Do you have a Ditch Bag? Is it ready for anything?

A yachtsman from Florida wrote us recently and asked: “Would you reprint the excellent article on emergency bags that I read here some months ago … I’d appreciate it!” – Irv Johnson, Stuart, FL

Revere 80 Ditch/Abandon Ship Bag

If you’ve been boating for any time at all, you’ve heard the warning “Don’t forget to have an up-to-date ditch bag onboard!” over and over … and now let me say it again: before fancy toys and other expensive onboard luxuries, a ditch bag (also called an “Abandon Ship Bag”) is critical.

For some reason, owners of smaller boats often think they don’t need this vital item (I’d say it should be mandatory, if that didn’t require another law) but the end result of an emergency can be either manageable or disasterous based on whether it’s available. If you don’t have one, the following may be helpful to you in assembling this key item in your emergency gear (which I recommend you do BEFORE you take your boat out again). If you do have a ditch bag, this list may help you update it.

Use a bag that is designed for marine use. I’ve seen dry bags of all sorts used successfully for this. The bottom line is that your Abandon Ship, or ditch bag should (1) have ample positive flotation (dedicated ditch bags have flotation material sewn in, but sealed air-filled gear bags inside can achieve the same thing), (2) be waterproof (not simply water resistant, which means “splash proof”), (3) be large enough to carry all of your emergency gear, (4) be labeled and stowable, (5) have the right sort of reinforced grab handles, and (5) be light, bright-colored or feature reflective material that can be easily seen at night, presumably with a flashlight. A number of ditch bags are made by marine gear manufacturers, and they’re reasonable in price and ideal for careful, safe stowage of your emergency gear.

The contents of your ditch bag will have a lot to do with where and what climate you’re cruising in, but there are some critical items that are universal in their place in your emergency stores. They are divided into two categories: “Rescue” and “Survival” items. We recommend you carry some version of all of these in your bag.

ACR 2273 Ditch/Abandon Ship Bag

Rescue items should include (1) a registered, functioning E.P.I.R.B. (Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacon) or P.L.B. (Personal Locator Beacon) with a current battery certification and N.O.A.A. registration. I wrote an article 10+ years ago about preparing your ditch bag, and didn’t feel right about including this expensive item in it, but prices have come down (you can buy the McMurdo 210 for $249, the SPOT II for about $100, or less) and we’re living in an ever-more-electronic world that has more and more capacity for locating you via a device like this, whether hiking in the mountains, snow skiing or at sea, (2) a hand-held VHF radio that is either waterproof or in a waterproof enclosure, (3) a variety of flares and smoke signals (both hand held and aerial – with parachutes – flares) (4) strobe light, (5) whistles (I recommend a loud one, like the storm whistles sold in marine stores; don’t rely on the one that came with your PFD), (6) a signal mirror, (7) two waterproof flashlights with spare batteries and (8) a handheld GPS with current, applicable charts (and spare batteries).

Survival items should include (1) water in individual packets (available through your marine store) or in sturdy jugs; take at least twice what you think you’d use in a worst case scenario, (2) a water making device, like a solar still or, if you can afford it, a hand-pump desalinating water maker, (3) food; packaged or canned (see the survival section at your marine store) (4) a sturdy can opener, (4) a well-equipped first aid kit and splinting material, (5) a quality all-purpose tool with a knife, (6) a patch kit and pump for your dinghy or life raft, (7) critical prescriptions/medications and spare prescription glasses (suggest you have second set in the ditch bag), (8) lightweight blankets, or solar blankets, for warmth, (9) basic fishing gear (line, hooks, cleaning gear, etc.), (10) sunscreen, (11) a sturdy bailer, (12) binoculars, (13) sunglasses, and (14) a broad brimmed hat.

Columbia Compact Ditch Bag

With this level of preparation, you and your passengers will only need life jackets and outerwear if you need to abandon ship quickly. If you have time (remember, the safest place for you is on your boat, even if it is filling with water; deploy the well-lashed life boat/dinghy and tie your ditch bag into it; wait until you can’t wait anymore to abandon ship) and dependent upon the safety of doing so, I suggest you gather additional water jugs, the ship’s flares, documentation (including passports) that may be need when you reach shore, additional food, etc.

Remember, the preparation of the ship’s ditch bag “is critical when it becomes critical” … you won’t have that “sinking” feeling that you’ve left some important piece of emergency gear behind if you attend to it now and inspect it annually and before each long voyage.

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