Whether you are 10 miles from shore or 1,000, if things go wrong and you need to abandon your vessel, there are a few essential items that you will be reaching for. After the life raft and the EPIRB, the ditch bag is, in our opinion, one of the most critical survival items.
When we bought our 45-foot sloop, Distant Drummer, 10 years ago, we purchased a new Viking RescYou Pro six-man life raft. Like most life rafts, it comes with an emergency pack containing basic survival gear, such as raft-maintenance items, signaling equipment, drinking water, a first-aid kit and seasickness tablets. Our ditch bag contains many additional things that we deem essential for survival in a life raft for a reasonable period of time. After 26,000 nautical miles of cruising and six offshore passages of more than 1,000 miles, we have packed, repacked and refined our ditch bag a number of times.
I should point out that in addition to the ditch bag, there are several other items in daily use around the boat that would be vital to have on board the life raft. The EPIRB, activated and broadcasting the distress signal, is the most important, and then, in no particular order of priority, one (or more) jerry jugs of fresh water, a chart, a bucket, a handheld GPS and VHF, a satellite phone if you have one and as many cans of food as space and time permit. A passport for each crewmember, as well as some cash and a credit card, should be in a watertight container and in the ditch bag as well.
What Is a Ditch Bag?
A ditch bag is an emergency bag that contains the equipment needed for catching food, obtaining water, signaling for help and providing shelter from the elements to enable you to survive living in a life raft for a number of days or weeks. It needs to be stowed where it can quickly and easily be grabbed and thrown into the life raft. We keep ours in a locker close to the companionway because we have no lazarettes in the cockpit. A ditch bag should be waterproof and brightly colored, with a lanyard attached just in case it slips out of your fingers. We actually use two large yellow dry bags with the gear split between them, just in case only one bag makes it and to reduce handling size and weight.
For the purposes of this article, I have assumed that the crew are already wearing foul-weather gear, life jackets and clothing suitable to the weather and climate. I have subdivided the equipment into four categories, but obviously some of the tools are generally useful to have for a number of purposes.
Food not only provides the energy and nutrients needed to keep the body functioning, but it also lifts the spirits and gives a focus or highlight to the day. Food stored in the ditch bag should not be perishable, should be edible without cooking and should not be salty because drinking water will be in short supply. It’s also a good idea to choose food that can be divided into smaller portions to enable easy rationing for as long as possible. I have vacuum-packed about 5½ pounds of roasted nuts, dried fruit and trail mix in 5-ounce portions and included about 25 granola bars.
Fishing line and hooks are needed to supplement the dried food and to keep busy. I’ve also included a folding knife and small wooden cutting board to deal with the catch. Hoping that time would be available to stow canned food on board the life raft, I have packed a can opener and a couple of spoons because our success at fishing can be a bit hit-or-miss.
It’s said that a human can survive for three weeks without food but for only three days without water. Water is so essential, but it’s impossible to carry enough of it! When abandoning our vessel, I would be certain to grab a five-gallon jerry jug of water (we keep several full on the back deck for this eventuality) and a bucket for collecting rainwater.
Of course, in many parts of the world, rainfall catchment cannot be relied upon. The bucket can also be used to make a solar water still, and garbage bags, a cup and duct tape are packed into the ditch bag to enable us to construct one. A two-gallon sealable plastic bag is included for water storage. If your budget allows, a handheld manual watermaker would be a good addition.
Shelter and Navigation
The life raft provides the first line of defense against the elements, but there are a few other items contained in our ditch bag to help keep us protected from the rain or sun. Sun hats, sunglasses and sunscreen are packed, as are swimming goggles, which can be used for protecting the eyes from rain or sea spray. They are also useful for looking underwater to check for fish or to inspect the condition of the life raft.
On the navigation side, our ditch bag includes a compass, pen and paper (in a sealable bag) to record the wind and drift direction. There is also a small drogue to stabilize the life raft and control our drift. I would hope to have time to grab a chart and a handheld GPS and have packed spare batteries for it just in case. Having even a vague idea of our location and the possibility to slow down our drift may allow us to stay longer in a shipping channel or to predict how long before we reach land.
Once sustaining life has been dealt with, the next thing to think about is rescue. As soon as the EPIRB is activated, it will alert the authorities that there is a vessel in distress and will signal the location of the life raft for at least 48 hours. To avoid missing a chance of recovery, keeping a good lookout for ships or aircraft during both day and night is essential. When rescue is sighted, it’s time to break out the signaling gear.
In our ditch bag we have two red and two white handheld flares, two orange smoke flares and two red parachute flares. Although a flare is an excellent locating device, it only lasts for a moment and hence could easily be missed by a search vessel. We have packed a signaling mirror, a strobe and a powerful flashlight (with spare batteries), which are all very useful for trying to attract attention over a longer period of time. Sea marker dye, a rescue streamer and a 2-foot plastic signal square are included to enhance the visibility of a life raft, particularly from the air. Once a ship or an aircraft is in sight, the waterproof handheld VHF can be useful in facilitating the rescue.
This list is not exhaustive, and every skipper will have different ideas about the equipment they prioritize as essential. We check our ditch bag every year to replace batteries and restock out-of-date food and flares. Going through this process gives me the chance to review our gear to ensure it still meets our needs and will keep us alive until rescue arrives.
Suzannah and Neil Carmody live aboard Distant Drummer, a Liberty 458 cutter-rigged sloop that they bought in Thailand in 2006. Eleven years on and 26,000 nautical miles later, they are currently enjoying a leisurely cruise down the California coast. Their blog (carmody-clan.com) tells stories of their adventures exploring the world on a cruising boat and gives some useful tips for living aboard.