Abandon Ship Bags: Don't Leave the Boat Without Them
Once upon a time, offshore sailors made up their own abandon ship bags, but today there are a handful of ready-made bags dedicated to supplementing the life rafts survival equipment package. At $100, West Marines bag is a Best Buy, but no one beats Landfall Navigations watertight construction.
The safety-conscious owner of a big boat once showed us where all his critical safety gear could be found. We were going offshore and he rightly wanted us to be prepared for anything. Trouble was, he had the stuff spread out all over the boat. The life jackets were stowed in one locker forward, the life raft on the foredeck, the EPIRB in another locker and flares in yet another. How could we remember where everything was stowed? Even an inventory list, including locations, doesn’t necessarily make it easy.
Frantically hunting for safety gear could waste precious time in an emergency. That’s why you should store the equipment in one easily accessible place. The abandon ship bag helps get that job done. It also is a necessary supplement to a life raft’s survival kit, which may fail to include all pertinent equipment.
What We Tested
We rounded up four of the most widely marketed bags, one from each of the following manufacturers: Survival Technologies (The Patten Group), West Marine, ACR Electronics and Landfall Navigation.
How We Tested
We examined each bag’s construction and overall design, looking for features that enhance value and ease of use. We tested each bag’s buoyancy by throwing them into a pool—with dumbbells inside—and observing how long they floated.
Survival Technologies Group
Kelsey Burr, the original founder of Survival Technologies, is generally credited with developing the first abandon ship bag.
Now a division of The Patten Group, Survival Technologies still offers essentially the same bag ($95)—a bright red rectangular duffel (21" x 12" x 14") of ballistic nylon padded with closed-cell foam that provides flotation and protection. On each side is sewn a 10.5" x 8.25" envelope pocket with a two-button flap.
A zipper splits the top and extends down the ends 7". A 1" “storm flap” does little but keep light spray off the zipper. Each end is fitted with Velcro loops to secure a gathered painter line. The 2" webbing carrying handles are too short to be grasped together without compressing the top of the bag.
Construction was not on the same level as the other bags, with exposed interior seams. The bag is claimed to “float up to 50 lbs.,” however it had only 14 lbs. of inherent flotation in our pool tests.
The bag comes with a checklist of possible contents. We have been told that a revised bag is in the works and will incorporate three interior pockets and an interior D-ring that can be used to tether equipment inside.
West Marine’s 2000 Abandon Ship Bag ($100) replaced its knock-off of the Survival Technologies bag. The rectangular valise (19" x 10" x 13") has a black ballistic nylon bottom for wear resistance with waterproof PVC coated nylon uppers in bright red.
Chuck Hawley, West Marine’s vice president of Product Development, told us he decided to go with the waterproof material to better repel spray and slow absorption of water. This makes sense. The bag, padded with 7mm closed cell foam, had 14 lbs. of flotation. West makes no buoyancy claim because a bag full of gear—most of which is drinking water—provides plenty of buoyancy, says Hawley.
An elastic 1" weather flap does a slightly better job of protecting the zipper from spray. The zipper extends down the ends 5.5 inches. Each zipper’s 3" pull tab makes it easy to grasp and operate.
The standard 30" tether of 1" webbing can be attached to either of the molded triangular rings at each end of the bag. It is equipped with stainless snap clips at each end and, when you want to stow the bag the tether can be secured over the top of the bag from both rings.
A clear plastic window on one side provides a place to keep track of equipment with expiration dates. A waterproof inventory list is provided. The nicely finished interior is outfitted with eight 2" elastic loops along one side that hold SOLAS flares. The loops allow quick access so that you don’t have to dig through the bag for them.
The other side’s trio of 6” x 7” gusseted mesh pockets, with Velcro spot closures at the top and a convenient pull-tab, will help keep smaller pieces of equipment from getting lost at the bottom of the bag.
ACR’s RapidDitch Bag ($122, though often discounted below $100) is the largest of the group—28" x 10" x 15" overall—including exterior pockets. Constructed of bright yellow ballistic nylon with closed-cell foam padding (inherent buoyancy 13 lbs.), the RapidDitch’s most noticeable features are its three pockets: a 9.5" x 7" x 4" zippered pocket on one end and a pair of 8" x 4" x 4" pockets on the other, labeled “EPIRB” and “GPS.” Designed principally for larger 406 MHz EPIRBs, the EPIRB pocket has a pair of Velcro flaps that secure the unit but also allow its antenna to stick out. The GPS pocket has a single Velcro flap.
This pair of pockets makes sense since ACR’s RapidFix 406 EPIRB requires an external source for GPS coordinates. When it's time to abandon ship, you can quickly add your handheld GPS to the bag without having to open it. The Velcro flap doesn’t necessarily close tightly over the pocket opening. It would be easy to leave it loose, resulting in a gap at the top big enough for a small GPS to slip through.
There is a Velcro grip to secure the handles together, meaning you can correctly—and quickly—grab the bag. On one handle is a tab to which you can attach one of ACR’s life vest locator lights, though the EPIRB itself will have its own built-in strobe. The webbing extends fully under the bag, which adds security since you avoid relying on the stitching to hold the handles to the bag. It also provides more structural support.
The double-acting (two sliders, so the zipper can function in either direction) zipper extends down each side only 2", making it more difficult to access its interior than in the other bags.
