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Why Survivors Survive a Shipwreck

As sailors, every day we survive school, our jobs, the monthly bills—and some of us may eventually face disease, crippling accidents or some other crisis. Still, nobody wants to obsess about surviving at sea. Nobody wants to spend a fortune on a liferaft or other safety equipment that they hope to never need. Of course, back in 1982 when I drifted across 1,800 nautical miles of the Atlantic, I found none of those investments a waste of time or money. Good equipment and lots of luck were essential when my mothership went down, but my physical survival was as intricately linked to psychology as it was to gear or luck.

Writers routinely evoke “the will to survive,” but what does that actually mean? Is the will to survive something genetic—you’re born with the right stuff or you’re doomed? Surely, I’ve never seen any of the “right stuff” lurking within my DNA. Perhaps it’s something that we can actually learn or hone.

There aren’t many universal or immutable truths about survival, but past survival odysseys do reveal useful concepts and guidelines. A model I favor progresses, more or less chronologically, through different stages.

Stage 1: Pre-Impact

Before a crisis, one prepares (or doesn’t) for the risks at hand. Voyagers are wise to embrace two axioms. First, take care of the worst, and the best takes care of itself. Secondly, at sea Murphy proves to be an optimist. Not only will the things that can go wrong go wrong, but even things that can’t possibly go wrong will find a way to go wrong. It may have seemed silly for me to cart around a six-person raft and extensive ditch kit on my tiny boat Napoleon Solo, and to fit her with watertight compartments, but without any one of these elements, I would not be writing this now. Whether you’re on your mothership or in a liferaft, it’s wise to keep an eye on the future, to routinely look around to derail disasters before they happen, to anticipate what else might go wrong, and to work to address it.

Stage 2: Impact

During this stage you must escape the immediate threat. Typically, in reacting to a crisis, about 15 percent of people either panic or become completely inactive. Another roughly 15 percent of people will show strong leadership qualities, evaluating various strategies and directing positive energy toward saving the ship or bailing out. Two-thirds of untrained people can become productive, but without guidance they may act too slowly or not at all. Some even turn to useless familiar activities, like cleaning up.

People are not single-dimensional animals. We rarely think one thing or feel one way. This can become overwhelming during a crisis. As I bailed out of my boat, in my head were freaked out and whiny voices, rational and focused voices, and some were even amused by my film camera that had somehow come on and was capturing a drama no one would ever see. Being able to “psychologically split” so that you can set aside unproductive feelings and thoughts to concentrate on positive action appears to come with experience. People you might expect—police, doctors, pilots and mariners—are among those who do well during escape. Embracing new experiences to expand one’s comfort zone is a great life strategy to prepare for disasters.

Sailors routinely deal with various sorts of emergencies, aiding them when they face even greater crises. Still, when facing sudden disaster, abandoning ship, riding tossing seas, re-righting a raft, firing flares or even just adjusting to new smells can conjure disorientation, confusion and fear. Studies have shown that formal training vastly improves your chances of survival. If you are familiar with the environment and equipment, even if it’s a tame version of the real thing, you can confront a challenge with more confidence, sort out priorities, take appropriate action and avoid screw-ups.

Regardless of preparation, you will still feel extreme emotions. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and they are us.” Goliaths who try to crush us early on include fear and depression. You would hardly be alone if you thought, “That’s it. I’m toast.” The very nature of survival is being on that knife edge. The brutal reality is that it doesn’t look good. However, one effective weapon against that reality is the firm knowledge that other people have faced equal or worse and come out at the other end. Books like Survive the Savage Seas, 117 Days Adrift, and Kon Tiki taught me that long-term survival at sea was possible. I was inspired by people I’d seen around the world who struggled with unimaginable challenges every day of their lives. Despite their plights, those survivors and many I’ve met since have gained valuable insights and found room for personal fulfillment, even laughter. It is rarely the he-man who survives what was thought impossible, but average folk. Of course, that’s little consolation when you’re in the deep end, but at least you can cling to the knowledge that you can do it.

Stage 3: Recoil

Many survivors escape the immediate threat only to fail in the “Well, I’m safe for the moment, but now what?” stage. Your entire prior existence has sunk. True, most ocean survivors are now picked up within 48 hours, but that can seem interminable, and even they can benefit from the confidence gained from being prepared for a longer experience. Besides, long-term survival drifts remain common decade after decade. EPIRBs malfunction. There are huge swaths of the earth where you can be days away from any rescue, even if someone knows where you are. So how can you make a living out there? The equipment may be working, but it is unfamiliar, the task overwhelming. All your failures, ignorance, and shortcomings will haunt you relentlessly. You may be grieving the loss of mates, your boat and opportunities missed. You’ll be supremely uncomfortable physically, rationally and emotionally. It’s a relentless slog to figure it all out.

Denial can be a killer by preventing positive action. The quicker you come to grips with reality, the quicker you can either adapt to it or alter it enough to survive, the better you’ll do. Lesson one is that survival is no passive undertaking, but an active pursuit.

