Ditch Bag, Grab Bag, Flee Bag

Surviving is nice but getting rescued is better!

If you’d like to listen to this story – click here for the podcast episode.

The grab bag has several different names: ditch kit, jump and go bag, flee bag (sounds like my old dog), but whatever you prefer to call it when creating your bag, ask yourself what would you need. Who is on board and where you are going? And does everyone on board know where the grab bag is?

While underway we kept ours near the companionway hatch – always ready to grab.

Also, align your inclusions with distance. You don’t have to worry too much about season as on the water we can experience all four seasons twice in one day. However, thinking about the sea temperature is important; hypothermia has an insatiable hunger. The sea gods also have an unquenchable greed and anything in your boat that you think you need should have a piece of string (lanyard) fitted, to give you a fighting chance of keeping in your possession, I mean fitted on your grab bag not every item in it – although for some items it isn’t a bad idea.

Unpacking our grab bag
Unpacking our grab bag

The bag obviously needs to be watertight and waterproof, a bright reflective colour is a good idea as boats don’t just sink during the day (and an emergency kit would be hard enough to spot during the day anyway).

I’ve noticed, over the years, that some of the contents of the grab bag can be very much a personal choice; some people include their obituaries – which I think is quite odd . . .! Other cruising buddies suggest a mattress! Then there’s the younger crew: ‘Please include my favourite toy’, and the older crew:  ‘Put in the fine Scotch dear’, both I am sure, would argue that their life depends on it.

That’s all very nice, but I can think of several more important items. I’d rather have an extra bottle of water.

The Obvious

At the very least have water, flares, and attention grabbers, surviving is nice, but being rescued is even better.

The ditch kit should contain items for immediate use and possibly some months –that’s quite some thought! But it does happen.

Short-term think injuries, hypothermia, and signaling devices. Mid to long-term think survival, i.e. water and food. Are you going to make water or catch it? Can you catch fish? And provision for the prevention of sun exposure is imperative if you don’t want to end up looking like a crisp.

How much?

Over the years of cruising all over the world, I have seen bags made up for short-term (minutes to hours), mid-term (hours to days), medium-term (days to weeks) and long-term (weeks to months). All very useful but how do you know which bag to collect when your boat sinks? Do you take all four?

Recently though, a comment on Women Who Sail Australia made me rethink this idea of numerous bags. She said, “We have 3 grab bags. They are positioned in order of importance. Depending on the situation we would grab the 1st bag only. But if we were able we would take all 3 or at least throw the 2nd and 3rd bag in the water to grab later if we could. The second and third bags have double-ups of the first bag, more flares, water, food, another torch, matches, bucket, second Satphone, etc.

This makes perfect sense and the additional weight to stabilise the liferaft is an added bonus. You’ve just gotta have room on board.

Which reminds me, should the unthinkable happen, as part of the ‘grabbing’ process (if we have time, of course), we would grab the water jugs and tie them to the liferaft. They will float as seawater is denser than fresh so you can leave the freshwater jerry cans almost full and they will still float. Test it for yourself.

However, we must be ready for having very little time and we must also think necessity not holiday.

But what are the other things to consider
Can the bag be snatched quickly? It’s pointless stowing it carefully buried in a dark cupboard, you may only have moments to grab it.

Paperwork is a good one, your passports and boat papers have to be somewhere, why not in the grab bag? Add a few dollars (American dollars are the most widely accepted if you are travelling overseas). Think of all the bureaucratic bits of paper that cause major headaches and gnashing of teeth, if you had to replace them, they may as well be stowed in your grab bag.

As terrifying as it sounds, one day you might need it; and now’s the time to think carefully about what it should contain. Grab bags provide thought-provoking conversations to everyone on the water.

We’ve met a survivor whose boat took fifteen minutes to sink. He had, he says, all the time in the world, to grab stuff from cupboards. He now thinks all boats take this long to be swallowed into the deep. Most of us know a story where a boat vanishes within seconds; those brief moments may give you enough time to grab your survival bag.

Our Bag

We have one big bag on our boat, which ideally should be split into two (1) Absolute necessities and (2) Necessities. However, it’s not and at the time of writing, we are firmly welded to a mooring (for now). Our bag includes years of ideas gleaned from chatting to other people on boats as to ‘what’s in yours?’. It has (in no particular order): survival suits, sunglasses, wind up torch, handheld radio (VHF) and spare batteries, Spirulina (nutrient source in powder form), survival sheets (space blankets), hand Watermaker, toilet roll, water, string, fishing hooks/line, signalling mirror, knife, seasick tablets, First Aid with extra strong painkillers, flares, sanitary products, wet/baby wipes, tea towel, plastic bags, sea marker dye, lighter, paperwork (passports/boat papers/money), sunscreen, t-shirts, whistle, barley sugar, handheld GPS and batteries.

Survival suit - I look like the new Teletubby!
Survival suit – I look like the new Teletubby!

I think these days there are better alternatives than barley sugar – but that’s what we had.

