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Surviving at Sea

The ocean covers some 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. The human race has traveled to the moon, but still hasn’t touched down on the deepest parts of the ocean floor. It is such a force that entire cities have been devastated by a few waves. It has such partners in crime (fiction and nonfiction) as the kraken, the giant octopus, rogue waves, and man-eating sharks. But perhaps the ocean’s most curious feature is its ability to make men vanish. There are so many ways to die on the open ocean that it is among the most dangerous places on the planet. The ocean can become even more dangerous when we become complacent and falsely secure on ships and other watercraft, without paying attention to the enormous capabilities of the behemoth we travel upon.

People have survived over thirty days on the open ocean in life rafts. One Chinese man even managed to stay alive for over 130 days – a seemingly impossible feat. For those who are prepared, however, it may not be such a stretch to be able to stay alive for a significant period of time – a little bit of preparation can go a long way. Perhaps you’ve grown tired of the constant repetition of “be prepared” that tends to be rampant in survivalist articles; this author is no exception, and at times I will throw that moniker around as well, but it is true. It is statistically proven that of the people who face extreme situations, more often than not, those who were prepared or had a good knowledge base and understanding of survival skills were able to survive and return home. Sometimes blind luck shines its face on some random individual, but to be prepared gives you the control to determine the outcome.

Those hard-core individuals that consider themselves survivalists may thrive on an opportunity like this: 30 days in a lifeboat with nothing more than a knife, a couple of cans of sardines, and a couple of bottles of water – but it’s not going to be easy. A life raft is simply that—a raft that saves your life. Beyond the ability to float in an ocean and being relatively difficult to sink, it will do nothing much more for you. Obviously there are ancillary items on board life rafts like desalination filters that can make a huge difference in your survival abilities, but it’s still going to take some knowledge and willpower to keep you alive. It is completely possible to stay alive on a life raft on the open ocean with very few items as long as you plan those items properly and have the skill set or knowledge to back it up. After all, if you’re really going to spend thirty to fifty days on the open ocean, you’ve got plenty of time to put that knowledge to good use. (By the way, it’s not recommended to purposefully get stranded on the ocean.) A survival kit for the open ocean will be slightly different than that which you will want on land; it will definitely be more comprehensive. In the first article of this extreme survival series, a survival kit’s contents were listed; it was built so that you could carry it anywhere you want to go. One suited for the open ocean won’t be too much bigger, but it will have some different items.

  • A waterproof lighter
  • A box of waterproof matches
  • Two skinny, heavy-duty one-pint plastic water bottles– both should be full, and one should be spray-painted black and have a cap with a hole just at ½ inch (or to match your tubing below) cut into it so that the tube can fit snugly through it
  • Twenty-four inches of clear, hollow plastic food-grade tubing (preferably reinforced with fiberglass and about a half inch in diameter)
  • A four-foot square piece of heavy clear plastic sheeting
  • Twelve fish hooks (large stainless steel treble hooks) with a twenty-five-pound leader attached and another seventy-five feet of fifty-pound test fishing line
  • A full-sized paracord (at least 100 feet, but preferably 250 feet), tightly wound
  • A real carabineer with about twelve feet of duct tape wrapped around the non-opening side
  • A small bag of cotton balls and a small piece of microfiber cloth (think an eyeglass cloth, about 4×4 inches)
  • Three freezer bags folded up and protected from sharp edges.
  • A small bottle of isopropyl alcohol (four ounces)
  • A pair of cut-resistant gloves (Kevlar)
  • A multitool device with wire cutters and pliers
  • A sewing needle and some two-pound test line (twenty-five feet)
  • Two heavy-duty key rings (preferably two solid one-inch rings made out of aluminum)
  • 8 foot square of small-knit mesh netting (about ½ cm spaces)
  • A heavy-duty safety whistle
  • Two medium-sized bare spoon lures
  • A small foghorn
  • Some cheap “blublocker” or similar UV protection polarized glasses
  • Thirty feet of thin-diameter braided stainless steel wire along with two pieces, each twenty-four inches long, prefabricated with permanent loops built into each end
  • A knife (preferably a fixed-blade high-quality knife made of stainless steel– even though the blade will not be as sharp)
  • A stainless steel folding knife with a substantial blade (three to five inches)
  • A microfiber towel (12×12)
  • Six 1000-calorie bars (emergency ration bars)
  • Six packets of water (emergency water pouches)

The items in this survival kit won’t make life easy on the open ocean, but with a little bit of work and creativity, it has the tools to help you survive. It should all fit in a case the size of a large pistol case, or roughly equivalent to a notebook computer carrying case, perhaps a bit bigger. These items are not optional; they should be considered standard. This is the absolute minimum amount of items you will want to get caught out at sea with.

First things first—rough seas, a struggle with a bigger fish, or just the bright sun in your eyes can cause a tool or the entire kit to go into the ocean. It’s best to tie off everything that is important. Keep the kit closed when not in use and tie a substantial bit of paracord through the handles on the case or through a portion of the fabric itself. Tie off your knife and add a handle lanyard to the knife for when you must use it untethered so you can slip the lanyard around your wrist (make it relatively snug).

