How to Survive a Shipwreck

By: Charles W. Bryant
Gilligan, the Skipper and the Professor attempt to use a CB radio in front of their shipwrecked SS Minnow on 'Gilligan's Island.' See more beach pictures.
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

The popular 1960s television show "Gilligan's Island" makes you wonder why anyone would want to get rescued from a desert island shipwreck -- what's not to like about being stranded with a movie star? Unfortunately, a real-life shipwreck is no sitcom.

Each year there are stories of people that survive being lost at sea. Some manage to make it to an island; some stay adrift in dinghies or on life rafts for days, weeks and even months. If you find yourself the victim of a shipwreck, there are steps you can take to increase your odds of survival and ultimately, rescue. It's impossible to know for sure how many shipwrecks there have been throughout history, but Northern Maritime Research has compiled a list of more than 100,000 over the past 400 years [source: NMR].


When it comes to surviving a shipwreck, there are two scenarios: You can either be adrift at sea or alone on an island.

The island scenario is more desirable in many ways, as you have more of a chance at finding food and water. You also have the benefit of making fire and finding shelter. The drawback of being on an island is that you aren't moving. Being in a dinghy or life raft gives you a better chance of being seen by a plane or another boat, or drifting to an inhabited island.

In this article, we'll teach you some tips on how to survive being lost at sea as well as things you can do once you've hit land.


Lost at Sea

This deluxe model Ocean Rescue raft from the Winslow Life Raft Company comes with everything you need to survive your sea ordeal.
Image courtesy Winslow Life Raft Company

If your ship is sinking, you need to act fast. Gather as much food and water as you can and get your life raft ready. If you have time, you should grab these additional items:

  • Flashlight
  • Batteries
  • Two-way radio
  • Mirror
  • Flares
  • Sunscreen
  • Matches
  • First-aid kit



The good news is that life rafts have come a long way since the small rubber crafts of days gone by. Modern life rafts have tall walls, covers, paddles, insulated flooring, bailing buckets, ladders and a variety of emergency items -- flares, water pouches, signaling mirrors, reflective tape and fishing kits. A good life raft isn't cheap, with a deluxe four-person model costing about $4,000 in today's market.

Life rafts are packed by the manufacturer and require regular servicing to ensure their usability. Unfortunately, even the most expensive life rafts aren't always leak-proof. The ocean is tough on a small vessel, and you may end up with water coming into your safe haven. All modern rafts come with pumps and repair kits for this reason. You'll also make good use of your bailer to help empty your raft of water.

One of the most challenging aspects of being lost at sea is the psychological toll it takes. To look around and see nothing but open water can cause a great deal of mental distress. Additional anguish comes when you see passing boats and planes, or come close to land before drifting away. If you're with someone else, occupy yourself by playing word games or talking about future plans.

Heatstroke is another cause for concern. If your raft has a cover, stay under it during the day. Some symptoms of heatstroke are:

  • Elevated body temperature
  • Confused mental state
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shallow breathing
  • Headache and nausea

If you're suffering from heatstroke, try the following:

  • Get in the shade
  • Blot your skin with a damp cloth
  • Fan yourself
  • Drink cool fresh water

[source: Mayo Clinic]

Drifting is your only hope for finding dry land, so the more you drift, the better your chances. Most life rafts are equipped with sea anchors that help stabilize the vessel. While a stable raft is a good thing, the anchor will slow your drifting rate. Try pulling up the anchor during periods of calm weather and drop it back in when the winds pick up. At a rate of two knots, you can drift as far as 50 miles per day -- in calm weather you can bob in place for hours.


In the next section, we'll look at what to do once you've reached land.



On Dry Land: Shelter and Water

This lean-to shelter is easy to build and provides good protection from the elements.
HSW 2008

If you're fortunate enough to drift to an island, you'll have more opportunities for food, water. The first thing you should do, aside from kissing the sand beneath your feet in gratitude, is set up shelter. If you're weak, don't spend too much time searching for the perfect spot -- you can improve your shelter after you rest. Look around the island for any washed-up garbage -- almost everything can be of use.

If your life raft has survived the trip ashore, use it as a temporary shelter. It will keep you off the ground, away from scorpions and snakes, and protect you from the sun and rain. If you ditched your raft and swam to the island, you'll need to build your own shelter.


Chances are there are palm trees and maybe even bamboo on the island. Palm fronds are excellent for providing cover, and bamboo is one of the strongest woods you can find for your frame. Don't get too fancy -- start with a simple lean-to:

  • Place two "Y"-shaped branches into the sand about a foot down and 6 feet apart.
  • Take a long branch and place it between the forks as a ridgepole.
  • Place more sticks from the ridgepole to the ground to frame your roof.
  • Lash everything together with rope or vine.
  • Fill the roof area with dead palm fronds, then top with green ones.

Don't sleep directly on the ground. Instead, line the floor with more palm fronds, which will insulate you and help keep you dry. You can also add walls to block the wind. (More detailed information on shelters can be found in How to Build a Shelter.)

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Now that you have your shelter, you need to collect fresh water. Never drink ocean water -- the salt will dehydrate you. The easiest way to collect water is by building a solar still. You'll need some kind of clear plastic sheeting and a container to collect water.

  • Find an area that gets sunlight for most of the day.
  • Dig a bowl-shaped hole about 3 feet across and 2 feet deep.
  • Place the container in the center of the hole.
  • Surround the container with as much greenery as you can.
  • Completely cover the hole with plastic and weigh the sides with rocks and sand.
  • Place a rock in the center of the sheet, so it hangs down about 18 inches, directly over the container, to form an inverted cone.
  • Add more sand and rocks on the edges for stability.

