Inside the grab bag

If you had to abandon ship in a hurry, what would you need to stay alive? 

The contents of a sailing grab bag

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Imagine this. You’re taking a leisurely cruise on your yacht when a fire breaks out. You can’t control it. You need to get out of there as quickly as possible. What should you grab that could make the difference between survival and tragedy?

You might know this particular piece of equipment as a grab bag, ditch bag, or panic bag. Call it what you like, as long as you remember to bring it with you. On some trips, rescue could be several hours, or even days, away. You need to be able to survive until help arrives. A grab bag helps you to do this – and can make your stay in a liferaft more bearable.

What is a grab bag and why do you need one?

A grab bag is a vital piece of kit, packed with emergency essentials and always ready to go.

‘It’s the one place you can keep all the things you might need in the event of an emergency,’ says Jon Oxenham, RNLI Community Safety Product Manager.

He adds: ‘Carrying a grab bag is a good idea if you’re coastal hopping from port to port, but it’s essential if you’re going across the channel or further. It’s a sensible thing to bring, however short or long your voyage is.’

It’s important to put thought into choosing the contents of your grab bag – if the worst should happen, you don’t want to be unprepared and ill-equipped. 

What do you need to pack?

Nikki Curwen, an offshore sailor who completed the Mini Transat race in 2015, says: ‘What goes in your grab bag changes massively depending on where you’re going and what you’re doing. Your grab bag for a day trip around the Solent will be somewhat different to one you might have for going offshore or a transatlantic crossing.’

Every grab bag is different, as the contents depend on the sort of trip you’re taking, the people onboard, and your budget. However, all bags should include items for basic survival (like food, drinking water, things to warm you up), kit to help you get rescued (radio, flares, torch, whistle), medical supplies (first aid kit, personal medication) and navigational aids (GPS, charts).

Essentials checklist:

  • White flares
  • First aid kit
  • Knife (covered)
  • Red flares
  • Seasickness tablets
  • Clothing (rather than drysuit)
  • Hand-held VHF
  • Food
  • Signalling mirror
  • Torch (with spare batteries)
  • Drinking water
  • Hand-held GPS (with spare batteries)
  • Whistle
  • Navigational charts

You could also consider adding these extra items to the bare essentials:

  • an EPIRB or PLB
  • dye markers
  • foil blankets
  • a liferaft repair kit, including clips, duct
  • tape, repair clamps
  • your personal effects (photocopies of your ship’s documents, glasses, visas, passports, cash, keys and credit cards)
  • morale boosters, like cards and sweets.
Your passport, keys, phone, glasses and a pack of cards - things you might want to remember to pack in your grab bag

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

You might want to remember to pack things like your passport, keys, phone, glasses and a pack of cards in your grab bag

Do RNLI lifeboats have grab bags onboard?

‘Our all-weather lifeboats do,’ explains Peter Gale, RNLI Lifeboat Trainer. ‘The Shannon class lifeboat has a big yellow grab bag. Inside, there are 15 white flares, 6 red pinpoint flares for signalling your location, 4 hand-held flares that you can use in day and night, and seasickness tablets. On the boat, there’s also a hand-held VHF, torches and some parachute flares, which you’d take with you in an emergency.’

The crews’ lifejackets are fitted with a flare and PLB pocket, so these items are always to hand.

What should the bag be made of?

Your grab bag should be able to float and keep the water out – preferably in a bright colour like orange or yellow.

Although you can buy grab bags, you could also use a redundant flare container. It’s light, watertight, and can float as long as it isn’t overfilled. You may want to attach a floating line to your bag, so it can float in the water but stay tethered to the raft.

Another tip is to use a separate bag for food and drinking water, which needs updating more regularly than the other items – just remember to label your bags clearly.

A grab bag used by RNLI crews

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Even lifeboat crews have grab bags aboard!

How much maintenance does it need? 

You can’t just pack your grab bag and forget about it. Some of the contents will need rotating so they stay up to date, like medication, seasickness tablets, water and food. Nikki Curwen says: ‘It’s very important to check through your kit and make sure it’s in good working order, that the equipment is dry, undamaged, in date and corrosion free.’

Jon Oxenham adds: ‘It should be repacked for every different voyage you do – whether you’re sailing across a harbour or sailing to Barbuda’.

Where should you keep it? 

Jon Oxenham says: ‘It should be kept somewhere accessible – as close to companionway as possible without it being in the way. If you hit something and your boat starts flooding, you might only have minutes to get out.'

Nikki Curwen, Offshore sailor
Nikki Curwen, Offshore Racer

'My grab bag'

We spoke to Nikki Curwen about her 2015 Mini Transat race: ‘As part of the class rules, we had to carry a survival container onboard – this was our grab bag. We were potentially days away from help, in the middle of an ocean, so it was quite substantial. Inside the survival container was:

  • a knife
  • a signalling mirror
  • a waterproof torch
  • fishing equipment
  • six parachute flares
  • four red flares
  • two floating smoke signals
  • a hand-held VHF (waterproof)
  • a survival blanket
  • three lightsticks
  • a marine dye marker
  • two tubes of suncream
  • 500g of survival food (per person).

‘We also had to carry a 9L container of survival water, in a 10L canister so it floats. And I added seasickness tablets, a GPS, and a Bounty chocolate bar!’

Want to find out more before hitting the water? Learn more about motorboat and yacht sailing on our safety pages.