Appraise risks, develop alternatives for unacceptable worst-case scenarios and accept the steep learning curve required—but don’t give into the fear and angst that everyone feels. Often, appraising the exact nature of a problem can yield its solution, and persistence solves it eventually. Other times, you can learn how to live with a problem. A hero is not somebody without fear, but somebody who can do what is required despite that fear.

Sometimes just doggedly going through the motions can power you through depression and anxiety. Maintain and create new routines. Even if it seems pointless, navigating, keeping a log, exercising, rationing “meals,” keeping watch—all of these help feed the realization that your voyage is not over, but instead continues, albeit on a more humble craft. Having a sense that you can influence your destiny, even if you cannot control everything that happens to you, is vital.

Survivors keep in mind the overall goal but do not obsess about it. Instead, they divide it up into achievable bits—first get through the hour, then the day, then the day after that. Don’t focus too much on getting down the mountain with broken legs, but upon negotiating the immediate obstacle, getting around that rock, crawling the next yard.

Prioritizing is key. Determine the difference between wants and needs. Initially, pay heed only to what is absolutely required to survive. Serious injuries and hypothermia/drowning can kill in seconds or minutes, but without your craft, you won’t last long either, so keeping it afloat is a prime concern.

Along these same lines you need to be properly hydrated. Water will become critical within days. Eventually, food will become a priority. Hypothermia or overheating, electrolyte imbalances or injuries can harm or destroy rational thinking and your physical ability to deal with problems no matter how much will to survive you wish you had.

After taking care of core needs, you can look ahead, build stocks of water and food, survey the boat, figure how to fix stuff, make tools, and develop strategies to confront possible challenges and exploit opportunities. As the watch ticks ever so slowly, remind yourself that every second, no matter how slowly it passes, adds up to days, weeks and salvation.

Stage 4: Adaption

Eventually, the island that is your liferaft will develop an ecosystem upon which you will depend on for sustenance. It takes great patience and practice to learn how to live off the sea like an aquatic caveman, but it is your goal to reach a point where you can continue your survival voyage indefinitely. You’ve escaped a sinking boat and slogged through recoil, tended to your survival boat, and have learned how to produce water and find food. You may face additional crises, as I did when the fish I lived on broke my spear gun and tore a hole in my raft. You’ll always want more, but for now, you can handle existence as is. To reach this goal can be one of the most fulfilling moments of your life. Fortunately, you will have already gotten a leg up by voyaging offshore in the first place, which demands that you routinely solve problems with limited resources in an isolated environment.

If adversity is the mother of invention, survival is the matriarch. Survivors forget what things are designed to do and divine what they can do. Some survivors, equipped only with what their pockets held, recognized that their credit cards were worthless, except that they were waterproof and reflective. They signaled aircraft with them. One captain folded a square of a biscuit paper until it developed a useful angle with which to measure star altitudes and navigate hundreds of miles to safety. Your crew, also, is a resource with essential qualities. Forget that someone is a banker or artist. Are they good with numbers and calculations? Can they bring some other creative solution to a problem?

Entire books have been written describing good leadership, but a balance of firm command and nurturing support of the crew is key. Great leaders like Shackleton recognized that every crewmember is essential. He applied the qualities and capabilities of each person to specified tasks. Anyone who does not have a “job” will be left to stew in the juices of chaos, fear and depression.
Emotions will remain volatile and extreme. Every small success—making water, learning how to fish, repairing a small item—can take you to Everest-high peaks of joy and pride. Similarly, the tiniest failure—putting a small hole in your raft or breaking a knife—can plunge you to the depths of anger, frustration, fear and depression. In desperate times remember Winston Churchill:

“When going through hell, keep on going.”

One would think a survival experience cannot be positive, but that just ain’t so. Survivors often find deep fulfillment in their experiences as they learn they are more resilient than they could have ever imagined. Although confronted by their weaknesses, a desire to return to make a better life can give them both a sense of purpose and a reason to hang on. Many come to feel like kings of their tiny primitive worlds, as painful as they are. All survivors feel touched by things greater than themselves, awakening spiritually, witnessing beauty, grace and wonders that only their struggles could reveal to them. Hopefully, a survivor will not suffer a sense-of-humor failure. When the patching kit states, “Material must be dry prior to application,” as mine did, you might not be laughing, but you must try to find the irony amusing, at least in hindsight. Remaining open to the gifts of survival may not be much fun at the time, but it helps to inspire us both to survive and to shape our future when the pain and desperation ends.

True Tales of Survival at Sea

37 Days—Robertson Family

Dougal Robertson and his young family were sailing across the South Pacific in 1972 when their 43ft schooner Lucette was attacked and sunk by Orcas. They took to their liferaft and dinghy with only three days worth of emergency rations, and were beset by foul weather and circling sharks until their eventual rescue. Robertson’s book, Survive the Savage Sea, is a harrowing tale of survival against all odds; a true seafaring classic.

66 Days—Bill and Simonne Butler

Whales figure again in this story. In 1989, the Butlers took to their liferaft after their 39ft wooden cutter Siboney was sunk by a pod of pilot whales 1,200 miles west of Panama. Butler recounts the 66-day ordeal in his book 66 Days—A True Story of Disaster and Survival on the Open Sea. The couple survived on fish and water from a handheld desalinator while watching more than 40 ships pass close by without spotting them.

