Ditch bags, also known as grab, go, or abandon ship bags, should be an essential part of all sailors’ lives.
Whether you sail inland, in coastal waters, or offshore away from the protection of land-based agencies, a ditch bag may be the difference between a good or bad outcome.
We all know the challenges of sailing – limited space on board and the urgency that comes with abandon-ship situations. It’s not easy, but that’s why we’re here.
Drawing on extensive knowledge of sailing safety and survival gear, I’ve put together a guide that includes insights on the essential items needed for different sailing endeavors.
It’s a compilation of years of maritime experience and data.
As a fellow mariner, I understand the importance of being prepared for any situation at sea.
So, let’s start with the key things to remember.
At a Glance:
1️⃣ A well-packed ditch bag is essential for any sailing journey, whether inland, coastal, or offshore.
2️⃣ The contents of the ditch bag can vary depending on the sailing environment. But universally critical items include an EBIRP, flares, a handheld VHF, emergency water & food supplies, and a first aid kit.
3️⃣ The number of ditch bags to carry is subjective. Some prefer one, while others advocate for two smaller bags.
4️⃣ For offshore sailing, additional items such as a handheld GPS, a portable water desalination device, and a bag containing important documents and cash are recommended.
🎒 Why Pack A Ditch Bag?
Pre-packing a ditch bag is a good idea for several reasons:
It is a central repository for all emergency signaling equipment that can be kept in an easy-to-reach location.
Even if you don’t have to jump in the water, having a ditch bag handy means you know where everything is.
If there is an emergency situation and the only option is to abandon the ship having one or two (more about that later) ditch bags mean you have everything you need to increase your chances of survival.
Having a prepacked ditch bag allows you to concentrate on coping with the emergency and not have to second guess yourself while you urgently run around trying to think of what you need.
🛄 The Ditch Bag
A ditch bag should have the following characteristics:
1️⃣ The ditch bag(s) must be large enough to carry all the chosen equipment.
2️⃣ It must be waterproof and able to keep the contents completely dry.
3️⃣ When sealed, it should float.
4️⃣ It should have a supporting strap and an easily accessible handle that makes it easy to grab quickly and carry.
5️⃣ It must have a lanyard that can be used to attach it to your life jacket or life raft.
6️⃣ Ideally, the ditch bag should be brightly colored (The best colors for ditch bags are yellow, red, or orange – the international distress color)
7️⃣ If you have an EPIRB, the ditch bag should have a separate pocket to carry the device.
🎱 It is useful if the ditch bag has inside pockets and dividers that enable you to split the different emergency equipment and make it easy to find the individual items.
9️⃣ The pockets and dividers enable you to keep pyrotechnic devices separate from the medical and survival supplies such as food and water.
🔟 Some commercially available ditch bags have lanyards that can secure important equipment and prevent it from floating away or sinking.
Suitable ditch bags can be found at the following link (Amazon)
If the ditch bag contains flares, it should be kept close by in an easily accessed compartment to comply with United States Coast Guard regulations.
🤔 How Many Ditch Bags Should You Have?
There are several schools of thought regarding how many ditch bags you should have.
Many people insist that one sufficiently sized ditch bag is enough. Their argument is:
- One bag is easier to locate
- A single bag is easier to carry off the boat than two or more.
The other option is to split the ditch bag contents between two smaller bags. The reasons for this are:
- Two smaller and lighter bags are easier to carry.
- Having one bag means all of your eggs are in one basket, and if you become separated from the bag, you have none of the required survival equipment.
- Having two bags means that if one is lost, at least you have half the necessary equipment.
- Separate people can carry the two bags, which prevents one from being lost if the person is separated.
We do not have strong views and suggest you adopt whatever system you are most comfortable with.
👥 Who Should Have A Ditch Bag?
Any person who sails on the water where there is an element of danger.
Some of the possible dangers include: Running aground or holing the hull; High sea states where the vessel may be swamped; Capsizing; Collision with other marine vessels; Fire; Engine failures; Loss of steering; Loss of navigation; Fuel exhaustion.
🏖️ Coastal, In-shore, and Nearshore Ditch Bags
A well-stocked ditch bag in a sailing boat in coastal waters should contain the following items.
Imagine what you might need for survival; drinking water and light, nonperishable food rations are important to keep your energy up.
And lifesaving medications and a small marine first-aid kit will allow you to address any medical conditions or injuries.
An EBIRP (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon)
Irrespective of the regulatory requirements, all vessels that travel in any part of the ocean should carry a suitable EBIRP.
There are two categories of EBIRP devices:
- Category one devices are equipped with a hydrostatic release which automatically activates the device when it comes into contact with water.
- Category two devices require manual activation.
When the EBIRP is activated, the signal ends up at the nearest rescue center, which will conduct appropriate activities to locate the vessel and rescue the crew and passengers.
If the EBIRP is in a separate pocket of the ditch bag, it can be accessed without exposing the other contents to water ingress.
Most EBIRP devices have an LED signaling light that doubles as a handheld electrical flare.
Three Red Handheld Flares
There are different types of flares that can be included in your ditch bag for emergency signaling.
The ditch bag should include handheld flares for signaling rescue services.
- Legal requirement: Three handheld flares.
- We recommend carrying six flares with a three-minute burn rate each.
- Keep a flare constantly activated when rescuers are three to five miles away (fifteen to eighteen minutes).
- Flares should be United States Coast Guard approved.
