What Do You Need in an Offshore Ditch Bag / Boating Grab Bag [24 Examples]
If you take your boat offshore or even nearshore, you must be prepared if an emergency arises while you are on your boat.
When I switched from inshore to offshore fishing, I knew I needed additional safety gear since I was going to be many miles offshore and want to be prepared if something goes wrong with my boat or the weather turns bad and we are caught in a life-threatening situation.
For this reason, I did a lot of research about the things you should have in your offshore ditch bag.
I recommend every boat going offshore should have a ditch bag that includes a handheld VHF, EPIRB and a ditch bag filled with lifesaving essentials including a few bottles of water.
Coast Guard Ditch Bag Recommendations
I know some people choose not to wear a lifejacket offshore, but I believe all passengers should wear an offshore coast guard rated lifejacket.
Since many people choose not to wear a life jacket when on their boats offshore fishing, here’s a tip for you that I have found works very well.
I wear my life jacket every time I am going fishing offshore because accidents can happen in the blink of an eye and when bad things happen we do not always have time to react and grab our emergency gear.
Offshore Life Jackets
My Recommendation: Offshore Inflatable Harness Life Jacket from West Marine
An offshore life Jacket is probably one of the most critical boat safety devices ever made.
Where I fish, we must run a minimum of sixteen to eighteen miles to get to offshore fishing and it’s usually thirty to forty nautical miles to get to the blue water of the Gulf Stream.
The best life jacket is the life jacket you actually wear. You could buy the world’s best life jacket, but if you do not wear it, then it does you no good in an emergency.
For this reason, I have put together a list of three lifejackets that are comfortable to wear and have the ability to save your life in a boating emergency.
I like my lifejacket so much I barely know it is on. This is the lifejacket I wear. West Marine Link
- Approval: USCG – Recreational Type V with Type II performance (Meets minimum buoyancy rating of 33.7 LBS)
- Hydrostatic Inflator Technology (HIT) will only inflate when submerged in 4” or more of water pressure, and not in rain, spray, or high humidity
- 38 LBS of buoyancy when inflated
- Two heavy-duty stainless steel D-rings for use with tethers
- Strobe Light Holder safety whistle and SOLAS reflective tape on inflation cell
*Important Note: Inflatable PDF devices (life jackets) are not recommended for boaters under the age of 16 years old.
One feature that all three of these inflatable life jackets have that I really like is the built-in harness. With the D-ring harness, if you are in the water for an extended period of time, you can tie your ditch back, EPIRB, or even a friend to your life jacket.
If for some reason you are at drift or possibly injured and going in and out of consciousness, being able to connect yourself to your EPIRB will allow the Coast Guard or other first responders to find you quicker.
How much should I pay for an offshore inflatable life jacket? I would budget approximately $200 to $350 for a quality life jacket
Offshore Emergency Ditch Bag
My Recommendation: ARC Ditch Bag from Amazon
Besides wearing a life jacket, having an emergency ditch bag at the ready in case of an offshore emergency that requires you to abandon ship.
There are many different styles of ditch bags, and really any small duffle bag or soft-sided cooler could serve as a ditch bag. With this said, my preference is to buy a brightly colored bag that is specifically designed as an emergency ditch bag.
These emergency ditch bags have specific pockets for your EPIRB, your emergency gear, and also offers buoyancy built into the bag so it should stay afloat while in the water.
I purchased and use this ACR Ditch Bag due to its compact size.
- Large capacity holds your essential gear for abandon ship situations
- Bag mounts to bulkhead via soft bracket (included) or stows in easy access location
- Four snap-hook tethers keep product in place
- Internal pockets, elastic daisy chain organizer
- Water resistant, rugged fabric 600 Denier Polyester with large self-repairing zippers
ACR also makes a larger bag. Whit it is bigger, it is also twice the price.
What Does A Ditch Bag Cost? Expect to spend between $50 and $100 for your ditch bag.
What Items Should Be In My Boat Ditch Bag?
Here is a list of popular items you should keep in your boat ditch bag. Boats that experience catastrophic damage have been known to sink in under ten minutes.
When a crisis arrises offshore, you don’t have much time to react. For this reason, you need to stock your bag and have it ready to go immediately.
