In November 1942 a German U-boat torpedoed the British merchant ship SS Benlomond, 750 miles away from land in the Atlantic Ocean. Poon Lim, a Chinese born ship’s steward, jumped overboard just before the ship’s boilers exploded. Only 2 minutes after the attack the Benlomond disappeared forever, and Lim found a wooden raft still afloat. More than four months later, he had finally drifted enough to be rescued by Brazilian fishermen. Lim’s 133 days at sea in a life raft still stands today as a world record.
If you find yourself in a life raft abandoning a sinking ship, the first thing you need to do is get away from the ship itself. If you’ve seen “Titanic” then you probably remember the special effects shots of the sinking ship sucking down people in life jackets and all sorts of other debris. You want to paddle into the wind away from the wreck in case a fire starts—burning oil on the water and the toxic smoke it creates will of course spread downwind. Once the ship has gone to the deep and fire is no longer a risk, check the water for anything that might be useful—anything not bolted down to the ship may rise to the surface to be snatched up and utilized by survivors.
Unless land is in sight it is wise to stay as close to the last known position of the ship as possible. This is where all rescue efforts will begin, so the closer you are to where the ship sank, the more likely you will be found. With modern communication equipment and procedures there is a very good chance that your ship sent a distress call before sinking—if you know that a distress call was sent by your ship and received by someone else, then staying near the site of the sinking is your best option. However, if you decide to attempt to paddle to land, make sure you aren’t fighting against the current with your efforts—the current will win every time. If you have a choice of paddling towards a nearby island or a larger land mass beyond it, just aim for the larger land mass. Your chances of actually making it to the island via paddle are pretty slim. Without an engine or a dedicated sailing system with favorable winds, you just don’t have that much control over where the raft is going to drift.
If you’re 750 miles off shore like Poon Lim, don’t bother to paddle at all, it’s not going to make any difference. Instead you need to protect your body, conserve your resources and limit your consumption. If you are in an open raft you’ll want to erect some sort of shelter from the elements using anything you can—a tarp, part of a sail, even spare clothing. The shelter can double as a rain catch to collect fresh water, which is going to be your biggest struggle. The first day in the raft, don’t drink any water at all. Come up with a water rationing system and stick to it. The minimum amount of water necessary to stay in good shape is 1 liter a day, but is possible to survive on as little as 2 to 5 ounces a day, although this will weaken you over time. Decrease your water ration progressively so you don’t shock your body. If it drains, drink as much rainwater as you can and fill up every container or makeshift container available with fresh water—you don’t when you will get more. If you have the right supplies, you may be able to construct a solar still to distill fresh water from seawater. No matter how thirsty you get, do not drink water straight from the sea, or a painful death will result.
Stay out of the sun as much as you can and smear oil or grease over your hands, face, or any other parts that get exposed to the sun. If the weather is cold, be aware of hypothermia and take whatever steps you can to protect your core temperature. If the weather is hot, it may feel good to swim, but tie the raft to yourself with a line so its impossible to get separated. Also, be aware that salt water on your skin takes moisture away from you, so swimming or even wearing damp clothes can accelerate dehydration. Exercise yourself just enough to avoid getting cramps, but remember you are trying to conserve energy! You can go much longer without food than without water. Hopefully your life raft has some food that you can ration out, but if you aren’t rescued in a few days and your food ration is running low, you’ll need to catch birds or fish to eat. Poon Lim was able to catch birds with his bare hands even in his weakened condition, and he once caught and ate a small shark using a hook he had fashioned from a nail dug out of the boards of his raft. Other survivors have successfully caught and eaten sea turtles and other aquatic creatures. You won’t get to cook ‘em, but this is a survival situation—you eat the raw meat, or you die.
When rescue comes, it is likely that aircraft will spot you. Do whatever you can to attract the attention of anyone you see. Bright colors on your raft and signaling mirror to reflect the sun in the direction of the rescuers are great. Reserve your signal flares for low light conditions. Congratulations, you made it!