Recreational Boating Safety – Human Factors and Open Water Survival

By Bob Currie, Vessel Examiner
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 081-06-08
Survival is the “preservation of one’s own life under conditions of immediate peril.” To preserve one’s own life at sea requires the ability to live through extreme conditions of emotional and physical shock, and hardship for an indefinite period of time. When faced with an open water survival situation, it is important to remember that environmental obstacles are as much mental as physical. It is important to first understand the psychological barriers to the will to survive that must be overcome. Today’s column draws directly from the US Coast Guard’s Rescue and Survival Procedures. Our motto, Semper Paratus (Always Ready) is embodied in our open water survival training.

Flotilla 081-06-08 is based at Coast Guard Station Galveston. The Coast Guard Auxiliary is the uniformed civilian component of the US Coast Guard and supports the Coast Guard in nearly all mission areas. The Auxiliary was created by Congress in 1939. For more information, please visit

The most predominant psychological barrier to open water survival is fear: fear of the unknown, fear of discomfort, and fear of one’s own weakness. Fear of the environment in an open water situation leads us to fear our own chances of survival, and even though we overcome these fears to some extent, a lack of confidence in our ability may weaken our will to survive. Studies of survivors and their experiences show that the successful survival of any situation depends on several factors. The survivor must:

• Be mentally and spiritually prepared for the possibility,
• Be in good physical condition,
• Have the proper equipment available and know how to use it,
• Be properly dressed for any survival situation, and
• Be thoroughly familiar with vessel egress procedures.

The key to these experiences is developing a survivor’s “attitude”. In other words, to develop those traits and characteristics that will enhance one’s chance of survival.

The Will to Survive
Based on interviews with a number of sea survivors, twelve characteristics were identified to help in understanding the will to survive. They are:

Courage is the state or quality of mind or spirit that enables you to face danger or fear with self-possession, confidence, and resolution. Courage enables us to overcome these fears that can overcome us in a survival situation. Each time we encounter danger or fear and overcome it, we strengthen our courage. It is important to realize the difference between fear and panic. Fear has a purpose. It is the mind’s tool to pool all available resources. Panic on the other hand, is an unreasonable, overwhelming, and uncontrollable fear that can be one’s worst enemy in a survival situation.

Stories about those who did not survive are usually founded on the idea that the would-be survivor did not realize they had it in them to carry on just a little further. Physically, the human body will rise to the occasion and call upon itself when needed. Many survival case histories show determination alone was the only factor in the successful return of the survivor.

A strong sense of humor is instrumental in influencing the outcome of any survival situation. The ability to use humor and stay cheerful in a stressful situation will help the survivor withstand the anxieties and apprehensiveness of the situation.

Being Positive
Being positive helps the survivor make the best of the situation. Thoughts of failure will hinder the survivor’s ability to make sound and clear decisions. Self-fulfilling prophecies are usually manifested from negative thoughts and attitudes. Failure is inevitable when one believes there is no hope in sight. Self-discipline, adaptability, and tolerance all play parts in being positive in a survival scenario.

Flexibility is also a key mental process. Being mentally flexible means having an open mind and the ability to act in a unique, creative and imaginative manner.

Willingness is the ability to make decisions and a readiness to act even when the situation seems hopeless. My favorite demonstration of this principle is the cartoon of the pelican with the frog in its beak. When you look closely at the cartoon, you see that the frog has reached outside the pelican’s beak and has a grip on the pelican’s throat.

Setting realistic goals (both near-term and long-term) and achieving them drives our sense of purpose. In a survival scenario, goal setting has a high survival value. Goal setting is a motivator, and as such, generates a will to live.

One of the most dangerous aspects of open water boating is being unprepared. Mental preparedness, when finding oneself in an open water survival situation is absolutely key to efficient planning and effective mental attitude.

Being properly trained is a big key in preparing for any situation. The skills and knowledge we obtain from training yields one important side-affect: Confidence. Confidence can only be built through repetition and experience. The main reason I joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary was to obtain the training I needed to handle almost any situation I encounter on the open sea.

Keeping busy can also increase the chance of survival. Keeping the mind and body active will help to concentrate on the act of survival.

The will to survive is fundamentally based on persistence. Emotionally, the survivor needs to stay active in spite of the situation. Concentrate on those items left behind. Family, friends, and personal goals will once again be met and achieved.

The will to survive is inevitably dependent on the survivor’s ability to remain certain that they will once again return to family, friends and co-workers. Those who have survived in the past have not depended on luck or magic, they have depended on the mental skills presented above and on the equipment and procedures presented in the chapters that follow.

Although there is definitely a physical strength and fitness element to open water survival, the mental strength and fitness element has been shown to be just as important. My recommendation is to incorporate as many of the discussed characteristics into your own personal demeanor so that you will be mentally prepared should you face an open water survival situation.

For more information on boating safety, please visit the Official Website of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division at Questions about the US Coast Guard Auxiliary or our free Vessel Safety Check program may be directed to me at I am available to perform free Vessel Safety Checks, and I will come to your location to perform them. SAFE BOATING!


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