Are You Ready to Abandon Ship?

As the first light of dawn breaks through the cabin windows, you sip at your second cup of fresh coffee, and your hand instinctively searches for the warm spot on the steering wheel. The familiar rumble from the engine room relaxes you, and you settle in for another morning of travel down the Chesapeake Bay. With no conflicting traffic in sight, you set the autopilot and take a moment to make some entries in the log. Suddenly, a bump, then a Bang, then a CRASH, and all hell breaks loose. The floor shakes, the bow swings, and everything on the chart table is now on the floor. You hit something. Instinctively, you open the cabin sole over the engine, and already the water level is rising...

Do you have a container pre-loaded with essential items that you will need in the event that you are forced to abandon ship? For years, ditch bags were carried aboard yachts that are crossing oceans or venturing far from shore. The idea is that if you find yourself needing to actually abandon ship, you are probably too busy and distracted to gather all the things that, in hindsight, you wish you had remembered. The need to pre-plan for abandonment was particularly true in terms of survival necessities like emergency food rations, fresh water, signaling devices and basic first aid.

Many of the survival supplies that would be part of a traditional ditch bag are now replaced by the standard equipment in modern canister life rafts. Those canisters are intended to create an instant survival pod, with all the necessities to keep humans alive while they wait, perhaps for days, for rescue. If you venture offshore, you should own a life raft, but don't assume that the manufacturer of a life raft can anticipate all of your abandon ship needs.

If you are like me and travel almost exclusively in protected waters like the ICW, you don't find that a life raft is justified, because in the unlikely event that you do have to abandon ship, rescue would be so close and imminent that it would preclude any need for survival equipment, and the tender can serve as a lifeboat.

As you can see, whether you own a life raft or not, it is a good practice for every crew to be prepared for a rapid and unexpected departure from the vessel. Personal necessities, legal documents and a means of communication should all be readily available without any need to search for them in a panic. What about a minimum supply of your prescription medications and your passport? Even if you are forced to abandon ship into the safety of another boat, these are some things that you will want to take with you.

In the unlikely event that some calamity strikes, a fire for instance, wouldn't it be nice to know that you and your crew can focus on the immediate problem (like fighting the fire), rather than trying to conjure a mental list of essentials that you don't want to leave behind?

So why not have a ditch bag ready to go whenever you're cruising on your boat? It doesn't have to be fancy, nor does it have to be a bag. A plastic toolbox from Home Depot would work, or an old briefcase found at a yard sale. For years, I used a 5-gallon bucket with a tight lid. I prefer something watertight, but certainly a canvas ice tote kept by the main helm station would be fine, as long as you can fit all your essentials in there.

ACR Ditch Bag ACR makes a Rapid Ditch Bag.

ARC Electronics is offering a new product just for this purpose; the RapidDitch bag, made in bright yellow rip-stop with handy compartments and flotation built right in.

Begin by making a one-page paper document for each regular crewmember. On one side, make a copy of each person's passport and driver's license. On the back side, make copies of medical prescriptions, medical insurance card and the primary physician's contact information. Take those documents to Kinko's and have them laminated. (One note of caution: the contents of those documents are in some respects a way for you to rebuild your identity. Someone else could also use that same information for more sinister motivations. You should keep the ditch bag in a safe place, even locked up, when you are not cruising.)

Next, make copies of your vessel's official paperwork, such as the USCG document and state registration, FCC licenses and MMSI registration . If you have a loan on your vessel, include a bank contact number and the loan number. Include a copy of the 'declaration page' of your hull insurance policy too.

If you store a lot of phone numbers in your cell phone's speed dial, instead of your memory, make sure you also have the numbers for important contacts, like family members, written down in your ditch bag, in case your phone gets left behind or goes in the drink. If you are lucky enough to remember to take your phone with you, you'll be glad that you put an extra charger in your ditch bag, because if you really do abandon ship, you will be making endless phone calls for days.

Once you have all the paper documents copied, start thinking about what else is absolutely vital for you to have. Prescriptions drugs, eyeglasses, money, food and a leash for your pet, and drinking water would all be essential.

You certainly don't need to carry your wallet around the deck all day when you are cruising, so get in the habit of keeping your wallet (and purse) in the ditch bag, right next to the lower helm station.

Below is a suggested list to get you started, but it is by no means comprehensive. Assume that you are going to live 24 hours without getting to a store, bank or pharmacy.


  • Copies of the ships documents (include USCG Document, State Registration, declaration page of insurance policy, radio station license, MMSI #s)

  • * A copy of passport, driver's license, and medical insurance card

  • * 2 day supply of prescription medication(s), and copies of the prescription(s)

  • * Spare eye glasses (includes non-prescription reading glasses)

  • One credit card or ATM card (in case you do forget your wallet)

  • 12oz bottle of fresh water (for taking medications at least)

  • A Swiss army knife

  • Pen, pencil and small note pad

  • Disposable camera (to document damage or salvage efforts)

  • Small flashlight (consider the kind that doesn't need batteries)

  • Plastic whistle

  • Small First Aid kit

  • Small supply of tissue and paper towel, folded and stored in a zip lock bag

  • Spare cell phone charger (stored in zip lock bag)

  • * Cheap windbreaker or jacket


  • * Foreign travel documents like visas and immigration papers

  • A prepaid long distance phone card


  • Handheld VHF radio

  • A personal EPIRB

  • Some cash (how much is up to you, but I suggest $20 minimum)

  • Small tube of sunscreen

  • * Spare hats and sunglasses

  • A prepaid long distance phone card (mandatory in foreign countries like Bahamas)

  • Two granola bars

  • Disposable hand wipes, packaged individually

  • Spare toiletries, like travel toothbrush

  • * Extra socks and t-shirts


  • Copy of vaccinations and rabies certificate

  • One meal supply of food, or more if on a special diet

  • A spare leash for dog, or a harness for cats

  • Half a dozen 6" paper plates, for feeding

* Include these items for each regular crew member

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