How Can You Save Your Life When Your Ship Goes Down?

What options are available to save lives when a ship sinks?
Christopher McFadden
The photo credit line may appear like thispungem/iStock

History is filled with tragic stories of lives lost at sea throughout the ages. Whether by a tragic accident, bad weather, aggressive action during a battle, piracy or other reasons. Countless people have also perished after being lucky enough to escape a sinking ship only to drown, or die of exposure, or from predation by sharks. 

For most of maritime history, little could be done for those crews, and passengers, unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, from around the 19th-century, much energy has gone into developing means of saving as many people as possible should the worst occur. 

Let's take a look at some of the most important.  

How can you survive a sinking ship?

While traveling by sea is usually very safe today, the unexpected can, and will, happen. But, don't let that put you off booking your next cruise. 

According to some statistics, your chances of dying on a cruise ship are roughly 1 in 6.25 million - i.e. vanishingly small. However. unlike some bold claims of the past, like the unsinkability of the SS Titanic, no ship ever built, or that will ever be built, will be truly unsinkable. 

So, what can you do if the ship you are traveling on finds itself in some very serious trouble? Much like traveling on an aircraft, your preparation should start long before you are even in trouble. 

First and foremost, and not to sound flippant, learn to swim. This is not only good exercise, but it may well save your life one day. But, even that won't help you if you can't escape the sinking ship. 

Learn where everything is, from where the emergency exits are, to where the lifeboats and lifevests are stowed, and know how to use any survival gear you will likely be given. Any ship that takes passengers will always have a safety briefing and you should definitely pay attention to this. But just because a ship is in trouble is doesn't necessarily mean you should be racing to jump overboard.

If a ship is truly in trouble, you will likely hear a series of 7 short bursts from the ship's horn, followed by a longer one — this is the "general alarm" signal, meaning something serious is up — in this case, the ship is floundering. Any order to abandon ship will also be verbally given by the ship's crew as well, so don't do anything until requested.

survive a sinking ship
Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife/Flickr

If you are on a commercial vessel, the crew are well trained for just this event and will guide you where necessary, but the way people act during life-threatening events is very unpredictable, to say the least. 

The most vital piece of equipment is your life jacket. Make sure you put this on as soon as possible. Remember, you may be a strong swimmer in a pool, but the ocean is a very different beast. If you have to take the plunge, you will be stressed, fatigued, and probably in a state of shock. 

For this reason, try to remain calm and breathe. Look to your own and your family's well-being before helping anyone else. 

If the ship is taking on water, the lowest parts of the ship will begin to flood first. Get up to the deck as quickly as possible. If you become disoriented, take a moment to calm yourself. If present, you may be able to follow rats to guide you. They are known to have an innate ability to escape danger when a ship is going down.

And, never use electrical equipment like elevators either! You could end up trapped if the power is lost.

If the sinking vessel is your own, you should call for help as soon as you are able. While you may not receive any assistance for hours, if nobody knows you are in trouble, you can't be rescued. Anyone licensed to operate a ship will have had mandatory training in exactly how and when to issue a mayday call, and instructions on how to do this are kept next to the radio. 

Generally, the safest course is to stay on the ship for as long as possible. Unless it is substantially on fire or exploding, a boat is safer and more visible than a life raft. Staying onboard also gives you more time to gather emergency provisions. This is why the last resort in any sinking scenario is to abandon the ship. If you do need to abandon ship, it is important to stay calm and plan ahead. 

On a small ship, the captain will assign jobs to passengers, such as gathering all the flotation devices, radioing for help, getting the life raft ready to launch, and gathering up emergency items. On a cruise ship, you may be instructed to get up on deck to your assigned area or lifeboat, and then await further instructions. The guidelines of the International Maritime Organization requires that all cruise ships be able to get passengers lowered into the ocean in lifeboats within 30 minutes of passengers being gathered on deck.

Once instructed, you should get into a lifeboat (with your lifejacket on) calmly and without pushing or shoving. Women and children usually take precedence, so bear this in mind. This is called the "Birkenhead Drill". Take the time to read the story behind this and bear it in mind should you find yourself in a similar situation!

However, most modern ships are required to have enough lifeboats for all passengers and crew on board. 

