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Abandon Ship

What to do when it's safer to get off the boat than to stay aboard.

Abandon Ship

Adapted from, Beating the Odds: A Guide to Commercial Fishing Safety, 7th Edition, Jerry Dzugan and Susan Clark Jensen, 2018

Some emergencies occur quickly with little or no warning, while others may have a delayed onset. If you are not sure you can control a situation, contact the Coast Guard and ask them to set up a call schedule and standby. They will know something is wrong if you don’t call in on schedule and will then begin a rescue.

Flooding, fire, capsizing, or grounding may someday make your vessel unsafe. Abandoning ship may become necessary, but it is a serious decision. A tragic example of an inappropriate order to abandon ship occurred in 1981 aboard the F/V St. Patrick. During heavy weather the captain ordered all hands off the vessel. Ten crewmembers died trying to survive in the rough seas. When rescuers arrived,
they found the St. Patrick still floating, with immersion suits left on board. The vessel, a grim reminder of a premature order to abandon ship, was towed to Kodiak and stayed afloat for many years.


Make sure you abandon ship only when you are certain that being on board the vessel is more dangerous than being in the water. Once the decision has been made to leave the vessel, there are three things to do: broadcast a Mayday call, prepare the crew, and inflate your life raft.

Mayday Call
Make sure your radio is on and you transmit on channel 16 VHF or 4125 kHz SSB. (Monitoring 2182 kHz SSB was discontinued August 1, 2013.) Then state:



  2. Your vessel’s name/call sign three times.

  3. Position (latitude/longitude and loran are preferred).

  4. Nature of distress (fire, grounding, medical emergency, etc.)

  5. Number of people on board (P.O.B.)

  6. Vessel description (length, color, type, etc.)

  7. Amount and type of survival gear on board (immersion suits, life rafts, EPIRBs, flares, etc.)

  8. Listen for a response. If there is none, repeat the message until it is acknowledged or you are forced to abandon ship.


If you are fortunate, a nearby vessel will hear your Mayday call and pick you up.

Crew Preparation
In cold water, before abandoning ship put on your shoes or boots, a hat, and several layers of wool, polypropylene, or other clothes that will help keep you warm even when they are wet. In warmer water you will not need as much clothing. Then put on your immersion suit, or PFD if immersion suits are
not available. If you can’t wear shoes or boots in your suit, stuff them inside the suit. You’ll need them on shore. Find additional flotation that you can take. Make sure your personal survival kit is inside your suit or the PFD/suit’s pocket.

It can be difficult to escape out of a flooded compartment if you are already wearing flotation, so take care not to get trapped inside the vessel. Don’t get snagged by the rigging. A vessel that is being abandoned
is often a tangle of hooks, spars, lines, fishing gear, and other paraphernalia. Give yourself a clear pathway to escape, and beware of getting tangled, trapped, or snagged.

Life raft canister and hydrostatic release. Release the pelican hook (or snap shackle) to free the life raft.

Release the pelican hook (or snap shackle) to free the life raft.

Inflate the Life Raft

  1. Free the canister from its cradle. Most models have a pelican hook that you undo; others are freed by hitting the brass hydrostatic release.

  2. Carry (do not roll) the canister to the vessel’s lee side.

  3. Pull out the painter so there is enough line to reach the water.

  4. Check to make sure there is nothing below you in the water that could damage the raft, pull out enough slack in the painter to reach the water, then throw the canister overboard. To avoid damage to raft and crew, do not inflate raft on deck.

  5. Pull on the painter until the raft inflates. You will usually need to pull a little more than 100 feet of line and then, when you feel resistance, give a sharp tug to inflate the raft. Be sure to secure the painter to the vessel until the vessel sinks.


If the vessel sinks before you can remove the raft from its cradle or inflate it, the hydrostatic release will activate at a depth of approximately 15 feet, freeing the raft from its cradle. A few life raft models are designed to float free out of their cradles without a hydrostatic release. As the raft floats toward the surface, and the vessel continues to sink, the painter triggers the raft’s CO2 cartridge, and the raft inflates. Continued pressure on the raft’s painter from the sinking vessel will cause the painter’s weak link to part, separating the raft from the vessel.

If the raft is not inflated when it hits the surface, pull on the painter to trigger the CO2 cartridge, but watch out for the bands that hold the raft together. They can pop off with considerable force. Inflating
a life raft on deck is dangerous.

