Water Related Personal Survival

With the many hundreds of boats actively moving about the waters of shores and bays there is always the possibility of accidentally falling into the water, capsizing or becoming the victim of foul weather.

Seven Steps To Survival

Survival at sea depends on the recognition that you are in danger of losing your life. There are commonly described “seven steps” to survival that may make a difference in the outcome of some rather terrible situations. Even an accident fairly close inshore in cold water can quickly lead to hypothermia and drowning. The seven steps to survival are: recognition, inventory, shelter, water, food, signals and play. Of course, flotation is a prerequisite for any survival after only a short time in the water. Other factors come into play, the most important of which is unmeasurable, “the will to live”.

The seven steps to survival include recognizing that you are in peril and realizing that what you are wearing constitutes a form of shelter. Water is kept in life rafts and you have keys, a mirror or plastic containers that might come in handy. Check to see what food might be floating around you and retrieve it if possible. Use signals in the form of mirrors, flares, colored objects or waving arms, suits or objects about to attract attention. Finally, “play” comes into action as you have memories, fantasies, prayer, tell jokes and get rid of your anger.

Capsizing is the number one cause of overboard situations and is the number two cause of fatalities in boating accidents. Other causes of overboard situations are heavy seas due to foul weather, urinating or vomiting over the side, sea sickness, alcohol or drugs, sitting on the outside of the deck (gunwales), moving about the vessel without holding on, boat making high speed or tight turns without warning, being knocked over by the sail boom and slipping on wet surfaces.

Personal Flotation Devices

It is hard to swim normal distances in an emergency situation. There is a rapid heat loss and incapacitation which causes inappropriate behaviors, such as, taking off clothes and shoes. A personal flotation device should be worn on the water at all times. Have you ever wondered why the Coast Guard always have their PFD’s on?

The floatation devices (PFD’s) that were previously mentioned keep your head up and out of the water and afloat even when you are unconscious. It’s best not to swim or exercise vigorously as this will increase the loss of heat. Position yourself 45 degrees toward the oncoming waves to avoid “surface drowning”. Gather together in a group if there are more than one person.

Prevention of falling overboard should always be uppermost in your mind. The PFD should always be worn when on deck. Hang on–“one hand for the boat and one for me” when working on a rocking boat. Don’t sit or lean on lifelines, stand on the bight of a line or sleep topside. Don’t sit on rails or gunwales without a lifeline or go on deck at night, in a fog or during heavy weather without a lifeline and tell someone else when you do. Don’t urinate or vomit over the side without a line. Walk and work in pairs on deck and wear proper footwear.

Finally, one must realize that the sea is an alien environment and even though we may think we are invincible, immortal and can even swim a little bit — when in the water out of sight of land we need to use all of our intelligence just to survive.


Ernest S. Campbell, M.D., FACS

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