How to Survive Adrift in the Ocean? Open Water Survival Tips

After conquering almost every inch of land and having made headway into space, the ocean still fills us with fear and awe, because deep down we know how powerless we are against its vast depths, pounding waves, cold and creatures. It can feed us, nurture us and transport us, but it can also swallow up entire fleets and let them vanish without a trace.

August 15th, 1281, Japan. A massive force of 142,000 Mongolian troops prepares to disembark on the Japanese shores to raid, kill and conquer. The Japanese population panicked, markets were out of stock, and even emperor Go-Uda realized his samurai might not be able to fight off this formidable enemy. A miracle was needed.

And a miracle came, in the form of a kamikaze, Japanese for divine wind. A great typhoon suddenly struck, and annihilated close to the entire Mongolian fleet.

This greatest shipwreck in history shows how even the mightiest army in the world can be brought to its knees by the unpredictable ocean.

mongol invasion getting wiped out

What is the longest someone ever survived adrift in the ocean?

A kamikaze that turned out less fortunate for Japan took place in October 1813, when the ship of Captain Oguri Jukichi was hit by a storm, and damaged beyond repair.

By the time he got rescued, he had only one crew member left, with whom he had helplessly drifted around on the Pacific for a staggering 484 days. Although most of the crew died of scurvy, the two men survived thanks to a supply of soybeans they had on board. They also made it into the Guinness Book of World Records, where they still hold the title for the longest time adrift at sea. 

If you survive a shipwreck in the first place, you’re already on the fortunate side of things. Cause whether due to a storm, an attack, an accident on board, or like with the Titanic, after a collision with an iceberg, many people follow their ship to the bottom of the sea.

Nowadays, ships are better equipped with both navigational and emergency materials, which makes the chance of being shipwrecked and completely lost significantly less than in the time of the Mongols.

Yet, ocean storms and currents are still unpredictable, and even in the 21st century people end up adrift in the ocean, especially those on smaller sailing or fishing boats. Against all odds, these brave castaways have to muster all their survival skills to face the most fearful enemy of land rots like us: the ocean (yes, and sharks too, but we’ll get to that).


How long can you survive in a raft in the ocean?

If you’re lucky, you can remain on your own vessel, which despite possible damage, is usually still preferable to trying your luck out in the open sea. Your second-best option is an equipped life raft, which will usually have supplies and water to last you a few days but is built nor supplied for longer journeys. Yet, people have managed to stay afloat and alive on various types of life rafts, including the wooden one of sailor Poon Lim (here comes another record holder!).

When the merchant ship Lim was working on was torpedoed by a Nazi U-boat in 1942, he managed to grab a life vest and jump overboard just before the entire ship was swallowed up by the waves. As a sole survivor he was lucky enough to grab hold of an 8 square feet wooden raft, supplied with some biscuits, drinking water and other basics. As soon as he figured out no one was coming for him, he quickly switched to survival mode in the rawest form. 

poon lim adrift in the ocean

Imagine yourself in a situation so desperate that you’re ready to risk your life to drag a shark onto your raft to drink blood from his liver. Lim had to push beyond any imaginable limit in order to stay alive. Even if it meant eating raw turtles, seagulls and drinking his own urine.

It took 133 days until he was spotted by a Brazilian fishing boat, after which he was welcomed a hero. Lim still holds the record for having spent the longest time alone on a life raft. When asked about his experience, Lim simply said: “I hope no one will ever have to break that record.”

Another WW2-castaway story comes from USAF pilot Louis Zamperini and his two crewmembers, who’s bomber crashed into the Pacific due to a mechanical failure.

According to author Laura Hildebrand’s book about their remarkable survival story, the duo was stuck on the remnants of their plane and faced typhoon sized waves, angry sharks, and was shot at by Japanese pilots. 

Their bullet-riddled raft, faded from the blistering sun, barely supported their emaciated bodies. After 47 days of fighting off sharks and eating raw albatrosses and seagulls to survive, the men arrived on the Japanese-held Marshall Islands, after which their next stage of suffering began: the notorious Japanese POW-camps.

In more recent times, in January 2014 a rugged looking man washed up on the shores of one of the Marshall Islands. When locals found him, they learned he just spent 438 days afloat in his fiberglass fishing boat on the Pacific, making José Salvador Alvarenga the godfather of ocean survival.

How do you survive on the ocean with nothing?

