In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is. ~ Yogi Berra
It’s known by an assortment of names – grab bag, ditch bag, abandon-ship bag. Most sailors know they should have one, and nearly everyone understands it should contain something more than a fifth of Scotch, a Leatherman tool and a copy of The Old Man and the Sea.
When it’s time to deploy the life raft, it’s well past time to consider its furnishings. Coastal cruisers, circumnavigators, casual visitors to Safety at Sea seminars and card-carrying members of the Offshore Racing Congress all know that flashlights, fish hooks and flares can help make a life raft a home. So can desalination tablets, signal mirrors, waterproof flashlights and a VHF, for that matter. Whether you throw in a spear gun and a spare sea anchor will depend on your budget and preferred cruising grounds, but no one quibbles over the need to preserve ships’ papers, insurance documents, passports and cell phones.
If everyone were prepared for the vicissitudes of life on the water, that’s what each bag would have – an assortment of practical necessities for sustaining life while awaiting rescue and the paperwork necessary to reassemble life back on land. Unfortunately, not everyone prepares. Sometimes, even the best preparation isn’t enough. Now and then the stories of what got saved, and how, become the stuff of legend.
When it came to preparation, French Charlie was a minimalist. Years of sailing had reinforced his natural inclination toward optimism and brash confidence, qualities that sometimes skewed his decision-making. Before leaving his home in Marseille for a sixth Atlantic crossing, confident as ever but a little short on cash, he equipped his boat with basic survival gear but decided to forego a raft. By the time he found himself south and west of Gibraltar, ankle-deep in water atop the coach roof of his sinking boat, he’d begun to consider the wisdom of that decision. As he liked to say, “I think, maybe I make only five crossings and one-half – not so good for a sailor!”
In the end, his decision to include a mesh laundry bag filled with flares helped save him. A merchant vessel sighted his signal, picked him up and brought him on board. Everyone stood around on deck for a few minutes, watching Charlie’s boat sink beneath the waves, and then, in a delicious bit of irony, the ship resumed her journey to Marseille. Charlie arrived back at his home port still clutching his laundry bag, slighty embarassed but grateful to have escaped with two flares, a passport, some cash and a change of clothes provided by the rescuing sailors.
Easy as it was for some folks to criticize Charlie, most sailors understand that even an obsessive dedication to organization, preparedness and redundancy can’t guarantee safety at sea. A just-slightly-obsessive friend lost first his engines and then his boat in a Gulf of Mexico storm. He spent three days trying to stay ahead of cascading problems before broken ribs, fourteen foot seas and anxiety about an approaching hurricane led him to call the Coast Guard. Since he didn’t need to take to a raft, his abandon-ship bag turned out to be a briefcase filled with documents, log books, cells phones and wallets, plopped into a fishing net and lowered to the deck of his rescuers’ boat as the seas roiled and heaved.
However well or ill-prepared a sailor may be, there always will be at least a few “Can you believe this?” stories. Perhaps the quirkiest I’ve heard involves a fellow who’d done some bad navigating at the end of a Gulf crossing from Florida to Texas. When his engine failed, he began drifting toward the Galveston jetties and clearly was in danger of landing on the rocks. Unable to restart the engine and not thinking of the anchor, he panicked. Deploying his life raft, he tumbled in and cut himself free – only to realize he’d left his nice, waterproof, well-stocked abandon ship bag on his boat.
By the time he found his cell phone tucked into his pocket, some fishermen heading offshore had spotted him and rescue was at hand. Unfortunately, his boat fared less well. It was totaled, and so was his confidence. He’s living in a condo now, watching the sun rise over the Gulf and buying his fish from the market. When someone suggests an offshore trip, he just smiles and says, “You go on ahead. I’ve got a book that needs reading.”
Most sailors never find themselves ankle-deep in serious circumstance, waiting for the whirr that signals rescue. Still, whole communities of boaters regularly cope with what I like to call “abandon ship season”. A period of generalized nervousness between June 1 and November 30, it’s also known as hurricane season, a time when the art and science of tracking tropical systems takes center stage.
Should a hurricane develop – a Rita, a Katrina, an Humberto or Ike – boaters will be among the first to know and the first to act. Adding fenders, doubling or tripling dock lines, stripping off sails, disconnecting electricity and filling water tanks – all are part of the drill. Sometimes the drill helps and sometimes it doesn’t, but the wisdom of the familiar adage is undeniable. “Prepare early and often“ say the old-timers, and they’re right. They know what can happen.
One advantage of “abandoning ship” in advance of a storm is the possibility of saving more than your skin. Everyone I know who’s lost a boat grieves more than the vessel itself. Money can buy another boat, not to mention new electronics, radars, dinghies and outboards, but no amount of money can replace the true treasures that are lost.
Especially for long-time cruisers and live-aboards, their boats become homes, filled with the memories that any home contains. If the call to abandon ship comes in the middle of the ocean, all those lovely tokens of memory - photographs, hand-stitched pillows, molas and shells – won’t fit into the ditch bag. More often that not, they go down with the ship and are lost forever. In the case of hurricane preparation, it may be a pain to make multiple trips up and down the dock ferrying away personal treasures, but at least they’ll live to see another cruise.
After twenty-five years of preparing boats for storms, I’ve come to think of land evacuations in precisely the same way – just another form of abandoning ship. You tie things down, empty the freezer, gather your papers and go.
On the other hand, you’re not limited to one abandon-ship bag. I have three. One, a zippered leather portfolio that belonged to my father, contains important papers and documents. The second, a cheap Walgreens polyester tote, carries catnip, cat toys, kitty treats and the all-important brush.
The third bag is a suitcase that belonged to my mother. She carried it on her honeymoon in 1938 and clung to it with a kind of fierce protectiveness through all the decades that followed. After her move to Texas, I designated the suitcase our “abandon-ship” bag. Each time we were forced to evacuate, the suitcase and its treasures were stowed on the back seat of the car, with a hissing and howling Dixie Rose on top.
Even when we decided to stay put for less intense storms, the bag was packed and ready to go. Eventually, re-packing the bag at the beginning of each season became a ritual, an acknowledgement that the time had come to prepare for whatever the season might bring.
What qualifies as treasure varies from year to year, as the relative importance of objects ebbs and flows. Still, whatever the bag’s specific contents, it’s filled with tangible memories, bits of life that simply can’t be replaced.
This year, I took out a handmade coat I wore as a child, a small bag of costume jewelry that no longer seems important, the set of jacks given to me by my first grade-school boyfriend and four of my dad’s six wristwatches. Still remaining are Dad’s leather work gloves, my mother’s hand-crocheted Baptismal dress, the cribbage board we enjoyed as a family and my many-times-great-grandfather’s fife, which family legend says he carried in the Civil War.
Also included is an armload of silver bracelets I collected across West Africa, a carved wooden crucifix from a leprosarium in Liberia and a clutch of family photographs. The dresser scarf from my parents’ first apartment is tucked into a corner, next to samples of my mother’s needlework and a small wooden heart my dad made in his high school shop class. Three of my baby teeth are there, primarily because the tiny envelope that holds them still shows my hand-written demand for ten cents from the Tooth Fairy. My grandmother’s well-wrapped Goofus glass powder box takes up significant space, but there’s still room for some sentimental jewelry and Christmas ornaments.
Today, in this first month of hurricane season, the re-packed bag is easily at hand, waiting in the hall closet. I hope it stays there until December, but if the time comes to “abandon ship”, I’ll not be waiting around. After all, there’s a corollary to that old-timers’ rule about preparation. “Evacuate early and often” works just as well, and this old-timer’s ready to go.