If you’re planning a long cruise or an ocean crossing, it is essential that you consider your grab bag. What goes in, and what to leave out? Elaine Bunting investigates


Panic bags, or grab bags if you prefer, are the collection of essentials that we all ardently hope will languish unused in a locker. Nonetheless, they are an essential part of voyage preparation.

Curious to know what exactly skippers store in their grab bag, particularly for transocean voyages where rescue could be days or more away, we conducted a straw poll of long-term skippers. Most were able to give a complete and immediate account of the contents.

Typically, contents divide into roughly five areas: equipment for basic survival; items that could help bring about rescue or for when you get rescued; navigation aids; first aid and medicines; food and water; and what could loosely be termed ‘entertainment’. Each crew’s kit is individual and although all had common denominators there was a fair degree of personalisation.


When itemising grab bag contents most of those we asked started with equipment that would help them get rescued. An EPIRB, handheld VHF radio, flares, dye markers, signalling mirror, whistle and flashlight were included and, in two cases, a strobe light.

In addition, some listed an inflatable radar reflector, although ISAF-approved liferafts include a reflector.

A good idea from Robert Flane is to include a spare battery for an Iridium phone, if you have one. His phone lives at the navstation, he says, and is high up on the list of things to grab if ever he has to abandon his yacht.

No less important, particularly for those in coastal waters, is equipment to take in case you are rescued. Photocopies of ship’s documents, visas and passports were recommended, for example, or the originals themselves, and a few said they added cash and credit cards to a container.

When you take to the liferaft you will not have time to rummage around for what you need

When you take to the liferaft you will not have time to rummage around for what you need


The basic requirement of food and water obviously varied depending on how far from land crews were going to be and how many were on board, but in general quantities were generous.

“Our grab bag does not contain any food or water. They go in separate bags,” says Robert Flane. Mark and Anne Jones, who are doing a similar extended cruise, replied: “Our second grab bag contains food, including tins of fruit, corn beef, rice pudding, milk, sardines, can opener, tortillas and sweets.”

Most have plenty of water ready to go from a supply of jerrycans or bottles stashed separately. A number suggested a manually operated watermaker. These are hard work for a small quantity, however, and I was surprised nobody mentioned a solar still, which does the work for no effort.

Besides food and water, the lists included thermal blankets, hats, survival suits, a bailer and puncture repair kit for the liferaft, and some people also added a survival manual.

First-hand accounts of survival, such as Maurice and Marilyn Bailey’s 117 Days Adrift or Steve Callahan’s Adrift, are shockingly instructive: they would never have survived without the fish and turtles they caught. You definitely should include fishing kit sufficient to give you repeated success, with enough lures and line to allow for losses.


Robert Flane recommends a wire leader and box of lures. Two other skippers add a ‘square of timber’ or ‘a small chopping board’ for gutting fish. And you need a knife, of course.

A couple of people noted they would take a spear gun for fishing. If you happened to have one aboard – bearing in mind that spear gun fishing is prohibited in many places – it would certainly be worth its weight, provided you could devise a safe way of transporting and stowing it in a liferaft. Steve Callahan, who survived for 76 days before being rescued, said he owed his life to his. He had taken it simply because it was lying close to his grab bag.


Top of everyone’s list, not surprisingly, is a handheld GPS and spare batteries. Robert Flane says his is stored in a biscuit tin, a precautionary Faraday cage in case his boat is hit by lightning.

Besides this, a basic chart can be included as well as a pencil and paper and a simple plastic compass.

Medical supplies

Most people pack a few basics from the first aid kit, with the addition of seasickness tablets, antibiotics, painkillers, sunblock and lip salve, plus petroleum jelly for anointing saltwater boils.

Crewmembers’ personal medication needs to come along as well. One unusual suggestion was an enema – ‘the body can take in moisture in more ways than one’.


Ready to go

Most grab bags are redundant flare containers, which are ideal in that they are light, watertight and easily portable. So long as you don’t overfill each one, they should also float, but check before you make any assumptions!

An ‘ocean’ inventory of kit probably won’t fit into one container. In that case, it may be a good idea to split it up, with items suitable for coastal in one and kit for longer voyages in another. That way, you wouldn’t have to lug a big container into a liferaft if you were only passagemaking.

Several people we consulted also kept food and water separate so they could be renewed and reviewed regularly.

To avoid confusion, mark them clearly. Mark Jones recommends listing on the container extra items to pack.

Packing a liferaft and grab bag

“During the course of the last ten years people’s thought processes have definitely changed with regard to what they get when they purchase/hire a liferaft,” says Alistair Hackett of Southampton-based company Ocean Safety.

Alistair Hackett

“The international introduction of the ISO9650 liferaft standard has helped standardise the pack contents and therefore people have a better understanding of what is inside the pack and its limitations.

“At Ocean Safety we actively offer owners/skippers and crews the opportunity to come and look at their liferafts when they are serviced so they get the chance to look at its contents and make informed decisions what extra kit they may wish to add into the raft or into a grab bag.”

He adds: “Grab bags are becoming more and more popular because there is no restriction on size and quantity and they are also easier to manage. As liferaft service periods get extended it is becoming easier to manage expiry dates of products when in a grab bag than in the raft. They can clearly also be personalised and apart from the obvious survival items we are seeing more people asking for items such as these:”

  • Spare glasses
  • Copies of passports and credit cards
  • Personal medicines
  • Condoms (to be used for water collection!)
  • Hand-operated watermakers
  • Emergency VHF radios (these units have special batteries which don’t require to be kept charged)

Hackett says it is important to make sure a grab bag is readily to hand, that all the crew know where it is, and that that you know what is in it: “Have a plan how you would use what is in it and make sure your crew know what the plan is!”

Miscellaneous kit

There were lots of ideas from our poll for miscellaneous useful items to pack, and most of them were cheap and lightweight. Here is a list of items suggested:

  • Lengths of line or string
  • Waterproof torch(es)
  • Needles and twine
  • Duct tape
  • Ziploc plastic bags
  • Sponges
  • Sea anchor
  • Chemical heat packs
  • Rubber gloves
  • Swimming goggles
  • Pack of cards

The above are all self-explanatory, with the possible exception of the pack of cards. Again, this is not as daft as it may sound. The Baileys kept up their morale and fortitude – one of the main reasons they survived so long – by inventing games to keep their minds occupied, and to take them off near-starvation. Marilyn Bailey kept inventories; Maurice Bailey sketched ideas for the design of his new boat, and both kept diaries.

Panic bag copy

Recommended grab bag contents from the RORC Special Regulations (www.rorc.org/specialregulations/section4.pdf)

  • A watertight handheld VHF radio plus spare set of batteries
  • Watertight flashlight with spare batteries and bulb
  • 2 x red parachute and 3 x red handheld flares
  • Watertight handheld GPS
  • A SART (search and rescue transponder beacon)
  • Drysuits or survival bags
  • Second sea anchor with a swivel and more than 30m of line
  • Two safety tin openers
  • A 406 EPIRB
  • First aid kit
  • Water
  • Signalling mirror
  • High energy food
  • Nylon string
  • Polythene bags
  • Seasickness tablets

This is an extract from a feature in the September 2015 issue of Yachting World