Four Things You Should Know If You Find Yourself in a Life Raft:
You might find yourself suddenly stranded and traumatized in an inflatable raft someday, with a barren sea all around you and with the plastic walls of the little boat crinkling and crackling in your ears, and you should:
1. Be prepared for an emotional explosion from one or more of the group in the raft. It can come sometimes in the form of an unadulterated panic, but it is much more likely to manifest itself in recrimination, blame, indignation at being put in this situation, and it is going to come in the form of a volcanic rage. A friend of mine once stalled a boat's outboard motor on the open sea, and instead of working to solve the problem calmly, his two companions exploded into a childish shoving match that knocked the motor overboard. The three men spent another nine days adrift and survived only by sucking the blood out of a turtle. This happens a lot. Try to let the person who's 'losing it' blow off their steam in the most benign way—let them vent, but keep it under control.
2. Know that you can sink your only hope in two seconds. All modern inflatables boast tremendous resistance to tearing and puncturing, and this is no doubt true, but I have seen rafts, hard ones, sliced-through like butter. My cinematographer and I once glanced an inflatable boat off a sharp metal edge and then found ourselves suddenly treading water in towering seas, with our raft deflated underneath us like a dead animal. When you are in your raft you must quickly probe for sharp objects or protrusions among your fellows: Check for purses with metal latches or ornaments, belt buckles, earrings, snaps with jagged edges, even ballpoint pens.
3. Know that it is exceptionally difficult for anyone to see your little raft. Objects that shine are now your life. Don't use flashlights for simple tasks; you must conserve them exclusively for signaling. Anything, cosmetic mirrors, belt buckles, even the plastic laminate on the cover of a book, if polished, can be of help. CDs are excellent; they are like beacons on the sea. But be advised: In certain seas, tiny wavelets can twinkle just like your mirror or CD, so you must signal in a pattern. Be consistent. People will see your pattern and realize that someone is signaling. And always be persistent. Never assume that they've spotted you. An aircraft or sea vessel may appear to be coming for you when in fact they've simply made a course correction. Continue signaling until you're dead sure they've indeed come for you. Take nothing for granted, brothers and sisters, KEEP SIGNALING.
4. Know that people will give up quickly, and therefore you must make up your mind to stay alive. All experts agree that attitude is usually the deciding factor. I have seen strong men lay down and give up on the sea. I have seen this. If there are others in your raft who are determined to stay alive, make a quick alliance with them, even if they don't appear to be "the strongest." Always keep in mind that human beings decline at an uneven rate, and that you, the one who is not declining, will have to give those others a little spark—a little push, for FREE. Every single human being, without exception, has a reserve that exists deep down, stored in a place that they've never been to. It is real, but it has to be brought out. It has to be encouraged, coaxed, cajoled, pushed, and basically convinced of its own existence, to come up. But everybody's got it.
John Haslett's memoir of survival on the open sea aboard a wooden raft is called Voyage of the Manteño, The Education of a Modern-Day Expeditioner (St. Martin's Press, Dec.'06). He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Film Director Annie Biggs.
To read the first chapter of Voyage of the Manteño just click: Chapter 1 The Worst Day ...and The Best
"You won't be able to put it down." National Geographic Adventure