Boating Safety and Safe Boating Blog

Tuesday, March 13th, 2011

How to Survive a Sinking Ship

You've obtained your boat license and are now ready to venture out for some sea-bound fun. But would you know what to do if you were on a sinking ship? The following article will outline the steps you should take if ever you find yourself aboard a sinking ship. Fortunately, the odds of surviving a sinking ship are very high. The most important thing to do is stay calm.

Be prepared

Anyone who's had experience as a scout will know these 2 words: "be prepared". The meaning behind this famous saying is closely tied to another famous saying "knowing is half the battle". Those two bits of advice could very well save your life on a sinking ship.

Before even stepping aboard, prepare an evacuation bag complete with the tools you'd need to survive on a raft or an island.

Sinking Ship

Image source: Stuff

Your survival kit should include:

  • Compass
  • Flashlight
  • Waterproof matches
  • Knife
  • Sunscreen lotion
  • Fresh water
  • Mirror for signalling
  • Flares
  • First aid kit
  • Some food rations

Learn Where Everything Is

Make sure to explore the ship and become familiar with all the emergency exits and evacuation maps. Find the closest lifeboat to your cabin, and be sure to know where all the life jackets are. When it comes to ocean survival, floating is everything. You may have been able to tread water for hours back in the old swimming pool, but the ocean is much, much colder and rough. You'll already be fatigued and in a relative state of shock, and the ocean is filled with various forms of dangly leg-eaters.

Calm Down!

So there you are, relaxing by the pool when suddenly the loud horn lets out 7 short bursts followed by one long one. This is not the boat playing battleship via Morse code with another distant ship, this is in fact the signal to abandon ship.

Screaming and running is the quickest way to get yourself killed. You're not thinking clearly, making terrible decisions, expending valuable energy and rushing into the madness of the mob. One trip and you could get trampled. Let the frenzying folk do their thing, and practice a little something called square breathing.

Square Breathing:

  • Inhale deeply for 4 seconds
  • Hold your lungs full for 4 seconds
  • Exhale for 4 seconds
  • Hold your longs empty for 4 seconds
Square Breathing

Image source:Autism e-Learning Site

Do this 3-4 times and your nerves will settle, your heart rate will slow, and you will find it much easier to focus on survival. This simple technique is used in the military to lower the heart rates of snipers.

Statistically speaking, in an emergency scenario 70% of people will panic, 15% are going to make irrational decisions, and only the remaining 15% will be thinking clearly. Remaining calm already places you above 85% of the rest of the ship.

Follow the rats!

If the hull is breached and the ship begins to take on water, the lowest parts of the ship are generally filled first. This is also where much of a ship's vermin dwell. Rats have been known to be the first to abandon a sinking ship, which seems like intelligence at first until they plunge into the ocean and drown anyhow. They do however, set the right example of where to go as the ship is filling up.

Getting to the deck as fast as possible is extremely important. It would seem fairly obvious to avoid heading deeper and more towards the center of the ship as it sinks, but when panic sets in it's easier to lose orientation and to get lost. Similarly to a burning building situation, avoid using the elevators; it would be terrible to get stuck in one as the boat goes under. If you have time, make sure to grab your evacuation bag!

A stable ship is a sinking ship

A good thing to know if you're on the deck of your own boat, if the boat seems to be rolling less than it should, it could be filling up with water. The weight of the water is preventing your boat from rolling with the waves, time to abandon ship!

Calling for Help

If you're on a big cruise ship, you are clearly not responsible for calling for help. If you're on your own boat however, it's important to not only have a radio, but to know how to use it. Your radio should always be on and tuned to marine VHF radio channel Six-Teen (16) or Frequency 161.400 or 156.800 MHz; marine MF/SSB on 2182 kHz. The coastguard and other ocean rescue authorities are constantly monitoring these channels and will be able to dispatch help in an emergency. Most modern radios are equipped with a Digital Select Calling (DCS) button, which will send your GPS coordinates along with a Mayday beacon to the coastguard once pressed.

How to use a Marine VHF radio by WikiHow

According to wikiHow a calm person should sound like this:

"Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is [your name] on the [vessel name x 3]. Callsign [state your callsign]." Release the microphone button momentarily to ensure the channel is clear. Press again. "Mayday. The vessel ["vessel name"] is located [current position, speed and bearing]. (For example, Position 54 25 North 016 33 West, drifting at one knot with a bearing of 228 degrees). We are a [sailboat, motorboat, etc.] experiencing [distress situation] and are in need of immediate assistance."

Interesting Trivia: Mayday comes from the French term "m'aider" as in "Help me!"

Life boats

Without pushing or shoving, find a lifejacket, put it on before helping anyone else, and get yourself on a lifeboat in an orderly fashion. Your own morals will dictate whether you let women and children on the boats first, just know that the longer you stay aboard, the lower your chances of survival. And if you end up in the water as opposed to aboard a life raft, your odds for survival drop by as much as 70%. The water surrounding the Titanic when it sank was 28 degrees, giving swimmers about 15-30 minutes before their hearts stopped.


Image Source: Pearson Scott Foresman
via Wikimedia Commons

It has been noted that a man's willingness to let the ladies go first decreases as the speed of the sinking ship increases. The Titanic took 2 hours and 40 minutes to plunge into the deep, the Lusitania was torpedoed by the Germans in 1915 and sank in 18 minutes.

"The majority of the survivors of the Titanic disaster "were women, children and people with young children," Thomas H. Maugh II wrote for the Los Angeles Times, compared to the Lusitania, where they were primarily "young men and women who responded immediately to their powerful survival instincts," according to the Associated Press."

Source: Sinking Ship Escape Etiquette

Tips to follow once on the lifeboat:

  • Continue to remain calm
  • Protect your skin from the sun
  • Drink your fresh water sparingly
  • Whenever it rains use whatever you can to capture the water.
    Dehydration occurs quickly on the open seas.
  • The vastness of the ocean and the apparent "hopelessness" of the situation can make people freak out, so try to keep people's brains occupied with conversation, singing, or games.

All you can do at this point is let the raft drift to shore, using your flares sparingly to attract the attention of other boats or aircraft.

Worst Case Scenario

So the boat's going down, you've been unable to make it onto a life raft, what do you do? Find a life jacket, or any kind of floatation device. If the water is cold, your system will suffer varying degrees of shock, and it will become increasingly difficult to tread water, especially if the seas are rough. Swim away from the boat, so as to avoid the propeller, and although television shows like Mythbusters busted the whole ship pulling you under myth, it has been reported to take place from actual survivors.

Now, if you're in the water, no life jacket, no life preserver, no floatation device. Your last chance will be to create a make-shift life jacket out of your pants.

How to make your pants float:

  1. Take off your pants
  2. Tie knots at the bottom of each leg
  3. Hold your pants in the air and then yank them downwards into the water where they will collect some air
  4. Your pants will now act as a flimsy but existent floating device.

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