Staying Afloat in Open Water

Staying Afloat in Open Water

This page contains information on how to survive by staying afloat at sea in an emergency situation, also you will find useful swimming techniques that might save your life.
Before you're rescued by a rescue team, you will have to work hard on your own to stay alive, because it might takes a while. In the meantime, you need to do whatever it takes to stay alive, and especially afloat until you are rescued. Your survival in the open seas depends upon your ability to use the available survival equipment, and your special skills to apply them to cope with the hazards you face as well as your will to survive. But most importantly your ability to improvise, because every survival situation is different, so think and improvise by taking advantage of what you have available to you.

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Staying Afloat at Sea

After a boat sinks, and no raft is available, the greatest problem a survivor is faced with when submerged in cold water is death due to hypothermia. When a survivor is immersed in cold water, hypothermia occurs rapidly due to the decreased insulating quality of wet clothing and the fact that water displaces the layer of still air which normally surrounds the body. Water causes a rate of heat exchange approximately 25 times greater than air at the same temperature.

Tips for Staying Afloat at Sea

  • Water causes hypothermia 25 times faster than air.
  • Best protection is to get into the liferaft and stay dry.
  • If that's not possible, then wear the antiexposure suit (to extend time of survival).
  • Keep the head and neck out of the water and well insulated.
  • Wearing a life preserver increases the survival time.
  • Use H.E.L.P position (heat escape lessening position) - See below.
  • Huddle with others to maintain body heat.
  • A survivor who knows how to relax in the water is in little danger of drowning.
  • Read survival swimming without a life preserver (below).

The following table lists life expectancy times when body is submerged under water:

Staying Afloat
Water Temp.Time
70o - 60o12 hours
60o - 50o6 hours
50o - 40o1 hour
40o - below-1 hour


NOTE: Thes survival time may be increased with the wearing of an antiexposure suit.

The best protection for a survivor against the effects of cold water is to get into the liferaft, stay dry, and insulate the body from the cold surface of the bottom of the liferaft. If this is not possible, wear of the antiexposure suits will extend a survivor's life expectancy considerably. It's important to keep the head and neck out of the water and well insulated from the cold water effects when the temperature is below 66°F. The wearing of life preservers increases the predicted survival time just as the body position in the water increases the probability of survival. The following table shows predicted survival times for an average person in 50°F water:

SituationPredicted Survival Time (Hours)
No Flotation Device
Drownproofing1.5
Treading Water2.0
With a Flotation Device
Swimming2.0
Holding Still2.7
Help4.0
Huddle4.0

Help Body Position: Remaining still and assuming the fetal position, or heat escape lessening posture (HELP) (image above) will increase the survival time if compared to swimming. About 50 percent of the heat is lost from the head. It is therefore important to keep the head out of the water. Other areas of high heat loss are the neck, the sides, and the groin.

Huddling: If there are several survivors in the water, huddling close, side to side in a circle, body heat will be preserved (image above).

Please note that sometimes swimming will be more important then using the "H.E.L.P" position, especially if you see the shore or when trying to reach a certain target. So asset your situation before acting to see which action will increase your survival.

Survival Swimming Without a Life Preserver: A survivor who knows how to relax in the water is in little danger of drowning, especially in saltwater where the body is of lower density than the water. Trapped air in clothing will help buoy the survivor in the water. If in the water for long periods, the survivor will have to rest from treading water. The survivor may best do this by floating on the back. If this is not possible, the following technique should be used: Rest erect in the water and inhale; put the head face-down in the water and stroke with the arms; rest in this facedown position until there is a need to breathe again; raise the head and exhale; support the body by kicking arms and legs and inhaling; then repeat the cycle. (see image below)


Stay on top of the Water

Survival Swimming Without a Life Preserver


Life Preserver Use

The bulkiness of clothing, equipment, and (or) any personal injuries will necessitate the immediate need for flotation. Normally, a life preserver will be available for donning before entering the water.
(1) Proper inflation of the life preserver must be done preferably, before entering the water. Upon entering the water, the two cells of the life preserver should be fastened together. Limited swimming may be done with the life preserver inflated by cupping the hands and taking strong strokes deep into the water. The life preserver may be slightly deflated to permit better arm movement.
(2) The backstroke should be used to conserve energy when traveling long distances. If aiding an injured or unconscious person, the sidestroke may have to be used. When approaching an object, it is best to use the breaststroke. If a group must swim, they should try to have the strongest swimmer in the lead with any injured persons intermingled within the group. It is best to swim in a single file.

More information: We hope this page was helpful and provided you with some survival techniques on how to stay afloat in the open seas. Check out our main page for more survival scenarios here Survival Guide, knowledge is light, and knowledge can save your life. Make sure you do your best to know what to do in a survival situation and then hope for the best.

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