unless you have sufficient drinking water. 

Sea Cucumbers

They might be the least appealing form of food found in the ocean, but they are edible and even prized by Chinese and Japanese.  They cover the bottom of most sandy oceans and are the easiest animals to catch in shallow water.  Some species secrete a mucous from their skins that can be irritating (especially avoid contact with sensitive skin areas and eyes). They must be well gutted and cleaned (the skin must be cleaned numerous times to remove the sticky mucous) before being eaten. Depending on where they are prepared, they can be smoked, cooked, or marinated raw. 


The best hunting for fish and mollusks will be at low tide, when rock pools can be inspected and buried mollusks and other creatures dug from sandy shores.
Bivalves, which feed by filtering water through their digestive systems, can build up a dangerous concentrations of toxic chemicals in areas polluted by industry or sewage.

In tropical zones mussels are poisonous during the summer, especially when seas are reddish or highly phosphorescent.  In the arctic, black mussels can be poisonous at any time of the year.  Learn to recognize the cone shells, which shoot out a poisonous barb, in a few species potent enough to kill you.  There are more than 400 types of cone shell, mainly found in the tropical Indo-Pacific with about 12 species off the south east of usa and in the Caribbean. They are all identified by there shape.  Tenebra or auger and turrid shells also have poison darts. 
There venom is not dangerous to man , but a sting could still be painful. Only eat mollusks collected live.  Bivalves such as oysters, clams and mussels, should close tightly if tapped gently.  Gastropods, such as winkles and whelks, have a “trap door” (the operculum) to close the entrance to the shell.  It should close tightly if the shell is shaken.
Other gastropods, such as limpets and abalones, have no operculum but are tightly anchored to the rocks.  Use a knife under the edge of the shell to pry them off.  If they are hard to dislodge, they are good to eat.  If they come off easily, they are probably dead or sick. After high tide any limpet found still fastened is good food – the tide washes away sick or dead specimens.


Cook shell foods by plunging them into boiling water and boiling for at least five minutes.  If you eat shell foods raw you expose yourself to parasites and pollutants which they may carry.
Fish and sea snakes require more effort than shellfish.  Some fish are dangerous and all sea snakes are venomous.  Distinguish snakes from eels by there scales and their broad flattened tails.  They are said not to bite swimmers.  Bites usually occur, and then only rarely, when fishermen are removing fish from nets in which the snakes are also caught.

Octopus and Squid

Octopus can be hunted at night, when they are in search of their own prey.  Attract them with a light, then spear them.  In daytime empty shells around a hole are an indication that an octopus may live inside.  Drop in a baited hook, wait until it is taken and pull sharply up. 
All octopuses have a hard, parrot-like beak, and a few can give a poisonous bite.  The worst is the Blue-ringed octopus of eastern Australia – its venom can be lethal.  AVOID IT!
Octopus flesh is tough and chewy but very nourishing.  Pounding it will help make it more tender.  Boil the body and roast the smaller tentacles.
In the open sea, squid can be huge, but a few small squid may occur inshore.  Look for them in rock pools attached to seaweed.  Catch them at night with a bright light, by jigging. Cuttlefish do not come close inshore but can be caught at sea in the same way.

Signaling Devices

The most useful is an EPIRB.  The smallest and easiest to carry are a signaling mirror and a whistle.  Those three represent a first choice because of their efficiency (whistles and mirrors are so small you can always keep them attached to your life jacket and they nearly never fail even over a long period of time).  The EPIRB is an emitter that emits international distress signals messages and indicates your position. Other useful signaling devices are music or computer CD's, flares, water dye, strobe lights, red and reflective fabrics, VHF radios (and GPS to give an exact position to rescuers), etc.

All signaling devices are important, but the best equipped people aren’t always the better prepared.  In a survival situation it is essential to think and act according to the situation.  Dr. Bombard proved that castaways could survive 63 days drifting at sea with nothing.  When asked, Vital Arsal, the captain of La Balsa said that survival depends on the total cooperation of all men.  If Ed Gillet had lost faith and stopped paddling when he ran out of food after 60 days in a kayak, he would have never reached Hawaii.  Survival is about fighting and believing in life.

Remember, signaling devices can also be as simple as the reflective properties in a music or computer CD.

 Reaching Shore

Some castaways are found at sea, others reach nearby or distant coasts. If you are in a situation where you intentionally or accidentally reach a coastline, you might need to be careful with your landing.  All sailors know that the greatest danger isn’t on open ocean, but near rocky or coral-lined shores.  If possible avoid shores with high cliffs.  Lookout for breaking surf and coral reefs.  Choose sandy beaches over rocks and coral. 

If you are on the windward side of the island, try to paddle around it (to the leeward side) to find a more protected place (or look for a small bay that will shelter you from waves).  A flat sloping beach might be a better choice than a steep beach (on which big surf could break violently).  If you can wait, don’t land at night.  If you can’t choose your landing and will arrive in a coral or rocky area, wear protecting clothing if available (shoes, life jacket, wetsuit, etc).  Waves arrive in sets (often of 7), make sure you time your landing to deal with the smallest waves. 

If pushed toward rocks, swim feet first.  If high swell threatens to break on you, don’t surf it, dive into it (going in the opposite direction) and once it passes over you resume swimming toward the beach.  If you are in a raft or canoe, the main surf landing technique would be very similar to kayaking.  Paddle hard toward the beach between the waves and back paddle as hard as you can when the next breaking wave is catching you (avoid surfing, you might capsize). If you have a sea anchor, let it drag behind you. It will keep your craft oriented in the waves and will prevent you from surfing (and maybe capsizing).

Don’t jump in the water, stay in your raft (or dinghy) until you touch the beach.  If you seem to be drifting away from shore, you most likely are in a rip current (or possibly in an out flowing river estuary).  Don’t fight it.  Those are usually not very wide, paddle or swim parallel to shore until you come out of the rip current.

Once on the beach if no human signs are evident, you are now in a coastal survival situation (much more favorable than a sea survival situation). Note: It is easier to look for landmarks when you are still on the water than after you’ve landed on the beach. 

Note: If you are wearing a life jacket, it might be easier to swim on your back. It is easier to cover distance with a partially deflated jacket.

Indications to the proximity of land –

  • Drifting vegetation or wood might indicate proximity of land.
  • Birds often fly to sea in the morning and return toward the land at night (some birds can fly far out to sea).
  • Birds usually indicates proximity of land.
  • Wind generally blows toward land during the day and toward sea at night.
  • Shallow water is clear (in tropics).  It might indicate proximity of land.
  • Silt or murky water probably comes from a river and indicates proximity of land (the Amazon produces murky ocean for hundreds of miles)
  • In the tropics coral reefs or lagoons often reflect themselves in the clouds (greenish color).
  • Cumulus clouds are usually formed over land.
  • Clouds often gather themselves over corals islands and reefs.
  • A change of pattern in the swell might indicate a change of tide around an island.

If the swell is decreasing but the wind remains constant, it indicates an island windward (which is protecting the sea).

Remember – Stay Calm and Stay Alive !


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