Surviving When Lost at Sea

You wouldn't normally consider the ocean as wilderness and so a site such as this one that focuses on a wilderness survival tactics might not normally discuss it. But Les Stroud, of Survivorman, did an episode in Costa Rica and simulated the situation of being lost at sea with just a life raft and a dingy. And I just finished watching it.

Note: This lost at sea episode is different than the other Survivorman episodes. Due to the limited activities one can partake while floating on the ocean, there is a lot less activity than is normal. So the episode was a little slow, in my opinion, and I'm guessing you might find this episode recap similarly slow moving. But at least you won't need to spend 45 minutes watching the show!

The show starts off with an ominous discovery that the life raft Les was going to use is entirely unseaworthy i.e. it deflated within in minutes. And this is a life raft that the owner was using on his yacht and considered safe! With limited time, the second raft selected goes untested, but it turns out to be good upon its deployment in to the sea. Les jumps in to the water and starts to wrestle with the raft to get it right-side up and to get himself in it. A quick check reveals that his supplies are still intact, but they are all wet with seawater.

At this point his crew leaves the area, but for this episode they will remain within radio range because of the real dangers of being at sea.

First up on Les' task list is to get the water out of the raft. Unfortunately, the raft is leaking so bailing water will be a constant effort. Les also tells us that his primary goals in addition to staying alive are to attract attention or make it to land. Although he doesn't have much control of the raft, he can retract an anchor-like attachment that stabilizes the raft, but also slows it down.

In between bailing water and pumping air back in to the raft, Les hooks a water bladder to the water catch built in to the raft. He decides to spend the night in the dingy where he will hopefully be able to stay dry. The first night is a tough one for Les as he finds it the most eeriest of all environments he has had to sleep in. Still, the night passes without incident.

Day 2 starts with Les surveying his surroundings. No signs of land or other ships. He is completely alone. He also checks his supplies which include an emergency navigation chart, 3 hand flares, 1 waterproof flashlight which doesn't work, first aid kit, multi-tool, and a pair of goggles.

In an attempt to swing in behind some of the islands in the area, Les pulls up the sea anchor. This will speed up his movement, but of course he has no control over the direction in which he travels.

Unexpectedly, Les discovers that he can no longer communicate with his support team. He seems to be out of radio range meaning that should anything go wrong at this moment, he truly would be in danger. Fortunately, after hours of no visual, the safety boat does a pass by.

The raft continues to leak and so Les spends the night in the dingy. During the night he is hit by a rain squall and is forced to retreat to the life raft. The silver lining in all of this is that the rain catch has collected enough water to quench his thirst. With fresh water, Les can live for quite some time so this is a positive step towards surviving being lost at sea.

Day 3 begins with clear weather. Les has moved 6 miles from his starting location, but he has likely traveled 20 miles in circles. The wind has died down and the temperature has reached 102 degrees. There is nothing Les can do in these conditions except wait.

When the wind does pick up, Les decides it would be useful to determine his speed. Using a rope of known length he drops it in to the water and counts the number of seconds it takes for the rope to reel out. The exact calculations are not revealed, but it turns out that he's moving at about 3 knots — slower than when he and his raft were released on to the sea.

When a thunderstorm approaches, Les is warned by his crew that they may not be able to keep track of his location. Still, he remains in the life raft as night falls. Despite the calm water and winds, heat lightning in the distance indicates pending doom, but Les sticks it out a while longer. However, eventually the storm becomes dangerous enough that he activates a strobe light to signal to his crew that he should be picked up.

On day 4 Les is cut loose once again. Monotony is what Les is finding the most difficult to deal with. There is no one to talk to and little to do. Many islands pass by, but only one comes close enough for Les to attempt to reach. Although it might seem wise to get out of the raft to try and reach the island, there is razor sharp coral that can shred both a human and a raft. Fortunately for Les, the current carries him to the island.

The island is small — 90 yards long by 75 yards wide. There is little on it and yet there is evidence of previous visitors, likely lobster poachers. The raft now becomes a shelter, however Les has brought himself close to heatstroke and the only way to cool down is by heading in to the water.

Day 5 begins with an earnest search for water and food. On such a small piece of land, fresh water is nowhere to be found, but there are palm trees and a ready supply of coconut juice. Les also constructs a solar water still by pouring sea water in to a container and covering the container with plastic. The sea water will evaporate as it is heated by the sun, condense on the plastic, and then drip in to another container Les has placed within the larger container.

For food, Les heads in to the ocean and searches for conk shells. The shell is hard to break, but with a little pounding, Les breaks through. Within he finds the conk and carves away everything that is NOT white — the white portions are safe to eat raw.

Day 6 has Les continuing his search for food. This time around he finds sea snails. For these, he is going to start a fire (using a flare) so he can boil them in seawater. Once cooked, they can be pulled from their shells quite easily and with the entrails removed make for good food.

At this point Les has reached a survival equilibrium in that he can distill fresh water from sea water; eat fresh meat from the sea; and drink/eat coconuts. Combined, these items could keep him alive for quite some time.

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