Vessel Ditch Kits

A so-called ‘ditch kit.’ Image via AMSEA.

People call them ‘ditch kits,’ ‘go bags,’ ‘abandon ship’ or ‘evacuation kits.’ No matter the name, having everything you would want for a sudden vessel abandonment will save you precious time.

It also will give you a better chance of not getting entangled or entrapped in the vessel while looking for other items to take.

It’s the same idea as having an emergency kit for your home or car. At sea your vessel is both your home and transportation when fishing. A prepared ditch kit can greatly increase your survivability if you have to leave the shelter of your vessel and enter into the hostile environment of the ocean.

If you have a Coast Guard-approved life raft for your commercial fishing vessel, it should have many helpful items in it. Most of these items are designed to facilitate the care and use of the raft, which is important if you are at sea awaiting rescue for days.

However, in the context of today’s typical rescue at sea, due to the advancement of electronic emergency communications, the typical time for rescue is much shorter. 

A ditch kit is no substitute for a survival craft. A ditch kit does allow you to consolidate and add personal needs and wants to your emergency supplies. It allows you to “pick up and go” if you can’t make it to your life raft in time or if it gets hung up or tangled in the vessel as it sinks.

In an emergency you don’t want a clown show of crew running around and into each other looking for loose survival gear scattered in different places. When a vessel sinks, seconds count.

A ditch kit is also important for smaller near-shore fishing vessels that do not have a survival craft. Set net vessels or gillnetters can quickly get swamped by just one or two waves.

A ditch kit is also handy when you’re taking the skiff to the beach from your anchored main vessel for any on-land activities. If the weather turns suddenly foul, preventing return, or anything happens to the anchored vessel, you can turn your “abandoned on the beach experience” into something more like a camping trip while you await rescue.

What is a suitable container for a ditch kit and what should it contain?

There are three main requirements for the container: it should float when filled with gear, be waterproof and have a handle. One commercial fisherman we interviewed said that when his boat sank, he had a difficult time holding onto the kit in the water because it had no handle.

The common 3- or 5-gallon bucket with a lid and handle is inexpensive and meets all these three requirements. Or you can buy a ditch kit container from marine retailers that has a waterproof screw-on lid in a bright color to be easily seen.

The size of the kit will depend on how much you think you easily can handle. A kit that’s too big and bulky may be more of a hindrance in an emergency and be lost or abandoned due to its bulk.

What are some ideas for the contents of the ditch kit? The answer to that depends on your personal needs, environment and the time to rescue.

There are four main categories of items to help you make some choices: signals, shelter, personal health needs and fire.

Think about what you would want for a day or two on a cold, rainy beach. Examples for what might be appropriate for a ditch kit for the cool, wet Pacific Northwest/Alaska environment follow.

Signals: Your location will get you a quicker pick up—don’t skimp here. A floating, waterproof VHF radio with spare batteries, an InReach/Bivy/Spot or small Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) for communication via satellite, storm whistle, flares, flashlight, signal mirror, strobe light or chemical light sticks.

With some light reflective tape on the outside of the kit, the kit itself is a signal.

Shelter: A small tarp, a bivy sack or thermal protection aid (life raft re-packers have them and if you go beyond 20 miles offshore, there are at least two in your life raft), plastic trash bags, folding knife/multi-tool, twine, duct tape.

Personal health needs: first-aid supplies like bandaging material, over-the-counter medications, including antibiotics, Ibuprofen, Benadryl (antihistamine), prescription drugs, thin aluminum padded splint, water packets, electrolyte powder or coconut water, glucose packet, betadine for wounds, small pan with lid for cooking and collecting water, dehydrated food and an MSR Pocket Rocket stove with one or two fuel canisters for boiling water and cooking, insect repellent, lip balm and energy bars.

And if you keep your spare reading glasses in the kit, you will always know where they are!

Fire starter: Why would you need a fire starter for abandoning a vessel at sea? Because if you can make it to shore, you will have different needs for that new environment.

Although fire isn’t needed for a survival overnight, if you have it, you can cook food, boil water, dry clothes, give light, provide a signal, provide warmth and keep your spirits up.

Make space for some different types of fire starters. Think of waterproof matches, a lighter, magnesium stick if you want to practice your woodsy owl skills or multi-purpose grill lighter or spare flare if you don’t want to fool around. Prioritize items—space is limited. What would you add to your kit?

The best place to store your ditch kit is in the wheelhouse or close to another doorway so it is near your evacuation path. Consider keeping one or more headlamps on the kit’s handle for those dark nights.

If you use the kit to also store all your emergency gear in one place, you will never have to worry about finding where your flares, PLB, headlamps or other valuables are when you leave the vessel.

You never know how your day is going to end. Be prepared to make it a better ending.   

The Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA) has a mission is to reduce injury and death in the marine and freshwater environment through education and training provided by a network of marine safety instructors. The Sitka, Alaska-based organization has been offering marine safety training to commercial fishermen and thousands of other mariners since 1985.

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