The Perfect Ditch Kit For
The Perfect Storm

By Bernadette Bernon
August, 2000

My wife Marilyn and I are outfitting our Catalina for some extended cruising down the West Coast of the US to Baja and then into the Sea of Cortez for a year. After that, we may leave the boat and return to work for awhile, or we may really "go for it" and explore the coast of Mexico. We may even head out into the Pacific. Which ever way we go, we're outfitting for The Big Time. How did you decide what to put into your emergency bag? Did you spring for a hand-held watermaker? Any advice you can give us will be appreciated. We love your logs, by the way. You sound like normal people with normal fears and experience. We can relate!


Adrian, thanks for the note, which we received almost a month ago. We hadn't then finished putting together our ditch kit, so we had to postpone answering you until now. At the moment, I'm writing from the middle of Massachusetts Bay, on our voyage up to Maine. So far, it's been thick pea-soup fog for two days, even in the Cape Cod Canal, which we heard is beautiful, but we can't vouch for it. We only saw it on radar.

We've been much motivated over the past two days learning to use our radar. Coming out of Newport yesterday, it was so thick with fog. We had some false confidence because we know the place like the backs of our hands, but we quickly learned that blind is blind, no matter where you are. We couldn't see much beyond the bow of our boat, and this was sometimes disconcerting and sometimes terrifying, but we persevered, knowing that Maine would challenge us more than this, so we'd better get used to it now.

After a long day of this, we made landfall at Onset, a pretty little cove just inside the entrance channel approaching the Canal. This morning, we were disappointed to see that it was thick fog again. Just as bad as yesterday. We set out anyway, and crept — buoy to buoy — to where we thought was the entrance to the Cape Cod Canal itself; this was unbelievably hairy in dense fog, and probably great training for Maine. Until we got right up to it, we couldn't even see the mammoth freighter Cap Bon tied at the entrance to the Canal. My heart almost stopped when it revealed itself right in front of us in the fog like the side of a black mountain, which is precisely what it looked like on Radar. We crept past and then hugged the starboard shore until, six miles later, we spurted out the other end and set our sights for Cape Ann and Gloucester. It's been quite a day so far!

A few times over yesterday and today, I thought of my meticulously prepared ditch kit, and it gave me consolation that we'd done our best to prepare for this voyage. To assemble our kit, I used an excellent article by Steve Callahan from an old Cruising World; an awesome list from my friend Tor Pinney (from his yet-unpublished cruising book, which he was kind enough to share with me); and a very-well-thought-out list from veteran Pacific sailor John Neal, another mentor to me. I married all these lists together, came up with our own version, and went shopping. Like you, I was surprised by the cost of some of the items in the ditch kit, such as the watermaker, but we decided we wanted the peace of mind that a well-thought-through kit provides. We also did bite the bullet and we bought a Sea Recovery Engineering compact watermaker.

The first thing you should do before assembling your own kit, is to look at the inspection list that describes the additional gear that's packed in your life raft, which is provided by the company that packed your raft (if it was new) or the company that repacked it (if it's more than one year old). The list of contents will give you a starting point. If the raft needs to be repacked, be sure to include in it a rigid Tupperware-type of container (approx. 6" x 6" x 3" is about all you can add to a 6-man raft) and fill it with your own medications, reading glasses, sunglasses, your personal paperwork (copies of passports, etc.), and anything else you feel is essential. (Douglas is crestfallen we could not fit in a large bag of barbecue Doritos, which he says is what he would most like as his last meal.)

Now, on to your ditch kit itself. It should be water-proof, buoyant, and have reflective tape on the outside. We have two bags. One is a rigid plastic canister with a screw-on top that contains all our pyrotechnics, flares, water dye, smoke, etc. The other is a soft-sided bag with inside compartments that holds all the stuff we determined we should take with us into a life raft. We put our fancy new hand-held watermaker in the ditch kit instead of the raft, figuring it might come in handy in a routine situation onboard, so we wanted it to be accessible.

In the ditch kit are: space blankets, heavy-duty plastic gloves, raft-patching kit, extra polyprop line, cutting board, flashlights, extra batteries, a medical kit, our old EPIRB (we have a new Northern Airborne Technologies GPIRB mounted in the boat), signal mirror, lots of Power Bars, waterproof matches, fishing hand line and lures, dried cranberries, collapsible water jugs, pilot chart for the ocean we're sailing, Ziploc bags, antibiotic cream, toothbrush/toothpaste, handheld compass, sunscreen, knife, multi-tool, can opener, Sea Survival manual by Dougal Robertson, air mattresses (our life raft doesn't have an inflatable floor so these will add insulation), extra reflective tape for the raft, collapsible radar reflector and Sky Alert Rescue Kite, cans of food, favorite seasickness pills, small container of underwater epoxy, duct tape, and chemical hand heaters (like skiers use). We also put a handheld VHF and handheld GPS in the kit; we can always get at these if we need them onboard Ithaka as a backup during routine problems. Whistles are tied to each bag. We'll probably add more items to the kit over time as other essentials occur to us.

Well, Adrian, the fog has lifted a bit. We're getting ready to make landfall sometime this evening at Gloucester, Massachusetts, a colorful fishing port reported to be ribald and rough around the edges, and we're really looking forward to visiting. It's the site of the terrifying book, "The Perfect Storm," the movie of which Douglas flatly refuses to attend with me — he says he's spooked by the whole idea of seeing it — and which my father and stepmother, who never go to the movies but who are obsessed with the perils of the cruising journey we're undertaking, promptly went to see on opening night and had the bejesus scared out of them. It's an odd feeling to put together a survival kit, to have to imagine the unimaginable and prepare for it, to spend all that money on something we hope we'll never come close to needing, but it's a good idea to do it right. Hopefully, years from now, Douglas and I will sit on some porch somewhere, munching happily on the power bars, and telling fog stories. See you both out there somewhere, I hope. Good luck with your preparations.