The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Cookies Won’t Keep Us Going in The Liferaft

Phyllis and I are in the middle of our annual check and update of all the safety equipment on Morgan’s Cloud:

  • Abandon ship kit;
  • Flares, rockets, etc.;
  • Liferaft (more to come on that);
  • EPIRB and its hydrostatic release;
  • And on it goes.

And because we are not going far this year, other than a local COVID-safe cruise, we have had a bit more time to mess with this stuff, rather than the usual scramble to get everything back in-date prior to leaving on a long cruise.

So I was ordering new emergency rations and water for the abandon ship kit since both went out of date over the winter—why, or if, that even matters is another discussion—when we decided to do something I have never done before: open up a pack of emergency food we keep in the abandon ship kit to supplement that in the raft.

Good News

The stuff does not actually taste that bad, kind of like greasy shortbread.

Bad News

This taste made us both suspicious about what’s in this shit…err stuff:

  • Wheat Flour
  • Vegetable shortening
  • Cane sugar
  • Water
  • Coconut
  • Salt

Yup, you got it, the survival industry expects us to live off…cookies…in fact, one cookie every 6 hours. No wonder they tell you to “eat in small pieces”.

Sugar Bad

Now, I’m no nutritionist, but one thing I do know after years at sea is that a diet of simple carbohydrates just doesn’t cut it. In fact, a hit of sugar, or refined flour that ends up as sugar, can be, in my experience, actually worse than eating nothing at all, because of the crash that comes after the initial surge.

Protein Good

If I’m going to keep functioning for the long haul, particularly if sea sick, I need protein and fat. My personal favourite, especially right after I puke, is a hard boiled egg, the eating of which I call “smashing back a bullet”—keeps me going for hours.

Real World Experience

By the way, a story to substantiate that. Some years ago Phyllis and I were heaved-to south of Bermuda in a gale—that’s what you get when you wait until January to head for the Caribbean—and we decided to have pasta and bottled tomato sauce for dinner. An hour later we were both on our last legs with exhaustion. Just totalled.

Admittedly, it had been a tough passage, but still, we were comfortably heaved-to and resting most of the time, so there was no good reason for this except that dinner was all sugar and simple carbs with almost zero protein—with the amount of sugar they add to bottled sauce, we might as well have eaten a candy bar for dinner.

A hard boiled egg each and we were set to rights. Ever since that day, we have been very careful to limit carbohydrates and sugar at sea and have made sure we get enough veggies and protein-rich foods—one of the reasons we love having a big freezer, since we can make tasty wholesome meals before we head offshore. Yeah, I know, we could always get into canning like all the cruising books tell you…I know, how about you get into canning?

Anyway, back to the emergency rations. Anyone who ends up pulling a Steve Callahan better not rely on liferaft emergency rations…might as well pack shortbread cookies.

I’m not sure what the alternative is, but I do know that indigenous North Americans, and those explorers of old who were smart enough to emulate them, kept alive and functional on pemmican, even when doing brutal work like hauling sleds or portaging canoes. There are a bunch of recipes online, or you can even buy the stuff ready made from several vendors.

Probably worth thinking about for the abandon ship bag, even though the likelihood of spending 76 days in a raft like Steve is much reduced in these days of satellite phones and EPIRBs.

Bottom line, a diet of shortbread cookies is not going to give us the get-up-and-go we will need to function in a rescue situation, like having to climb a scrambling net up the side of a rescuing ship, even after just a day or so in a liferaft.

A Learning Experience

There’s also a bigger point here. Doing as I have done for over 30 years and just going along with this “food” the survival industry sells us, without really thinking about it and investigating further, was not smart—I, of all people, should know better.

Can’t Do It All

That said, getting properly ready for a long offshore voyage is hugely challenging and time consuming—I call it death by a thousand details—so it’s simply not possible to check every single thing, particularly stuff like liferaft rations that purport to be fit for task.

I guess, as always, it comes down to prioritization, so I comfort myself with the thought that figuring out good crew overboard prevention systems and heavy weather tactics was, and still is, a lot bigger contributor to our safety than fussing about every detail of liferaft survival.

Further Reading


Does anybody have any suggestions for emergency food for the abandon ship bag. Obviously it must keep for a long time without spoiling. Pemmican was my best shot, but maybe there are other alternatives?

