What if you were stranded several miles offshore in cold weather?

By: Katherine Neer
Stranded boat
Being stranded far from shore in your boat can be a scary thing, but there are certain precautions you can take.

It's early November and you and your college roommate are amazed by the unseasonably good weather. To enjoy the crisp, sunny day, you decide to take your roommate's dad's new 28-foot sport-cruiser boat out for a day trip on Lake Huron. Driving the boat is even more fun than you thought it would be. Before you know it, you've been out for most of the day. Just as you decide it's time to head back, there's a really loud sound and suddenly the boat's motor stops. After several attempts to restart the motor, you realize it's dead. Great, now you and your friend are stranded on the boat, it's getting cold and it'll be dark soon. What are you going to do?

­Even though you can see land in the distance, swimming isn't really an option. Although the water isn't too choppy right now, it's pretty cold. In water temperatures of 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (4 to 10 degrees Celsius), you can suffer exhaustion in as little as 30 minutes and develop hypothermia in as little as an hour. Even if you're a good swimmer, you couldn't expect to go more than about a mile in these conditions before becoming fatigued. At that point, you would find yourself too far from the boat to return and still way too far from shore. As the effects of hypothermia set in, you could pass out and eventually drown.


The temperature is dropping and it'll be dark soon, so you need to work fast. The things you need to think about right now are:

  • Signaling for help
  • Water
  • Exposure to the elements
  • Food

There are several devices that stranded boaters can use to notify people of their situation:

  • EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon)
  • Dye packs or water markers
  • Flares
  • Reflective devices such as mirrors or watches
  • Horns or other sound alarms

­­In the next section, we'll go into more detail about how to use these devices to signal for help.



Signaling For Help to Quench Your Thirst

Ocean horizon line
Keep an eye out for other boats that could rescue you.

Because it is getting dark, your options are limited, for now, to the EPIRB, flares and horns.

Both boaters and pilots use EPIRBs. A modern EPIRB is a sophisticated device that contains:


  • A 5-watt radio transmitter operating at 406 MHz
  • A 0.25-watt radio transmitter operating at 121.5 MHz.
  • A GPS receiver

Once activated, both of the radios start transmitting. A GOES satellite 24,000 or so miles up in space in a geosynchronous orbit can detect the 406 MHz signal. Embedded in the signal is a unique serial number and, if the unit is equipped with a GPS receiver, the exact location of the radio. If the EPIRB is properly registered, the serial number lets the authorities know who owns it. Rescuers in planes or boats can home in on the EPIRB using either the 406 MHz or 121.5 MHz signal.

After you have activated the EPIRB, start sounding the horn intermittently. Next, look around the boat for flares. If you have enough, you can set off a flare every 15 minutes for an hour in hopes that a passerby might see your distress signal. However, don't waste your flares if it seems too late for other boaters to be out and about. Save them to use when other boats are likely to be nearby. If you haven't been found by morning, you can incorporate other methods into to your routine -- such as removing the vanity mirror from the bathroom to signal others of your trouble.

Keeping hydrated

You're supposed to have between eight and 10 8-ounce glasses of water a day, so that's about 64 ounces, or half a gallon. Your roommate brought a gallon-sized jug of water on board that morning, but he's been drinking it all day. Luckily, the boat you're on probably has a tank. For a 28-footer, you can expect there are about 24 to 32 gallons of potable water in the tank. If for some reason the tank is empty, you can look inside the emergency kit that accompanies the life raft for water purification tablets and filters to create your own drinking water.

If you're on the ocean, instead of a lake -- and you're lucky -- you'll have a solar desalination kit. If not, you have a real problem. Never drink seawater, as the salt will only hasten dehydration.


Food Rationing and Temperature

Ocean horizon line
This may be the only thing you can see for miles.

Although you can survive for several days without food, you'll probably want something to eat. After searching the boat, you discover that you've only got a few packages of beef jerky that you brought along for a snack. Instead of giving in to your pangs of hunger by eating all the jerky at once, you should ration out portions for you and your friend and leave some out to use as bait. Using the dental floss you find in the bathroom, along with some discarded fishing hooks, you can fashion a rudimentary system to catch fish.

Now that you have food and water covered, the remaining concern is the weather. If you have one on board, you should listen to the radio to monitor the weather. With or without a weather report, you should anticipate and plan for the worst. In this area, a daytime temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 degrees Celsius) is certainly out of the norm. The average temperature for the month of November in Alpena, Mich., is:


  • High - 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius)
  • Low - 28 degrees Fahrenheit (-2 degrees Celsius)

This means that overnight temperatures could easily be in the 30s. Factor in the wind chill, and the temperature could feel closer to something in the teens. If you don't find a way to keep warm, you'll be at risk for hypothermia. You can use any tarps or canvas you find (remove seat cushion coverings if necessary) to make a big blanket or tent. You and your friend can huddle together under the blanket or in your improvised tent to stay out of the wind and share body heat. If it's particularly windy or it starts to rain, empty out the storage compartment under the bow or huddle up in the bathroom, making sure to take turns going out on deck to look for rescue planes or boats. Have flares handy, so you can signal if someone approaches.

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