If you end up on a piece of driftwood, or a disintegrating cork dinghy, like American teenager Terry Jo Duperrault, there isn’t much you can do other than trying to not fall off or drown. This is just what the 11-year-old managed to do for 82 hours after her parents were brutally murdered on their sailing boat, the vessel was sunk, and the captain escaped on a life raft. She was rescued with severe sunburns and dehydration. Just in time.

stranded on a lifeboat

Chances of survival increase significantly if you have anything at all to grab hold of. If not, the ocean can be incredibly cruel. A telling example of this is the story of the USS Indianapolis, that was torpedoed at the end of WWII.

Over 800 men went into the water, but 80 hours later only 300 of them were still alive. During these harrowing hours, the marines floated around without water, food, nor much to grab onto. Though some were killed by sharks, many died due to saltwater poisoning or by killing themselves or others in delirium.  

What do you find on board of a life raft?

There are many types of rafts you can end up on after a shipwreck or plane crash. Poon Lim’s wooden raft certainly did not have a survival manual, nor did Alvarenga’s fiberglass fishing boat benefit from rocket flares and food rations. Most modern life rafts however, are equipped to actually survive at sea for longer periods, thereby increasing the chance of being rescued.

sinking titanic

Lifeboat-standards have come a long way since the sinking of the Titanic and Lim’s wooden raft.

According to the international standards, set at the SOLAS Convention, a liferaft should be designed in such a way as to withstand the impact of all marine conditions afloat for 30 days. This by the way, does not mean that it holds food and water for 30 days.

The SOLAS equipment list for life rafts on long distance international voyages is as follows:

  • Rescue quoits with minimum 30-metre lines
  • Non-folding knife with a buoyant handle. If the life raft holds more than 13 persons, then a second knife
  • For 12 persons or less, 1 bailer. For more than 13 persons, 2 bailers should be kept
  • 2 sponges
  • 2 buoyant paddles
  • 3 tin openers
  • 2 sea anchors
  • 1 pair of scissors
  • 1 first aid waterproof kit
  • 1 whistle
  • 1 waterproof torch for communicating morse code with 1 spare set of batteries and bulb
  • 1 signalling mirror/heliograph
  • 1 radar reflector
  • 1 life-saving signals waterproof card
  • 1 fishing tackle
  • Food ration totalling not less than 10000 kJ for each person
  • Water ration- 1.5 litres of fresh water for each person
  • One rustproof graduated drinking vessel
  • Anti seasickness medicine is sufficient for at least 48 hours and one seasickness bag for each person.
  • Instructions on how to survive (Survival booklet)
  • Instructions on immediate action
  • TPA is sufficient for 10% of the number of persons or two, whichever is greater
  • 6 Hand Flares
  • 4 Rocket Parachute Flares
  • 2 Buoyant Smoke Signals

What is the best way to survive on the ocean?

The best way to survive is that there isn’t one. Survival at open sea is beyond anything imaginable as per the accounts of those who have been through it. According to most of them, there’s no real how-to for surviving adrift on the ocean. It simply is among the most brutal and unforgiving situations a human being can end up in, and if nobody comes for you within a few days, chances are you’ll never make it back alive. Yet, experience in extreme situations and a little know-how could still make the difference between life and death. 

What to do after you reach a life raft?

  1. Am I the only survivor?

The first thing you do once you make your way from either the sinking ship, crashed airplane or the open water onto a life raft, is to see whether there are any other survivors in need of help. Help them aboard as quickly as possible.

  1. Anything useful around?

Secondly, see if there’s any useful debris floating around. There could be food, water or any other materials that may save your life later. Even a simple piece of wood or an empty bottle.

  1. Stay put

Once dealt with this, best is to stay near the place where your ship sank, unless land is within easy reach. If you were aboard a larger vessel and radio signals have been sent out, you can wait for three days before moving away from the area. If you were on an untracked fishing boat or sailing boat, it’s unlikely a rescue party will come for you, and it’s better to start moving immediately. 

  1. Don’t panic!

Perhaps almost needless to say, but make sure you restrain yourself from eating and drinking all the supplies on board the raft during your first day. This happened after Zamperini’s plane crashed into the ocean, and crew member McNamara helped himself to all 6 chocolate bars during the first night in an act of panic.

lost at sea

Where to go after getting stuck on a life raft?

If no rescue party comes for you, trying to find land is your ultimate priority. If you have a rough idea of where you are, but the nearest land is far and requires you to travel upwind, it might be a better decision to travel downwind to conserve your energy. Traveling downwind you can make 40 miles a day without any effort, while struggling against the current and wind may cost you all your precious energy, while not getting anywhere. 

