When you have to bug out on a boat, it puts a whole new twist on survival. It is estimated that 80-90% of the earth’s population lives near a major body of water. When highways and city streets get jammed up, a boat may be your best way out.
Also, there are plenty of survival scenarios where a ship is sinking, or a plane goes down and survivors are left on a life raft. It is very feasible that your survival skills could be put to the test on the water.
I complete several survival challenges every year to prepare myself for various scenarios and test my skills. When planning this spring, I realized that I have hardly ever read about boat challenges or seen them on television.
When I really started to dive into this scenario, I came to the conclusion that this is not attempted because of the level of difficulty. Few survivalists are qualified to handle this type of test.
I planned my challenge for the hottest weekend of the year and spent almost six months preparing. It was a life changing experience.
Let me break it down for you. You are all alone in a small motor-less boat or life raft. You are on the open ocean and there is no land in sight. It is 100 degrees during the day but still cold enough to kill a man at night.
You are surrounded by water that you cannot drink, and your only real food source are the fish in the sea. It is daunting to think about.
Of course there are other water scenarios where you are travelling down a river or you have a motorboat to get you to your destination, but things can always go south.
In this article I will cover how I spent three days and nights on a boat on open water. More importantly I will cover how I prepared for it and how anybody can survive if they find themselves adrift.
The record for the longest time any person has survived on a life raft was 133 days during WWII. That being said, I can tell you that three days was plenty.
One of my first decisions was determining what supplies to take with me…
I wanted it to be minimal to simulate a quick escape by boat or having to sift through debris for supplies. In fact, this was the shortest list of supplies I had ever taken on a survival challenge. I hardly had to take a pack at all. I did take my knife as I have that on my belt at all times.
I took a small survival bracelet which has paracord, a fire steel, a compass, and a whistle because I also carry this with me pretty much all the time. I always keep a few fish hooks in the bill of my hat.
I normally carry iodine tablets in my pocket when I am in the bush, so I had those. I was also thinking that in most life raft scenarios you would have access to some thicker cordage, so I brought some climbing rope.
I had my normal clothing, shoes, and ball cap. The only piece that was unique was a shemagh. This is basically a giant bandana, but you can make one out of any sheet of thin cloth.
Finally, I had a water bottle with me. Other than the climbing rope I could have carried everything on my person, so it is very feasible that this gear would be with a prepared survivalist a life raft situation.
On the first day I set out at 9am and the temp was around 95 degrees by the time noon hit. The sun was zapping me, but I had my hat on so my first order of business was to get a bed built that would be either insulated or up off the water.
I was completing my challenge in an old leaky john boat with no motor, so it had the potential to be very wet, cold, and uncomfortable during the night. I really did not have enough of any materials to make an insulated bed, so I had the idea to wrap the rope tightly around the crossbeams of the boat.
I did this over and over pushing each loop close to the next. This created a makeshift hammock to keep me off the floor of the boat. If you have anything insulated like large sheets of Styrofoam, it can be a good insulated option for a bed.
If you are on a river, there are all kinds of building materials you can use to build a good bed. Task one was done.
Shelter is normally a major priority, but I really did not have any building materials. With daytime temps reaching close to 100 degrees and nights getting down to about 50 degrees, I really just needed to have a way to control my body temperature.
Without shade I would need protection from the sun. I had no sunscreen. Normally I would smear mud on my skin but I was too far from the shore, so clothing was my only option.
It is not very comfortable, but many desert dwelling people stay completely clothed in the heat of the day. I had a long sleeve shirt and pants, so the last item I needed was the shemagh.
This three foot by three foot bandana can be wrapped around the head, face, and neck to completely cover any skin that could be burned. It worked perfectly.
If you are on the ocean, driftwood may be used to build a shelter and give you some shade. On a river you should have no problem finding materials. My solution was not ideal, but it would have to do.
Keeping warm at night was a different story. I broke one of my cardinal rules during the day and allowed myself to get wet. It was so hot I was actually dumping water on my clothes to try and cool them off. I drastically underestimated how cold I would get at night.
I cannot say that I was hypothermic, but it was not fun. From that point on I forced myself to stay dry and up off of the wet floor of the boat. I even took off my sweaty shirt and dried it just before dark to help out. If you are in a rainy climate, some overhead shelter might be even more pertinent.
By early afternoon I was already feeling the effects of dehydration…
I happened to be floating on fresh water, but it was not safe to drink. In this situation, I was able to use both fire and the iodine tablets to purify the water. Iodine tablets work well, but take 30 minutes. This can be an excruciating wait if you are dehydrated. In a salt water situation the challenge is completely different.
Sea water cannot be purified by conventional means. Because of that rain water is your easiest source. In a rainy climate use any plastic you can find to collect water when it rains. If there is no rainwater to be had, you have to get creative.
If you can build a fire and have some tubing along with a few containers, you can try to distill the salt water. This is not an easy process, and I would not suggest it on an inflatable raft. You can also get water from any fish you catch.
There is drinkable water in the spinal column. Insert your knife just behind the head of the fish and push until you feel a pop. Then you can get a drink and move on to the next fish. Obviously bringing water with you would be a good idea if you voluntarily choose to bug out on the sea.
On this challenge I did not find it cold enough for fire to be a major priority. That and with me being on a boat I really had not devised a way to build a fire safely.
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My next focus was food. I decided that fishing was my first priority and felt a trot line was a good option. A trot line is simply a long line with several baited shorter lines attached.
