A ditch bag – or abandon ship bag – is one of those things that you hope you’ve wasted a lot of money on. The fact is, however, if you boat and fish with enough frequency sooner or later you will be confronted with a potentially compromising situation. In the instance of an on-board fire or collision you may have to abandon ship in 30 seconds or less, and having essential gear packed and ready to grab could be a lifesaver.
There is a variety of pre-packed ditch bags available for sale, and purchasing such a kit might provide a good start. We would suggest that you evaluate contents of such a bag based upon the kind of boating you do and add and remove items accordingly. Rather than have this kit be a suitcase full of bulky items, ranging from medical supplies and tools to food and drink, you might limit your emergency stash to deal with one basic question: “Besides my PFD, what would I need in the water?”
– The bag itself should be a brightly-colored, sealed, soft sided bag, hard-sided tool case, a sealed 5-gallon bucket, or anything that you know will float once it’s thrown into the drink. You can increase the bag’s nighttime visibility by liberally applying reflective tape. When not in use, the bag should be kept at the helm or within reaching distance at all times.
– Cyalume yellow and/or orange colored chemical light sticks. These are the ones that divers use for light. They have a long shelf life and remain secure in foil wrappers until needed. They also have built-in loops that easily attach to your PFDs and will glow brightly for up to 12 hours.
– Self-contained handheld aerial signal flares. Best are flares that don’t require a pistol to launch. New electronic flares (Weemes & Path) are also a great option. The bottom line is, you can’t have too many flares, so toss the expired ones from your boat into the bag as well.
– Three handheld smoke flares.
– Signal mirror.
– Waterproof whistle. The ones with the ball don’t work well when wet.
– 3-foot x 6-foot orange distress flag.
– LED floating flashlight, hand cranking or with alkaline batteries. Unlike rechargeable batteries that lose their charge quickly, alkaline batteries have a 3-year shelf life and will provide hours of operation. Best to choose equipment that uses the same type of battery so batteries can be interchanged between radio, flashlight, etc.
– Container of orange water-activated signal dye.
– Handheld, waterproof, floating VHF radio with alkaline battery pack.
– Handheld GPS navigator so you can accurately communicate your location to rescuers.
– Leatherman Super-Tool. It can do a myriad of things, but its stainless steel construction will make it sink like a rock. Solve this problem by looping the case’s belt loop on the ditch bag’s carry strap.
– Strobe light, preferably one with a flashlight on the opposite end which serves as a backup to your primary flashlight.
– Personal Locator Beacon (or 406 MHz EPIRB for your boat).
– Small medical kit with aspirin and seasick pills.
– Zip-Lock baggies to keep gear dry. Bring various sizes.
– Duct tape repairs and seals everything. Pack as much as you can fit.
– One or more 16-oz bottle of water.
Most important, your ditch bag should be water tight and float with all of your gear in it. To make sure, cut a swim noodle into small pieces and stuff them wherever they’ll fit inside the bag to increase buoyancy.
Google “ditch bag” and you will find not only sources for the bag, but also some of the equipment that should go in it. Remember, your emergency ditch bag will do you no good if you can’t reach it in a hurry, so keep it nearby at all times and don’t leave port without it!