- Minimum brightness: 15,000 candelas.
- Flares should not emit slag that may fall onto the user’s arm.
Three Red Parachute Flares
Parachute flares are effective for attracting emergency services’ attention:
- They fire 1,000 feet into the air, providing visibility.
- Bright burn for easy identification by aircraft and vessels.
- Minimum brightness: 30,000 candelas.
- Burn time should be as long as possible, but at least 40 seconds.
Two Orange Smoke Canisters
Orange smoke canisters are valuable for distress signaling:
- Can be deployed even in the presence of combustible liquid (gas or oil) on the surface.
- Easy to use and produce a dense, bright orange distress signal.
- Burn time of at least three minutes.
- It is recommended to carry two orange smoke canisters.
You should always follow best practices for storing distress flares when arranging the components of your ditch bag.
A Handheld VHF Radio
A portable VHF radio is an essential communication device for survivors:
- Enables direct contact with rescue services or nearby boats within range.
- Should have a waterproof casing and be registered with the Federal Communications Commission.
- Some radios have a single-touch distress button that sends a distress message with an internal GPS signal.
- Can guide searching aircraft or boats to your location.
- Opt for a 6-watt transmitter for optimal range, and consider a model with an LED strobe light for additional signaling capabilities.
A Signaling Mirror
One of the most effective distress signaling tools is a mirror that can reflect the sunlight at a passing aircraft or boat.
Practice using the mirror for flashing an SOS morse code message.
A mirror designed for this purpose will have the following features:
- It floats.
- It is virtually unbreakable and resists scratches.
- It won’t corrode in water (made from durable acrylic)
- Its inbuilt targeting system makes it easier to shine the reflected light on the selected target.
A Sea Dye Marker
Sea dye markers deposit a luminescent green or orange color in the water that stays in place for 30 – 40 minutes. These are very easy to see from an aircraft.
Always keep a powerful and easy-to-use airhorn in the ditch bag. These are very effective devices that can be used to attract the attention of nearby vessels.
A Signal Locator Beacon
A signal locater beacon floats, and when activated, the LED light flashes an S.O.S Morse Code distress signal.
Most of these devices can continue operating for five days.
Emergency Space Blankets
All emergency equipment kits should have one or more space blankets. One space blanket should be available for each of the boat’s occupants.
They protect the occupants of a life raft from cold water at night and prevent hypothermia.
Emergency water and electrolyte rations in purpose-made pouches are essential to ensure everyone remains hydrated.
To avoid dehydration, a minimum of ½ liter of water is required per day per person.
If the disaster occurs in coastal waters, a sufficient quantity of water for 48 hours should be carried. Sunscreen and seasickness pills prevent dehydration.
Emergency Food Supplies
Look for emergency food supplies that provide sufficient nutrition and are designed to not go stale for long periods.
Emergency First Aid Kit
A well-equipped first aid kit is an important component of a ditch bag that contains the following:
Always keep portable lights (torches or handheld LEDs) and spare batteries sealed.
Nothing is worse than being adrift and not having a convenient torch to help you read instructions, a pre-prepared checklist, or a radio frequency list.
A Spare Pair Of Reading Glasses
If you need reading glasses, carry a spare pair in the ditch bag. They’re compact and can make a crucial difference in selecting the right distress frequency or operating distress equipment accurately.
A Hand Compass
A manual old-fashioned hand compass is valuable to keep in a ditch bag.
🌊 Offshore Ditch Bags
Ditch bags designed for offshore sailing should contain all the items listed in the coastal ditch bags as well as the following items.
A Handheld GPS
A handheld GPS is vital if a sailing boat is abandoned offshore. It offers an accurate location as a backup to the VHF radio GPS and provides drift direction details. Opt for a compact, waterproof device.
A Portable Water Desalination Device
If immediate rescue is not possible, prioritize hydration for survivors. Coastal ditch bag water rations may run out if the rescue takes longer than expected.
Consider investing in hand-operated desalination units as valuable emergency devices for long-range cruisers.
A small backpack that can be lifted into a helicopter or ship rescue should contain the following laminated documents:
- Photocopies of passports.
- All your immunization records.
- All visas used on the trip.
- Small Denominations of US dollar bills (cash) in a sealed, waterproof bag.
- Traveler’s checks.
- Credit cards.
- The vessel’s documents and insurance information.
- Names and dosages of all medication requirements.
- Phone numbers.
🗝️ Key Takeaways
A prepacked ditch bag is an essential safety component for a sailing vessel. Here’s a recap of the key points:
1️⃣ In an emergency that results in an abandon ship command, an easily accessible ditch bag may be the difference between a good and bad outcome.
2️⃣ Hopefully, it is never used; however, if it is needed, it becomes an essential emergency device.
3️⃣ The bag must be suitable for the purpose it is being carried.
4️⃣ Although no regulations require a ditch bag to be carried, any safety-conscious skipper or owner should insist.
How often should I check and update the contents of my ditch bag?
It’s recommended to check and update your ditch bag at least once a year. However, if you’re frequently sailing, it might be beneficial to do this more often. Always check the expiry dates of perishable items and replace them as needed.
Can I customize my ditch bag based on the specific needs of my crew or passengers?
Absolutely. While there are general guidelines and requirements for what a ditch bag should contain, it’s important to consider the specific needs of your crew or passengers.
This could include additional medical supplies for someone with a specific health condition, extra food and water if you have a larger crew or child-sized life vests if you have children on board.