Every now and then, there are news reports of shipwrecks around the world and the unfortunate deaths and heroic rescues that result. Many of these shipwrecks occur close to shore and are within a relatively easy swim to shore for experienced and physically fit open water swimmers.
But most people on ships and cruises are not as physiologically and psychologically prepared for a sudden swim in the ocean or as experienced as veteran open water swimmers. For many people around the world, being on a distressed ship that is sinking is one of the most terrifying situations to be in.
So we asked experienced open water swimmers around the world what they would do during a shipwreck and right before the ship goes down. Their answers were educational and inspirational.
Theodore Yach of South Africa explains the real-life situation that he was in. “Two years ago, I was involved in a real-life similar scenario: The plan was to launch a duck at Blouberg, boat to Robben Island and swim back. It was the swim to raise money for Maura Sanderoff’s new prosthetic leg.
Darren Willars was the skipper and I had my assistant, Kane Kossew, in the boat as he was our media guy for the day. We were in the duck and make it through the first two sets of waves. Approximately 400m offshore a rogue wave took us and dumped us with the duck on top of us. All our kit, cell phones, etc. were gone.
Our collective reactions were very interesting as we discussed it later that day after I had successfully completed the swim. The first thing in all our minds when we were under the duck was, “Are the other guys ok? Where are they? How can we get them out?’ Kane is terrified of sharks so Darren and I literally dragged him to shore. In retrospect, the advantage of all of us having specific ocean skills, being skippered by an experienced crew, and being such a tight-knit community was crucial in this instance to preventing a possible tragedy.”
It is this kind of profound unselfishness and quick-thinking that characterize most veteran ocean swimmers. With all their open water experiences and dealing with different types of dynamic situations, these are the exact type of individuals who are well-suited to dealing with ocean emergencies.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: If you were in a sinking ship 500 meters from shore, what would you do if help was not immediately available?
Ned Denison (Ireland): Help get the lifeboats in the water and full of kids.
Ori Sela (Israel): First thing I would do is gather next to me all of the good swimmers, and tell them to jump first, grab the people in the water, and swim with groups 400m away from the boat. I will stay last with a fast swimmer to help people jump. I would gather everybody together and start talking to them about cold survival and floating when we are all in the water together.
Darren Miller (USA): My gut reaction would be to prevent any panic as well as I could and focus on assisting those who cannot swim. I would try and find them a life boat or life preserver. Disorder would be a given, so just knowing I did what I could to calm as many as possible would be first.
Ram Barkai (South Africa): First of all, I would assess the feasibility of reaching the shore considering the currents, ice if any, sharks, rocks, shore breaks, etc. Secondly, I would assess methods of reaching to shore with the boats, anything floating, and who can swim and who cannot. AND, I will make sure I can survive somehow or else, I will not be able to help anyone.
Jim Barber (USA): I would assess the situation for conditions to shore and prepare accordingly. Lifeboat or swim?
Jim Harper (USA): As someone trained as a lifeguard, I would survey the situation and seek outside help if possible. I’d want to grab as many life jackets as possible and hand them out. I would not jump into the water until things turned desperate, but then I would swim alone to shore and seek help. One person cannot save a ship-load of people.
Bruckner Chase (USA): I would begin the 500 meter swim to shore with Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” stuck in my head.
Commander Robert Esson (USA): I would assess the situation and determine bearing and focus for survival and then determine how best to be an asset in survival for those around me.
Gerry Rodrigues (USA): 500m from shore is close. Also, it depends on variables such as: Are life boats or vests easily available from the ship? What is the size of ship and depth of water because if it is deep, a sinking ship will create a swirl of downward water, so would have to get folks to jump off first. I’ll make assumptions of no life boats and not too deep, i.e., less than 50 feet which may lend to the fact that the ship may just run aground. If that’s the case, it will make my task outlined much easier and try saving as many people as possible. I think I can save most, if not all, as it is that close to shore. Just depends on if there are elderly, or babies or super sick folks.
Lynn Hamilton (Hong Kong): These would be happening simultaneously. I’m assuming this one isn’t available: If there are lifeboats and lifejackets for all, and time to access them, then help the crew and the natural leaders who tend to spring up in crises such as these to effect a proper and orderly evacuation of the ship. So that leaves finding out quickly who are the decent swimmers and direct them to pack up into buddy pairs or small groups and send them overboard, pointing them toward shore. Send one fast swimmer to shore to ascertain if assistance from land is possible (e.g., boats, 9-1-1, etc). Tell that person to come back after they’ve reported the incident and are certain that help is on the way. Also, I would find out who are the competent to very strong swimmers and the natural leaders, and work with them to save the non-swimmers, utilizing whatever materials are onboard for flotation. It might just be lifejackets. It might be other things that float that people could hang on to like cushions, wooden furniture, etc.
Mackenzie Miller (Hawaii): I would do what I can to get the maximum amount of people to shore safely.