I unraveled the cordage from my survival bracelet and shoelaces and attached the hooks from my hat with a fisherman’s knot. I added some random scraps I found in the boat and cast it out.
In a survival situation, you will rarely have a rod and reel. Depending on your situation, you may want to bring one along but I feel there are more efficient ways of fishing. In the ocean there is also netting drifting about that can be mended and used to take fish.
Spearfishing is another option and was my next project. I did find one longer branch that was drifting about. I used my knife to smooth it out and split one end twice giving me four points.
I shoved small sticks in the gaps to spread the points and then sharpened them with my knife. This four point spear allows you to cover more surface area when you strike.
After drifting about for a while, I noticed there were no large fish towards the surface. I did see several large frogs swimming about and that became my new target.
I could have gone for a swim to find fish deeper in the water, but the water was muddy and I did not want to tip my boat trying to climb back in. Hour after hour passed as I made strike after strike with no success.
Finally, just before dark I skewered one and pulled it on to the boat. Now I had a reason to build a fire.
If I was desperate I could have eaten the frog raw. However, they carry parasites and I did not want to take the chance. I needed something to insulate the boat from the flames of my fire if I was going to start one. I found a shallow spot with some rocks and used those to line the bottom of the boat.
There were a few twigs towards the front that were still dry, and I still had some cordage to fluff up and burn. I also cut the blunt end off of my spear and split it up to burn. Now I needed tinder and luckily I noticed that mice had built a little next under one of the cross beams.
Animal nests are typically super dry and make great tinder. With a few strikes of my fire steel I had a little fire large enough to cook the legs of my frog. I quickly butchered it, skinned, it, and shoved the meat on a stick. After a few minutes I had a dinner that looked a bit like chicken wings. I was thankful for the calories and protein.
I did it!
My four pillars of survival were met for the day. I had purified water, I had sheltered my skin from the sun and made a bed to keep me dry, I had found food, and I had built a fire for cooking.
All I could think of was getting comfortable and getting some sleep, but the cold was starting to get to me. The colder I got, the more I noticed my body aches. The bed was functional but the corners of the crossbeams were jabbing into my neck and legs. It was a long night of shivering and waiting for the sun.
Almost as soon as the sun rose on my second day I regretted its presence. It was even hotter that the day before. Now that my basic needs were met, the real challenge of the situation arose.
Being alone on a boat or raft is largely a challenge of the mind. In my case I had about 30 square feet of living space to move within. This is roughly the size of a shallow closet in a house.
I was able to spend some time purifying water and hunting, but there were still hours and hours that had to be filled. How often do you find yourself completely isolated from other people and stuck in a confined space? It could drive a person mad.
I split my time between self-amusement and self-reflection. I highly suggest the former. Anything that you can do for fun is a good idea. I did some singing, did some dancing, even made a few little carnival games to stay busy.
You can also employ some of the same techniques suggested for kidnapping victims. Keep your mind strong and alert by challenging it however you can
Try to remember the lyrics to your favorite songs or play your favorite golf course in your mind. Maybe even do some math problems in your head.
Another option is to keep your body strong. You may be able to do some swimming or pushups to keep the blood pumping. These are all good options to help pass the time.
Unfortunately, I spent just as much time stuck in my head. You end up scrutinizing every decision you have made. You think that maybe you should have used your resources differently or maybe you should have cleaned your water differently.
Regrets start to develop about the items you brought with you or even the situation that put you in this predicament. Given enough time these thoughts tend to expand to other areas of your life. A little reflection every now and again is a good idea, but there is a limit.
Signaling for help is a priority that may apply to your situation. If you are simply adrift, this is your best chance of survival. However, you likely have limited supplies with which to contact help.
Try your cell phone as soon as you can, but conserve the battery for when you get closer to land. Anything shiny can be used to reflect light to passing boats.
The whistle on my survival bracelet makes a sound distinctive enough to be heard from a long distance. Flashlights or laser pointers can be used to signal and are often waterproof these days.
As a last resort, you can always start a signal fire, but a roaring fire on your boat is probably a bad idea. If help is near, do what you can do get their attention. However, always remember that not all boats carry men with good intentions. Be prepared that your rescuers may s
I have completed plenty of survival challenges during which I was alone for more than three days. However, in these situations almost every hour of my time was spent working on something to improve my situation
You can always get more fire wood or improve your shelter. You can look for new sources of food or water or even just do some exploring.
If nothing else, you can just get some rest so you have more strength later. All alone on a boat there are only so many positive actions you can take.
You can only spear fish for so long before your arms and back are giving out. You can only lay on ropes and boards for so long before the bruises make it impossible to sleep. It was a challenge that I greatly underestimated.
On the end of day three I was excited to head to land. I learned a great deal during this process. In a situation where you bug out on a boat, you have to be creative and extend your resources. Many of the normal rules of survival have to be adapted for this situation.
Whether you are headed to a specific location or you are simply adrift, every single move has to be contemplated. When on a boat the water can be a provider, but it can also mean your demise.
This is the paradox of Mother Nature. In the end you will find that the water is an element to be worked with, not against. The real adversary is yourself.
My name is Ryan Dotson and I am a survivalist, prepper, writer, and photographer. I grew up in the Ozark Mountains and in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains. My interest in survival started when I was in Boy Scouts and continued as my father, uncle, and grandfather taught me to hunt and fish. In the last few years I have started taking on survival challenges and have started writing about my experiences. I currently live in Mid-Missouri with my wife Lauren and three year old son Andrew.