Ditch Bag Contents: Don’t Forget This!

Ditch bags, also known as grab, go, or abandon ship bags, should be an essential part of any skipper’s gear on board.

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, data, and SOLAS requirements.

For a comprehensive understanding of those regulations and where to store your grab bag, check out my essential ditch bag guide.

Key Takeaways

  • In an abandon ship scenario, an easily accessible ditch bag may be the difference between a good and bad outcome.
  • Hopefully, it is never used; however, if it is needed, it becomes an essential emergency device.
  • The grab bag must be suitable for the purpose it is being carried.
  • Although no regulations require a ditch bag to be carried, any safety-conscious skipper or owner should insist.

Coastal, In-shore, and Nearshore Ditch Bags

Imagine what you might need for ­survival; drinking water and light, ­nonperishable food rations are important to keep your energy up.

Lifesaving medications and a small marine first-aid kit will allow you to address any medical conditions or ­injuries.

A well-stocked ditch bag in a sailing boat in coastal waters should contain the following items.

Irrespective of the regulatory requirements, all vessels that travel in any part of the ocean should carry a suitable type of EBIRP.

There are two categories of EBIRP devices:

  • Category I devices are equipped with a hydrostatic release which automatically deploys the device if submerged.
  • Category II devices require manual deployment.

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.

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.
  • I 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 your arm.

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.

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 good 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.

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.

An essential daytime distress signal, 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 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.

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.

Look for emergency food supplies that provide sufficient nutrition and are designed to not go stale for long periods. 

A well-equipped first aid kit is an important component of a ditch bag that contains the following:

  • A first-aid manual and instruction booklet to help you administers appropriate treatments.
  • A broad-spectrum antibiotic (this requires a prescription from a licensed doctor.)
  • Pain medication.
  • Seasickness pills (50 mg Dimenhydrinate pills in heat-sealed, dated packaging are designed for this application.)
  • Medicated rash salve.
  • Disposable towelette.
  • Medication for diarrhea.
  • Medication for constipation.
  • Antiseptic cream.
  • Sterile bandages.
  • Small band-aids (plasters).
  • Sunscreen.
  • If any boat’s occupants use chronic medication for a life-threatening condition, ensure that supplies are kept in the First Aid Kit.

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.

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 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 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.

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.

Essential Features of a Ditch Bag

Firstly, the capacity of the ditch bag should be ample, allowing for the accommodation of all selected equipment.

Essential to its design, the bag must be waterproof to ensure the contents remain unaffected by water. Additionally, once sealed, it also needs to float.

A supportive strap and an easily accessible handle allow swift retrieval and carrying. While a lanyard incorporated into the bag’s design, allows for secure attachment to a life jacket or life raft.

Look for vibrant colors such as yellow, red, or orange (recognized internationally as distress signals). Furthermore, a separate pocket is advised for those carrying an EPIRB, safeguarding the device and ensuring its readiness.

The organization is augmented with internal pockets and dividers, which assist in categorizing emergency equipment for easy access and identification.

The arrangement within the bag should separate flares from essential survival and medical supplies, including food and water.

Certain commercially available ditch bags extend their functionality with lanyards designed to secure crucial equipment, preventing loss through drifting or sinking.

As per flare regulations, ditch bags containing pyrotechnics necessitate strategic placement within an easily accessible compartment, ensuring readiness and compliance with safety standards.

Why Pack A Ditch Bag?

You shouldn’t need a good reason to pack a ditch other than it’s good seamanship. But just in case you are on the fence.

Pre-packing a ditch bag centralizes all emergency gear, ensuring it’s readily accessible and easing quick location in crises.

This preparation enhances survival chances during an abandon ship situation and allows focus on emergency management, reducing last-minute decision-making about necessary items.

And I’ll leave you with this quote just to let it sink in!

‘The sea finds out everything you did wrong’.

Francis Stokes

The Case For Multiple Ditch Bags

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.
  • If you become separated from a single grab bag, you have no 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.

I don’t foster strong views on this and suggest you adopt whatever system you are most comfortable with.

Also Asked

Any mariner who sails where there is an element of danger.

Some of those 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.

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.

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.

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I spent a decade working as a professional mariner and currently, I mix those experiences with digital publishing. Welcome, and I hope that we can be the hub you need for safe passage.