Good Books

By the way, if you want to learn more about the incredible feats of endurance pulled off by indigenous North Americans and explorers, I can highly recommend these two:

Both great reads and informative, too. And if you fancy yourself a bit of a hard man or woman, read Shoalts’ other books—he raises the bar on tough!

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Richard Samuels

How about nuts? I’m looking at three containers in our kitchen. 1/4 cup of salted peanuts has 170 calories, 8 grams of protein, 15 grams of fat (23% of daily value), 4 grams of carbohydrates (2%) and 90 mg of sodium (4%). Unsalted peanuts are similar, except no sodium. Almonds are also similar. They have a best by date about two years away. I would expect unopened nuts would be safe for a lot longer.

Daniel McCarty

Richard beat me to it. The answer is nuts, and peanuts are good, cheap and filling if you do not have an allergy, are high in potassium which is very important to replace if your body is sweating. Almonds and raisins are also high in potassium. Nuts are high in calories and fat but in a small, light “package.” Raisins have carbs, potassium and will last a very long time.

Sport “drinks” are high is sugars, which make me sick, and potassium. I have a recipe for a sports drink that is basically potassium, salt and sugar(high fructose corn syrup) that a doctor gave me decades ago. I used to mix it but left out the HFC. The source of salt and potassium is Morton salt substitute that is mainly potassium and sodium(salt). it works but I found that eating dried fruits and nuts is far better for my body. The sports drinks, even leaving out the HFC, make me sick.

One upon a time I was working outside in a polyester uniform, wearing 25-30 pounds of gear, in the heat. Not doing much but standing around in the heat, humidity, in the sun on black asphault. After 3-4 hours, in spite of eating and drinking, I was feeling really bad. I was able to take a break and I ate a banana. It was like flicking a switch! The potassium in the banana just brought me right back. Ever since, I take foods high in potassium with me whenever I will be sweating, or just traveling. One needs food with protein, fat, carbs, and potassium along with water to keep going. Nuts and dried fruit supply these things in a small, light package.

I have dried apples and left them in a jar on my desk for years to see what would happen. Eventually, I threw out the apples after at least five years, maybe ten, not because they were bad but because I was tired of looking at them. They did not have mold or anything wrong with them that I could tell.

MREs would be another good source of calories. They are bulky and have quite a bit of waste packaging but the ones I have eaten tasted good, though I did heat them, and they last for a very long time. My reading up on them decades ago, was that MREs last a very long time, and while there might be a taste/texture decline after a decode or so, the loss of nutritional value was very slight.

For survival though, I think too much protein and not enough water can be a problem.

Rob Gill

Hi John,
What an interesting article, and can you make room in the “naughty” corner? I never considered this fundamental flaw in our abandon ship safety process. What else might be wrong with our ISO approved lifesaving equipment?
And for some us who need CAT 1 sign-off to go offshore, things may be a little worse than you have exposed John…I would think the food in our life-raft won’t be able to be changed from such “approved rations” and still be certified for CAT 1. I’ll check with our service agent when it’s time. But at least we can pack our own grab-bag:
Second vote for unsalted nuts. And then biltong (jerky) which can also be bought in small sealed packs and lasts well. The NZ Volvo race crews used to stock up big time in Cape Town for the Southern Ocean, and this apparently was a night-watch favourite. Being salty may be an issue with water rationing?
I know if we have porridge on a winter’s morning, I don’t hungry again until lunch time even when working outside in the cold, and nothing else fills me the same way. So I wonder if wholegrain oat muesli bars could be a good substitute?
Thanks, Rob

Daniel McCarty

I make jerky from time to time and it seems to last a years. If it does not get eaten first. I seal the jerky in a vacuum sealer and it is good to go. I have also made fruit leathers which is just ground up fruit that is dried after being spread out. Eventually it is like thick paper and will last a very long time. Not sure how well it would store in a life raft but in a bail out bag that could be checked from time to time, with jerky, fruit leathers, other dried fruit and nuts would sensible to me.

I have also made “energy bars” that were granola, nuts, honey and chocolate. Very energy packed, sorta light weight but very small. I made a bunch of these and put into a gallon zip log bag and took them to work. We ate a bunch of them, then I put them in a drawer and forgot about them. Years, and I do mean years later, I found the bag. Nobody would eat the bars, though they looked just fine to me. 🙂 I would guess the bars were 5-10 years old. There was no mold on them at all. I think they were safe but they might have broken a tooth if anyone had dared to try to eat them. 🙂

Mark Bodnar

I’ve not researched the long term effects of dried fruit – but in general fruit does not have the same type of “sugar hit” we would see in a candy with similar amounts of sugar. The fiber that comes with fruit seems to mitigate that effect

I think nuts and dried fruit would be a great for emergency rations. Of course also realizing that most of us could easily live for weeks (or months) without significant food calories, but of course most wouldn’t be very happy or particularly functional.

