When most of us imagine the possibility of being lost at sea, we typically assume that we’ll be stuck on a flimsy life raft in the middle of the ocean. While that scenario is certainly no picnic, it pales in comparison to the thought of surviving in open water without a lifeboat, or a life preserver. This sort of thing happens more often than you might think, and it usually doesn’t involve some dramatic calamity to the ship itself. After all, if the ship was sinking then somebody probably would have had the foresight to grab a life raft.
In most cases, this scenario involves somebody who was unfortunate enough to fall overboard. Take the case of Sean McGovern and Mellisa Morris, who both managed to fall off of their 30ft boat while sailing near Key Largo (they never told the news how this happened, but I like to imagine that it’s an incredibly embarrassing story involving alcohol). They managed to tread water for 16 hours, from 6pm to 8am, until they were discovered by a police officer and firefighter who happened to be fishing off the coast of Miami.
And then there’s the case of 50-year-old surfer Brett Archibald, who fell off of a tour boat in Indonesia. After getting seasick he decided to visit the side of the boat, where he briefly passed out and fell overboard. By the time his fellow passengers noticed he was missing, it was too late. Fortunately he was rescued after treading water for an astonishing 27 hours,while being pecked by seagulls and stung by jellyfish. He claims that he nearly drowned on 8 separate occasions during the ordeal.
What these cases prove is that even if you have no safety or survival equipment with you, it is possible to stay alive in open waters for a very long time. Most people would balk at the idea of treading water for more than a few hours (which is well before most rescue teams would ever find you), but it’s clearly possible. Here’s a few things you need to know if you want to survive this situation.
Dealing With Hypothermia
The first problem that you’re going to run into, and arguably the most dangerous, is hypothermia. In fact, there may be nothing you can do about it. The only thing that’s keeping you from freezing to death right now is the fact that air is an excellent insulator. Water is not. Even at a temperature of 60 degrees, you’ll likely leave your mortal coil in a few hours.
If you’re fortunate enough to fall into water that is above 60 degrees, you have a fighting chance, but you still have to conserve your body heat. The first mistake most people would probably make, is trying to stay warm by swimming. You may feel a little warmer, but you’re actually losing more body heat than you’re generating. So unless you’re very close to shore or to an immobilized boat, don’t bother with swimming your way out of this situation.
What to do With Your Clothes
Your best chance of survival probably lies in treading water until someone can find you. Since you’re going to be kicking for a long time, the first thing you’ll need to do is remove your shoes. Tie the laces together, hang the shoes over your shoulders, and keep them under the water where they won’t weigh as much.
Before you start treading water though, you should at least attempt to create a flotation device of some kind. If you happen to be wearing pants, this won’t be a problem. You can simply remove them and tie knots in the pant legs. Swoop the pants through the air and dunk them into the water. You’ve now trapped a pocket of air that can keep you afloat. This is great idea if the water is cold, because now you can curl up into a ball without sinking, which will help you conserve body heat.