Vasanti Niemz (Germany): I would try and swim to shore of course, if possible, saving a few kids in the process or any other person in need. Maybe I would first see if there are any floating devices on board and get them into the water to save more people. Maybe I would try to call someone to send help.
Chris Morgan (USA): I would for sure try to calm the most amount of people possible and of course identify the swimmers from the non-swimmers. Those that were unsure or panicked, I would look for any kind of life raft or floating object to help them once they were totally in the water.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Who would you try to save first?
Ned Denison (Ireland): Kids.
Ori Sela (Israel): I would help the good swimmers after the calm ones so they can help the others. I would give the calm people to be with the kids; my goal would be to save as much people as possible. First help the strong ones so they can help you help as much people as possible.
Darren Miller (USA): Immediate family, however, if I am alone, I would refer to my answer to #1 above. I feel confident with proper lifesaving skills, I could haul two people with life preservers back to shore. 500m in the ocean, exhausted, would take roughly 10 minutes on each ‘out-and-back’ to rescue others, so I feel confident – pending environmental conditions – that I could make several trips to rescue others.
Ram Barkai (South Africa): I will gather others strong ones to help me. I will make sure that I have enough help with the weak ones. I may need to save few strong ones so they can help with the majority who we assume cannot swim or rescue themselves. I will focus on those who needs help – mentally and physically.
Jim Barber (USA): Those who needed help and prioritize with children being first, women and elderly people second, and men last.
Jim Harper (USA): Lifeguards know that you can’t save anyone else if you are sinking. Secure yourself and your surroundings, then help your loved ones. Then everyone else. People will be panicking, and a calm, steady presence can help to save lives.
Bruckner Chase (USA): I would get flotation to everyone possible and focus attention on those showing signs of panic. They will be the ones at risk of drowning first or worst yet taking someone else with them.
Commander Robert Esson (USA): Assuming I am prepared through prior preparation assisting others would be of primary concern before self, because the prior readiness lends assurance, therefore those that were unable to assist themselves would be of priority.
Gerry Rodrigues (USA): There is no order, rather assembling a human chain of hand to foot holding, as little clothing as possible, with the better swimmers toward the front, and laid-out in an elongated side position, with their heads out of the water . If I could keep the majority calm, I’d think I can pull off getting them to shore by swimming them along with the “engine” of swimmers toward the front. It’s just a matter of them staying calm. Once on standing ground, it’s a matter of pulling in the line, keeping momentum moving along. As the better swimmers arrive they could return to seas for additional assistance.
Lynn Hamilton (Hong Kong): We would have to be creative and think fast. The strong leaders could very easily be swarmed and drowned by panicking nonswimmers. Quick encouragement from the swimmers and leaders to the nonswimmers could save lives: “Don’t panic, here’s how to float on your back,” etc.
Mackenzie Miller (Hawaii): I would try to save those who are most incapable of helping themselves and as many as I could.
Vasanti Niemz (Germany): Families, friends, kids, depending how is on board and needs help. If I am responsible for a group, the group would come first of course.
Chris Morgan (USA): My loved ones and any kids.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: If you had 1 minute to prepare before the ship sunk, what would you take with you?
Ned Denison (Ireland): Passport.
Ori Sela (Israel): Floating gear, survival gun and gear, and a tracking device if I find one. I won’t take food with me because there is no time.
Darren Miller (USA): I would grab my close essentials, such as cell phone, laptop, wallet and close valuables, but more than likely the event would destroy the cell and laptop. If I had to visualize myself in the situation, the reality is I doubt I’d grab anything, and would simply refer to answers #1 and #2 as to what I would do first.
Ram Barkai (South Africa): If the beach is a civilised place, I will take a life jacket and water. If it is in the middle of nowhere, my whiskey flush (!), lighter, matches and a knife. Of course, also a lifejacket and water.
Jim Barber (USA): Depends on the conditions of what is on shore and if there are resources there to survive.
Jim Harper (USA): Nothing. Things and clothing weigh you down in the water, and I’d want to be as light as possible.
Bruckner Chase (USA): It would depend on where we are, but it would be whatever is going to help keep us afloat and alive long enough to be rescued of find safety. EPIRB, floatation, immersion suit, survival kit, medical kit, radio…or just goggles.
Commander Robert Esson (USA): Only that what is necessary to survive or assist the survival of others. Everything else is replaceable. Memories last, people do not.
Gerry Rodrigues (USA): I have no interest in taking anything, rather saving as many as possible and getting their heads in the right place for the task ahead. That minute is about taking command in a concise and calm way, but it’s doable.
Lynn Hamilton (Hong Kong): Since I would be busy trying to help coordinate this effort, there aren’t any possessions I would consider taking with me.
Mackenzie Miller (Hawaii): I would take supplies that would be the most beneficial to survival.
Vasanti Niemz (Germany): Passport and bank card.
Chris Morgan (USA): As crazy as it sounds, I would try and get a decent amount of fresh water – as much as I could carry – and my iPhone with its waterproof case. I have everything I need on the phone including electronic ID and even ways to pay for stuff.
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