Also – MSG – while not great for some people it’s not the nasty lab chemical it’s been painted as – “Monosodium glutamate was discovered more than 100 years ago by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda, who derived it from seaweed and discovered that it had unique flavor-enhancing properties. These days, MSG is made by fermenting starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses, according to the FDA”. I’d be more concerned about excess salt in the nuts that would in turn necessitate even more water intake.


Daniel McCarty

One DOES have to be careful with dried fruit.

We have a dehydrator and the dried fruit we make is completely different than the “dried” fruit that is often sold in the stores. Much of the store bought dried fruit is ‘dried” with sugar. This is not a good thing and one does need to read the ingredients. Also, the dried fruit is concentrated and one does need to be careful to not eat too much. I used to take dried apples to work to share with coworkers. Most would heed my warnings to only eat a little bit and not pig out. The one guy that pigged out was not to happy. He ate the equivalent of 4-5 apples and did not have a good day. 🙂

I too am sensitive to sugar and have to watch what I eat since too much sugar makes me sick.

Petri Flander

Interesting topic, again.

There was a catching sentence on a story about a fighter pilot that was shot down on 90’s. Something like:
“He tried to eat from his emergency ration. He must have been truly desperate!”

That’s the essence of the true emergency ration. It has to be so properly, horribly, bad tasting, that it’s only proper function is to postpone cannibalism and death 🙂 Recipe is right when test subjects, after a bite, cry for an hour, or better, pass out for an hour. (less whining on the raft)

It’s quite safe to guess that most readers here are no more on their 20’s, so most of us already have a handy grab-bag over the belt. About 8kg goes well for a month, so most us have ~3 months already to-go. It’s just that not all the sailors know how to go fasting. There’s plenty of saltwater around so flushing daily the amount that needs to go is not problem. When flushing works, fasting works.

So, if EPIRB and other pleasantries go AWOL, the best course of action seems to be… first, get a quick & friendly fitness course with fasting, and only when that starts to wind down, then touch something sensible like above mentioned beef jerky and peanuts. When those are gone, then ‘official garbage cookies’, and only then, The Real Survival Stuff, whose horrendousness should be on so biblical proportions that chances for ‘acquired taste’ are absolutely below zero…

btw. another problem with those ‘official’ rations seems to be the lack of fibers. On Volvo race, they eat abt. 8000 kcal daily, and their stomach would get totally screwed within a couple of days without the added fiber – that cook shovels to dried meals from a big bag. (Same problem with most freeze-dried “camping foods”.)
Cheers, PF

Petri Flander

Hi John. Yes, agreed on seasickness cases. Persons with no experience with fasting shouldn’t try it when seasickness is on.
But, horses for courses, persons who have done it previously, should go right to it when it seems probable that EPIRB alarm has not been raised and they’re rafting on the middle of south atlantic. There might be quite an odyssey ahead…
Also, previous accident reports (ref. eg. Cheeki Rafiki) and rescue stories state that probability of detection from eg. HC-130 to raft with passive reflector, on moderate seas, is something like 20%. Might become a long wait. That is, with detached EPIRB and without working SART transponder, ofcourse.

So, my claim is, with working EPIRB and SART, let’s go ahead with candy bars, naughty magazines and whiskey – otherwise, prepare for the worst as good as you can.

btw. aforementioned manual watermaker is surely essential in long haul. Also fishing gear. And, some kind of vitamin supplements start to play a role after a couple of weeks of drifting. Cheers.

Petri Flander

Oh, one more thing.
The ‘claim’ sentence needs to be modified by adding “…and within the reach of effective SAR organization”.
Namely, there’s a point when EPIRB and SART beacons run out of batteries. If spares are available, then that’s taken care of. If not, then there’s a point when even a well equipped raft ‘goes dark’. On remote areas outside fixed-wing reach, the rescue time might be over a week, and this becomes a factor.

