How to Survive Open Water

Posted on Posted in Staying Safe
Surviving open water | WIld Survivor

It’s fair to say that the human race evolved to live on land. Although most of us have the ability to swim, many of us would not be able to physically swim far enough to reach land if we found ourselves in a survival situation out in the ocean. Deep open water is a harsh and extremely dangerous environment for us to be in alone.  

So the recent news story about a British woman who went overboard a cruise ship and survived in the water for ten hours before being rescued is a remarkable example of endurance against the odds. The woman was said to have fallen from the rear of the cruise ship some sixty miles off the coast of Croatia. When rescued, she was found to be in good health considering her experience, apparently a little hypothermic and exhausted but otherwise ok. When asked how she had survived, the lady put it down to being fit from practicing yoga and said that she had been singing so as not to feel cold overnight.

Yet it so easily could have resulted in a tragedy. Other people around the world have tales of even longer survival alone at sea. We take a look at what factors may have helped her to survive and how others might increase their chances in similar situations.

Water Temperature:

The biggest problem with falling into water is the body shock caused by being plunged into cold water – known as cold water shock. The body’s involuntary reaction to this is to hyperventilate, if not controlled then water is easily swallowed and quickly results in drowning. Survival times in cold water are very limited.

On top of this, cold water slows a person’s system down as it fights to keep internal organs warm enough, affecting dexterity and resulting in weakness, confusion and disorientation, eventually leading to a complete inability to swim.

This lady was fortunate that the water temperature was estimated to be up to 28°C, warmer than an average swimming pool so she had avoided these additional dangers. While this temperature may sound really warm, it is worth remembering that she had started to suffer from hypothermia by the time she was rescued due to being submerged for so long.

Sea Conditions:

The weather and sea conditions at the time of this lady’s experience were calm and flat, allowing her to stay afloat in virtually the same place where she fell in, without being pounded by waves, dragged by currents or exposed to rough weather. Harsher conditions would have made it far harder to keep her head above water, depleting her energy resources far more rapidly.

Because she was able to stay in the same area, she was also lucky to be found more quickly as rescuers were able to pinpoint exactly when and where she had fallen overboard from the ship’s CCTV. It is very difficult for rescuers to locate people in open water, especially in the dark and/or poor conditions when the only part that is generally visible above the water is the head.  

The Will to Live:

One of the biggest factors in surviving any ordeal is having the mental strength to get through – it really is about the individual’s state of mind. This woman remained calm and stayed positive through the night by singing to herself. For many people, the automatic response might be to freeze through fear, panic or even give up.

What to Do:

  • From the outset, stay calm, stop yourself from thrashing around and keep your breathing until control.
  • Assess your situation logically. If there is no possibility of swimming to shore or help, such as a boat, then your best bet is to wait for help to find you.
  • Stay positive and remind yourself that you want to live and you are going to live.
  • If there is nothing around to aid floatation, then float on your back as much as possible to conserve energy. The more energy you use, the cooler your body will get. Your clothes will also have trapped air pockets in which help with buoyancy. Moving around too much will disperse these air pockets.
  • If you are prepared enough to be wearing a floatation device or life vest, then bringing and holding your knees to your chest can help to ward off hypothermia for a little longer by lessening the amount of water against your skin, helping to maintain core temperature. This will not work if you have no buoyancy aid.

RNLI Advice to Cope With Cold Water Shock:

  1. Fight your instinct to thrash around.
  2. Lean back, extend your arms and legs.
  3. If you need to, gently move your limbs around to help you float.
  4. Float until you can control your breathing.
  5. Only then, call for help or try swimming to safety.

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