Surviving for any period of time when you are in open water is one of the most difficult survival challenges you could face.
Open water is extremely dangerous on many levels: extreme weather is far more perilous on the ocean; there are no sources of fresh water available; risk of sun exposure is extremely high; and there are countless predators that are nearly impossible to see before they are too close to react.
Yet there are many accounts of people surviving in open water for days, weeks, or even months. The ocean is survivable. You simply need to have the right skills and tools to do it.
The most dangerous scenario is floating in open water with just a life preserver. You are completely exposed to the sun and elements, and at most latitudes the water temperature will be cold enough that you are at risk of succumbing to hypothermia in a matter of hours.
It’s imperative that you get out of the water as quickly as possible. If you are within several miles of land, look for buoys that you can pull yourself onto.
Prepare for this situation by making sure your life vest is equipped for a survival locator beacon, which can help search and rescue locate you more quickly. If there is wreckage nearby, you may be able to use larger pieces as makeshift rafts.
Finding drinkable water is one of the most critical challenges to surviving the ocean. Although you are surrounded by water, drinking any of it will kill you. But if you don’t stay hydrated you will die.
While storms at sea can be very dangerous, collecting rainfall is your best bet for collecting drinkable water. Be prepared at all times to collect as much rainfall as possible in anything you have onboard the life raft.
Storms at sea can come up very quickly and without warning, so you have to be ready for them.
Protecting yourself from sun exposure is your next task.
In the open ocean, the sun will quickly dehydrate you and can cause severe sunburns if you do not protect yourself from it.
Make sure to cover any exposed skin with clothing, and if possible, construct a shade lean-to from materials found in the ship’s wreckage or onboard the raft. Stay out of the sun at all costs.
Food is very difficult to find on the open ocean. You may be able to fish if you have the right equipment, but the odds are against you that you will be successful.
If you do catch fish, you can attempt to attract seabirds, which you can also trap and eat. But because both of these scenarios are difficult and unlikely, your best bet is to make sure you have rations secured aboard life rafts before you need them.
If you are not simply adrift, but actually have the means to control and maneuver your life raft, navigation is extremely important.
A simple compass can make a huge difference in your ability to successfully navigate your craft, and a GPS device is even better.
With a GPS device and communications system, you can relay your coordinates to search and rescue. If you have neither, you can navigate with the sun during the day and the stars at night.
Neither is easy to do for a novice, so you should learn how to do both before you sail. Know where commercial shipping routes are in relation to your position, and if there is little chance of finding land, you can increase your odds of being found by navigating towards them.
The single best way to improve your chances of survival in open water is to be prepared for dealing with your boat capsizing.
That means having fully outfitted life rafts aboard the boat that can be quickly boarded and launched, and that can accommodate everyone onboard. Life rafts should be outfitted with enough food and water to keep you and your crew alive for the same amount of time you plan on being out of sight of land.
They should also be equipped with satellite phones or ship to shore radios and infrared signal beacons to attract search and rescue. Modern survival rafts have these kinds of equipment and are designed to protect you from the sun and elements for extended periods of time.
Ultimately, your chances of survival in any environment, including the open ocean, depend on your skill level and the quality of your survival gear. If you are outfitted with a quality survival raft, complete with food, water, first aid kit and signaling devices, you can survive the ocean for much longer.