How long can a person survive in the open ocean?

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There are numerous different situations that can occur at sea that can put the lives of people at risk and render them adrift on the ocean. Everything from life rafts, to provisions to physical conditioning will affect how long a person adrift at sea might survive. There are three main scenarios that can occur that leave the crew adrift on a disabled boat, adrift in a life raft or adrift in the water. Let’s look at these individual scenarios.


This is the best of the bad scenarios to be in. In most cases you should have some food, shelter and water to tide you over until your rescuers arrive. If you’re lucky you will have some fishing gear aboard to supplement or add to your food supply. Always stay with the disabled boat if it is possible. The boat also represents the largest target for sea rescue to locate from the water and the air. The disabled boat is always the safest place for crew. The boat offers shelter from the heat and cold and the opportunity to rest in relative comfort. Containers can be placed around the boat to collect rainwater for drinking.


This is the second best option though it does not have the same comforts as being adrift on a boat. Life rafts can develop punctures or tears and have an increased chance of sinking. Modern rafts are more durable than their predecessors, which is good news for those lost at sea. These rafts also often come stocked with basic foods, water, flares and other survival tools. There are many known survivors who managed to stay alive for long periods of time in the life rafts. A good modern raft will typically have the following:

• A covered deck for protection from the elements
• Oars or paddles to manoeuvre the raft
• An insulated floor
• A bailing bucket
• Flares
• Fresh water and water collection devices
• A signalling mirror to signal passing boats
• Fishing accessories
• Freeze dried food packs
• Waterproof medical kit


This is the most dangerous scenario to be in. If you managed to pull on a wetsuit and a life jacket, you will improve your chances of survival. In most instances, you will have little or no water and nothing to eat. Drinking sea water will only dehydrate you and hypothermia is a very real problem when adrift at sea. If you do have a life jacket on that is keeping you afloat, pulling your knees up to your chest will help you retain some heat, but not for too long. In warmer water, with a wetsuit and life jacket, you could survive for as much as three to five days. That is of course if you don’t succumb to dehydration or the sharks.

Calm water survival:

Lie on your back in the water, keeping your head above the waterline to breathe. This is the most energy efficient way of survival in calm water and will allow you to wait comfortably for a few hours until rescuers arrive.

Rough water survival:

In rough water, rest face down in the water allowing your body to float and lift your head to breathe. Exhale under water slowly and repeat the process as and when air is needed.


Using the acronym STOP which stands for “Stop, Think, Observe, Plan” should you find yourself stranded at sea.

Sea rescue flares
Sea rescue flares

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