Grab Bag

what to put into an emergency grab bag practical
                ideas for every yacht and boat owner

Just what do you pack into an overboard bag.

Attending a RYA sea survival course will give you the best ideas about the things you will need.

No one wants to find themselves in a situation where they need their grab bag, however, it is an ESSENTIAL part of your emergency equipment - so just what goes in?  We look at the answers.

How important is the type of bag that you choose?

There are many different types of bags on the market, so what is best for you? 

Of course, depending upon the type of sailing you are doing, a few different items might be included / excluded.  Before packing / re-packing your grab bag have a look inside your life raft the next time it's serviced.  Most life raft service stations will allow you to put in a few personal items, medications (take note of expiry dates) , spare glasses etc.  So now that you have familiarized yourself with whats in the raft you can set to putting the grab bag together.  For the purpose of this page we have assumed that you are undertaking an ocean passage. 


You might find that trying to wield a large cumbersome bag is just too much, the upside of this is of course being able to pack more into it.  On the other hand, you might discover that the small bag just doesn't have sufficient space for everything, the upside being that it is easily handled.  So, start with what you need to put in, and go from there.

A lot of Yachts have an abandon ship drill, allocating certain crew members certain items to grab on their way out.  However, in a dark, life threatening situation things will get forgotten.  Crew members might be hurt, thus not being able to grab 'their' item.  A double check system is worth thinking about.  For instance, a crew member who is already on deck should not be sent back into a sinking boat to grab the simply because it is their item.


Just how often should you re-evaluate and check your grab bag?  If you have just completed an ocean passage, then once you've settled is a good time.  Replace any food items, check the dates of medications, above all check that it has not suffered any water ingress during the passage or damage.  If you are coastal hopping, then once every 4-6 months should be sufficient.


NOTE: Before the start of any passage place your ship's papers and crew passports in a waterproof bag inside your grab bag.  We have placed non-essential personal items at the bottom of the list, as your house keys are not of much use in the middle of the ocean.



A handheld GPS, like the Garmin eTrex10 is a must, along with a VHF and spare batteries, in a Waterproof Case

NOTE: Try to ensure that all electronic items run off the same batteries, making life easier both for packing your bag, and should the worse happen trying to discern which batteries are for what, when you are cold, wet and tired.


Absolutely essential. Even though it’s heavy and takes up lots of space, don’t skimp on water. Most liferaft survival packs contain at least some water in pouches, but take enough for your full crew for at least a day.  A hand held water maker is something to really think about, though they are not cheap they could possibly be a life saver.  The best of the market is a Katadyn Desalinator.  Ensure that either in your life raft or grab bag there is a square of plastic sufficient for catching water, also some type of non-spill sealable bag.


Note: Attend an RYA, St Johns or Red Cross first aid course.

Most people will get seasick in a life raft.  The first moment you have, take a seasickness pill, even if you think you don't need it.  Ensure that you have packed all essential medications both into your life raft and your grab bag. There is an abundance of ready made kits on the market, they are a good starting point, but perhaps a few other items should also be added.  Good quality dressings should be included, or replace dressings supplied in a ready-made first aid kit. What is in a basic ready-made kit? For this purpose we have used a St Johns Sports Kit.

Aeroplast Fabric Dressing Strip 1  
Aeroplast Plastic Plasters 2  
Antiseptic Wipes, Alcohol Free 10  
Clothing Shears 1  
Combine Dressing 200mm x 200mm 2  
Combine Dressing 200mm x 90mm 2  
Crepe Bandages 2  
Crepe Bandages 2  
Crepe Bandages 2  
Dressing (Sterile) - 75mm x 100mm 2  
Eye Pad 60mm x 75mm 2  
Gauze Swabs 75mm x 75mm, Packet of 2 10  
Minigrip Bag 1  
Nitrile Gloves, Disposable, Pack of 12 Pairs 9  
Rescue/Thermal Blanket 1  
Retention Bandage, Gauze 80mm x 4M 2  
Saline Solution 30ml 12  
Skin Closures 1  
Splinter Probes 1  
Splinter Tweezers, Stainless Steel 8cm 1  
St John First Aid Tips Guide 1  
Sterile Dressing 75mm x 50mm 2  
Tape, Transparent 25mm x 5M 1  
Triangular Bandage 110cm x 110cm
It is worth mentioning at this point what you should do in an extreme first aid situation.  After much research we found the Israeli Multi Bandage.  These dressings are for major trauma, however can be applied with one hand, thus ideal for short handed crews.  These bandages have been adopted by military and civilian organizations worldwide, and could very well save a life.  Click here to buy.