Leaving the Vessel
Make sure your EPIRB is either secured to the raft or in your secure possession before and during your abandon ship. Abandon ship safely and stay as dry as you can. If you are not able to step directly into the raft, ease yourself into the water and use the painter to get to the raft. Try to avoid jumping into or on the raft. This can be dangerous, especially if it is done from a height of more than 15 feet or with people inside. Injuries will only make your survival situation more difficult.

If you must jump into the water, store your eyeglasses unless you know you can keep them on, and use the following four steps to help protect your head, neck, and groin.

  1. Stand on the vessel’s edge (the lee side is usually best) so you can step sideways off the vessel.

  2. If you are wearing an immersion suit:

    • Make sure it is fully zipped and the face flap is secured.

    • Do not blow up the suit’s air bladder until you are in the water. This prevents possible neck injuries and damage to zipper.

    • Put your arm that is nearest the vessel over your head, and insert the thumb on your other hand into the suit’s hood. This will protect your head and permit air to escape from the suit when you hit the water. Use the back of your hand to protect your airway.

  3. If you are not wearing an immersion suit:

    • Protect your head with your hand nearest the vessel, and use your other hand to cover your nose and mouth.

    • If wearing only a PFD, use your seaward arm to cover your nose and mouth. Then use your arm closest to the vessel to protect your head, cross first arm, then grab shoulder of PFD to prevent it from going over your head on entry in the water.

  4. Look down to make sure there is no debris in the water.

  5. Step off the vessel and cross your legs at the ankles. Once you hit the water you will momentarily submerge, but will then bob up.


Although this jumping method works, the best way to enter the water is still to ease yourself in and keep your head dry if possible.

Abandoning ship in an immersion suit. If you must jump into the water, take precautions to protect your head, neck, and groin.

If you must jump into the water, take precautions to protect your head, neck, and groin.

In the Water

Without Immersion Suit or Life Raft
This is not a good situation. As you read this, think about where your suit and life raft are stored. Can you get to them if the vessel capsizes? Don’t count on being able to go below decks for your suit. Take the time now to make sure your raft will float free and your suit is accessible at your work place or near a vessel exit.

If, however, you do find yourself in the water with no suit or raft:

  1. Stay with the boat as long as you can, even if it is overturned. This will keep you drier and make you more visible to rescuers.

  2. Stay warm and dry by keeping your clothes and boots on (they will not make you sink) and getting as much of yourself out of the water as possible. Your body cools 25 times faster in water than in air of the same temperature. If you cannot get out of the water, assume the Heat Escape Lessening Posture (HELP) or huddle with other people.

  3. Stay afloat by wearing a PFD and hanging onto floating debris, logs, or other objects.

  4. Stay as still as possible. Cold water moving against your high heat loss areas, the head, neck, armpits, sides of the chest, and groin, steals your body’s heat. Staying still can extend your in-water survival time by up to 30 percent.

  5. Stay together. Use lines to keep together to increase morale and be a bigger target. Signal for help as soon as you can. (Another good reason to carry a personal survival kit.)

Huddle position. Use the huddle position in the water. Side view (left) and top view (right).

Use the huddle position in the water. Side view (left) and top view (right).

With an Immersion Suit without Life Raft

If you have abandoned ship with your immersion suit but did not have a chance to put it on, get into it as soon as possible. (Click here for information on donning the suit in the water.) Getting into your suit while still dry will greatly extend your survival time.

Improve your shelter by blowing up the suit’s air bladder as soon as you can. This will help raise your body higher out of the water, an especially important factor in rough seas. Increase your buoyancy and visibility by hanging onto the capsized vessel, buoys, or other floating objects.

Signal for help with your EPIRB by turning it on and leaving it on all the time. If you have a PFD light, and it is not automatically activated, turn it on at night. If you have more than one flare or orange smoke, fire one as soon as you can, but leave the others for when rescuers are in sight. When firing flares, hold them well away from you; the hot drippings can burn through your suit. Keep the wind at your back or side, aim 60 to 85 degrees up from the horizon (aim higher in windy conditions), and turn your head away just before you fire. Assist other survivors and stay together to boost morale and be a larger signal.

If you need to swim, do it on your back to help keep water out of your suit. If the seas are calm, you can hook arms and legs with another survivor and propel yourself fairly quickly. Keep your spirits up! People have been rescued after floating for more than 20 hours in an immersion suit.