Petri Flander

Yet another thing – there doesn’t seem to be an article that explains what are the actual fixed and rotary wing SAR coverages around the world. Like, between NZ and Cap Horn, on South Atlantic, etc.
Since MC seem to become the go-to site for serious cruisers, I’m afraid that the resposibility to coming up with one sits squarely on your yard, John. 🙂

(Unless you can dodge this one by talking the Ocean Navigator magazine to come up with one…)

Petri Flander

Ok, I tried 🙂
Will talk to ON mag, and if no dough, I’ll do it myself.

Terence Thatcher

No suggestions, but great discussion. I am going to be more thoughtful with my ditch bag.

Francis Clouston

Hi John,
The following is not for publication, just to point out a typo in the second to last paragraph of the « Real World Experience » section: EPIRB instead of ERIRB.

We’ve been canning our meat on our boat for the last eight years. It’s easier than most people think. All you need, (besides good quality meats) is a 12 litres autoclave and a 1500W hot plate. Took us a full day last December in Grenada to can a seven-month supply which we are now finishing here at East River Shipyard.

Btw, Pèlerin sits right in front of us. Please tell Collin she looks fine.

Best of luck with Morgan’s Cloud sale

s/v Mikado III

Francis Clouston

I guess I don’t have to tell you what we use our solar oven for, then…

Francis Clouston

Hmmm… there’s an idea!

Still got half a kilo of TVP lying around somewhere…

Charles Starke MD

Hi John
I recommend George Sigler’s “Experiment in Survival.” He fitted out a rubber raft and “sailed“ it in survival conditions from California to Hawaii. He had different thoughts on what to have in a life raft.
Best wishes,
Charles L Starke MD FACP
s/v Dawnpiper

Matthew Service

Hi John,

I agree with Charles Starke’s assessment: I really enjoyed the book “Experiment in Survival” by George Sigler. Sigler was a Navy Pilot, and a friend of my uncle, and set out to create his own ditch kit. Knowing it had to be tested in the real world, he and a friend ‘sailed’ for Hawaii from San Diego in a 17 foot engine-less zodiac.

George used what research was available at the time (1970’s), and based on that primarily brought small candies – mostly abandoning all solid food. His reasoning for doing so is outlined in the book, and I think his journey at least anecdotally confirms his expectations.

It’s not a long read, but it was entertaining, and I think you might find another perspective regarding a need for fatty foods like pemmican. Solar stills for clean water are probably much more necessary.


~Matt Service, S/V Witchcraft

Bruce Brown

Findings on life raft survival duration (how long does it take to get rescued) depend on your ability to communicate with the Search and Rescue Agencies that cover the world.
The IMO standards for life raft survival kits use a standard of 3 days based on the fact that commercial vessels carry EPIRBS that automatically activate if a vessel sinks. (Float free brackets are required on commercial vessels). With AMVER as a critical element in the successful rescue of a number of mariners in disaster situations, commercial shipping provides the platform to speed up SAR successful resolutions.
The 3 day assumption is what is used for water packed into life rafts as well as rations.
For short term survival, carbohydrates are far better when drinking water is limited as they take less water to metabolize. The standard rule in survival is always “don’t eat if there is no liquid to drink.”

Niels Rasmussen

When I was a young man I was on sea cadet school for joining the commercial fleet. (Five months boarding school where everything was ran as onboard a ship) part of the training was that we without warning was sailed out to a waiting liferaft to spend 24 hours there. It was without any food or water. The idea was that if you start fasting the first 24 hours the body go into “survival” mode and your system and body are prepared for getting little supply. When we returned I remember I wasn’t more hungry than normal. I don’t know if that wisdom is still the norm.

Drew Frye

Sounds to me like the moral of the story is to learn what works for YOU in severe conditions. Some of the above suggestions would absolutely not work for me. I’m sure my thoughts will make no sense to others, but have been tested in horrible conditions.

Before energy bars and the like one of my favorites was Logan bread. The stuff was developed for climbing trips years ago, and it contains a lot of honey, molasses, fat, and wheat. It can absolutely keep you on your feet and clear headed through anything. I know, after many extreme endurance climbing feats, some in the summer, some on ice. Always went down well.

GU is one that I thought sounded horrible… until I started trying it on ice climbing trips. Often you are clinging to the side of some ice fall, need to keep the energy up, and stopping to eat is a non-starter. Often it was well below zero. Maybe you are belaying with your other hand. You certainly don’t want to dig through a pack. These live in a handy pocket. No, I suppose the energy does not last long, but the idea is to eat one an hour or so. No crash. You have other food in your stomach, typically a lumberjack breakfast. I’ve never used them for anything other than ice climbing. A niche use.