Diving into the bag after a year I am surprised to see that the wet wipes are still moist and the Spirulina still edible (mind you, it does look and smell remarkably like mould – even when new). Clearly, batteries should be replaced regularly, as should water in plastic bottles (leeching). Sunscreen and tablets/pills will have use-by dates to be aware of too. We have spent over three weeks at sea in one go and been 1,500 miles from the nearest land, hence a fairly comprehensive bag. In compiling our kit, we gave careful thought to all the yummy stuff already included in our liferaft when it was last surveyed. Our EPIRBs are mounted in the boat, perhaps one should have been in the bag. Now, I would also include the Leatherman and some cereal bars. But the bag is heavy already.

Our liferaft included extras like spare spectacles, t-shirts, sunblock, medication. When you have your liferaft serviced it’s a good idea to watch the raft being popped (especially if you haven’t done any training) and talk people servicing your raft about adding additional items, there is usually room.


Our small hand-pump Watermaker was purchased in America (US$600). And we brought it because in Puerto Rico we met a guy who spent 66 days in a liferaft, in the Pacific Ocean, with his wife. They were attacked and holed by a pod of whales which ultimately sank the boat.

He says that while his wife was screaming at him to jump in the liferaft he was standing in the boat with water rising up to his knees wondering what to grab next. He grabbed the watermaker. “We wouldn’t be alive today if we didn’t have it,” he says.

So before setting sail into the mighty Pacific, we purchased a small, mobile watermaker. The emotions of coughing up the equivalent of almost a thousand Australian dollars were an odd mix; unwillingness to part with a large chunk of our cruising budget, conflicting with the thought that should we find our lives depended on it, it would seem a remarkably small amount of money. The Watermaker is still in its bag, unused and lonely, long may it remain so!

The Wisdom of Women Who Sail

Women Who Sail Australia is a 4,000 strong group. While updating this article, I asked them what was most important to them, and did they have any tips to offer.

As usual, this incredible group posted numerous tips and ideas, some were hysterical (and private), so you’ll have to join to find out what they are. Those not already mentioned in this article are listed here.

Sage Advice

Remember – a liferaft should be entered from the water or stepping UP from the sinking boat – ie when you can no longer stay on your boat as it is almost sunk. If it is possible it isn’t always that easy or that simple.

Seasickness may be a huge factor on board the liferaft – have you ever sat on a water bed – this is a million times worse and of course likely to be used in bad weather. So pack plenty of seasick tablets even if you’ve never had the need to take one before.

A six-man liferaft for 2 people can be dangerous – as there will probably not be enough weight to keep it stable.

And  I cannot recommend enough completing a sea survival course

Sea Survival course
Sea Survival course
The tips from WWSA

Medications: One lady keeps a spare set of my medications in the grab bag. She says, ‘this is because with everything else going on, we really don’t need to add the problems of my body playing up!’

And on that subject of medications, a few women recommended making up a laminated card with all medical information and vital statistics (in case they are found unconscious at the time), information such as DOB, medical conditions, next of kin and things like that.

Laminated cards were mentioned a few times, another was to list out contact numbers as well, as no one knows each others’ number these days!

Luxury items include: power bars that I make before each trip, hard drive (not everyone thought this a luxury item, some thought it necessary)

Other suggestions
Luci lights which deflate, are lightweight and solar-charged, smallest watermaker manual ie instructions to desalinate the sea, sunblock, handheld compass, Pantyhose – sounds weird but useful for lots of things including trawling to catch krill, meal replacement shakes, handheld VHF radio, glow sticks, dry polar fleece, Peppermints and crystalline ginger

My favourite piece of advice, because it made me smile was including two of the ugliest hats in the world (the theory being, and I love this, that people only turn up if you are wearing something ugly!)

Lastly, if your grab bag is in need, common sense, a speedy reaction and lack of panic are all necessities, although I am not sure how to pack those things, except to say, training is the best back up you can have.

Final suggestions/observations
Other suggestions from friends: My humble opinion
Chemical heat packs Space blanket is smaller and works well
Petroleum jelly A necessity?
Book to read Really?
Wool and rubber work gloves Maybe one pair
Enema sack for rehydration I’d rather drink the water – I guess seasickness is a consideration there.
Inflatable splints Great idea
Repair kit Already in liferaft
Swiss Army knife, sharpening stone, tube of oil. Make sure knife is sharp to start with
Sextant Way too hard to use in liferaft
Sponges In liferaft already
Chemical light sticks Good idea
Navigation kit Maybe
Sea anchor Good idea
Dried fruit and chocolate I’d never say no to chocolate (ensure fruit is not already in chocolate – this stuff can really go off)
Survival ship’s biscuits Good idea
Multiple vitamins A necessity?
Small plankton net Hmmmm
Photocopies of all essential crew documents Yup(or the originals)
Shore survival items in case you land in an uninhabited island: waterproof matches, flint, wire saw It’s all getting a bit much
Self-inflating foam pad or air mattress What about a snugly blanket and a cuddly teddy bear too – really . . . !
Spare prescription glasses Good idea – these are in our liferaft
Pack all gear into separate waterproof bags Not a bad idea

What’s in yours?

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: