How to Abandon Ship

Feb 15, 2012
Outside Magazine
Abandoned ship

This ship appears to have been abandoned quite some time ago    Photo: Mike Todd

As the boat sags back on its haunches like an old horse, don't go below. It's your honeymoon, sure, and everything you own in this world is aboard, but you can buy new wedding bands, replacements for the wedding gifts. If you escape with your life jacket and a pair of shorts, you're doing well.

In October 2001, David Vann lost a quick million when his 90-foot ketch, Bird of Paradise, sank ten miles south of the British Virgin Islands. He shares his tips for abandoning ship here:

Don't follow the advice of your rescuers. They've told you, by radio, to put up your 90-foot mainsail, which will drive you through the water and sink you faster.

Don't panic. A freak storm and a rogue wave 60 to 100 feet cracked your hull, but you've struggled a day and a half to defer your sinking, so now you're going down in fine conditions, sunny, waves no more than six feet. You've earned this.

Don't try last-minute heroics. Your rudder and a piece of the hull are 5,000 feet down, at the bottom of the sea. You could pull the storm jib under the boat as a patch, but the deck is rolling, YOUR WIFE IS STARTING TO PANIC, and you might lack the sheer strength. And you're sinking. Keep that idea forefront.

Don't go overboard without the dinghy. You're cutting the lines that hold it, leaning far out over the stern, then you lose your footing and your feet are kicking midair. Your wife is not happy about this, and you shouldn't be, either.

Don't go over the port side. Bit of confusion here. You gave the wrong orders, so now you're at the stern with the dinghy and your wife is 30 feet away at the port rail. The boat is sinking to port and could roll over on her at any second. She'd be trapped by the pilothouse, masts, wires. You have a moment of feeling sure you've lost her, and you realize again (you had another moment like this off Casablanca after abandoning ship, when she fell into the water between the life raft and a 300-foot freighter) that you love her more than anything else in this world.

Don't think you're safe once you've abandoned ship. That whole sucking-whirlpool thing could be fiction, but better to paddle away. Then, when a wave flips your dinghy and you go overboard and can feel your knee is badly damaged somehow, best to open your eyes underwater and grab that dinghy line as it goes by. In the water really is not where you want to be.