Getting to Shore at Sea

Getting to Shore at Sea

This page contains information on how to survive by finding land and reaching shore if you're lost in the open sea, also you will find useful information about how to recognize signs of land.
Sometimes the rescue team cannot get to you, or don't know where you are, so you need to do whatever it takes to stay alive, and eventually get to shore. 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.

Finding Land and Reaching Shore

When you're in the open water you should watch carefully for signs of land. If more than one person is on the raft, the team should take turns to be on the lookout for land or signs of land (rotate every 2 hours). Below you will find some indications of land.

Signs of Land

The following are signs indicating that land is nearby:

  • Deep water is dark green or dark blue. Lighter color indicates shallow water, which may mean land is near.
  • Vegetation or wood floating might indicate proximity of land.
  • Birds are usually more abundant near land than over the open sea. The direction from which flocks fly at dawn and to which they fly at dusk may indicate the direction of land. During the day, birds are searching for food and the direction of flight has no significance unless there is a storm approaching.
  • Presence of birds in the horizon usually indicates proximity of land.
  • Wind generally blows toward land during the day and toward sea at night.
  • Shallow water is clear (in tropics). It might indicate proximity of land.
  • In the tropics, a greenish tint in the sky is often caused by the reflection of sunlight from the shallow lagoons or shelves of coral reefs.
  • A fixed cumulus cloud in a clear sky, or in a sky where all other clouds are moving, often hovers over or slightly downwind from an island. (cumulus cloud: see image below)
  • In the arctic, ice fields or snow-covered land are often indicated by light-colored reflections on clouds, quite different from the darkish gray reflection caused by open water.
  • Clouds often gather themselves over corals islands and reefs.
  • A change of pattern in the swell might indicate a change of tide around an island.
  • If the swell is decreasing but the wind remains constant, it indicates an island windward (which is protecting the sea).
  • In fog, mist, rain, or at night, when drifting past a nearby shore, land may be detected by characteristic odors and sounds. The musty odor of mangrove swamps and mudflats and the smell of burning wood carries a long way. The roar of surf is heard long before the surf is seen. Continued cries of sea birds from one direction indicate their roosting place on nearby land.
  • Land may be detected by the pattern of the waves, which are refracted as they approach land.
Finding Land and Reaching Shore

Sailing a Raft into the Wind: Rafts are not equipped with keels, so they cannot be sailed into the wind. However, anyone can sail a raft downwind, and multiplace (except 20/25-man) rafts can be successfully sailed 10 degrees off from the direction of the wind. An attempt to sail the raft should not be made unless land is near. If the decision to sail is made and the wind is blowing toward a desired destination, survivors should fully inflate the raft, sit high, take in the sea anchor, rig a sail, and use an oar as a rudder as shown in figure 23-52.

Note: If you are wearing a life jacket and don't have a raft, it might be easier to swim on your back. It is easier to cover distance with a partially deflated jacket.

Reaching Shore

Now that you found land, reaching shore is a different story. You need to be careful with your landing. All sailors know that the greatest danger isn’t on open ocean, but near rocky or coral-lined shores. Distances on the water are very deceptive. In most instances, staying with the raft is the best course of action. If the decision is made to swim, a life preserver or other flotation aid should be used. Shoes and at least one thickness of clothing should be worn. The side or breast stroke will help conserve strength.Take the following tips into consideration before making landfall:

  • Once land is spotted, if possible, sail around and look for a sloping beach where the surf is gentle, and the landing point should be carefully selected.
  • If you can wait, don’t land at night.
  • If you can't wait, and will arrive in a coral or rocky area, wear protective clothing.
  • Avoid shores with high cliffs.
  • Lookout for breaking surf and coral reefs.
  • Choose sandy beaches over rocks and coral.
  • If you are on the windward side of the island, try to paddle around it (to the leeward side) to find a more protected place (or look for a small bay that will shelter you from waves).
  • Waves arrive in sets (often of 7), make sure you time your landing to deal with the smallest waves.
  • If pushed toward rocks, swim feet first. If high swell threatens to break on you, don’t surf it, dive into it (going in the opposite direction) and once it passes over you resume swimming toward the beach.
  • f you are in a raft or canoe, paddle hard toward the beach between the waves and back paddle as hard as you can when the next breaking wave is catching you (avoid surfing, you might capsize).
  • If you have a sea anchor, let it drag behind you. It will keep your craft oriented in the waves and will prevent you from surfing (and maybe capsizing).
  • Don’t jump in the water, stay in your raft until you touch the beach.
  • If you seem to be drifting away from shore, you most likely are in a rip current. Don’t fight it, paddle or swim parallel to shore until you come out of the rip current.
  • If you are caught in the undertow of a large wave, push off the bottom and swim to the surface and proceed shoreward.
  • A place where the waves rush up onto the rocks should be selected if it is necessary to land on rocky shores and avoid places where the waves explode with a high white spray.

Caution: If you're getting to shore on a raft, the sea anchor should not be deployed when traveling through coral.

Once on the beach if no human signs are evident, you are now in a coastal survival situation (much more favorable than a sea survival situation). Note: It is easier to look for landmarks when you are still on the water than after you’ve landed on the beach.

More information: We hope this page was helpful and provided you with some survival techniques on how to find signs of land and reaching shore. 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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