At least as important as ease of travel is water. If you have any charts showing rainfall and currents, it’s best to follow potential rain. Only when these first two priorities are met, you can see if it’s possible to navigate towards a frequently used sea or air route to increase your chances of being rescued. If unknown, it’s generally considered best to head east or west.

How to drink water at sea?

If you have anything more under you than young Terry Jo, you can start to think about drinking water as a first priority. 

In favorable conditions, your body can survive without water for a few days. However, fatigue, salt exposure, fear, tropical heat and physical exercise will all decrease that time. You can already end up in a critical condition after half a day without water if you push yourself too hard, sweat too much, are on the verge of a heat stroke, and have nothing around to bring your body temperature down. Therefore, sort out your water situation as soon as you can.

What not to do..

Never drink seawater. It’s common sense to most people, but if you’re delirious with thirst in the middle of the ocean, it may suddenly seem tempting. This however, will first make you sick and then speed up your state of dehydration, probably leading to death.

Therefore, unless you have a desalination kit, pray for some rain, and be prepared for the moment it comes. Also, science does not recommend drinking your own urine, although many long-term castaways have survived while doing so.

Catching water at sea

If you have a raincoat, use the hood to catch rainwater. Any other containers, plastic bags, and even boots can be used. Remember to use the first drops of rain to wash away the salt, as salt make the water undrinkable.

Another last resort can be to take a t-shirt or any other piece of fabric. If it’s full of salt from sea spray, rinse it in the sea first, it’ll be less salty than the crust that may have gathered on it.

Then let it soak up the rain. Preserve the first two loads for cleaning purposes, as the salt content would still be high. In arctic regions floating ice can be used as drinking water, as the salt content will gather as a slush in the center.

What to eat when adrift in the ocean?

To be on the safe side, it’s best to leave your emergency rations untouched as long as possible. Since you don’t know how long it’ll take for you to be rescued, it’s best to start living off the sea as soon as you can.

However, as your body needs a lot of water to digest food, you have to adjust the amount you eat according to the availability of fresh water. I’ll share some tips on food intake based on different amounts of water. Although not everyone agrees to this theory, it appears many castaways have found a food and water balance that comes close to this approach.

When no water is available

You can still catch fish when there’s no water at all, but make sure not to eat the flesh.

If anything, drink the blood from caught turtles and seagulls or you could even suck out the non-salty fluid from fish’s spine or eyes and the bone marrow from turtles and birds.

When very little water is available

If water availability increases to about a cup a day, you can add small amounts of raw, freshly caught fish.

When this increases to two cups a day, more fish can be taken. Still refrain from eating dried fish and dried turtle meat.

When plenty of water is available

When water is available in large amounts you can feast on any fresh and dried food, as long as the rain lasts. Be careful not to overeat or -drink though, as your stomach will have shrunk in size, and cannot handle large amounts of food or water at once.

Best to eat slow and in small portions.

Vitamin sea?

Vitamin C deficiency is a long-term issue for castaways that can lead to scurvy, but only after more than a month. To prevent this, try catching small fish that live off plankton, as some of them contain vitamin C.

Another source could be seaweeds. Do not eat those unless you have plenty of water at your disposal though. If any coconuts appear near your boat, you’re in double luck. Coconuts are loaded with vitamins, and you could be nearing land!

Catching turtles

Most long-term drifters have turtles to thank for their survival. Sea turtles often bump against the raft while looking for a mate. These slow swimmers can be caught either by hand or with a hook.

In any case, protect yourself and your raft from their beak and sharp claws. Once you got the turtle onboard, lay it on its back and try to insert a knife into its throat artery. Make sure to have a container at hand to catch the blood, and drink this immediately, as it coagulates quickly. Preserve turtle fat for cold days and the liver oil for skin problems.

Catching birds

Birds may often come and rest on your raft, as for them it’s a welcome resting place in the vast ocean. You’ll soon get the hang of grabbing them with your hand. Best is to skin these galls, boobies or even albatrosses alive and preserve the oil on their skin, just like you can do with turtle liver oil, to use as a balm on sore skin or lips, or for any lubrication purpose.

Apart from the blood and the flesh, bird bones can be sucked out for marrow, which can be a tasty time pass for a castaway. 

Catching fish

Fish are naturally attracted to the shadow of your boat, so there is an opportunity to make a catch. In some waters, line fishing works better, but in waters with shark presence it may be wise to try other methods, as you could lose precious fishing gear.