117 Days—Maurice and Maralyn Bailey

Early one March morning in 1973 the 31ft sloop Auralyn, on passage from Panama to the Galápagos Islands, was rammed by a whale. Fortunately, Maurice and Maralyn Bailey had time to launch their liferaft and dinghy and load them with supplies before Auralyn disappeared beneath the waves. The couple were rescued by a fishing boat nearly four months later, after having drifted for 1,500 miles. Bailey’s book 117 Days Adrift was published in the U.S. as Staying Alive!


119 DAYS—John Glennie, Phil Hoffman, Rick Hellriegel, Jim Nalepka

When their upturned trimaran Rose Noelle washed up on New Zealand’s Great Barrier Island in October 1989, these four men were in good enough shape that they had a tough time convincing authorities that they had indeed been adrift for 119 days. Their story is compellingly told by Steven Callahan in the book Capsized.

133 Days—Poon Lim

When Poon Lim’s ship was torpedoed by a U-Boat in the South Atlantic in 1942, the seaman was the only survivor. He found himself on a wooden raft with sufficient supplies to sustain him for 40 days. After he ran out, he lived on rainwater, fish and seabirds until rescued off the coast of Brazil. Lim was obviously not scarred by the experience—he was soon back at sea and served as a steward for another 40 years. Ruthann McCunn told Lim’s story in the book Sole Survivor: The True Account of 133 Days Adrift.

286 Days—Salvador Ordonez, Jesus Vidana, Lucio Rendon

These Mexican fishermen survived for more than nine months, from October 2005 to August 2006, after their boat’s engine broke down and they were swept into the Pacific. Two of their comrades soon perished, but the survivors lived on seabirds and fish that they ate raw. Their boat drifted for nearly 5,000 miles before the men were rescued by a fishing trawler.

The Mechanics of Sea Survival

  • To remain safe, whether on board your mother craft or in a survival boat or liferaft, one must prioritize in accordance with what can kill you fastest.
  • Severe injury can kill immediately or stretch to minutes, hours, days...
  • Hopefully, you have an adequate first aid kit and training. In an emergency craft, supplies are extremely limited and should be augmented by those in a ditch kit.
  • Drowning can be almost immediate and certainly kills in minutes.
  • Stay aboard and train to enter survival craft efficiently.
  • Hypothermia can kill in as little as minutes on its own or can lead to drowning.
  • Humans can live only within a narrow band of body temperatures. Hopefully, a crew will remain well rested and warm before any emergency, even in rough weather. Sailing dry suits and/or full “Gumby” immersion suits are essential in cold waters to have any reasonable chance of staying alive over the long term, and often the short. In my ditch kit, I also carry chemical heat packs, rubber gloves, compact thermal blankets (foil types shaped like sleeping bags) and a space blanket.
  • Heat stroke can kill in hours. With the ocean just out the door, you can always cool off, but shade provided by a canopy, which also helps keep a crew warm, is essential.
  • Should you have to abandon ship, an additional immediate concern is your survival craft. Without a lifesaving craft that is afloat and functioning, it will be extremely challenging just to live for hours. So, is yours stowed where it is protected yet immediately available and easy to deploy? (Recommend dedicated life raft lockers near stern.) Is it inspected? Ever look at it and its gear? Doing so will inspire you to prepare a supplementary ditch kit, with both short- and long-term equipment to deal with injuries, hypothermia and longer-term needs.
  • You need raft repair clamps to handle tears in tubes. I also carry glue and patches, thread, needles, knives and blades, cutting board, wire, silicon seal, and lots of types and sizes of line to deal with both raft/lifeboat problems and additional challenges.
  • The average person in average conditions can live up to about 10 days without water, but you’re a hurting cowboy well before that. It’s important to note that most medical problems can be much relieved, if not outright cured, by proper hydration. There should be enough water in a liferaft to last a couple of days or more. Beyond that, water catchment and production devices can supply at least a liter per person per day (two is ideal). Only some canopies are fit with effective catchment systems. The solar stills I’ve used are generally slow and finicky, and should be tried before an emergency. Reverse osmosis pumps are a real boon for survivors.
  • You probably won’t starve to death in a month. Usually, the food in rafts and lifeboats will last a day or two, within which time most ocean survivors are found, providing they carry adequate flares, EPIRB and other signaling devices (LED flashlights, laser signalers). Should you be so unlucky as to bob onward in a liferaft or boat, fishing lines, leaders, a variety of hooks and a Hawaiian sling or spear gun can be used to hunt within your building ecosystem.

Photos and illustrations courtesy Steven Callahan

Since his 76-day drift in 1982, Steve Callahan has written widely about survival, seamanship, and safety issues, has authored the survival narratives Adrift and Capsized, contributed to Michael Greenwald’s Survivor and other survival manuals, tested safety equipment, and interviewed numerous survivors and survival experts.

December 2015



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