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What's In Your Ditch Bag?

No skipper likes to think about the possibility of having to abandon ship. But if it happens, the best way to increase your chances for rescue and survival is to have a well-stocked ditch bag.


Whether coastal cruising, distance racing, or sailing offshore, you may find yourself in harm’s way and be forced to abandon ship. “When that happens, there’s rarely time to collect anything at all—let alone a lifesaving kit of survival equipment,” says boating safety expert Captain Henry E. Marx, President of Landfall.


And while most life rafts are equipped with some basic survival tools, never assume that yours has everything you’ll need. Due to space and weight limitations, life rafts typically have only minimal gear—and you can’t unpack them to check or add more.

For this reason, you need a ditch bag to store safety electronics and survival gear needed for immediate abandon ship situations. “When you only have a few seconds to get in the water or a life raft, this grab-and-go bag—and its contents—become your lifeline,” Marx adds.

What should be in your ditch bag? Depending on your destination, here are the essentials every “flee bag” needs:

Necessary Items for In-Shore Ditch Bags

Requirements for Coastal, In-shore, and Nearshore emergencies include:

  • One Abandon Ship Dri Bag. The ditch bag itself should have flexible foam sewn into the sides, top, and bottom to provide both flotation and padding. The bag should also be waterproof to keep its contents completely dry and be large enough to hold everything you plan to include. The best colors for ditch bags are yellow or international orange, and you can improve nighttime visibility of your bag by attaching reflector slips.

Important: Store your ditch bag in a handy place—below deck, but near the companionway—and make sure everyone else on board knows where it is.

  • One Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). Your best choice is a 406 Mhz model with an internal GPS, the same field-tested rescue technology used by the U.S. Military, Coast Guard, NATO, Special Forces and Arctic explorers. These units offer a host of advantages: worldwide coverage, position location accuracy, a reliable transmitted signal, an encoded message that identifies your distressed vessel, and a faster response time. What’s more, a GPS-enabled 406 EPIRB's accuracy falls within 100 yards of the initial alert, helping to guide rescuers to your exact location.
  • Three Red Handheld Flares: These are designed to show location and allow homing.  The very best flares available in terms of brightness and duration are labeled SOLAS, which means they go above and beyond U.S. Coast Guard minimums. Choose red flares with one-minute burn and 15,000 candela. Also check packaging to assure that the flares will not produce hot residue that could be harmful to inflatable rafts.
  • Three Red Parachute Flares: SOLAS parachute flares are the most powerful distress flares available. Impossible to miss at their peak altitude of 1,000 feet, the intense red brilliance achieves 30,000 candela and a burn time of 40 seconds, to alert others of a distress situation—day or night.
  • Two 3-Minute Orange Smoke Canisters: Suitable for commercial and recreational boaters, these easy-to-operate canisters produce a three-minute dense bright orange distress signal that’s usable on petrol or oil-covered water.
  • One Handheld VHF Radio Plus Replacement Batteries: A handheld, digital selective calling (DSC), very high frequency (VHF) radio is an essential emergency rescue tool. When registered with the Federal Communications Commission and programmed with your assigned Maritime Mobile Service Identity code (MMSI), it’s capable of transmitting its own internally generated GPS position with an emergency signal that enables faster rescue by allowing one-button communication of your description and location to rescue services. Choose a model that includes 6 Watts of Transmit power to maximize clarity, and one that activates an SOS strobe light on command or upon accidental immersion. A model that uses AA or AAA batteries is a plus as well, thus enabling you to use it in a life raft (no charging station required) to communicate with incoming Aircraft.
  • One Signaling Mirror: An essential component to any survival kit, a good signal mirror can be seen for miles and help draw attention to your location. Look for a signaling mirror that’s unbreakable, scratch resistant, floats, and is made of durable acrylic co-polymer (so it won’t corrode in salt water). Models with built-in targeting systems are your safest bet, since they will allow you to aim the signal flash with pinpoint accuracy, thus helping to ensure that you will be seen and rescued.
  • One Sea Dye Marker: These special markers contain a fluorescent green dye, which spreads over the surface of the water so as to increase one’s visibility for a pilot to see. The bright green pattern on the water can be seen for a mile or more and typically lasts for 30 to 40 minutes. A field test study conducted by Powerboat Reports that tested flares, streamers, mirrors, and smoke flares found that the Sea Dye marker was was the most effective tool for sea rescue.
  • One Signal Locator Beacon: Look for a model that’s buoyant and flashes S.O.S Morse Code when ON. Also check to see that it has an LED light that will remain at peak performance for six hours and will remain illuminated for up to 60 hours on one one set of fully-charged batteries.
  • Six Emergency Space Blankets: Think of these products as a three-ounce life insurance policies. Waterproof (84" x 56") blankets are virtually indestructible and a necessity for cold nights and treatment of hypothermia. Make sure you get ones made from the finest polyester material and purest vacuum deposited aluminum for the reflective surface, and pack at least one per person onboard.
  • Two Pocket Flashlights (with 2 sets of spare batteries): The most durable models are made of unbreakable ABS body with polycarbonate lenses and thermoplastic rubber shrouds. Check labels to assure the ones you choose are waterproof (up to 500 feet), and also fit comfortably into your hand or clip easily onto clothing. Even if batteries are included, be sure to purchase and pack spares.
  • Twelve Industrial Grade Glow Sticks – Red: Twelve-hour duration red is best for emergency signaling. Tie the glow stick to a lanyard, swing it in circles over your head, and you can't be missed.
  • Thirty Emergency Water Packets: Look for U.S. Coast Guard-approved pouches that are portioned to ration fresh drinking water servings to two per person per day. Check labels to assure that each lot has been lab-tested for sterility before packaging, is individually marked with the month and year of manufacture, and will not be affected by heat, cold, or shock.
  • One Life Raft First Aid Kit: Think compact (so it can easily fit in your ditch bag), and make sure the kit follows U.S. Coast Guard specs. Unit packages should be individually heat-sealed and double-packed in water-tight, zip-lock bags for reclosure. Check labels to assure that these zip-lock bags have been tested by the Underwriters laboratory for weathering and water tightness under adverse salt water conditions.
  • One Marine Medicine Book: Take your pick of these four:

Advanced First Aid Afloat (5th Edition) By Peter F. Eastman, M.D. This book addresses virtually every accident or ailment that might occur when professional medical care is unavailable. The writing is clear and in layman's terms, with step-by-step instructions that allay panic and calmly take the reader from diagnosis through treatment. 

First Aid at Sea (4th Edition) by Douglas Justins and Colin Berry. This recently revised edition is ring bound and color tabbed for quick reference. Full-color illustrations with concise text cover all major emergencies you're likely to encounter at sea—bleeding and shock, breathing difficulties, hypothermia, burns and fractures, head injuries, resuscitation, and emergency procedures. Both authors are doctors and experienced sailors. 

International Medical Guide for Ships (3rd Edition) by the World Health Organization with illustrations by S. Smyth. Provides complete information and advice for non-medical seafarers faced with injury or disease on board ship. This third edition shows designated first-aid providers how to diagnose, treat, and prevent the health problems of seafarers on board ship.

A Comprehensive Guide to Marine Medicine (2nd Edition) by Eric A. Weiss, M.D. and Michael Jacobs, M.D. More than 300 pages of text cover topics including hazardous marine life, submersion injury and dive medicine, rescue and evacuation of sick and injured, wound cleaning and closing, and much more. More than 106 illustrations, improvisational techniques and "when to worry" tips help you give pointers on medical care and guidance on when to seek professional medical help.

  • One Package of Sea Sick Pills/Anti-Motion Sickness Tablets: Look for dosages of Dimenhydrinate, USP 50 mg. that are heat-sealed, dated, and packaged in individual cellophane strip packs.
  • One Manual Air Horn: Whether you prefer an aluminum or stainless steel finish, test it to assure that it’s easy to use. Also check for U.S. Coast Guard certification and look for a mouthpiece that can be removed for cleaning. With no replacement cans or chemicals needed, this horn will never run out of gas! 
  • One Hand Compass: Used by sailors in the Mediterranean Sea since around the 13th century, this tool remains a must-have for your ditch bag. Just be sure the modern-day version you choose has adjustable optics for sighting, as well as V-sight—and that it floats!

Necessary Items for Offshore Ditch Bags

In addition to all of the above items, here are a few extras you’ll need for Offshore and Distance Racing:

  • One Handheld GPS and Spare Batteries: A handheld GPS is necessary to pinpoint your position and know the direction you're moving, so don't scrimp on quality. Go for something lightweight and waterproof that not only floats, but acquires satellite signals quickly and tracks your location in challenging conditions—such as heavy tree cover or deep canyons. And don’t forget to pack spare batteries!
  • One Manual Water Maker: The World Health Organization recommends at least one liter (approx. one quart) of fresh water per person per day to maintain hydration. Hand-operated emergency water makers now weigh in as light as 2.5 pounds yet have the capacity to make an ounce of drinking water in less than two minutes using a hand pump.

Information provided by Captain Henry Marx, President of Landfall, which offers a comprehensive curriculum of classroom courses for recreational and professional mariners on topics of boating and seamanship. You can direct any question concerning ditch bags to Marx by calling 203-554-3981 or sending an email to: Landfallnav@Landfallnav.com

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