In these areas spear fishing is more suitable, or you can be like José Alvarenga, and just scoop the fish out of the water with a quick move of your hand. In general, it’s easy to lure fish with leftover fish organs from a previous meal, but this of course could also attract larger predators like sharks.

Surviving as a team

Though the most famous castaway stories are of those who spent most of their time adrift all alone, there are plenty of examples of small crews making the best of their combined skills and company. A few tips to make best use of teamwork.

  1. Get a leader – SOLAS recommends that one of the first things you do as a group is to appoint a leader, so that duties can be divided, rations determined and to have less room for arguments.
  2. Have a lookout – Always have someone on the lookout for ships, sharks, changing weather, damage to the raft, or even signs of land. If possible, let the same person be on the lookout at the same times each day, so changes become more obvious.
  3. Keep Clean – Keep strict hygiene on board, it will help ward of nasty baterias
  4. Find routines – Build routines and schedules so you have something to hold onto. This helps to keep sanity and morale up. 
  5. Land Ho! – Treat all possible sightings of land or ships seriously, though take into account that there’s a great probability of a false sighting. This may occur more and more as morale, strength and clarity weaken among crew members.
  6. Awareness – Keep an eye out for each other’s mental state. There are many cases of castaways, delirious with thirst, having lost hope or suffering from hallucinations, who threw themselves overboard. People in this state should be forcefully restrained if possible. Even though they have plenty of opportunity to feed themselves to the sharks, it’s best for the general morale to do your utmost as a team to keep everyone sharp, alive and mentally well. Without morale and discipline, your crew is heading for trouble, and may even end up eating each other.
  1. Survive – Make sure survival stays your highest priority. If survival routines are followed incessantly and persistently, regardless of what your mind says about the purpose of it all, your chances of making it out alive will significantly increase. A castaway who falls prey to the voices in his head is bound to fail.
  2. Ration – Take strict water and food rations and create an attitude of voluntary self-deprivation, which is challenging during times of severe dehydration, but necessary for the survival of the team. 
going mad

How to avoid going crazy when you’re adrift on the ocean?

Losing your mind is one of the most dangerous enemies at sea, especially after realizing nobody is looking for you, after going days without water while being surrounded by it, or when you just shot your last flare, but the cargo ship fails to spot your tiny raft in the big ocean.

Fear, loneliness, and anxiety are your constant companions as a castaway. The effect of seeing nothing but the vast sea and sky can easily lead you to think you’ll never see land again, which can be extremely demoralizing. This will often make you feel like your physical condition and hopes of being rescued are far worse than they actually are. This can be aggravated by dehydration and hunger, both which impair your judgement.

As Dougal Robertson, who himself survived 38 days adrift on a dinghy, puts it in his classic Sea Survival Manual: 

‘I have no words to offer which may comfort the reader who is also a castaway, except that rescue may come at any time, but not necessarily when you expect it; and that even in you give up hope, you must never give up trying, for, as the result of your efforts, hope may well return and with justification. You can expect good and bad luck, but bad or good judgement is your prerogative.’

Steven Callahan, who survived 76 days lost on the Atlantic, wrote:

‘This life is full of trials and tribulations, so you have to capture humor whenever and wherever you can find it.’

So, while he was trying to laugh at the situation, Alvarenga prayed, sang hymns, and tried to stay positive. Callahan also recommends sitting back and looking at the clouds to find familiar shapes in it, rather than staring at the sea.

Lastly, although using your voice doesn’t help when you’re dehydrated, singing your favorite songs at the top of your lungs in the world’s biggest karaoke venue can help to keep your spirits up. At least do it when water is abundant.

Dangers while adrift at sea.

The ocean is a harsh mistress, and apart from hunger, thirst or going mad, there are sharks, hypothermia, all kinds of skin problems, and infection trying to kill you. 

shark attack

How to survive a shark attack on a life raft?

In some parts of the world sharks can be a constant danger for castaways. Partially lured by the smell of fish that surrounds the raft and partially because sharks are generally curious.

Luckily, a shark usually doesn’t swim right in to attack, although it does happen. Normally it will perform a circle and then close in for a bump.

This bump is also done for a reason, as sharks can actually taste through their skin, so it’s like a taste test to see if he likes his proposed meal. Unfortunately, your vessel may have such a fishy smell around it that the shark may still be interested. Also, the bumping itself can be detrimental to the state of your raft. 

If the sharks don’t bump your boat or show other signs of aggression, just be still and wait for them to pass.

