“Abandon Ship!” The possibility of ever having to utter these words strikes fear in the heart of any skipper. But if it happens, the best way to increase the chances of survival for everyone on board is to have a well-stocked ditch bag.
Whether coastal cruising, distance racing, or sailing offshore, you may find yourself in harm’s way and be forced to abandon ship. “When that happens, there’s rarely time to collect anything at all—let alone a lifesaving kit of survival equipment,” says boating safety expert Captain Henry E. Marx, President of Landfall, which offers a comprehensive curriculum of classroom courses for recreational and professional mariners on topics of boating and seamanship. And while most life rafts are equipped with some basic survival tools, never assume that yours has everything you’ll need. Due to space and weight limitations, life rafts typically have only minimal gear—and you can’t unpack them to check or add more.
For this reason, you need a ditch kit to store safety electronics and survival gear needed for immediate abandon ship situations. “When you only have a few seconds to get in the water or a life raft, this grab-and-go bag—and its contents—become your lifeline,” Marx adds.
How to pack the perfect ditch bag? Depending on your destination, here are the essentials every “flee bag” needs:
Items You'll Need for In-Shore Ditch Bags
Requirements for Coastal, In-shore, and Nearshore emergencies include:
An Abandon Ship Dry Bag. The bag itself should be versatile, durable and waterproof to keep its contents completely dry. It should also be large enough to hold everything you plan to pack inside it, plus have a supportive strap and carry handle to make it easy to grab and go. The best colors for ditch bags are yellow, red or international orange, and you can improve nighttime visibility of your bag by attaching reflector strips.
Important: Store your ditch bag in a handy place—below deck, but near the companionway—and make sure everyone on board knows where it is.
An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). Marx believes your best choice is a 406 Mhz model with an internal GPS, the same field-tested rescue technology used by the U.S. Military, Coast Guard, NATO, Special Forces, and Arctic explorers. These units offer a host of advantages: worldwide coverage, position location accuracy, a reliable transmitted signal, an encoded message that identifies your distressed vessel, and a faster response time. What’s more, a GPS-enabled 406 EPIRB's accuracy falls within 100 yards of the initial alert, helping to guide rescuers to your exact location.
Three Red Handheld Flares: These are designed to show your location and allow homing. The very best flares available in terms of brightness and duration are labeled SOLAS, which means they go above and beyond U.S. Coast Guard minimums. Choose red flares with a one-minute burn and 15,000 candela. Also, check the packaging to assure that the flares will not produce hot residue that could be harmful to inflatable rafts.
Three Red Parachute Flares: SOLAS parachute flares are the most powerful distress flares available. Impossible to miss at their peak altitude of 1,000 feet, the intense red brilliance achieves 30,000 candela and a burn time of 40 seconds, to alert others of a distress situation—day or night.
Two 3-Minute Orange Smoke Canisters: Suitable for commercial and recreational boaters, these easy-to-operate canisters produce a three-minute dense bright orange distress signal that’s usable on petrol or oil-covered water.
A Handheld VHF Radio Plus Replacement Batteries: A handheld, digital selective calling (DSC), very high frequency (VHF) radio is an essential emergency rescue tool. When registered with the Federal Communications Commission and programmed with your assigned Maritime Mobile Service Identity code (MMSI), it’s capable of transmitting its own internally generated GPS position with an emergency signal that enables faster rescue by allowing one-button communication of your description and location to rescue services. Choose a model that includes 6 Watts of Transmit power to maximize clarity, and one that activates an SOS strobe light on command or upon accidental immersion. A model that uses AA or AAA batteries is a plus as well, thus enabling you to use it in a life raft (no charging station required) to communicate with incoming Aircraft.
A Signaling Mirror: An essential component to any survival kit, a good signal mirror can be seen for miles and help draw attention to your location. Look for a signaling mirror that floats, is unbreakable and scratch-resistant, and is made of a durable acrylic copolymer (so it won’t corrode in saltwater). Models with built-in targeting systems are your safest bet, since they will allow you to aim the signal flash with pinpoint accuracy, thus helping to ensure that you will be seen and rescued.
A Sea Dye Marker: These special markers contain a fluorescent green dye, which spreads over the surface of the water so as to increase one’s visibility for a pilot to see. The bright green pattern on the water can be seen for a mile or more and typically lasts for 30 to 40 minutes. A field test study conducted by Powerboat Reports that tested flares, streamers, mirrors, and smoke flares found that the Sea Dye marker was the most effective tool for sea rescue.
One Signal Locator Beacon: Look for a model that’s only buoyant and flashes S.O.S Morse Code when ON. Also, check to see that it has an LED light that will remain at peak performance for six hours and will remain illuminated for up to 60 hours on one set of fully-charged batteries.
Emergency Space Blankets: Think of these products as three-ounce life insurance policies. Waterproof (84" x 56") blankets are virtually indestructible and a necessity for cold nights and treatment of hypothermia. Make sure you get ones made from the finest polyester material and purest vacuum deposited aluminum for the reflective surface—and pack at least one per person onboard.
Two Pocket Flashlights (with 2 sets of spare batteries): The most durable models are made of unbreakable ABS body with polycarbonate lenses and thermoplastic rubber shrouds. Check labels to assure the ones you choose are waterproof (up to 500 feet), and fit comfortably into your hand or clip easily onto clothing. Even if batteries are included, be sure to purchase and pack spares.
A Dozen Industrial Grade Glow Sticks – Red: Twelve-hour duration red is best for emergency signaling. Tie the glow stick to a lanyard, swing it in circles over your head, and you can't be missed.