They are not expensive, and serve more than one purpose (water collection etc...). Think about any clothing that you have in your grab bag.  No doubt you will be wet through after entering your life raft, therefore, dry trousers, dry long sleeved top and outer layer are essential.  A hat to keep in what heat you have, socks and gloves.  It may seem like a lot, but clothing can be squashed down and put into waterproof bags to minimize space. 


You should  have a separate flare box to hand, but it’s worth placing a few hand flares in the grab bag as well, just in case.  Laser flares are becoming a must have item.  Not only can they be slipped into a grab bag, taking up virtually no room, but can also be attached to life jackets. Battery-powered, they’re long-lasting and much less risky to deploy than their pyrotechnc cousins.


A good waterproof torch is very important. Don't forget spare batteries.


Most liferafts will come with a knife included, but think about taking another.  Try not to go for a sheathed knife (as accidents do happen), buy a safety knife.


Fishing line and lures, you will also be grateful that you packed those gloves. 


There should be a repair kit in your raft, but if possible pack a few extras.  Cable ties are a good all round solution to many problems, along with some good quality duct tape.


If you have managed to grab a few bits of food on your way out, fantastic.  If not you are stuck with what ever fish you catch and what is in your grab bag.  Most life rafts will have a few high energy bars included (if you have ever tried to eat one of these you might want to take your own choice, they are not called emergency rations for nothing!).  There is a lot of choice, amazon carries a very good selection.


There is a great choice of Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) and Personal Location Beacons (PLBs) available now. A GPS-enabled 406MHz EPIRB is best, and should be grabbed as you ready to get into the life raft. PLB's should be attached to life jackets.


Sat phones have, along with their terrestrial cousins come a long way in recent years.  It is no longer the preserve of the rich to own one.  True, you will need to activate a calling card, but put against the cost of human life this is not a serious consideration.  An industry leader is the Iridium 9575, here are just a few reasons for buying one:

  • Using Iridium's global satellite network, the Extreme 9575 allows you to make and receive phone calls anywhere in the world. The phone offers an integrated speakerphone and hands-free capability through a headset.
  • The Iridium 9575 Extreme is SMS and email enabled, allowing you to stay in touch and share experiences with others anywhere in the world. SMS and email messaging is limited to 160 characters and delivery/receipt is dependent on compatibility with local mobile network carriers
  • Programmable emergency button that activates critical, rapid response when you need it most. It is the only satellite phone currently available with emergency services supported by GEOS International Emergency Response Coordinating Centre included at no additional cost.
  • With a ruggedized IP65 rating, the highest of any satellite phone currently available, the Iridium Extreme 9575 is designed to withstand the harshest weather conditions. It is jet water resistant, shock resistant, dust proof and has a rugged antenna for unparalleled durability.


So now we get onto personal items.  Yes you might want to place your house and car keys in the grab bag - but of far more importance are your ships paper, crew passports and details of any medical / boat insurance.  Maybe think about putting in a spare pair of eye glasses if needed.

You might want to include a morale booster or two.  A pack of cards sounds nice, if you can manage to put your thoughts to playing you might want to consider a waterproof pack!  A waterproof pencil and corresponding paper/plastic is a great idea, not only for jotting things down, but perhaps for navigation. 

Finally you might want some way of making yourself show up on ships’ radars. Many liferafts include inflatable radar reflectors. Recently, AIS-based personal rescue devices have been introduced and these are the best way to alert nearby rescuers.

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