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How to Survive a Shipwreck

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Benjamin Welton
It's a nightmare scenario for anybody. You're on a holiday cruise, you're out fishing, or you're aboard a cargo ship - and disaster strikes. What do you do if you are on a sinking ship? How do you best ensure you can survive? And what should you be prepared for?
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How to Survive a Shipwreck


Thanks to the rise and rise of air travel, going places by boat is perhaps not quite as popular as it once was. However, the cruise ship industry is still going strong, with frequent stops available in the Caribbean, across Scandinavia, and much of the rest of Europe. Short excursions to smaller islands are also often taken by ferry or catamaran. And cargo shipping is still big business. All of which means, you could very well find yourself on a boat, sailing the seven seas.

And, while it isn’t at all likely that disaster willstrike, it’s not impossible either. Tragedies surrounding ships like the Senegalese ferry Le Joola in 2002, the Filipino ferry Princess of the Stars in 2008, and the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia in 2012, have all shown how catastrophic trouble at sea can be – even in the 21stcentury. So, what should you do if the worst does happen, and your ship starts to sink?

First off, keep as calm as possible, and remember the evacuation drills. Every cruise ship company should give passengers specific safety information before departure – similar to when flying. So, remember to pay attention.

The ship will likely switch to emergency power – usually as a safety measure – so try to avoid relying on anything that requires electricity to work, and take the stairs rather than the elevator. If your ship begins to list (as in, tilt to one side), grip onto secure fixtures like handrails, rather than unmoored objects that may slide or roll. Once you’re set, the first and most important task is to find and put on a life jacket. Then, head for the lifeboats, or at least for the upper decks – where you’re less likely to find yourself trapped.

Do not jump overboard unless you absolutely have to. It’s risky, dangerous and could conceivably kill you. The world’s largest cruise ships tower out of the ocean, so depending on where you jump from, you could be hitting the water from a massive height. The Oasis of the Seasis one of the largest cruise ships in the world. Boasting sixteen decks, it rises 236 feet above the water line. Given that the world record high dive – a feat performed by trained pros – is widely recognized as only 172 feet, there are clearly few safe spots when falling overboard from aboat that size.

However, if you’re travelling on a smaller vessel, and jumping overboard is absolutely necessary, then always dive feet-first. This should minimize the potential for damage to your major organs – although, it remains likely that you’ll be injured in some way. There’s a trade-off as well, as this position is likely to send you further under the water. So, you’ll need to keep your breathing as calm possible beforehand, preparing to hold your breath for as long as possible, before acting quickly once underwater to try and reach the surface. If you manage to do that, then swim away from the boat to avoid being caught in the swell should the ship sink – preferably finding floating debris to cling to. From there, you shouldn’t have too long to wait before a rescue mission reaches you – a cruiser doesn’t go down without the land, sea and air emergency services knowing about it!

Clearly, while cruise ship disasters do happen, they are rare – given the safety standards that today’s boats are built to meet, the number of emergency service personnel on board, radar technology to avoid problems in the first place, and various communication methods. But what if the boat you’re on is much smaller, and much less prepared? In most situations, you can survive – though it could be much more difficult, and it’s a race against time.

Before your ship plummets out of reach, and if you haven’t got a purpose-built lifeboat, then you need to salvage something to work as a makeshift raft. Without one, you’re extremely unlikely to survive for longer than a couple of days. If you don’t even have a life jacket, then your window for rescue shortens to just a few hours.

But, say you’ve got a raft to work with. On it, gather as much food, sunscreen, first aid materials and safety flares as you can. Any bottled water is obviously a necessity as well, or any type of water purifying kit – plus a blanket, tarp or any type of cover. The food should then be rationed for the long-term, even though you’ll likely be super-hungry after the shock and effort of your initial escape. Aside from thirst and hunger, heatstroke is arguably your biggest concern – so keep covered whenever possible. Then there’s hypothermia, so dry out your clothes quickly and try to create a barrier between you and the wind.

But, what then? Even if you set all of this up, and fire the first of your flares skywards, you might not be rescued for days or weeks. So, you’ll need to adapt. Devise a method of collecting rainwater, and hope that rain does fall, and frequently – but not as part of a storm that could wreck your raft. Next, fashion some kind of fishing method, and be prepared to kill what you catch. Keep the entrails of your first haul though, to use as bait for your next line. And, if you manage to catch a turtle or even a bird, don’t waste its blood – it could prove one of your surest sources of water. But don’t go spilling the stuff in your surrounding waters – you do not want to be attracting sharks, or any large marine predator.

However you manage to survive, you’d have to have plenty of luck. And washing up on even a deserted island could prove a life-saving – or at least life-extending – turn of events. Sure, you’d still be incredibly lost, and arguably even less likely to be reunited with the rest of the world… but at least you’d have solid ground to sleep on, possible food and water sources, and relative safety from the elements. You’d also have time to build a new and improved raft, should you want to venture back out into the water, to try and reconnect with civilization. Survival tip 101: Bamboo is an especially effective material for this – it’s light, strong and buoyant.

All of this shouldn’t put you off travelling by sea, though. Not only are shipwrecks rare, but when they do happen they’re usually known about – which means help should be at hand fairly quickly. The initial moments are crucial, however. If you realize that your ship is going down then keep as calm as possible, follow the captain’s orders if there are any, and gather vital supplies if there aren’t. Surviving a shipwreck is a dangerous business, but it can be done.
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