March 1, 2016

How much water do you need?

LET’S JUST SAY the two of you are in mid-Pacific when your boat hits a whale. You have to abandon ship and climb into a life raft. Your first reaction is shock, and that’s likely to last a week or so until you can get your lives properly organized. By that, I mean organize shelter from the elements, work out a plan for navigation, keep a proper watch for passing ships, and find enough food and water to keep you alive.

One of your immediate priorities will be to ration the water supply. You’ve found four or five cans of fresh water inside the liferaft — about two gallons, if you’re lucky. How much should you dole out while you’re still in a state of shock, before you can think coherently about how to catch rainwater, or catch fish to squeeze the potable liquids out of them?

Does three small cups each per day sound about right? Can you actually live on only three cups a day? Each cup is about six ounces, so two gallons should last six days. We all know that most humans can last three days or so without water, and about a month without food, but at the end of six days you won’t have any water left.

So should you reduce your consumption to two cups a day each?  Will that allow you to maintain the strength you need, mental and physical, to do the organizing that needs to be done?

This is a problem that needs to be solved immediately because if you start out by drinking your normal daily ration of water you might run out too soon. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.  In the first few days and hours it would be all too easy to drink too much of that precious supply, so you should have given this problem some thought previously.

It’s not a problem often discussed in the media because every situation is different. Some lucky castaways might have solar stills with which to make fresh water, others might have packed hand-operated water makers in their panic bags. Some life rafts don’t have any water at all, which is something you don’t want to discover only when your boat sinks behind you.

So my advice is to read as many books as you can about survival at sea, and read them now, before you go. One of them is Steve Callahan’s Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea. His little single-handed sloop sank after hitting a whale in the Atlantic and he had to take to his six-man Avon inflatable, eventually ending up in Guadeloupe, West Indies.

Apart from the book, there’s a fine interview with Callahan on the Cracked website by Evan V. Symon. If you’re planning to go to sea you’ll find it very instructive:

Today’s Thought
My husband was getting his sea legs — re-reading Joseph Conrad with a side order of C. S. Forester.
— Enid Nemy, “In Search of Glamour on the Sea,” International Herald Tribune 15 Feb 85

Little Johnny’s teacher asked him to spell weather.
He thought about it for a while and then said “W-A-E-I-T-H-R.”
“My goodness, remarked his teacher, “that’s the worst spell of weather we’ve had around here for years.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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