An adjustable shoulder strap cum tether, maximum length 52", is attached at both ends by a molded Zytel (nylon-based plastic) clip that locks into place. We found this clip difficult to operate—virtually impossible with gloves on and probably hard to do with cold hands. You may need to disconnect the snap to use the shoulder strap as a painter.
Moreover, it’s possible to connect the two clip halves backward, thereby foiling the integral lock, another attribute we weren’t thrilled about. The shoulder strap includes a sliding molded plastic snap clip and sliding soft plastic shoulder pad. We’d trade in the shoulder strap’s molded plastic snap clip and sliding shoulder pad for a simple and effective tether.
The finished interior’s eight elastic flare holders line one side of the finished interior, but these 1"-wide elastic holders are only 2-1/2" off the floor, meaning they can hold typical SOLAS parachute flares but fail to adequately support thinner flares. Simply raising the elastic higher in the bag would help.
A trio of gusseted mesh pockets (6" x 4.5")—with a single zipper closure for all three—sit above the flares, which could obstruct access to the small items you may stow in here.
For many years Landfall Navigation sold a bag identical to the Survival Technologies bag, except with black trim. Deciding to move toward the market’s higher end, their 21" x 11" x 13" Abandon Ship Dri-Bag ($200) takes a different tack—it’s a dry bag and completely waterproof.
The exterior is bright red ballistic nylon cloth with the obligatory closed-cell foam padding, but the interior is welded polyurethane coated nylon. A waterproof zipper, such as used in exposure suits, extends down each side 4.5". When zipped closed, the bag is, indeed, waterproof. A wax pencil is provided so you can make sure the zipper stays lubricated.
Production bags will have a 10.5" x 8.5" exterior envelope pocket with a flap closure and plastic button snaps. Webbing handles are provided, and there is a stainless steel D-ring at both ends.
We’d make an important alteration to all of these bags: Place a piece of marine plywood in the bottom of the bag to make it more functional. (Before installing, we’d carefully round the corners, sand the edges smooth, and seal with polyurethane.) Carrying any significant weight without a solid bottom can be difficult. The wood could also function as a cutting board on board the raft.
All the bags will hold enough gear to exceed what most of us can easily carry, let alone retrieve from a locker and toss overboard under trying conditions. When packing the bag, remember that it should be light enough so your weakest crewmember can handle it.
Survival Technologies states that its bag can float while holding up to 50 lbs. Loaded with 42 lbs. of dumbbells, it sank in less than 90 seconds, as did the West Marine and ACR bags. While these bags have the displacement to support about 100 lbs., water rapidly leaks in via seams and the zipper. That’s not to say you can’t fill them with 50 lbs. of gear and supplies, but you must keep density in mind. Gear equal to or less dense than water doesn’t count or may even add buoyancy. If all the materials together exceed the bag’s inherent buoyancy, it will sink quickly.
It helps that drinking water—lighter and more buoyant than salt water—will likely make up a significant portion of the weight and volume in any of these bags.
It’s a good idea to fill any unused space inside the bag with closed cell foam or some other inherently buoyant material.
Because most of these bags aren’t waterproof, it would still be a good idea to store flares and some other items inside a waterproof storage container. The abandon ship bag itself should go in a readily accessible waterproof locker.
We found that evenly distributing the bag’s contents helps keep the zipper, or much of the zipper, out of the water longer. Since the seams don’t seem to leak as quickly as the zipper, a bag so weighted stays afloat longer, but only by a few minutes.
The waterproof and tightly sealed Landfall Navigation Dri-Bag easily supported 100 lbs. of dense materials with the zipper closed. If you want to be sure the bag will float with just about anything you put into it, this bag’s for you. Since it’s waterproof, you can also be somewhat less concerned where you store it.
The ACR RapidDitch’s external pocket for an EPIRB makes some sense. None of the bags will allow an EPIRB to stand up inside because the antenna is too high (though with West Marine’s double acting zipper you could stick it through the zippered opening). An EPIRB functions best when positioned more or less vertically. The pocket, a nice convenience, is not necessary, in our opinion, because the EPIRB floats and has its own painter.
The pricey Landfall Navigation Dri-Bag, with its waterproof design that keeps everything dry and maintains buoyancy, is our top choice.
The Survival Technologies bag failed to impress us. It’s adequate, but for about the same price you can do much better. We like some of the ACR RapidDitch’s features, especially the EPIRB pocket. But the bag has some notable drawbacks, such as its poorly organized interior and functionally compromised shoulder strap with tether.
Of the conventional abandon ship bags, we prefer West Marine’s practical, well-thought-out model. It’s well-built; the good tether is icing on the cake. Priced reasonably, it’s our Best Buy.
Contacts- ACR Electronics, 5757 Ravenswood Rd., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33312; 800/432-0227; 954/981-3333; fax: 954/983-5087. Landfall Navigation, 354 W. Putnam Ave., Greenwich, CT 06830; 800/941-2219; 203/661-3176; fax: 203/661-9613. Survival Technologies Group, 1803 Madrid Ave., Lake Worth, FL 33461; 800/525-2747; 561/588-8500; fax: 561/582-0829. West Marine, PO Box 50050, Watsonville, CA 95077-5050; 800/538-0775; 408/728-4430; fax: 408/728-4360.
by Doug Ritter
Doug Ritter is a Practical Sailor contributing editor and editor of the Equipped to Survive web site: www.equipped.org.