Prepare for Your Food Gathering

Tie a doubled-up section of paracord that has been threaded with your two prefabricated wire lines to act as a trolling line base. Reinforce the paracord in a couple places by wrapping duct tape (several wraps) around both of the layers of paracord to create a landing spot for your trolling lines. After you string your two braided wires over the top of the duct taped areas, reinforce further with ¼-inch wide strips of the duct tape at each end of the tape you just placed, so it creates a notch in the duct tape reinforcement so your looped wire end cannot hop out of the notch and onto the bare paracord. Swing your two wire lines up and add a leader of fishing line with a bit of the fifty-pound test and a spoon lure. As the current takes you through the water, the lure will dive, catch sunlight, and shine—perfect for a fish looking for surface food. Because it isn’t huge, you won’t necessarily attract overly aggressive and dangerous fish, but be on the lookout: pull your lines up if you get a shark or other aggressive fish like a marlin looking at it hungrily. You don’t want to risk an injury or damage to your boat. If you cannot handle what you have caught, there are a few ways to handle the situation.

If your trolling line will hold or you prepare in advance, you can attach the folding knife with a combination of paracord and duct tape to the handle end of an oar, and use it as a spear or long stabbing implement. Just be careful to secure the blade when it is not in use to avoid accidental damage to the raft. The other option, of course, is to cut the line. You will want to preserve your lures, but sometimes the risk is too big to take in an aggressive fish or shark. Additionally, if the shark or fish is large and powerful enough, they can actually cause the raft to take on water before they snap the line, so be ready to cut the cord if needed.

You will also want to fashion a net system out of the paracord and the netting you brought so that the netting has two long cords (one on each of two opposite edges of the netting) with excess cord on each end. You will build it this way so you can close off the net by pulling the four ends of cord together to create a mesh basket and bring up some small fish from the surface areas when you happen across a school of tiny feeding fish. They will be jumpy, so be patient, get your net into the water, and then move away from the surface so they can come onto the net and you can pull it up. You can use these fish as food and as bait for larger fish.

You will want to preserve some fish by air or sun drying so you can ensure that you have plenty to eat when you aren’t able to catch any.

Use the Kevlar gloves when you have a fish on the hook so you don’t get injured by the fish, your knife, or the lines.

When you have caught some fish, you can use the tie-offs to set longer lines with baited hooks, but be ready to cut the line if you have something too big on the end of it and it hasn’t snapped. The last thing you need is your floating “fortress” being pulled around the ocean by a sixty-pound tuna.

Bear in mind also that when you eat food, you must also provide the water needed for digestion. Without it you’ll simply complicate the situation. Make sure you have enough water to digest the food.

While you wait for your passive food collection techniques to render some sustenance, you should also begin looking at ways to fresh water. Most life rafts now include some sort of reverse osmosis or forward osmosis desalination filter, which will allow you to get quite a bit of water out of it. It’s smart however, to create much more than you can drink on a regular basis, so you will have it just in case. Included in your survival kit is a pair of water bottles; most likely they’re full, so after you drink them, use the black one for saltwater gathering and the other one for freshwater gathering.

These parts have the capability of making a rudimentary yet potentially efficient distillation set up—a makeshift solar still, if you will. The key is to ensure the saltwater bottle stays elevated (and upright) in comparison to the freshwater bottle; you also want to fill up the salt water bottle with no more than two-thirds liquid. Salt is heavier than water vapor, and therefore, as the black bottle becomes heated up in the sun, vapor begins to form and rise to the top. A vacuum created by the displacement between the two bottles will literally suck up the water vapor into the tube where it then can travel down the tube and recollect as water droplets into the freshwater container.

It’s going to be slow, and it certainly will not provide enough water to keep you working at a normal pace; however, it will provide some ancillary water production. The goal here is to create enough water from as many sources as you can to continue to stay completely hydrated. Remember also that larger fish bones can contain fresh water within their cavities, as well as fish eyes and various parts of sea turtles. You also brought some prepackaged water, so use this to stay hydrated as well.

Use one of the zip lock bags to store extra water. Try to avoid cutting fish and leaving guts in the bottom of the raft, so you can also gather fresh rainwater in the bottom of the boat if needed. Obviously you’ll have to exercise caution and be smart about such a technique; for example, if you are in inclement weather, it may not be smart to stay wet. If needed, use your shirt or the microfiber cloth in your survival kit to sponge up freshwater and collect it in the zip lock bag. You can never have too much water.

Obtaining fresh water to drink will be your number one priority; just because this article highlighted food gathering first does not discount this fact. Be active in your attempts to obtain freshwater.

You will always want to be looking for land, and you may be able to determine distant locations by using your memory and the flow of water. A note to remember: Because an island has four sides (relatively speaking), waves will travel in a starburst pattern away from the island: in between each leg of the starburst, a different set of waves can exist. If you travel along the little rough intersection where two sets of these traveling wave patterns converge (moving in towards the convergence), you should be able to find land relatively soon.

If you’re able to find land, you can still use the raft as a shelter, if no other shelter is available. Without question you want to secure the raft to some sturdy object so high tides cannot take it away from you; you may someday need this raft again.

On land it’s a lot easier to build a fire, especially with the other items in your survival kit. (While it isn’t completely impossible to build a floating fire, you’d need quite a bit of driftwood.)

It’s important to use the theories and ideas covered in this entire series of articles to further your ability to handle a specific survival situation. While it is beyond the scope of the specific article to talk about general survival techniques, a good look at the basics from the other articles will serve to strengthen the content here. Specifically you should remember the following:

  • Communicate with someone where you’re going when you expect to be back, and at what point they should send out a search party.
  • Even though it may be heavy or large or inconvenient, always carry with you the survival kit that matches the scenario you will be involved in.
  • Deal with immediate health necessities: water – shelter – food (in that order; rescue should follow).

As you venture out on the open ocean, no matter how safe or secure you may feel in a big boat, and no matter how sure you are that nothing can go wrong, things can, will, and frequently do go wrong. Preparation is paramount and survival tools can have an immediate impact, but you must provide the willpower and the understanding and knowledge to use them.

©2011 Off the Grid News

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