That being said, some studies have shown that the willingness of allowing women and children to board first is entirely dependent on the speed at which a ship is sinking. The SS Titanic, for example, took around 2 hours and 40 minutes to go down. 

sinking ship
Source: Washington State Department/Flickr

Most of the survivors, as we probably all know, were, indeed, women and children. Her sister ship, the SS Lusitania, on the other hand, was torpedoed during WW1 and went down in about 20 minutes. Most of the survivors of that sinking were young men and women, most in their early-30s, whose powerful survival instincts and fitness allowed them to respond more rapidly to get to safety. 

If, however, you find yourself in the water without a lifeboat, you will want to find anything that floats to cling on to. This is especially true if the water is very cold, as your body will quickly go into a state of shock, making treading water very difficult in a fairly short period of time. 

Anything that floats will do, but try to get your hands on material like wood, or other highly buoyant things that won't lose buoyancy as they get waterlogged. 

Be sure to also swim away from the sinking ship as best you can. While there is some debate as to whether a sinking ship can suck you under with it, actual survivors of sinking ships attest to this sometimes occurring. 

Should you be one of the unlucky ones to be in the water without any kind of floatation device, you can make a makeshift one out of your pants. Take them off, tie off each leg, hold them in the air and yank them into the water legs up to trap as much air as possible. 

It is not an ideal scenario, but anything is better than nothing!

All well and good when on a sinking ship already at the surface, but how one Earth can you escape from something like a sinking submarine? 

How do submariners escape from sinking submarines?

Submarine warfare is one of the most dangerous, and nail-biting, choices of a career in the world. Designed to evade detection from the surface, submarines are notoriously bad places to be should the vessel falter. 

Whether damaged from combat, or by a tragic accident, when a submarine is in trouble the options for its crew to escape a very limited compared to surface vessels. So how, in fact, do submariners get to the surface in the event of an emergency? 

escape sinking submarine
Source: Jim Ellwanger/Flickr

Well, they actually have a few options as it happens. 

The first issue to overcome is how to actually escape the submarine when at depth. Since the pressure outside the submarine is usually much higher than inside, it is usually nye-on-impossible to open any hatches should the need occur. For this reason, submarines will incorporate special chambers called "escape trunks" that act as a kind of airlock. 

Escaping submariners need to make a beeline for these chambers, equalize the pressure inside them, and then open the hatch to make a break for the surface. In WWII, these were just a hood that trapped a bubble of air or contained a small air supply, combined with a lifejacket. In modern submarines, the chambers include "escape suits" which offer full-body protection against drowning, hypothermia, and decompression sickness. 

If the submarine is too deep to make an escape possible, these same chambers are often the target for a specialized rescue craft called Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicles (DSRVs)

A kind of small submarine, these crafts are specially designed, as the name suggests, for the deep-sea rescue of stricken submarine crews. 

That is all well and good, but escaping submariners need to be able to breathe once outside the submarine. This is where specialist breathing apparatus comes in very handy. 

One of the oldest options is something called the "Steinke Hood". Named in honor of its inventor Lieutenant Harris Steinke, this device is effectively an inflatable life jacket with a special hood that completely encloses the wearer's head. 

The jacket adds much-needed buoyancy to the submariner to allow them to reach the surface relatively quickly, while the hood traps a bubble of air so they can breathe — at least for a short time. First invented in the early-1960s. Successfully tested during an escape from the submarine USS Balao from a depth of 318 feet (97m), it became a standard issue for U.S. submarines during the Cold War. 

escape sinking sub steinke hood
Example of a "Steinke Hood". Source: National Museum of the U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Another early piece of survival gear was the so-called "Momsen Lung" or "Davis Lung". A primitive form of underwater rebreather, this piece of equipment was provided to submarine crews leading up to, and during the Second World War. 

A more modern piece of emergency equipment for submariners is something called the Submarine Escape Immersion Equipment, SEIE for short. A fully enclosed suit, this piece of equipment is specially designed to allow submariners to escape from relatively deep waters. 

Early versions of it were developed in the 1950s, and more modern versions, like the Mark 10 and current Mark 11, incorporate protection against hypothermia. These suits have, more or less, replaced the Steinke Hood as the standard escape gear for submarine crews. 

Should a modern submarine get into trouble, sailors will, in theory, dutifully don their SEIE suits, climb into the escape trunks, and make for the surface. If, however, the submarine sinks too deep, this option is not really viable and the crew needs to wait for rescue — if it ever comes. 

In some circumstances, if the submarine sinks beyond its hull crush pressure, then the crew will likely be killed outright.  

What life-saving equipment should ships have today?