Do not splash the surface, as this can be interpreted as a sign of distress. Instead, firmly hit any approaching shark with a hard object on the snout, between the eyes or the gills. As long as you don’t show weakness to the shark you have a chance to convince it to find an easier prey.

How to deal with hypothermia on a life raft?

Out in cold waters, you’re more likely to die of hypothermia than of anything else, so stay out of the water and keep your clothes dry. 

Hypothermia happens when your body loses heat faster than it can produce, and your temperature drops below 91F (35 C). For castaways, especially when weakened by dehydration and starvation, it can be a cause of death. Hypothermia can occur after water immersion, due to exposure to rain or splashing waves, or even due to being exposed to cold air and wind.

Symptoms can start slow and may include confusion, drowsiness, shallow breathing, slurred speech, lack of coordination, a weak pulse and eventually loss of consciousness. 

If others are around, it’s best to resist the tendency to increase the person’s temperature quickly, or to massage his or her limbs, as this can stress the heart and lungs, and cause death.

Instead, insulate the person from losing more heat and then use an immersion suit (if available) or buddy warming to slowly bring his or her temperature back. To prevent the buddies from reaching dangerously low temperatures themselves, it is advisable for them to remain clothed during buddy warming. 

Given the difficulties of getting out of slowly creeping, cold due to long time exposure to the elements, it is best to do everything to prevent hypothermia by huddling together if possible, and conserving energy.

Prevention of skin issues

Long term exposure to salt water of any temperature will slowly start to affect your skin, which can lead to ulcers, blisters, dermatitis, and open sores that can cause fungal infections. With the limited means the castaway has, it’s something you partially have to learn to live with, though oil squeezed from a turtle’s liver may offer some solace.

In any case, try to keep the affected area dry, out of the sun and salt-free if possible. By any means, resist the temptation to scratch or squeeze blisters, as this only aggravates the condition and slows down the healing process.

Another skin problem that can occur on a life raft is bedsores, especially on the buttocks, due to limited movement and exposure to salt water. Best prevention is to move regularly and to keep the area as dry as possible. 

When on a boat without canopy, sunburns are inevitable. Apart from trying to cover your head there isn’t much to be done. Again, turtle liver oil can be your best friend! 

In cold areas frostbite can be a real danger, as it can lead to ulcers that heal very slowly in weakened physical condition. Therefore, try your utmost to prevent them by frequently rubbing or gently massaging any exposed parts to stimulate circulation. 

Protection against the weather on a lifeboat

As a castaway, you must shield yourself from the burning sun, freezing cold, wind, rain, and sea spray. If you’re on a modern life raft, you’ll have decent protection under its canopy. If not, you have to improvise some kind of makeshift roof made of whatever material you have on board. 

In freezing weather, you can dip a blanket in the water, let it freeze and then use it as shelter against sea spray and wind. In tropical heat, always stay completely covered from the sun, even if it’s cloudy. This slows down dehydration and prevents sunburns. A cloth tied around your head going over your nose will protect your eyes from the ocean’s blinding glare.

How to increase your chances of getting rescued?

Always keep an eye out for planes and ships in the distance. If you spot one, use a pocket mirror or a smartphone screen to reflect sunlight. The signal can be seen up to 10 miles away on a sunny day. Use your flares wisely, as many modern cargo ships have so few crew members on board that, especially during daytime, these may go unseen.

signalling for help from an aiplane

Signs of Land 

Apart from ships and planes, the one thing a castaway stares at the distance for are signs of land. Here’s what to look out for.

  1. Large, white, and fleecy cumulus clouds in a clear sky
  2. Sightings of birds other than the galls, boobies, and albatrosses you’ve been seeing (or eating).
  3. A green tint in the sky could indicate a coral reef. Coral reefs are not necessarily safe places for boats, especially inflatable ones, but it could be a sign of land nearby.


From what I gathered, it’s best to make sure you never end up one a lifeboat in the first place, by following safety protocols and the lessons you learned about navigation at sea. Only when your ship is irreversibly heading to the bottom of the sea, it’s time to make for your life raft as a last resort. 

In all fairness, I think most people like you and me don’t stand a chance at sea. The ones who make it out are mostly experienced sailors and survivors who are not sitting in their fluffy chairs writing about how to survive the near impossible. 

Yet, if general discipline and advice given in the manual you find on most modern life rafts are followed, even amateur survivors like you and I stand a chance. Keep your wits with you, your hopes up, and most of all, don’t listen to the screams in your head, and you may well survive this most unsurvivable of situations! 

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