When you enter the world of offshore boating, you should undertake an additional level of preparation when compared to inland boating. The ocean is a formidable environment, and as a boat owner and captain you should take special care in equipping your boat. Beyond setting up your boat to try to avoid bad scenarios, you should make certain your boat is outfitted should the worst occur. One of the things you should be sure you have on board is a ditch bag.
A ditch bag should be stocked with items that will help your odds of survival if you have to abandon your sinking boat into a life raft or the open water. The ditch bag, also called an abandon ship bag, will contain some supplies and equipment redundant with what is located elsewhere on your boat or packed with your raft. Whether you are talking propulsion, fuel tanks, batteries, radios, GPS units, bilge pumps or safety equipment, redundancy is a popular theme on offshore boats.
Picking Your Bag
There are a handful of products on the market designed specifically for this purpose. The ACR RapidDitch Express Bag is available on Amazon.
Even if you do not pick the ACR product, you can see some of the features that you should look for in the bag you ultimately choose:
- Positive floatation– Even if the bag is flooded with water, it can still float up to 15 pounds.
- Visibility– The bag is brightly colored and has silver reflector tape so it will be visible to you and rescue crews.
- Straps– The shoulder strap allows you to swim with the bag over your shoulder. The strap can also be transformed into a tether that can be used to connect survivors.
Stocking Your Bag
Good electronics are arguably the most important items in your ditch bag. We have all heard the stories about people adrift waiting for rescuers for days, weeks and even months. However, with proper electronics to call for emergency services and help them locate you, you should realistically be talking about minutes and hours.
- EPIRB or PLB: An emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) and a personal locator beacon (PLB) serve roughly the same purpose. An EPIRB is registered to a specific vessel, while the PLB can be registered to a person. Once either is activated, an emergency signal is sent off to be verified and help is likely to arrive to your proximity fairly quickly.
On my boat we have an EPIRB mounted near the helm and a PLB in the ditch bag. Oftentimes crew members have their own PLB’s on their person. Like I mentioned above, redundancy is a common theme in offshore boating safety.
- Handheld VHF: A waterproof, floating VHF (Very High Frequency) radio is important for contacting and communicating with the Coast Guard or nearby vessels.
- Handheld GPS: A handheld GPS unit will give you your precise location to communicate to rescuers. It could also help in navigating towards safety, should that be an option.
- Combination Unit: If you get a handheld VHF with digital selective calling (DSC) capabilities, it will have an integrated GPS. This unit will show your GPS coordinates on the screen and give you the ability to digitally transmit your location with a distress message.
- Satellite Phone: This is definitely getting into the extreme redundancy range, but depending on space you may want one for contacting emergency services. Space and costs would be likely reasons for excluding one from your bag.
Your electronics should play a huge part in notifying rescuers of your emergency and helping them hone in on your location. The next critical item you will need to help the rescuers zero in on you will be signaling devices.
- Flares and smoke signal: These should be separate from the kit found on your boat and/or your raft.
- Strobe or Flashlight: A designated strobe or a flashlight with strobe capabilities will help for nighttime rescue. Obviously, a flashlight would also be useful for doing tasks in the dark.
- Mirror: A signaling mirror will not take up much space, but can be used to reflect sunlight as a means of catching rescuers’ attention.
So far everything in your bag is designed to help make your wait for emergency services as brief as possible. Even if the wait is short, you may need to administer first aid to yourself or another survivor in the time before help arrives. A basic first aid kit may be the most you can include because of size restraints. It should contain pain relievers and anti-seasickness medication.
Food and Water
If help does not come quickly, water supply becomes a critical factor in your survival.
If you are not venturing far offshore, water packets may be a sufficient addition to your bag.
If you are going on longer trips or you have a bigger crew, you may want to put a water maker in the pack. A water maker is a manual pump, which uses reverse-osmosis to eliminate the majority of the water’s salt content to make it drinkable. They are not cheap- they will run you about a thousand bucks at West Marine. However, if you are to survive an extended amount of time adrift, it could be your most important item.
Food items should be sealed, compact and as non-perishable as possible. Energy bars pack maximum calories in a small package and are a good staple. Avoid salty foods, which would contribute to dehydration if fresh water is scarce. Check food products and medication annually to replace anything that is outdated.
With the absolute essentials in the bag, there are a variety of other items you could try to include, depending on space.
- Rope or cordage
- Extra batteries
- Fishing tackle
- Space blanket
- Drift Sock
- Permanent Marker
Your ditch bag should be secured in an easy to access spot. If it is secured, make sure it is easy to quickly remove. Instruct your crew of its whereabouts and contents during your safety briefing. Make sure the contents are not used outside of an abandon ship or other extreme emergencies.