If you are forced to abandon ship being prepared can make a big difference to your chances of survival and a well considered emergency Grab Bag, also known as a Ditch Bag or Abandon Ship Bag, is an essential item in your survival arsenal.
Before considering the grab bag (or ditch bag) contents the first thing to think about is the grab bag itself. It doesn’t have to be fancy and can consist of one or more watertight containers. There are a number of grab bags on the market designed for marine use and they are all waterproof, buoyant and made from high visibility material. Some even have dedicated stowage for flares and EPIRBs. Buoyancy, visibility and waterproofing are all things to think about if taking a DIY approach, as is a means of attaching the grab bag to the liferaft once inside.
It is also worth protecting the kit within the grab bag against the elements and some plastic boxes or waterproof resealable plastic bags are useful for storing individual items, particularly those most likely to be affected by damp. They can also provide additional buoyancy and serve a dual purpose as water collectors if necessary.
Before getting into the grab bag contents it is first necessary to get acquainted with the contents of your liferaft if you haven’t done so already. Every liferaft comes with a safety pack and the typical contents are as follows:
Paddles or oars
Bailer and sponges
Signal mirror and signal instructions
Drogue or sea anchor
Sea sickness tablets
Rescue quoit and line
However, specific safety pack contents can differ slightly from liferaft to liferaft and you need to find out exactly what is included in yours. If any of these items are not included in your liferaft’s safety pack then they should be added to the contents of your grab bag as a matter of course.
When planning the grab bag contents it is useful to think in terms of Survival, Rescue and Post-Rescue. Consider also the type of cruising you are planning: the perfect grab bag for island hopping in the Mediterranean during the summer season will be quite different from one suitable for a long Southern Ocean passage, but some general principles apply.
Keep a checklist for items not kept permanently in the grab bag and ensure someone is responsible for adding them before leaving the vessel. Finally, the location of the grab bag should be known to all crew and it must be easily accessible. You may have only moments to abandon ship.
In order to survive in your liferaft you will need to keep warm, nourished and hydrated and remain as healthy as possible.
The simplest way of tackling keeping warm is by packing extra clothing for every crew member into your grab bag. A space saving alternative is the Thermal Protective Suit, to be worn over normal sailing clothing and designed to reduce the risk of hypothermia. These are available from most marine safety equipment suppliers and are quite inexpensive. You might want to consider survival suits if sailing in very extreme conditions.
The food in your grab bag needs to be non-perishable, nourishing and easy to eat in the confines of your liferaft. Consider things like chocolate, energy bars and dried fruit and nuts and if packing canned foods don’t forget to pack an opener. You may also want to look at survival rations in your nearest outdoor store for some ideas. For long term survival you will need to consider catching fish and for this you will need some basic fishing equipment.
Water is a grab bag essential and it is a good idea to keep a five gallon jerry filled with fresh water near the liferaft at all times on long ocean passages so it is ready for transfer at a moments notice. Otherwise keep handy a number of two litre bottles, filled to about 3/4 so they float, which can be readily transferred to the grab bag. Plenty of water is essential even for coastal sailing as sea sickness can very quickly lead to dehydration.
A basic first aid kit is vital as part of your grab bag contents and if you have time to grab your vessel’s full kit then all the better. Don’t forget to include some sun screen if you are lucky enough to be cruising anywhere warm and sunny. Skippers should be aware of anyone on board needing regular prescription drugs and supplies should be carried in the grab bag for them.
Equipment for alerting other vessels and rescue services to your plight and communicating your position should be included in your grab bag equipment as a matter of course.
If possible the vessel’s EPIRB or SART, if not kept in the grab bag, should be added before taking to the liferaft so that you, not the wreckage of your boat, will be found first. There has also been increased use of Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) which, once activated, alert the rescue authorities to your plight and help locate you.
Pack a Portable VHF Radio for communicating with rescuers and a Handheld GPS for providing a precise position to them. If your budget allows for it, a satellite telephone, ideally pre-programmed with useful emergency numbers, for making a long distance call for help could ensure you are rescued quickly. Don’t forget to keep all equipment fully charged and pack some spare batteries.
Many liferaft safety packs contain only a limited number of flares and packing extra flares in your grab bag is sensible. If you can grab your vessels entire flare pack all the better.
After being rescued, who knows where you may end up? If you are picked up by a passing cargo vessel they won’t make a detour to drop you off somewhere convenient. Their destination is your destination and it may be the other side of the world. Wherever landfall is, you are going to want hot food, a shower and a comfortable bed for a night or two and to ultimately get home. You may also have to deal with immigration and you will certainly want to contact your insurance company.
While not essential to your survival, the following items are useful once you are back on dry land: passports, cash, credit cards, house and car keys, mobile phones, vessel’s registration and insurance documents. You will then be able to deal with whatever circumstances arise.
It is a sensible precaution to keep several copies of important documents on board and it pays to get one set of copies laminated and leave them in the grab bag at all times. This saves you from getting passports and insurance documents out of the grab bag every time you stop somewhere on a cruising holiday.
A good book to keep in your grab bag is The Grab Bag Book: Your Ultimate Guide to Liferaft Survival by Frances and Michael Howorth which serves two purposes: it helps you prepare the things you should have in your grab bag and then provides practical advice if you find yourself in need of it. Advice includes the essentials to pack for a short or long cruise, in a hot or cold climate, on a coastal or offshore trip and includes techniques for both short and long term survival in the liferaft.
Read 117 Days Adrift by Maurice and Maralyn Bailey for a compelling first hand account by the family whose yacht sank beneath them in the Pacific Ocean, forcing them to take their chances in a rubber raft where they survived for nearly four months. With few supplies and slowly failing equipment, they keep improvising and somehow mentally hold it together long enough for the eighth passing ship to finally spot them after 117 days adrift.