Here’s What You Should Buy For Your Ditch Bag:
- Box of Gallon Zip Lock Bags to Keep Important Documents and Gear Dry
- Signal Tools to Alert Others Of Your Location – Depending on the size of your boat, these items are required by coast guard law to have on your vessel at all times. Every boat must have a way to signal other boats with sound. This can be a bell, whistle, or air horn, but there must be a way to announce your presence in poor visibility. If you are at a dead stop in a shipping lane, this is crucial. These items can be brought onto a life raft or with you swimming to help rescuers get a better idea of your location. If you are traveling far into the open ocean, lights attached to your life jacket for night, and dye packs for daytime are also available to help a rescue vehicle see you more clearly.
- Whistle – I really like this clip on whistle with floating lanyard. It is really easy to clip onto your ditch bag or to your life jacket if you have to go in the water. Amazon Link
- Marine Air Horn – Nothing special here. Any marine air horn will work. I keep a small air horn in my ditch bag and also in the radio box of my boat. This way I have one for immediate use and also one if we have to abandon the boat and swim.
- Signal Mirror – to help signal to planes or helicopters flying overhead.
- Beyond Flares, I really like the idea of this Strobe LED Distress Light or Beacon Amazon Link
- 20′ of Floating 3/8″ Rope – Keep 3/8‑inch floating poly line in your ditch bag to help keep the crew tethered together if there’s not a life raft.
- First-Aid Kit – Make sure it has essential prescriptions and seasick medications. I prefer Bonine for seasickness. It works the best in my opinion.
- Sunscreen – the sun can quickly burn your skin and dehydrate you. Protect yourself with sunscreen.
- Drinking Water – The farther you venture offshore the more likely a rescue will take longer. You need to be prepared and water is critical.
- Energy Bars – Energy bars have a long shelf life, store easily and can help you survive if it takes a while before rescue can occur.
- Folding Knife – You need a knife to be able to cut away ropes, ties and other items that may become tangled or stuck while in an emergency situation.
- Space Blanket – This one may seem odd, but a cheap metallic space blanket can be used to signal for rescue, and if your boat does not sink, but it only becomes disables, the space blanket can keep you warm if you must stay on your boat and drift overnight.
- Compass – An old-school compass is helpful to understand your direction and to help rescuers locate you if you are able to communicate with your handheld VHF unit.
- (Optional) Glow Sticks – These are optional, but many rescues can last overnight and I like the idea of having some long lasting light. They are a cheap way to keep some light going all night long. It’s also a way to keep a light on each person in your party. You can buy glowsticks really cheap at the dollar store. I get a handful of them from the Dollar Tree each year and toss them in my ditch bag.
My Recommendation: EPIRB by ARC on Amazon
An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon or EPIRB is used to alert search and rescue services in the event of an emergency. It works by transmitting a coded message via satellite and earth stations to the nearest emergency rescue center.
Some EPIRBs also have built-in GPS which allows the Coast Guard or other rescue services to accurately locate you to +/- 50 meters.
This is another reason I like the brightly colored ditch bag mentioned above because it allows a Coast Guard helicopter or airplane to see your location easier of your boat is no longer visible above the water.
EPIRBs like the one I purchased also have a long-lasting strobe light to aid rescuers in locating you in case of a night search and rescue effort.
THis is the EPIRB unit that I own. Amazon Link
- FastACQ GPS engine acquires LAT/LON from a cold start better than normal GPS engines
- 100 m (110 yds.) GPS position accuracy, optimum allowed by COSPAS-SARSAT
- Floats upright with high visibility built-in strobe
- Transmits on 406 MHz (COSPAS-SARSAT) with your registered, digitally-coded distress signal, and 121. 5 MHz (SAR homing frequency)
- High-impact polycarbonate case with non-tangling lanyard
Personal Locator Beacon
My Recommendation: PLB by ARC on Amazon
A personal locator beacon (PLB) serves the same purpose as an EPIRB as described above. The PLB is a smaller lighter version of an EPIRB.
It works great for offshore fishermen because you can fasten it to your life jacket, put it in a pocket and carry it with you. To activate your personal locator beacon, you simply flip up the antenna and push the button to activate the emergency alert signal.
Many tests show that your emergency signal gets sent to emergency response units in as little as five minutes.
The PLB has a battery that offers roughly 30 hours of operation while the larger EPIRB is built to work for 48 hours.
I currently do not own a PLB, but if I did, this is the unit I would buy.
