Friday 13 May 2016

Abandon Ship Bag

When sitting around the cruisers campfire the mere mention of the words grab bag can certainly be one way to start a conversation.  My grab bag was inherited from the previous owner and before moving my boat to its new home port I went through the contents of the bag. I was astounded at the things I found, some were good but other bits and pieces were taking up precious space that could have been put to better use.  So once I worked out what was needed or out of date it was a quick trip to the chandler to replace the expired items and get some good basic emergency equipment. Later while planning our first trip up the coast I went through the bag again and cleaned out more of the things that in my mind were taking up valuable space.

While I thought I had the basics well in hand I decided to canvas some more opinions and started to ask around and in the process got a good insight into what others had.  I found items included in these bags vary widely between operating areas and most people have their own ideas of what should be included. The climate of the area people are or have cruised in certainly influenced what was included in the bags.  During my quest for knowledge I found that there is still the odd cruiser who is quite unconcerned about putting a bag together. Some I talked to had not even thought about the possibility of having a collection of survival tools available at a moment’s notice to help them if the need arose. I did notice that during my conversations with some of those people there were light bulb moments as the realization sunk in. Then the questions started as thoughts flooded in and we better not mess this one up because one day they may find themselves in a survival situation.  

The reality is that everyone really should have a basic grab bag no matter what your vessel size.  Boat owners have a legal obligation to have a specified level of safety equipment on board before setting out.  If this equipment is stored in a grab bag it becomes easier to access in an emergency. In recent years I remember boating safety advertisements on the radio giving details of fishermen being over turned by a rogue wave while at anchor. As mentioned in the ad they were able to dive under the upturned boat and get the emergency bag, this would not have been as easy if the contents were spread around the vessel in pockets and under bunks.  Power or sail doesn’t really matter if your pride and joy has sprung a leak and you find yourself overwhelmed and unable to stem the flood.  You need to quickly get what you can to increase your chances of survival, you then need to summon help while trying to increase your target size for the different methods of search and rescue.  

While it’s all well and good to talk about the grab bag contents the bag is at the end of a long list of preparations. Depending on the passage these preparations should have started weeks earlier. Preparations for a cruise should start with a crew briefing discussing the cruise plan, proposed route and backup route and also address crew allocations and the roles the crew will take during an emergency. For example allocations will dictate who will launch the life raft with a backup crew member if the primary person is injured.  The emergency plan will list who gets the Grab Bag again with back up, and who of the others will get additional water, food, blankets etc. During the briefing crew should look over the contents of the grab bag, and be told how to use the equipment. I think we all have heard of crew not knowing how things work properly. As an example a rescue in recent times had a slow response due to the crew not knowing the EPIRB needs to be in the water to transmit properly, they kept it nice and dry in the life raft thinking they were doing the right thing.  (Some EPIRB’s don’t need to be in the water, read the instructions with the unit) Before going offshore try and run through some emergency drills, prepare, its things like filling the extra water containers now, and show every one where the extra pieces of kit are stored.

You need to look over your grab bag regularly but I am not saying to check it before every short trip across the bay, if you don’t travel far or only do the odd over night or day sails then you should only need to check the contents at the beginning of every season.  But and there is a but; you need to look after your grab bag and common sense will allow you to realize how to look after what can be an expensive kit and don’t subject it to rough storage or leave it sloshing around in a wet locker.
To help control the expiry dates of grab bag contents I make up a laminated sheet and attach it to the outside of the bag or flare canister. The sheet lists the bag contents and the expiry dates of packed items. Should the flares or other contents need replacement before the end of the season I know to pick up replacements next time I am at the chandlers.   

Of course the next thing to do after buying replacement flares is to remove the old ones from the vessel and send them for safe disposal. If you don’t remove them from the boat you do run the risk of being fined if you are stopped by the authorities for a safety gear inspection. While we hear of people being fined for keeping old flares in addition to in date units, it must be kept in mind things have a use by date for a reason and old flares can be a hazard. There is no guarantee these old flares will work, or perhaps even worse, they malfunction and become another hazard in an already stressful situation. What if you or one of the crew grab the old ones which are undiscernible from new ones except for the expiry date in small print and when used they malfunction and burn a hole in the life raft, you’re then in even more trouble.
Make another copy of the check list I mentioned earlier and file it away as part of vessel safety plan. This list can be given to crew members so they can check the contents easily and bring to the skippers attention any concerns about the contents.   Talking about emergencies, of the boating people you know how many have taken the time to talk about an emergency plan?  While the task of putting together a plan looks daunting it doesn’t need to be. Most of us think about our own safety and that of our crew and have action plans in our heads; we know how we would like to see things go if it all goes pear shaped. We need to get an experienced opinion out there, if we don’t share that knowledge it is useless in an emergency, crew members may not do or get the things you would have made a high priority.  Write your plan in small chunks starting with a basic plan of job allocations including a muster list, they are important and you can fill in other details as you go along.  Once you have a basic plan the next thing to do is test it out and see what works and what doesn’t.  Discussion among the crew should work through any problem; the goal is to have a robust plan that will have a positive outcome even if there are unforeseen difficulties.