Any ship at sea must have a variety of life-saving appliances on board to be legally sea-worthy. This is mandated by various international conventions and regulations, but foremost among them today is the International Conventions for the Safety of Life at Sea or SOLAS for short. 

SOLAS and other maritime-related standards were all drafted to protect human life, as far as reasonably practicable, in the event of the loss of a ship on the high seas. With regards to SOLAS alone, life-saving appliances are mandatory as per the wording of Chapter 3 of the convention. 

First adopted in 1914, following the loss of the Titanic, SOLAS also mandates the specific technical requirements for the manufacture, maintenance, and record-keeping of life-saving appliances. The number and type of life-saving appliances differ from vessel to vessel, and the code gives a minimum requirement to comply in order to make a ship seaworthy.

All well and good, but what options exist today? To be clear, we'll restrict this list to the most commonly available and interesting examples on surface vessels. 

1. Lifeboats are one of the oldest forms of life-saving gear on a ship

life saving gear at sea lifeboats
Source: Sea-Watch/Wikimedia Commons

One of the first forms of life-saving equipment on board a ship you'd probably think about is lifeboats and liferafts. Usually relatively small, they can be either rigid or inflatable. 

Today, lifeboats, typically, are motorized, whereas liferafts are usually unpowered. 

These craft, as we think of them today, are a relatively new innovation, but forms of them have existed in the past. For example, during the height of the "Age of Sail", most ships would carry a number of smaller craft, often called launches, that were used to ferry men and material to and from shore. 

These boats would also double as lifeboats in the event that the ship got into trouble. However, as ships became larger, especially with the advent of steamships, the compliment of ocean-going vessels grew almost exponentially. Most commercial operators at the time provided few, if any, lifeboats, leading to some very tragic losses of life, as in the sinking of the Titanic. Without effective legislation on the subject, there was a little legal incentive to carry them.

This all changed with the public uproar that emerged after the Titanic sank, and rafts (pun intended) of new laws were minted to combat the problem. This is somewhat ironic, as the Titanic, contrary to popular belief, actually had many more lifeboats that she was legally required to carry. According to British law at the time, she only needed enough boats to carry a total of 1,060 people, whereas her boats actually had enough capacity for 1,178. 

Needless to say, with a total complement of 3,300 people on board, this was still an abysmally small number, all things considered. Since 1912, various types of lifeboats have been developed including either solid, inflatable, collapsible, and the more modern "totally enclosed" varieties.

The latter, "Totally Enclosed Motor Propelled Survival Craft" or TEMPSC for short, are mandatory on all merchant's vessels, tankers, MODUs, Floating Offshore Oil and Gas Platforms and some fixed offshore oil and gas platforms. This is a requirement of the 1983 Chapter III amendment to IMO SOLAS 1974. These are the creme-de-la-creme of lifeboat designs and offer superior protection against fire on the water, poisonous gases, and severe weather conditions (especially heat, cold and rough seas).

Interestingly, in recent years, there has been a shift in philosophy on the subject of lifeboats. The most recent iteration of SOLAS has requirements for large ships to provide "safe areas" for passengers until the ship can limp back to port. This puts more emphasis on the idea that the ship itself is the best lifeboat if it can stay afloat. 

2. Lifebuoys are simple, but very effective life-saving tech at sea

life saving tech at sea lifebuoy
Source: Das Robert/Wikimedia Commons

One of the earliest forms of life-saving tech ever developed were basic floatation aids like lifebuoys.

These consist of a donut-shaped device that can be thrown overboard to anyone who happens to be floundering in the water. Highly buoyant (hence the name), these basic devices have saved countless lives over the years at sea and at even your local swimming pool.

First used by organizations like the British Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) as early as 160 years ago, these devices are very common today onboard ships great and small. Prior to the invention of the modern lifebuoy by Thomas Kisbee, a Royal Naval officer, crude cork belts or jackets were used to perform a similar function.

Kisbee's invention, imaginatively dubbed the "Kisbee Ring", has since become so common that most never give them a second glance.

Kisbee’s original invention, also made from cork, was a ring that would be kept on board and thrown into the water in case of a "man overboard". The person could then be pulled to safety with the attached rope — just like modern ones. 

More modern examples tend to come equipped with one or more seawater-activated lights and signalling devices which greatly increase the likelihood of being rescued in poor light. 

