Man Overboard: How to Survive in Open Water

Whether near the shore or out at sea, disaster can strike at any time you’re on a body of water. Unfortunate incidents may throw you overboard and into the depths’ deadly embrace. Worse, no one may have seen or heard your plunge, and you may have no flotation device on you. What are your options now?

In this article, we show how it’s possible to survive in open water, even if you don’t have a typical flotation device.

Don’t panic

The first rule of survival is to not panic. Keep your wits about you and resist the urge to flail your arms and legs; you will only accelerate your fatigue, and cause faster and greater loss of body heat, leading to death by drowning or from hypothermia. Panicking will drastically cut down your chances of survival.

Stay calm and assess your situation, then make your next move.

H.E.L.P. yourself

If you’re wearing a life vest, you can increase your chances of survival by getting into the Heat Escape Lessening Posture (H.E.L.P.).

To do this, cross your arms and legs, keeping your extremities “closed” and your body compact. Remain motionless and swim or move only when necessary.

Floating alone in a life vest? Get into the H.E.L.P. position and wait until rescue arrives (

Should you be in a group of three or more people, get everyone to assume the H.E.L.P. position, and huddle. That way, you’ll expend much less energy and share precious body heat. Your “cluster” of brightly-colored life vests will also be easier to spot by rescue planes or any boats that may be passing by.


You may think that to keep warm while in water, you need to move your body and swim.

This is a misconception. Swimming actually speeds up the rate at which your body loses heat. By remaining motionless, you retain your body heat three times longer. Swim only if you already have some form of flotation, and can see and reach the shore.

Do note that your body loses heat at varying speeds, depending on the water’s temperature (see below).

Water Temp (degrees F)

Exhaustion or Unconsciousness Survival Time


Under 15 minutes

15-45 minutes


15-30 minutes 30-90 minutes
41-50 30-60 minutes

1-3 hours


1-2 hours 1-6 hours


2-7 hours

2-36 hours

71-80 3-12 hours


Over 80 indefinite



No flotation device, no hope?

An even more horrifying scenario could be where you have been thrown overboard, and have nothing apart from the clothes you have on. If this happens, don’t panic as it’s not completely hopeless… even this is survivable. You just need to know how to improvise a flotation device from the very clothes you wear. There are different methods for this.

Method 1: The Blow Method

This way of turning your pants into a flotation device is for those who aren’t very strong swimmers. To do this, follow these steps:

Step 1. Take a deep breath, and bend over.

Before doing any of the methods, remove your boots or shoes and tie the laces together. Hang them on your neck (



Step 2. Take off your shoes or boots and tie the laces together; hang them around your neck for the meantime.

Step 3. Remove your pants, then button or zip the fly closed to constrict airflow.

Step 4. Tie the bottoms of the pants legs together in a knot.

With the fly closed, tie the pants legs together in a knot to make a seal (


Step 5. Hold the pants upright, with the front facing you.

Step 6. Take a deep breath, then let yourself sink about two feet below the water’s surface.

Step 7. Hold the pants’ waistband with both hands, and blow air into the pants.

Step 8. Repeat this process until the pants are sufficiently inflated.

Step 9. Keep the waistband underwater and tie it with your shoelaces or twist it off to seal the pants and keep air from escaping.

Step 10. Loop the inflated pants legs over your head, and “hug” the pants, with the fly facing your body. Fold or twist the waistband closed to keep the air in.

Step 11. Rest your head on the knot keeping the pants legs closed, and go into the H.E.L.P. posture. Try to remain motionless until help arrives.

Seal the legs and fly, take a deep breath then submerge with the pants. Blow air into the pants to inflate them (


Method 2: The Sling Method

If you’re a stronger swimmer and can remain afloat, use this method to turn your pants into a flotation device. Follow these steps:

Step 1. Do steps 1 thru 5 above, then do the following:

Step 6. This time, hold the pants above the water’s surface and behind your head. Firmly grasp the pants by the waistband, keeping it open.

Step 7. Kick your feet to stay on the surface of the water, while slinging the pants over your head to trap air into them. Submerge the pants, trapping air and inflating the legs.

Sling the pants over your head to trap air after tying the pants legs closed and closing the fly (



Step 8. Hold and twist off the waistband underwater.

Step 9. Slip the legs over your head and lie back with your head resting on the knot.

Step 10. Fold or twist the waistband closed to keep air from escaping.

Step 11. Relax and go into the H.E.L.P. posture, and wait for help.

Method 3: The Splash Method

For this method, you need to be able to kick strongly to keep your head above water. To make your pants into a flotation device, follow these steps:

Step 1. Follow steps 1 thru 5 above, then perform the following steps.

Step 6. For this method, hold the pants by the waistband with both hands with the fly closed and facing up.

Step 7. Hold the waistband with one hand, keeping the pants on the surface. Insert your other hand into the waistband with your palm down.

Step 8. Make a rapid, scooping motion with your inserted hand. Bubbles and water will rush into the pants; water will pass through while air will be trapped in the pants legs.

For this method, “scoop” water into the submerged and sealed pants; water will escape but air won’t (


Step 9. While keeping the pants submerged, seal the waistband by folding or twisting it off.

Step 10. Hold the waistband to your chest, and loop the fastened legs over your head.

Step 11.  Lie back in the H.E.L.P. posture and wait for rescue to arrive.

NOTE: The air in the pant legs will bleed out slowly, so “refill” the pants with air every few minutes. Hold the waistband open with one hand, and “scoop” air bubbles into the pants while keeping it underwater. Twist or tie off the waistband.

Refill the pants with air by scooping air bubbles into them periodically, as shown (


Remember also to occasionally splash water on the knot and the legs behind your head as dry material will cause more air to bleed out.

Keep the pants legs wet to prevent air from bleeding out (



Jacket or shirt as flotation device

If you’re wearing a jacket, shirt or any top that you can seal off and trap air, you can also turn it into your improvised life jacket. To do this, follow these steps:

Step 1. Turn the collar onto itself to make a seal around your neck.

Step 2. Zip up the jacket or button up the shirt up to highest button.

Step 3. Pull the jacket or shirt up as if you were removing it; stop once your mouth is under the jacket or shirt and your nose is exposed.

Step 3. Make sure that your sleeves can also make a seal; if the sleeves are short, fold them up inwards to keep air from escaping.

Step 4. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Your breath should inflate the jacket or shirt, creating an improvised flotation device.

The jacket you’re wearing can become a life jacket if you do it right (Army.Mil/article/23297/Soldiers_Soak_Up_Training_to_Stay_Alive).

Final notes

The first step in surviving open water is to not give in to panic. Gather your wits about you, and use the tips in this article to improvise floats out of literally the clothes on your back.  Once you’ve made your flotation device, minimize movement to preserve body heat and your energy reserves, so you don’t succumb to hypothermia or drown. When SHTF and you’re left adrift, presence of mind and life preservation skills will keep your body and spirits buoyed until help arrives.

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