The moisture from the greenery will react with the heat of the sun to form condensation on the plastic. This water runs down the center of the sheet and into your container. (This is just one method for collecting water. More information can be found at How to Find Water in the Wild.)­


In the next section, we'll look at finding food and making fire.



On Dry Land: Food and Fire

Make use of anything you find washed up on the shore of your desert island.
Candela Foto Art / Kreuziger/Getty Images

Food and fire are next on your list for shipwreck survival. Fire is important for many reasons and provides the following:

  • Heat to dry wet clothes
  • A cooking flame
  • A sense of security and comfort
  • Smoke for rescue signals
  • A means to scare away dangerous animals
  • Smoke to repel insects

Collect your wood -- you need tinder, kindling and larger sticks and logs. The tinder can be anything dry and small. The "hair" from palm tree trunks works well. If you have matches, use those to start your fire. If not, there are many other methods for starting one. You can read all about them in How to Start a Fire without a Match.


As a last resort, use a flare to light your fire. Once you've made your fire, keep it going. Build your signal fire, but don't light it -- it should be large and full of dry brush and palm fronds. Top it with green fronds to increase the amount of smoke, and light it as soon as you hear or see a plane or boat.

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Aside from coconuts and fruit trees, the best opportunity for food will come from the ocean. There are toxic fish that can make you sick, so a good rule of thumb is to not eat the following:

  • Jellyfish
  • Fish with spikes
  • Fish that puff up
  • Fish with parrot-like beaks

Specifically, the following saltwater fish are toxic to humans:

  • Porcupine fish
  • Triggerfish
  • Cowfish
  • Thorn fish
  • Oilfish
  • Jack
  • Puffer

If you don't have a fishing kit from your life raft, try your hand at spear fishing. Bamboo makes for a great spear.

  • Find an 8- to 10-foot bamboo stick.
  • Make two intersecting crosscuts at one end about 6 inches deep, creating four prongs.
  • Separate the prongs by wedging vine into the crevices.
  • Sharpen the prongs with a knife or sharp rock.

­Now you have a four-pronged fishing spear. Actually nabbing a fish is the tricky part. There are two different methods -- diving and standing. If you have good swimming skills, try diving first. It's easier to spear a fish against something, so head toward rocks. If you aren't a good swimmer, try to find a rock to stand on or simply wade into knee-deep water. Fish scare easily, so move slowly and deliberately.

Once you have your fish, cook it to improve the taste. You don't need a skillet or deep fryer -- all you need is a fire and some rocks for a primitive oven:

  • Heat six to eight medium-sized rocks in the fire for a couple of hours.
  • Dig a hole in the sand about a foot deep and a couple of feet across.
  • Carefully move the rocks into the hole without burning yourself.
  • Wrap your fish several times over in large green leaves and tie off with vine.
  • Sit the wrapped fish on top of the rocks and cover it all with sand.
  • After about an hour, dig up the fish and enjoy your cooked meal.

If the fish aren't biting, make a meal from slow-moving conchs and sea snails. The white meat inside the shells can be boiled or eaten raw. Sea snails are found clinging to rocks near the shoreline. Conchs are located in shallow waters and tend to hang out in sea grass.­

In the next section, we'll learn how to make a primitive raft.


Building a Raft

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If you've had enough of island life and feel gutsy enough to try to float to rescue, you'll need a raft. The first thing you should know, however, is that this is a very dangerous move, and the likelihood of building a raft that can survive the rigors of ocean storms over a great deal of time isn't very good. Add to that the fact that you'll have no signal fire and only a limited amount of food and water -- you may wish you were back on the island.

To build your raft, you'll need a lot of wood and vine for lashing. As with the spear, bamboo is the best thing to use for your raft. The hollow culms, or stems, of bamboo are filled with air, making it extremely buoyant. Cutting down a large bamboo plant is virtually impossible because of its strength, so your best bet is to burn it at its base until it falls. Pierce the lower culms to release the air and prevent an explosion.


Before you start construction, place two large bamboo trees on the ground about 8 feet apart. Build the raft on top of these to help slide it into the water -- it will be extremely heavy. You should also build it close enough to the water to get it in with ease, but not so close that it's in danger of floating away with high tide.


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The construction of the raft is pretty simple, but takes time -- something you'll have plenty of. Build your frame first:

  • Get four large pieces of bamboo. One set should be roughly 8 feet long, the other 12 feet.
  • Place the longer pieces in the bottom, then the shorter ones on top to form a square.
  • The long pieces will extend from each side by 4 feet and act as stabilizing pontoons.
  • Lash together everything together tightly with rope or vine.


Now that you have your frame, begin making your floor and complete the pontoons:

  • Secure smaller bamboo pieces side-by-side on top of the frame until it's completely covered.
  • Tie four more bamboo sections to the far edges of the pontoons, spanning the length.

The most important thing to do now is test the raft -- get it in the water and climb aboard. If you have any doubts that the raft is seaworthy, don't attempt to use it. Being stranded on an island is a much better alternative than having your raft sink a mile from shore in shark-infested waters.

To find out more information on survival techniques and shipwrecks, please investigate the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Allan, Vicky. "Open Water." The Sunday Herald, August 7, 2005. is_20050807/ai_n14858460/pg_1
  • "Animals for Food.", 2008.
  • "Heatstroke: First aid.", 2008.
  • Man vs. Wild, "Desert Island." The Discovery Channel, 2007.
  • ­Northern Maritime Research, 2008.­
  • Peek, John. "Shipwrecked!" BBC Radio, January 15, 2008.
  • Survivorman, "Lost at Sea." The Discovery Channel, 2007.