3. Life jackets are another critical piece of life-saving gear at sea

life saving tech at sea life jackets
Source: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Life jackets, more technically referred to as personal floatation devices (PFDs) in maritime safety parlance, are another relatively simple, and very common life-saving device at sea. Usually provided in the form of a vest, or in some cases a full-body suit, these devices have proved incredibly effective at preserving life at sea. 

Amazingly, these devices have a relatively long history, with some primitive examples existing in some form or another for a very long time. Some of the earliest examples consisted of inflated animal bladders, animals skins, or hollow gourds that could be used to help swimmers cross deep streams and rivers. 

Much later, Norwegian seafarers would use blocks of wood or cork to provide much the same function as modern versions. Despite their clear utility, lifejackets did not become a standard issue on ships until the early-19th century. The modern lifejacket, as we understand them, was not invented until 1854.

Created by one Captain John Ross Ward (who would later rise to the rank of Vice-Admiral in Royal Navy), the modern lifejacket consisted of a cork vest and became standard issue for crews of the RNLI from the mid-19th century onwards.

An early example of a battery-powered, self-inflatable life jacket was actually patented as early as 1900 by a French electrical engineer called Gustave Trouvé. His jacket incorporated small, rubber-insulated maritime batteries that could inflate the jacket and also power a small light. 

Cork would eventually give way to the use of small pouches of kapok (a vegetable material), which were much more flexible and comfortable to wear. Such lifejackets were commonplace during WW2, for example. 

The modern inflatable lifejacket you'll be familiar with if you travel commonly by plane was first invented in the late-1920s. Nicknamed the "Mae West", it was first invented in 1928 by an American inventor called Peter Markus. 

Considered superior to kapok or cork versions, this form of lifejacket would become the standard kit for the U.S. Army Air Forces and Royal Air Force from the Second World War onwards. 

Today, lifejackets come in a variety of forms consisting of either entirely inflatable examples, to more solid synthetic foam variants. Specialist variants, like full-body immersion suits, also exist for those required to remain immersed in water for long periods of time. 

4. Life rafts are another important piece of safety gear at sea

survival at sea carley float
An example of the "Carley Float", an early liferaft. Source: Mike Peel/Wikimedia Commons

Usually, secondary to lifeboats, many large ships and most small ships will usually also come with a compliment of life rafts. Most modern versions require inflation, which is usually achieved using a compressed air cylinder of kind stowed inside the device. 

Depending on the design, they can either be flung overboard, or lowered using the ship's davits (small hull-mounted winches), cradles, or free-fall racks. In some cases, liferafts will be inflated prior to launching, are then boarded, and are lowered or pushed by their passengers into the water. 

They vary greatly in design and size, and all must be subject to extensive testing prior to being deployed on ships. This includes things like drop testing, jump testing, weight testing, tow testing, etc. They will usually have also had to run the gauntlet of another test like damage testing, inflation tests, pressure test, seam strength tests, etc. to ensure they are tough enough for use. 

Such craft differs from lifeboats in the fact that they tend not to incorporate a motorized propulsion system, like on an outboard motor, and are usually stored in heavy-duty, often fiberglass, canisters. According to SOLAS and military regulations, liferaft canisters are to remain sealed, and never be opened by ships' crew. This is in direct contrast to lifeboats, which must remain open and require regular inspections by the crew to ensure they are fit for purpose. 

Liferafts are also, generally speaking, not self-righting should they capsize. 

Like most other life-saving equipment detailed above, liferafts have a fairly long and venerable history. One of the earliest ever developed was the so-called "Carley Float". (pictured above). Invented by the American inventor Horace Carley, these crafts mainly saw service on warships. 

The main float body of the craft was composed of air space in the very center, enclosed with a copper lining, cork lining, and outer waterproof coating. 

They were used extensively during the First and Second World Wars, and would later become superseded by more rigid or inflatable alternatives in more modern times. 

Liferafts are, by virtue of their design, less robust than lifeboats, but have the significant advantage of being lighter and, therefore, more easily deployed in the event of an emergency. They are also carried on smaller ships, where there is no room for a rigid lifeboat.

5. Many modern passenger ships come with marine evacuation systems 

safety at sea MES
Example of an MES on the MV Spirit of Vancouver Island. Source: Achim Hering/Wikimedia Commons

A more modern example of life-saving equipment at sea is something called a "marine evacuation system", or MES for short. Installed on many modern passenger liners, these devices consist of an inflatable slide or escape chute that enables passengers to be deposited into waiting life rafts. 

