The Complete Overboard Bag
Time to abandon ship? Plan and pack your ditch kit to stack the odds of survival in your favor.
There are several reasons that I use a heavy-duty dry bag as my overboard container. First, because if I leave as much air inside as possible, it floats. Still, I add secondary flotation in the form of an attached marker buoy and a jerry jug filled only two-thirds full with potable water. That jerry jug along with rain-catching tarps and a handheld watermaker may prove a godsend in the days, if not weeks, to come. Another important feature is that the bag is absolutely waterproof, thus protecting the vital equipment and supplies inside. Nevertheless, all the supplies are also bagged separately inside, which helps with organization as well. In addition, the dry bag has no hard edges, which is seemingly a small thing until your life raft is tossed about in mountainous seas.
|By categorizing the ditch-kit contents and bagging each group separately, the ditch kit can be packed in order of anticipated need to limit rummaging through the bag during an abandon-ship situation. When planning your ditch kit, remember that you’d rather have an item and not need it than not have it and need it.|
Inside the bag I layer the equipment, all well labeled, in the anticipated order of urgency. On top are the headlamps, flashlights, and chemical light sticks. Next is a throwing line to assist exhausted swimmers in reaching the raft. Then comes a first-aid kit to deal with likely injuries suffered from the catastrophe. Since getting and staying warm is critical even in tropical seas, Mylar emergency blankets and heat packs come next. Only when the entire crew is on board, stabilized, and dosed with seasickness pills to prevent dehydration will the EPIRB, VHF (with expedition-style portable battery), GPS, flares, smoke flare, dye marker, and strobe come out of the bag.
I continue my visualization: Once I activate the EPIRB, I then establish our exact position with the waterproof GPS and instigate backup Mayday calls via the handheld VHF at regular intervals. After our situation has stabilized, I discuss with the crew in a positive yet truthful manner the challenges we face; I’m careful not to promise or rely on immediate rescue. We take stock of the equipment at hand and discuss the tactics to be used. We also establish watches, allocate responsibilities, and immediately implement a rationing system, especially for the fresh water.
Space doesn’t allow a detailed breakdown of every item I include in the overboard bag that my wife, Diana, and I keep on board our 36-foot steel cutter, Roger Henry, but my overall approach is that I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it. That said, all survival literature indicates that the single most important ingredient for success is the crew’s morale. Be creative in your planning. Stash an unexpected treat or two in the bag. A small shortwave radio receiver can be a source of news, weather, and entertainment. I keep an unabridged copy of War and Peace in the ditch kit, which I plan to read out loud to my crew at a rate of perhaps 20 pages a day. My theory is that no one, however weakened or discouraged, could even consider giving up the ghost until he or she finds out what happens to Natasha and Pierre.
The Five Kinds of Gear in Alvah Simon’s Ditch Bag
For Initial Stabilization
• Heavy-duty dry bag, with strong lanyard, carabiner, and marker/float
• Jerry jug with tether for water
• Throwing line
• Flashlights/headlamp/chemical light sticks
• First-aid kit
• Mylar emergency blanket
• Chemical heat packs
• Air pump
• Raft repair kit (patches, plugs, glue)
• EPIRB (registered)
• GPS (waterproof)
• VHF (waterproof), with additional battery
• Flares, smoke flares, dye markers, reflectors
• Distress flag
• Signaling mirror
• Reflective tape and flagpole
• Survival manual
• Rain tarps
• Funnel, hose, containers
• Resealable bags
• Food supply (pemmican, survival biscuits, canned fish, glucose tabs)
• Medical kit (including your prescription medications)
• Fishing kit
• Repair kit (duct tape, wire, rope, string)
• Spare batteries
• Knives/multitool/sharpening stone
• Work board
• Hats, gloves, sunglasses, sunscreen, shirts
• Sewing kit
• Camping towel
• Reading glasses
• Reading material
• AM/FM radio or small shortwave-radio receiver
• Maps and wind and current charts
• Paper and pencils
• Document bag
• Lighter/fuel stick
Circumnavigator and high-latitude sailor Alvah Simon is a 2013 Cruising World Boat of the Year judge.