Coming back to the contents of the grab bag, this is a collaboration of people’s thoughts; I have listed items that have come up most in conversations, and by also examining commercial grab bag contents. Some items listed may appear to be an over kill, it’s a case of setting up a bag that’s right for you and your intended area of operation.  While not a lot of us have satellite phones, if I had one it may not be stored in the grab bag and this would have to be addressed in the abandon ship plan. The same may be said for emergency food and water, people I have talked to say the primary bag should hold some emergency rations but a secondary bag would be necessary for extended survival time.  While it’s true that in a survival situation food and water are major survival items, and while it may be easy to carry extra cans of food into the liferaft or perhaps you catch a fish, digesting the canned food or fish will require extra water. So if you haven’t been able to collect a lot of rain water and are carefully rationing, be aware of what you’re eating. Survival food for life rafts is specially formulated not to require a lot of extra water for digestion. 

The grab bag contents list has been broken into three areas. The reality is that the three areas could have been broken into sub sections but I didn’t think that would be necessary.  For example the signals could be categorized as items to get the message out that something has gone wrong and we need help.  The next is items to increase your target size for those out searching for you and then the next items to fine tune you as a target and then local communications once searches are in close proximity.  
We have listed a GPS enabled EPIRB, while I don’t have one of these myself I will upgrade to GPS enabled unit shortly due to the greater location accuracy. A GPS enabled EPIRB has an accuracy of 120 Metres, a non GPS EPIRB has an locator accuracy of 5 kilometres. While 5 Klm doesn’t sound like much when we’re sitting at anchor in good weather, in a SAR situation it certainly adds a level of uncertainty about being located quickly. An  important factor to keep in mind is a reduction of the time it takes to acquire the location the beacon is transmitting from, orbiting satellites calculate the position if there is no GPS. These orbiting satellites take 90 minutes on average to receive the signal but it has been known to take up to 5 hours depending on the conditions. Without GPS more information is needed to determine the real location. Usually this is at least two satellite passes to get the required information to calculate the location.

While researching for my own EPIRB upgrade I was shocked to find some units don’t update the GPS coordinates regularly. If you have a GPS enabled EPIRB or are in the market for a new one check the update rate (the number of times the GPS position is output), you never know it may be time to retire the old unit or make a better purchasing decision. No sense spending the extra money thinking this will narrow the search area down only to find after the fact your location update was so minimal you only had the same position accuracy as a standard EPIRB. While on the subject of EPIRBS, to work effectively most not all EPIRB need to be in the water once activated, preferably floating free with a clear view of the sky on the end of the supplied lanyard, keeping them in the life raft or out of the water can render them useless. The other thing that can render an EPIRB useless is if it isn’t registered, this is an important step after purchase. These important details are needed by the search and rescue to make decisions on how to best go about coordinating a rescue.

While talking about communication electronics, there are a lot of hand held VHF radios that are marketed as water proof. While the cases maybe water tight what I have seen lead to failure on numerous times is the charging connection points on the bottom or back of the battery pack.  If these become immersed in sea water they short out and discharge the battery.  Or worse they cause a electrolysis reaction that erodes the contacts enough leading to total failure when water finally floods the battery pack. Other radios have water proof halves, battery pack and main electronics, but are not sealed where the battery pack connects to the main electronics housing. Again sea water between the two halves can lead to failure of the battery pack very quickly due to discharge because sea water is shorting out the pack.   The point I am trying to make is it best to get a water proof bag for your VHF and hand held GPS and store them in the grab bag in these packs. Another important consideration is to get a hand held radio and GPS that can take alkaline batteries. This way if the batteries do go flat you can change them; rechargeable battery packs do not have the ability to maintain the level of charge alkaline batteries can when in storage.   

Trying to find the bag to use will be a personal choice, there are a range of bags out there. Some are dry bags and others will stay dry for a short time but if left to float around will become water logged. But keep in mind if you’re getting into a raft there is still no guarantee the contents of you bag will stay dry, so minimize the problem and pack things that need to be kept dry in bags or sacks that will keep the water out even when submerged in water.