Survivors in immersion suits. Stay together by tandem swimming.

Stay together by tandem swimming.

Despite the best efforts of Hollywood movies, shark attacks are fortunately rather rare. Since 2000, there has been an average of a little over one fatality per year in the United States. While the fear of sharks is natural, there are ways to greatly reduce your chances of a shark attack.

Shore locations such as river mouths, harbors, and brackish water are highest risk, especially at dawn, dusk, and night, since these are prime feeding spots and times. One should avoid blood in the water if possible. To prevent looking like a fishing lure, do not wear jewelry and high contrast clothes. Avoid bare skin. Clothing and neoprene are not tasty to the shark. Circling sharks are mostly curious.

But it is wise to avoid splashing or erratic swimming that can resemble wounded or dead fish or turtles. Staying in a group and vertical in the water presents a non–seal like profile in the water to a shark.


There are three types of shark attacks:

  1. Hit and run: a single strike—mistaken identity or territorial. Injuries are minor.

  2. Bump and bite: a hungry shark surveys prey in decreasing circles, bumps then bites, and repeats. Injuries are severe.

  3. Sudden strike: e.g., great white sharks. Repeat visits are common and injuries severe and may be fatal.


There are several things you can do to avoid or fight off a shark attack. Chemical and electrical deterrents have their proponents. But, in a survival situation, a fisherman will not likely have an electrical deterrent. Although there are some proponents of green lasers, they have been shown to annoy sharks as well as damage the eyes of humans and would-be rescuers. If a predatory repeat attack occurs, punch and/or kick the nose and eyes of the shark and get out of the water as fast as possible, but without panicked splashing. Your best defense against sharks is to stay out of the water using an out of water survival craft.

Swimming in Oil

  1. Breathing in oil fumes is bad for respiration and survival.

  2. Line up in water one behind the other.

  3. Swim on belly. Keep chin out of water if possible.

  4. Place left elbow and slightly cupped left hand at surface of water and push (don’t splash) oiled surface away.

  5. Place right elbow and slightly cupped right hand at surface of water and push (don’t splash) oiled surface away.

  6. Swim into the oil-free space you just created.

  7. Others follow you into the cleared space.

  8. Lead swimmer will be taking most of the fumes. It may be necessary to switch leaders.

  9. Repeat steps 2–8.

  10.  Once clear of area and rescued, use eye wash solution for those in need.


If oiled surface is burning, use same technique but make a bigger cup with your hand and splash water ahead. You will not put out the fire. It is a large class B fire that you are using water on, so it’s not effective to extinguish it, but you will push the flames away from your face.

With a Life Raft

Righting the Raft
Upside-down rafts need to be righted. First, find the righting strap, a nylon strap on the underside of the raft, and make sure you are on the same side as the CO2 bottle (so the bottle won’t come crashing down on your head). The newer model rafts have a notice stenciled on the bottom of the raft or pontoon that says, “RIGHT RAFT THIS SIDE” to let you know which side to work from.

Then, pull yourself up onto the bottom of the raft with the righting strap and lean back. Be careful not to tangle your hand or arm in the righting strap. As the raft flips over, hold one hand over your head to push it off you and stay on your back to swim out. If you have trouble righting the raft, use the wind and waves to your advantage.

Right the life raft by finding the side of the raft with the CO2 cylinder, and hanging on to the righting strap and leaning back.

Boarding the Raft
Getting into the raft from the water takes effort, especially if you are tired, cold, or injured. SOLAS approved life rafts have a boarding platform, often inflated, that makes entering the raft easier. SOLAS, Saving of Life at Sea, is an international group formed after the sinking of the Titanic. It sets international standards for marine safety equipment. If there is no platform, locate the web boarding ladder and use your suit’s buoyancy and the raft’s straps and ladder to your advantage. To board, grab as high onto the ladder or the raft as you can, and crouch low in the water. Then, all at once, pull yourself up with your arms, and kick with your legs. Your suit’s buoyancy should help push you up out of the water. Boarding a life raft is an excellent example of a skill that gets easier with practice.


Life Raft with SOLAS Boarding Ramp


Life Raft with a Webbing Ladder

Anchor 1
Righting an overturned inflatable life raft. Right the life raft by finding the side of the raft with the CO2 cylinder, and hanging on to the righting strap and leaning back.
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