Ditch Kit for Small Sailboats

Dont ditch the ditch kit just because you switched to a smaller boat.


When we had a larger boat and made offshore hops, conventional ditch bag thinking made sense. But when I downsized to a 24-foot trimaran, it dawned on me that with just a little adjustment, my day bag could ably serve my near-shore sailing needs. (See What to Pack in a Ditch Kit, PS May 2014, Abandon Ship Bags: Dont Leave the Boat Without Them, PS March 2001, and Bags Fit for Sea Life, PS December 2012, and The Get Home Toolkit, October 2018.)


Unlike a conventional ditch bag that is often packed and then forgotten, regular use insures that you’re familiar with whats inside. Anything with an expiration date will be refreshed and even semi-perishables will be turned over through use. Sure, a little effort is required to make sure nothing vital is poached, but thats a minor penalty for versatility and portability.

Do you have a tender or life raft? Many smaller boats do not. Some have considerable built-in flotation or extensive crash tanks. My Corsair F-24, for example, cannot sink, but fire could drive us away. Lacking a tender, the ditch bag requirements will be less than those we describe, but the need for survival clothing is greater. If you sail in a cool water location, seriously consider either a dry suit or immersion suit. A small bag you can take with you becomes even more important.

The bag should float. It is easy to say the bag should be water tight, but roll-top bags are awkward for regular use and what if the zipper is not pulled quite tight? In fact, many commercial bags make no claim of floatation or watertight integrity. Just how heavy is this stuff anyway? Water feels heavy but bottles actually float.

The same is true of most packaged foods, and it’s unlikely you brought a lot of cans on a day sail or overnight trip. The first aid kit, anything in a sealed box, flares, and meds will float like a cork. Clothing and blankets will capture enough air to float for a while, and much longer if packed in heavy duty trash bags, which you should have anyway to protect stuff and cover wounds.

Insulated picnic bags have considerable buoyancy, but it must be secure if dumped upside down; most plastic coolers fail this test, but zippered insulated bags pass with flying colors.

Laptop bags often use closed cell foam. I use a laptop backpack with enough padding to float like a cork. If in doubt, use polyurethane sealant to glue some 1/2-inch of closed cell foam to the bottom and sides (yoga mat or foam floor tiles or inserts from an old PFD). The savvy sailor will test flotation. We don’t like bags that store gear outside, in non-zippered pockets.

Don’t overpack. This is supposed to be handy for day sailing. It should be small enough that it can be left out and accessible, and that the weakest crew member can easily toss it around in bad conditions.


What disaster are we preparing for? Sinking from a leak you cannot contain. You have time to collect a few things if you are organized. A knock down with companionway boards out can take a small boat down in a few minutes and a capsize may take only seconds. Fire is perhaps the most fearsome, since you may be prevented from reentering the cabin. Thus, the bags must be very near the companionway, ready to grab or easily recovered from a capsized boat.

Think in terms of risks.

Drowning. Obviously PFDs must be worn are available, and any tender or life raft should be ready for immediate launch. Cold. If the water is below 70F consideration must be given to hypothermia even if a raft is available.

Dehydration. Keep a good portion of your beverages in the day bag and always pack a little extra. Existing injuries. The same mishap that cause the sinking may also have resulted in broken bones or burns. The typical mini-first aid kit has a few tiny band-aids, Tylenol and some ointment, and is suitable only for minor boo-boos; re-load it with large bandages and rolls of tape athletic and duct tape suitable for real trauma and repairs.

Combined with the assumption that rescue is reasonably available, we need only plan for the most immediate needs, and thus the emphasis on clothing water, trauma, and communication. Still, it is best to prepare for an overnight even close to home, to be safe.


In the case of my F-24, with the exception of fire, the boat is the life raft (cannot sink). But if I had to leave her, all I need to do is lob my day-bag in my kayak tender, and I am well equipped to either paddle to shore or summon and wait for help.

Im not crossing to Bermuda, I wont stray far out of sight of land, and most probably will never leave VHF range. Sailing one someone else’s boat, unsure of how it is equipped? With just a few carefully considered adjustments, your day bag can be enough to meet your own specific requirements.

PS Technical Editor Drew Frye is the author of the book Rigging Modern Anchors. He blogs at www.sail-delmarva.blogspot.

Darrell Nicholson is Director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division and the editor of Practical Sailor. A lifelong thalassophile, he grew up sailing everything from El Toro dinghies to classic Morgans on Miami's Biscayne Bay. In the early 90s, he left a newspaper job to sail an old gaff-rigged ketch across the Pacific and has been writing about boats and the sea ever since. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida.