Whether you call it your ditch bag, grab bag, survival gear, or abandon ship bag, prudent and prepared sailors will have a bag or container of some sort that has the emergency gear needed should they have to leave their vessel and get in the water or into a life raft of some size.
The contents of everybody’s ditch bag or abandon ship bag is different, and it should be. Every person’s experience level, skill set, needs, location at sea, and climate conditions are different and these are the things that affect your decisions on what you want in your ditch bag. Some may have extensive first aid kits but little food. Some may have many ways to gather food from the sea but only one way to signal for help.
All ditch bags should have something to address the following basic areas of on the water survival: signaling, shelter, water, food, first aid and medications, and important documents. But first, you need to pick the right bag to put everything into.
PICKING THE RIGHT BAG
There are many manufacturers on the market who make bag designed specifically for this purpose. There are also some who actually stock the bags for you with what they think you will need in an abandon ship scenario. My advice to you though is to consider buying one of the bags, but don’t bother buying one that is already stocked for you. Just like pre-stocked outdoor survival kits, the items were selected because they may be useful (and many of them will be), but more importantly, they won’t address all of the areas mentioned above and they most likely will not address your skill level and the environment you will be operating in. You are far better off assembling your own equipment to ensure you know how to use it and that it meets your needs, like protection from the sun in equatorial regions or extra cold weather clothing for the North Atlantic or in the Great Lakes.
The minimum requirements for a ditch bag are that it is easily seen/brightly colored, it floats when fully loaded, it is waterproof and not just water resistant, it has appropriate handles to make it easy to move when fully loaded, and that it has at least one tether to attach it to you or to your life raft or lifeboat. Keep the weight within what the buoyancy will handle, don’t pack 20# if it will only float 15#.
Other useful features found on many ditch bags are reflective tape to make it easier to see at night or at dusk/dawn, multiple pockets inside and outside for organization or to provide easy access to items like your EPIRB, documents, or VHF transceiver. Many bags have a clear exterior pocket for storing your important documents.
Speaking of tethers, remember that you will be floating on water that is anywhere from 25 feet to over 100 feet deep, so anything that gets dropped will not be recoverable. For that reason, as you identify the items you want to include in your ditch bag pick the ones that have an adjustable lanyard or some other way of securing them to something that won’t sink. If an item does not have a lanyard or tether, such as a large first aid kit, you can buy or make lanyards, or some form of retention system, to keep from losing things that you drop or get washed out of the raft or ditch bag. Zipper locked freezer bags are a great way to secure small items like tools or individual water packets and you can make an attachment point by making a tab on one side with duct tape an then using a hole punch to make a hole in the tab through which you can run a cord or a small carabineer.
The next question to consider is how big your ditch bag should be. The answer is dependent upon the vessel it is intended to support. Just as your EPIRB is registered to your vessel rather than to you personally, your ditch bag should reflect what you use your vessel for and the maximum number of people you could have on board. It needs to be large enough to have supplies for everyone who might be on board or on the life raft. It needs to be large enough to include any special purpose gear you need based on the location you are operating in, such as cold weather clothing if you are in colder regions or enough food to last more than a day or two if you are far from shore or rescue may take more than a day or two. It should also not be so large that it is difficult for one person to move. If the number of people on board or the weather conditions make it too heavy to move you should consider reducing what you are storing or have two or more bags with the same contents in each one so that the people with one bag won’t need what is in the other bag.
The most effective way to build floatation into the bag is to line it with closed cell foam, either built into the bag itself or lining the interior. Most of the purpose-built ditch bags have this in place already, but if you want to use a different bag you can get the foam at most home improvement stores and then cut it to shape.
Equipment for signaling falls into two general categories; long range and short range. For long-range signaling, you should have a handheld VHF radio for communicating with people on-shore or with other vessels within range. Your next level of long-range signaling devices to include in your ditch bag would be an EPIRB registered to your vessel and possibly a PLB registered to yourself. In addition to these electronic methods of signaling you should also stock up on shorter range signaling devices, for use within visual ranges. These would include signal mirrors, flashlights, chemical lights, and pyrotechnic signals like smoke signals, handheld flares, and parachute flares.
A way to protect yourself from the elements is vital any time you are on the open sea. The first item to include in your kit would be tarp that you can use to provide a canopy over your raft. An emergency blanket with a dark side and a reflective side is more useful than a plain tarp as you can put the reflective side out during the day to reflect heat away, and in at night to help trap your body heat in the raft. New items on the market are ponchos made from this same reflective mylar as the popular space blankets. They can serve the same purpose but for individuals. A final set of tools for shelter are reflective bivy sacks like those manufactured by American Medical Kits (www.americanmedicalkits.com) and Blizzard Survival (www.blizzardsurvival.com).
Energy and protein bars are a great way to get your calories in a small package, especially those that are designed as a meal replacement bar. High energy candy bars like Snickers are also good options, although you should avoid those with a higher level of salt like the Payday bar. Another approach is to use MREs which provide on average 1250 calories per meal. The average person needs approximately 2000 calories per day so one MRE plus some other food to supplement it should be sufficient per person per day. In addition to food you pack in your ditch bag you should also consider a small spinning rod or a gill net or throw net that you can use to catch fish to supplement your diet or extend your food if your food runs out before rescue arrives.
Your supply of water should include packaged water, either in emergency rations or just water in plastic bottles. You will need between one half to one gallon of water per person per day, depending on their weight. In addition to the prepackaged water, you should consider including a method for turning salt water into drinkable water as part of your kit. This will help you extend your packaged water should it take longer than expected for help to arrive. The SeaPack products from Hydration Technology Innovations (www.hitwater.com) use a forward osmosis method to remove the salt from the water. This method only costs $75 to produce four half-liters of drinkable water, but it takes between four and eight hours to work, based on the temperature of the water. The Survivor family of desalination pumps from Katadyn (www.katadyn.com) produces drinkable water immediately, but it costs $1,000. Also, including rehydration powders in your ditch bag to add to your drinkable water will add a nice flavor which will help you drink more and will help maintain your electrolyte balance. Choose the option that fits your needs and budget.
FIRST AID AND MEDICATIONS
Any emergency kit should include first aid supplies. In your ditch bag, you will need a basic first aid kit augmented with materials to take care of severe burns, broken bones, and major bleeding. Medications in your kit should address pain relief, infections, diarrhea, allergic reactions, anxiety and seasickness. Items like sunscreen and lip balm should also be included to prevent exposure to sun-related injuries.
Because you don’t know when you might need to use your ditch bag, where you will be, or who will come to your rescue, you should include key documents with you on board and store them or add them to your ditch bag before you abandon ship. These would include your passport, registry for your vessel, banking information, personal identification, and medical records.
Deciding what you want in your ditch bag and assembling it is your first step. The next step, and possibly the most important one long-term, is to practice with the items while on the water to make sure you know how to use them, what they can and can’t do, and what challenges being on the water creates.
Larry Schwartz is an experienced outdoorsman and hunter and aging Boy Scout who enjoys passing on his knowledge of the outdoors and how to “Be Prepared” through his writing and workshops.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the February 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide Magazine.