The human body is better at life than it is at death. We are blunt objects made for subtle intents; we can turn our bodies to almost any task and find that we already have the necessary equipment inbuilt. We can survive injury, starvation, pain, breakage, disease, time, and despair. We are designed to last and built to survive. We have almost everything we need to repair and defend ourselves, and what we lack, we find elsewhere. Every one of us inhabits our own biological masterpiece. But, like every grand design, we have our flaws. Many of them are surprising; while we remain resistant and adaptive to injury and disease, we are peculiarly vulnerable to changes in temperature. Raise or lower our core body heat by just a few degrees, and we start to lose function. Make the difference more extreme, and our organs cannot work. Maintain the heat or the cold for too long, and we die.
Originally designed for the tropics, we remain elementally temperamental. Whether living in the Arctic or at the Equator, all of us have to maintain our core heat to within roughly half a degree of 37° Celsius (98.6° Fahrenheit). Half a degree is a change so slight that in the air around us it would feel imperceptible. Our external world is subject to huge surges and lapses in temperature; Britain, with its irresolute weathers, still varies between -20°C (-4°F) in winter and +35°C (+95°F) in summer. But in order to keep ourselves alive and functional, we need to keep our core body temperature stable at all times, whether in winter, summer, ice, or fire. It is an extraordinary feat, and it takes an extraordinary amount of energy.
Most of the time, clothes (or the lack of them) help to do the job for us. Over the centuries, we have evolved the capacity to moderate the effect of the environment on our bodies with the addition or subtraction of a layer of fur or wool or denim or Gore-tex. Apply the right layers of clothing and the internal temperature of someone in -40°C (-40°F) Greenland will stay at the same level as someone in T-shirt and shorts in +40°C (+104°F) sub-Saharan Africa. The trouble arises when we get wet. Water is our greatest vulnerability; we cannot live without it, but we cannot live within it. Like the earth itself, we are seven-tenths water. It is the great equalizer: the source of our subsistence. Everything we are or were or aim to be begins and ends at sea level. It dictates our capacity to survive and thrive as a nation, our view of ourselves, our defense, our past, our future. It gives us life, and it kills us. Most of the world's oceans are filled with water lower than the temperature that we can safely tolerate for any length of time (20°C/68°F). Water conducts heat 24 times more efficiently than air; a body in water will cool four times more rapidly than on land.
Those who fall into the sea – whether through accident or design – find themselves in a foreign element. Water aims to equalize as rapidly as possible; it wants you to become part of it, fast. It has no difficulty at all absorbing something as vulnerable as a human body. First it steals heat, then it steals energy, then – if it is rough, which seas around the British Isles tend to be – it replaces the air in the lungs with water. And finally, it takes you down.
Unfortunately a man overboard is notoriously difficult to spot. Once in the water, there is very little to be seen – just a head and a bit of splashing. The speed of the current will carry the victim soundlessly away while a ship takes time to turn and return. A small sailing yacht will probably only have a crew of two or three, and using one to keep a permanent lookout while using another to reef and steer is not easy. Add to that the hazards of poor visibility or bad weather, plus the strong possibility that the victim is not wearing safety gear, and an unscheduled swim does not seem such a shrewd idea.
According to recent scientific advice, in order to have the best chance of surviving sudden immersion you should make sure you are in a calm and temperate sea – preferably the Mediterranean in mid-summer. You should also be male, and fit, but probably have a reasonable amount of fat as well. If female, then you may have a worse chance of surviving the initial shock of shipwreck but a better long-term prospect of survival, since women's bodies store a higher percentage of fat than those of men. If you have the misfortune to fall into a cooler sea, then you should have spent time acclimatizing yourself to the impact by taking regular cold baths. If you insist on drowning yourself in the waters around the British Isles, then try to do so on the west. The North Sea, lacking the benefit of the warming Gulf Stream, is generally at least two degrees colder than the Atlantic. If possible, you should be wearing a well-designed lifejacket, correctly sized and tied, and fitted with a splashguard. You should also be wearing clothing that provides a good "boundary layer" around the skin (a wet suit, for instance). You should enter the water slowly and with caution, and remain as still as possible for the first couple of minutes while your body acclimatizes. You should remain aware of the effects of cold on the nervous and circulatory system, and perform any tasks requiring manual dexterity as soon as possible after entering the water, since the cold will rapidly begin to numb your hands. As the amount of oxygen finding its way to the muscles decreases, even the strongest swimmers will eventually find themselves treading water. If you find a lifeboat or a life-raft but have the misfortune not to be rescued within a few hours, it may or may not be a consolation to know that you will survive for about a week with no fresh water, and between 40 and 60 days with water but no food. Cannibalism is not recommended – like other meats, human flesh is comprised mainly of protein, and digesting protein depletes more of the body's water stores than carbohydrates do. On no account should you drink seawater. As any gardener who has ever sprinkled salt on a slug could tell you, salt shrivels things. When salt water touches the lunges, it tightens the alveoli, fatally reducing oxygen capacity. If you wish to survive drowning, try to do so in fresh water.
Though the notion that anyone who falls overboard is going to do so calmly and slowly in a freshwater sea while wearing the right clothes and having taken years of preparatory cold baths may seem ridiculous, there is at least a chance that a modern boat will be equipped with safety equipment and that the local coast guard could be alerted. A shipwreck victim in the 18th or 19th centuries had no such hope. Safety equipment as such did not exist. There was no coast guard, no SAR helicopter, no lifeboat. In a gale, the crew's best chance of survival was to bind themselves to the mast and wait it out. They knew there could be no emergency flare, no Mayday alert, no warning call from sea to land, no Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons, no fluorescent lifejackets equipped with whistles and splashguards.
The only advantage that an 18th-century victim might have had over a 21st-century one was the availability of buoyant material. Modern yachts are built of fiberglass and modern ships of steel. Unless there is sufficient air left in the hull, both types go straight to the bottom of the sea if they capsize. Eighteenth-century vessels built of wood at least offered the mariner the consolation of watching his erstwhile safe haven float past him as he drowned. Presuming, of course, that he had actually managed to come up for air, since he probably could not even swim. Until well into the 1960s, swimming classing were not compulsory in British schools. In many parts of the country people still remember being hurled off the local pier by their parents or elder siblings in the hope that they would float. If they floated, then they could survive, and that was all the tuition they needed. Besides, it wasn't as if even that rudimentary lesson helped. There are still areas of Britain where until very recently fishermen would even ignore the impulse to remain buoyant. If they fell overboard, they folded their arms, filled their boots, and met their fate. Once the sea has claimed someone, so the thinking went, no man – on land or on deck – could challenge that claim.
From The Wreckers: A Story of Killing Seas and Plundered Shipwrecks, from the 18th-Century to the Present Day, by Bella Bathurst. Copyright © 2005 by Bella Bathurst. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
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