Packing for the Ditch

ORC Safety Gear for Abandoning Ship

April 29, 2002

An area of Offshore Racing Council (ORC) and US SAILING special offshore regulations that confuses many racers is the provision of a grab bag. Both mono- and multihulls in Category 0, 1 and 2 races are requested to carry a rather daunting supply of safety gear in what many of us call a ditch kit. The rule reads, “A yacht with a liferaft is recommended to stow in a grab bag supplied with a lanyard and clip¿” a list of 25 or more items (see sidebar).

Note that because of the phraseology of the rule, the ditch kit is not absolutely required–only recommended. This is simply because all boats in Category 0, 1 and 2 races must carry a liferaft. While there is a mandatory abandon-ship kit provision for multihulls in Category 3 and 4 races when no liferaft is carried, most boats are exempt unless the individual race committee has included a ditch bag in their race rules.

But there’s a catch. Almost all of the equipment listed in the “recommended” ditch kit is required elsewhere in the rules. The grab bag rule is specific on the point, stating, “It is not intended to duplicate items below which are already required by Special Regulations to be on board.”


Whether they are in a grab bag or not, the handheld VHF and GPS, a registered 406 EPIRB, flashlight, first aid kit, some flares and emergency drinking water must be on board. A few duplicates such as flares and flashlight must also be packed inside the liferaft. Thus a racer can not save much more than the weight of the bag by not having one.

Common sense would dictate that having the abandon-ship gear scattered throughout the boat could have serious consequences in a sudden, life-threatening emergency. Envision the crew pumped with adrenaline, scrambling through lockers in the dark and failing to locate a critical piece of gear such as the EPIRB before the boat founders. It’s not a pretty picture.

Many offshore cruisers have part of their safety items packed in with the liferaft, a practice denied to racers as it poses special problems. In the event that nothing is wrong with the vessel, but the EPIRB or handheld is wanted for communications in an onboard medical emergency, the liferaft would need to be deployed just to retrieve the needed item. The alternative would be to duplicate those things at added expense and weight.


One gadget regularly carried in offshore cruisers’ ditch kits that does make good sense, however, is a manually-operated watermaker. The ORC rules require “¿at least 9 litres (2 UK gallons, 2.4 US gallons) of drinking water for emergency use¿” This single item weighs nearly 20 pounds in its sealed container and yet provides proper hydration to a crew of six in exposed conditions for less than one day. A simple manually-operated watermaker weighs 7 pounds and can produce one gallon per hour indefinitely. I recommend one in the ditch kit even though it is an extra expense and weight the ORC has not yet blessed.

_Tom Wood has studied and written about sailboat gear for nearly 30 years, and is currently part of a team building a resource center for better boating at _


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