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No Boat, No Life Preserver: How to Stay Alive in Open Waters

When most of us imagine the possibility of being lost at sea, we typically assume that we’ll be stuck on a flimsy life raft in the middle of the ocean.

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When most of us imagine the possibility of being lost at sea, we typically assume that we’ll be stuck on a flimsy life raft in the middle of the ocean. While that scenario is certainly no picnic, it pales in comparison to the thought of surviving in open water without a lifeboat, or a life preserver. This sort of thing happens more often than you might think, and it usually doesn’t involve some dramatic calamity to the ship itself. After all, if the ship was sinking then somebody probably would have had the foresight to grab a life raft.

In most cases, this scenario involves somebody who was unfortunate enough to fall overboard. Take the case of Sean McGovern and Mellisa Morris, who both managed to fall off of their 30ft boat while sailing near Key Largo (they never told the news how this happened, but I like to imagine that it’s an incredibly embarrassing story involving alcohol). They managed to tread water for 16 hours, from 6pm to 8am, until they were discovered by a police officer and firefighter who happened to be fishing off the coast of Miami.

And then there’s the case of 50-year-old surfer Brett Archibald, who fell off of a tour boat in Indonesia. After getting seasick he decided to visit the side of the boat, where he briefly passed out and fell overboard. By the time his fellow passengers noticed he was missing, it was too late. Fortunately he was rescued after treading water for an astonishing 27 hours, while being pecked by seagulls and stung by jellyfish. He claims that he nearly drowned on 8 separate occasions during the ordeal.

What these cases prove is that even if you have no safety or survival equipment with you, it is possible to stay alive in open waters for a very long time. Most people would balk at the idea of treading water for more than a few hours (which is well before most rescue teams would ever find you), but it’s clearly possible. Here’s a few things you need to know if you want to survive this situation.

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Dealing With Hypothermia

The first problem that you’re going to run into, and arguably the most dangerous, is hypothermia. In fact, there may be nothing you can do about it. The only thing that’s keeping you from freezing to death right now is the fact that air is an excellent insulator. Water is not. Even at a temperature of 60 degrees, you’ll likely leave your mortal coil in a few hours.

If you’re fortunate enough to fall into water that is above 60 degrees, you have a fighting chance, but you still have to conserve your body heat. The first mistake most people would probably make, is trying to stay warm by swimming. You may feel a little warmer, but you’re actually losing more body heat than you’re generating. So unless you’re very close to shore or to an immobilized boat, don’t bother with swimming your way out of this situation.

What to do With Your Clothes



Your best chance of survival probably lies in treading water until someone can find you. Since you’re going to be kicking for a long time, the first thing you’ll need to do is remove your shoes. Tie the laces together, hang the shoes over your shoulders, and keep them under the water where they won’t weigh as much.

Before you start treading water though, you should at least attempt to create a flotation device of some kind. If you happen to be wearing pants, this won’t be a problem. You can simply remove them and tie knots in the pant legs. Swoop the pants through the air and dunk them into the water. You’ve now trapped a pocket of air that can keep you afloat. This is a great idea if the water is cold because now you can curl up into a ball without sinking, which will help you conserve body heat.

Treading Water

If for whatever reason this can’t be done, or if you have a good reason not to (we’ll get to that in a moment) you’ll have to start treading water. The most important thing you need to do is pace yourself. Slow down, and use the least amount of effort to stay afloat. That sounds obvious, but since most people have never bothered to see how long they can tread water for, they use a bit more energy than they need to.


There are several different methods of treading water, so it’d be a good idea to switch between them, or at the very least, rotate between using your arms to stay afloat, and your legs. By moving from one technique to the next, you can prevent different muscle groups from becoming too tired. When all else fails, you can always utilize the ‘dead man’s float.’

Aquatic Predators

And finally, you need to know what to do to avoid the dangerous creatures that live in the ocean. This is where you have a few choices to make depending on your personal needs and circumstances. For instance, if you are too exhausted to tread water, crafting the aforementioned flotation device is obviously a good idea. However, it’s better to be clothed when you’re dealing with animals that may want to hurt you.

Sharks, for instance, are more likely to target people who are poorly clothed. Though shark attacks are rare, that doesn’t mean that they won’t bump into you from time to time to investigate your potential as a future snack. Most sharks have an incredibly tough hide that can easily cut human skin, so if you’re stranded in an area that is a known hotspot for shark activity, it’s better to keep your clothes on.

You also might want to keep your shoes on in this situation, since trying to fight off a shark with your fists is going to result in severe injuries, due to their coarse skin (and of course, that blood will attract more sharks). If it’s possible, you should keep your shoes on and fight them with your legs, not your bare hands. And keep in mind that sharks are attracted to shiny objects, human waste, and loud sounds (another good reason to quietly tread water instead of trying to swim to a coastline that you’ll never reach). Your clothing will also provide decent protection against jellyfish, which are a common occurrence on the ocean’s surface.

When taken together, it probably sounds like there’s a bit of contradictory advice in this article. Unfortunately, it can’t be helped. There are a lot of factors at play here, and each situation is going to be a little different. You won’t really know what the best course of action is unless you find yourself in this situation. And in either case, surviving in open water is a bit of a crapshoot. I can’t lie about that, or paint a rosy picture.

There is no single thing you can do to significantly better your odds of surviving. There are only little things you can do to slightly improve your odds, and luck probably plays a bigger role in this survival scenario than it does in others. But real survivors don’t play by the odds, and they don’t give up when their chances are slim. They do everything they can to stack the deck in their favor, even when it amounts to very little. You’d be wise to remember that fact, regardless of what dangers you encounter in the future.

This article was originally published at Ready Nutrition™ on November 3rd, 2015

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