When setting up your bag give some thought on how to keep things together if you’re in the water and need to open the bag. For example to get a radio or flare you won’t the contents spilling out and being swept away before you have time to use them.  For those items that don’t need to be kept dry can be put into mesh bags attached by lanyard to the main bag. The main bag should also have a lanyard to attaching to a person it the water or the life raft, other attachment points can also be used to keep people in the water tethered together.

The Bag Itself

You could make your own, but commercially available abandon ship bags and pods are relatively inexpensive and usually the best way to ensure the bag has the right features:
  • Positive flotation. You might drop it into the water while scrambling to the life raft. Most commercial models have flexible foam sewn into the sides, top, and bottom to provide both flotation and padding. Air trapped in sealed gear bags inside also adds flotation; be careful however this may not be enough to keep the bag afloat. Weigh the gear you are putting in the bag then test the bag will float with that weight.
  • Water resistant. The bag need not be totally waterproof because items inside can be put in sealed pouches and bags.  Water resistant will help because you don’t want it to immediately fill with water making it hard to handle. •Visibility. Most grab bags or pods are yellow or international orange. You can improve night time visibility by attaching water activated PFD light as well as glow in the dark or reflector strips. Reflector strips will reflect in a torch beam and can also aid in a night time search and rescue.
  • Sufficient size. Be sure your bag is large enough to hold everything you plan to include. The more crew you have the bigger bag you’ll need, for example you need a lot of space just for water. But don’t let the bag become so large it becomes hard to handle.
  • Sturdy carry and lanyard straps attachment points. You need to be able to carry it easily. In storm conditions you should also be able to easily tie or clip a strong lanyard to the attachment points before transporting it off the boat.
  • Clearly labelled and stowed. You know that bag next to the companion way is for abandoning ship, but everyone else on board must know too because you will likely be busy if your boat is going down.
Emergency Grab Bag

Signal Items
        Registered GPS enabled 406 EPIRB
        Handheld VHF radio (sealed pouch) spare batteries, laminated channel allocation list
        Table of life-saving signals
        Sat phone  
        4 orange smoke flares,
        4 red handheld flares,
        2 parachute flares ,
        Cyalume light sticks
        Sea Dye
        Strobe light (Water activated attached to outside of bag)
        2 Torch’s high intensity LED (Flashlight) 
        Small gas horn
        Signal mirror
        V Sheet (orange V sheet or ball over rectangle)
        Rescue Streamer
        Inflatable Radar Reflector

Survival Items
  •  Survival instructions waterproof (laminated sheets in large font)
  •  Sea sick medication
  • Water (individually sealed emergency water packets) as much as possible
  • Measuring cup 
  • Emergency food rations, portion servings
  • Glucose sweets (Barley sugar)
  • Safety tin opener if added canned food or water
  • Essential personal prescribed medications
  • Reading glasses
  • First aid kit
  • Sunscreen
  • Vaseline (good for chafe)
  • Solar still or hand-operated desalinator if travel is offshore
  • Knife (Safety rescue knife, rounded tip)
  • Matches
  • Compass
  • Water proof watch
  • Rope 10-30 meters, 4mm + snap hooks
  • Simple fishing gear (line, wire leader, jigs, hooks, pliers, gaff hook, cutting board)
  • Compact spear gun & extra tips
  • Hats (Warmth, sun protection )

  • Other Items (depending on space and needs)
        Handheld GPS (TX position by VHF or Sat phone)
        AM/FM radio (sealed pouch)
        Thermal aide’s / blankets
        Waterless towels
        Throwing coit and floating line (heaving line)
        Water proof paper and pen
        Spare prescription glasses,
        Sunglasses (polarized to reduce glare)
        Small pair of binoculars (to confirm a boat or plane spotting before using flares)
        Zip lock bags various sizes (Water bags)
        Roll 3mm rope (keep things together)

Extra Raft bits
        Patch kit, plugs for inflatable dinghy or life raft
         Sea Anchor + Line

Personal Grab Bag
  • Boat & Personal Documents
  • Thermal underwear
  • UV protection outer wear
  • Wallets & passports
  • Prescription/ Reading glasses
  • Medications & Prescriptions
  • Phone, paper and pen
  • House and car keys
  • Energy/snack foods
  • Book 

In Conclusion
Remember that you step up into the life raft if you need to abandon ship. Stay on the boat unless it is really, truly sinking or on fire. In recent times many boats have been found floating after the storm, abandoned by panicked or seasick sailors. If you are frightened and seasick just wait till you get in that raft (seasickness doesn’t get any better in a raft). You’re safer on your boat, even if it’s half full of water, than in a life raft or dinghy in open water, and it’s much easier for rescuers to find you. If your vessel is half full of water or upside down you more than likely still have untainted water in the tanks, the gas stove may be made to work, and most likely there is better protection from the elements.