Thirty Emergency Water packets: Look for U.S. Coast Guard-approved pouches that are portioned to ration fresh drinking water servings to two per person per day. Check labels to assure that each lot has been lab-tested for sterility before packaging, is individually marked with the month and year of manufacture, and will not be affected by heat, cold, or shock.
A Life Raft First Aid Kit: Think compact (so it can easily fit in your ditch bag), and make sure the kit meets or exceeds U.S. Coast Guard specifications. Unit packages should be individually heat-sealed and double-packed in water-tight, zip-lock bags for reclosure. Check labels to assure that these zip-lock bags have been tested by the Underwriters laboratory for weathering and water tightness under adverse saltwater conditions.
A First Aid Book: Marx recommends taking your pick of these four:
Advanced First Aid Afloat (5th Edition) by Peter F. Eastman, M.D. This book addresses virtually every accident or ailment that might occur when professional medical care is unavailable. The writing is clear and in layman's terms, with step-by-step instructions that allay panic and calmly take the reader from diagnosis through treatment.
First Aid at Sea (4th Edition) by Douglas Justins and Colin Berry. This recently revised edition is ring bound and color tabbed for quick reference. Full-color illustrations with concise text cover all major emergencies you're likely to encounter at sea—bleeding and shock, breathing difficulties, hypothermia, burns and fractures, head injuries, resuscitation, and emergency procedures. Both authors are doctors and experienced sailors.
International Medical Guide for Ships (3rd Edition) by the World Health Organization with illustrations by S. Smyth. Provides complete information and advice for non-medical seafarers faced with injury or disease on board ship. This third edition shows designated first-aid providers how to diagnose, treat, and prevent the health problems of seafarers on board ship.
A Comprehensive Guide to Marine Medicine (2nd Edition) by Eric A. Weiss, M.D. and Michael Jacobs, M.D. More than 300 pages of text cover topics including hazardous marine life, submersion injury and dive medicine, rescue and evacuation of sick and injured, wound cleaning and closing, and much more. More than 106 illustrations, improvisational techniques and "when to worry" tips help you give pointers on medical care and guidance on when to seek professional medical help.
One Package of Sea Sick Pills/Anti-Motion Sickness Tablets: Look for dosages of Dimenhydrinate, USP 50 mg. that are heat-sealed, dated, and packaged in individual cellophane strip packs.
A Manual Air Horn: Whether you prefer an aluminum or stainless steel finish, test it to assure that it’s easy to use. Also, check for U.S. Coast Guard certification, and look for a mouthpiece that can be removed for cleaning. With no replacement cans or chemicals needed, this horn will never run out of gas!
A Hand Compass: Used by sailors in the Mediterranean Sea since around the 13th century, this tool remains a must-have for your ditch bag. Just be sure the modern-day version you choose has adjustable optics for sighting, as well as V-sight—and that it floats!
Offshore Ditch Bag Contents
In addition to all of the above items, here are a few extras you’ll need for Offshore and Distance Racing:
A Handheld GPS and Spare Batteries: A handheld GPS is necessary to pinpoint your position and know the direction you're moving, so don't scrimp on quality. Go for something lightweight and waterproof that not only floats but acquires satellite signals quickly and tracks your location in challenging conditions—such as heavy tree cover or deep canyons. And don’t forget to pack spare batteries!
One Manual Water Maker: The World Health Organization recommends 2.5 to 3 liters of fresh water per person per day to maintain hydration. Hand-operated emergency water makers now weigh as little as 2.5 pounds yet have the capacity to make an ounce of drinking water in less than two minutes using a hand pump.
Some boaters raise the issue of lacking sufficient space on board for all the safety gear they should be carrying. Marx acknowledges that, depending on the size and layout of your boat, lack of space can be a challenge. But it should never be an excuse. If space is an issue, here are a few options to consider:
Split the gear between two smaller bags. The downside here is that you must remember to grab two items instead of one when you are abandoning ship—and at a time when you will likely in a hurry. However, if you store a pair of bags where they are easily accessible—near the companionway, on the bridge, etc.—this shouldn’t be a problem.
Store certain personal safety gear with—or attached to—life jackets. Which items? An EPIRB, flare kits, handheld radio with extra batteries, flashlights, glow sticks and a First Aid kit are non-negotiable must-haves. After that, think about your priorities and how long you may be in the life raft, then fill extra space with the ditch bag essentials you’re likely to need most. If in Long Island Sound, for example, it may only be an hour or so before you’re rescued, but halfway to Bermuda or in the Pacific, it could be days.
Purchase a Life Cell. This new product, designed by an Australian survivor after an accident at sea, is designed especially for smaller boats. It stores safety equipment securely in a buoyant container that can be mounted in an easily accessible area. It also ensures that users stay afloat and remain together if their vessel sinks. The Life Cell is available in four models: The Crewman (assists 8 people), The Trawlerman (assists 6 people), The Yachtsman (assists 4 people), and The Trailer Boat (assists 2-4 people). Each Life Cell is designed to hold an EPIRB, flares, a marine distress flag, an air horn or whistle, a flashlight, a handheld VHF radio, a cell phone, wallet, and keys. Each Life Cell also includes a mounting bracket and safety lanyards. Safety equipment must be purchased separately.
Know the Drill
Remember to rehearse your abandon ship drill before every trip, assigning each crewmember or passenger responsibility for specific duties: grabbing the ditch bag(s), sending out the May Day signal, bringing the life raft to the rail, securing the painter, etc. “In addition to having emergency gear easily accessible, checked and regularly maintained, it’s imperative to have all aboard familiar with the drill,” says Marx.
What's the perfect companion to a well-stocked ditch bag?
A DAN Boater membership that includes search and rescue expense coverage, as well as peace-of-mind emergency medical services — such as transportation to the closest hospital, or getting you back home for better-quality medical treatment — once you are rescued.