- Once activated, an SOS distress signal with GPS position is sent direct to Search and Rescue forces worldwide using the 406 MHz Emergency Distress Signal with 121.5 MHz Homing Signal (No Subscription Required)
- Small, rugged, lightweight personal locator beacon that is buoyant and includes attachment clips including a belt clip, oral inflation tube clip, straps and lanyards for increased wearability for hikers, boaters, campers, climbers, RVing and all your outdoor adventures
- Send non-emergency self test and GPS test messages to multiple contacts via text message (SMS) and email with a customized message using the optional 406Link testing subscription
- Global Coverage using the 3 satellite constellations of COSPAS-SARSAT, which sends your distress message directly to Search and Rescue agencies worldwide without the need for a rescue monitoring center
- A bright LED Strobe light as well as an Infrared Strobe light ensures multiple visual signals to rescuers
Handheld VHF Radio
My Recommendation: Standard Horizon Floating VHF with GPS
While an EPIRB or PLB will notify the Coast Guard and other emergency services, it does not allow you to communicate with other boats in your area.
For this reason, keeping a battery-operated handheld VHF radio in your ditch bag. There are many good brands of handheld VHF radios on the market. Two brands that have an excellent offshore reputation are ICOM and Standard Horizon.
If you are buying a new handheld VHF radio, I suggest getting a unit with built-in GPS so you can communicate your exact location. A unit like this would be a good choice.
- Floating 6W Handheld VHF with Internal GPS; Supplied with a 1800 mAh Li-Ion Battery, 110VAC and 12VDC 3-hour quick chargersAlkaline Battery Tray
- Meets ITU-R M493-13 Class D DSC (Digital Selective Calling)
- Separate Receiver for CH70 (Receiving DSC Calls)
- Integrated 66 Channel WAAS GPS receiver.Submersible IPX8 waterproof rating (1.5M or 4.92 feet for 30 minutes)
- Noise-canceling Function for both transmit and receive audio
Other Useful Emergency Equipment for Offshore Boating & Fishing
Tool Kit for Your Boat – You need a toolkit on your boat to be able to replace hoses, clamps or electrical wiring that breaks while away from the dock.
My fishing buddy keeps this toolkit on his boat at all times – Amazon Link. While I have a little more of a ghetto tool setup, but it works for me and my tools do not rust.
So what do I do with my tools? I have a collection of old tools that I keep in oven mitts. Yes, oven mitts! Why, you ask? I get oven mitts from the dollar store and then I spray the insides of the oven mitts with WD40. Then I store my tools in the oven mitts. This way my tools don’t rust.
I keep three oven mitts in a dry bag in one of my storage lockers on my boat. This way they keep out the salt water, but if I need them I know right where to go. As I said, it is ghetto rigged, but it has worked for me for a long time.
Hole plug – I keep one of these emergency hole plugs on my boat in case of water intrusion. If a seacock or other hole in my hull gets damaged and starts letting water into the boat I can use this plug to slow or stop water from getting into the boat. Amazon Link
- Use in plugging hoses
- Emergency plug for water intrusions
- Will slow or stop leaks
Hand Bilge Pump – I keep this hand bilge pump on my boat. I have three large forward lockers that would not drain easily if I took a lot of water over the bow and the lockers were open.
As a result, I keep a hand bilge pump handy just in case. Here the one I have – Amazon link. One thing I don’t like about this one though is that my hull is really deep and I could really use a longer hose to get the water out and away from where I am pumping.
I may make up a portable electric bilge pump that I could keep in a dry bag that could then be powered by the cigarette lighter plug at the helm. If I make one, I will be sure to write a blog post showing you what and how I made it.
*New To The Market — An Inflatable Throw Raft – This is the only throwable inflatable device that is Coast Guard approved. It was designed by a boat emergency survivor.
As you may know, it is so hard to toss a square cushion in the wind and no place to store a hard Coast Guard approved life ring on most boats, so the throw raft is a perfect fit.
When it inflates it looks like your standard square throw cushion, but the size and weight make it much easier to toss to a man overboard in rough water. Amazon Link
While this is not a complete list of all safety gear you should consider for your boat, these 24 items are things I keep in my ditch bag or on the boat at all times.
When an emergency strikes, as captain of your boat you need to have the tools and preparedness to address any emergency when it happens!