First developed in the late-1970s by the New Zealand-based company RFD, these systems are fast replacing traditional davit-launched systems for life rafts. MES systems are also very common on high-speed craft where the weight and evacuation times for passengers and crew must be expedited as much as reasonably practicable.

The main benefit of these systems is the fact that they take up very little space on deck, and can be positioned on the front of the embarkation deck and on the sides of the ship. An MES requires little time and effort to assemble — something crucial in times of emergency.

So effective are these systems, that a single system is able to evacuate around 700 people in less than 30 minutes. 

Could we ever build an unsinkable ship? 

Life-saving gear at sea is all well and good, but the best way to save lives at sea is to prevent the ship from sinking in the first place. But, could this ever be possible? 

Interestingly some proposals have been made in the past to attempt to make this possible. 

For example, one proposal developed in part by the European Union back in 2014, was to develop a kind of airbag system that could be deployed if a ship started to flounder.

Called the SuSy (Surfacing System for Ship Recovery) project, the system could be deployed when needed and provide enough buoyancy to help keep the ship afloat long enough to either rescue all on board or enable the ship to limb to the nearest port. Primarily envisaged for installation on cruise ships, such a system would act as a kind of insurance policy in those circumstances when multiple watertight compartments are breached, causing massive flooding and listing. 

For large ships, like cruise liners or oil tankers, this can be fatal as it often leads to the ship capsizing, complicating any rescue effort. The system would consist of large Kevlar-reinforced balloons that would be placed strategically within the hull or within its ballast water tanks. 

unsinkable ships uss hornet
USS Hornet. Source: photolibrarian/Flickr

But even this novel approach wouldn't necessarily save the vessel if it suffers serious enough damage to its hull. 

So, what would it take to develop a truly unsinkable ship? So long as the ship is made from materials that are denser than water, making a ship that can't sink is probably never going to be possible.  

But, there have been some interesting and incredibly robust ships built in the past. The Titanic aside, aircraft carriers are some of the most reliably buoyant ships afloat. 

Take, for example, the case of USS Hornet during WW2. Heavily damaged during the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands in October of 1942, the ship had to finally be scuttled after absorbing countless shell, torpedo, and bomb damage from Japanese and Allied. forces. 

So defiant was the Hornet, that most of her crew were able to be safely evacuated before she finally sank on the 27th of October 1942 after no less than 14 hours of continuous attempts to finish her off. 

But she was very much the exception to the rule. 

Ships float thanks to the fact that the weight of the water they displace is heavier than the actual weight of the ship itself. If the ship's hull is sufficiently damaged, it will reach a point where it takes on too much water to tip the balance, and it will sink under its own weight. 

The only real way to prevent this would be to build the ship entirely out of materials that are lighter (less dense) than water. Things like wood, foam composites trap large amounts of air, for example. 

Light watercraft, life pleasure boats, or modern lifeguard vessels, for example, tend to be made from materials that have positive flotation - i.e. are less dense than water. Such vessels are very hard to sink and can even remain afloat if they capsize. You could even, in theory at least, blow them to pieces, but those pieces would remain afloat. 

However, such building techniques are only really practical for lightweight vessels, as they lack the strength and bulk needed for larger ships. 

You could, for example, build an incredibly large surfboard-type vessel made of foam composites that would be, for all intents and purposes unsinkable. But, such a vessel would likely not be robust enough to have much actual practical use as a commercial vessel or warship.

unsinkable ships RNLI
Source: RNLI

This is because ships actually need to be used to carry people and things - often many, thousands of tons worth. It is mainly for this reason that older wooden ships would also sink - it was a matter of the stuff inside than the actual ship itself.  

Historical proposals have been made in the past, believe it or not, to make something like an aircraft carrier out of ice. Called "Project Habakkuk", the Royal Navy actually investigated if it would be possible to build a ship out of a mixture of wood pulp and ice called pykrete. 

Such a vessel, it was believed, would be effectively unsinkable and a perfect counter to German U-boats that plagued Atlantic convoys during WW2. After initial successful testing, including scale models, the project was later canceled due to rising costs and the development of longer-range aircraft to provide escort duty at sea. 

Post-war, pykrete was considered for other projects not ship-related, but the need to keep actively keep it below the freezing point of water rendered it impractical for most applications. 

The fact that no truly unsinkable ship has yet been developed does not mean it might be possible in the future. But, that would take something of a revolution in ship buildings techniques and materials science. 

Until such time, passengers and crews will have to make do with the existing, tried, and tested safety gear provided onboard. 

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