I’d also think seriously about ginger. For me, it is the best seasickness preventative, and thus I have a lot of sea-going recipes that included it.

Finally, one of our grab bags was always carefully selected, durable food. My wife is diabetic, so this is as near to our focus as the EPIRB. Without the right food and insulin, 36 hours will be way too long. She’ll be gone.

Scott Arenz

Hi John,

This is certainly a realm where everyone must find what works for themselves and their crew. If one principle of survival is to minimize shocks to your system, then it seems important to feed your body with the types of foods it’s used to, and avoid large quantities of things it’s not as long as is practical.

I’m another who is sensitive to sugar and any carbs that easily break down into it. (A bowl of pasta or a donut will make me mentally foggy and sleepy in under 30 minutes.) The term I’ve heard used is “reactive hypoglycemia”. Fat, protein, and vegetables are what keep me going physically and mentally.

Coming from that background, pemmican sounds like an ideal high energy food, so thanks for putting it on my radar.

I’ve found chia seeds to be an excellent and easily consumed source of energy (especially prior to and during exercise), since they contain a balance of fat, protein, and complex carbs. They go down easily when mixed with water, but are not, however, very appetizing. I’ll have to look into whether they would be a good addition to a pemmican recipe.

Scott A.
Atlanta, GA

Daniel McCarty

My wife has suddenly gotten sensitive to flour/gluten. Its just came out of the blue in the last few years. As a result, we have been eating pancakes made from almond and/or coconut flour. One can find flour less pancake recipes or mixes and we actually prefer them. The texture of the flour less pancakes is not as good as a flour pancake, but one is full after eating 2-3 decent sized flour less pancakes and there is no carb crash that one gets with flour pancakes.

Like Scott, I get really sleepy after eating refined carbs. My granny used to talk about the three evil white foods, white sugar, white rice and white flour. She never mentioned grits, but grits are just as bad, if not worse, than those three. Today we would call these refined foods, which they are, and I try to avoid them, though I do LOVE white rice and bagels from white flour. I just don’t eat those very often.

Scott Arenz

Hi John,

Damage caused by sugar spikes wasn’t something I was aware of, but I’ll certainly read up on it.

I’ve come to think of an intolerance for sugar as the body’s way of forcing us to eat healthily. Happily my partner has also come to follow a similar diet on her own accord. As a rule, we don’t have sugar, flour, bread, pasta, chips/crisps or sweets in the house. The discipline is needed only when buying groceries, not when facing a craving; If you don’t bring the unhealthy foods home, you can’t be tempted to eat them. So with this method we eat healthily well over 90% of the time.

For the remaining percentage, I will admit to the occasional cup of ice cream (served with lots of peanut butter) or slice of pizza (served with a side of extra virgin olive oil). In both examples, the fat helps to moderate the carbo absorption, and prevents a crash. (A tip for anyone who wants to try adding healthy fats to your diet: decrease overall portion size, as the fats are high in calories.) We would also cheat a bit when dining out, but as that hasn’t happened in five months and likely won’t for the foreseeable future, we are eating more healthily than ever.

The happy side effect of this lifestyle is that it’s easy to maintain optimum body weight with moderate exercise. However, I wouldn’t wish the sugar sensitivity part (reactive hypoglycemia) on anyone, as coping with it away from home requires tremendous planning and discipline. There is also the danger, from what I’ve read, of the body’s uneven insulin regulation progressing into diabetes. (Perhaps that is related to the damage caused by sugar hits?)

One theoretical advantage about traveling by boat is that you can carry a large stock of your personal foods with you. (When I cruise it will be with a freezer full of frozen vegetables, sausage & poultry 😉 ) That’s a big deal if you have dietary restrictions!

Atlanta, GA, USA

Chuck Batson

Hi John, Another excellent adventurer book which features pemmican is Alfred Lansing’s “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.”


Richard Phillips

I think this piece is a *little* uncharitable about what are after all called ‘survival’ rations!

Most people can live for quite a long time on survival rations of 800 calories per day – especially if you don’t have to do much. Yes, you will not be in great shape and not feel so good, but this is about survival. The rations are all about getting those calories into as small a space as possible in a form that will last for many *years*.

So the obvious path is to have these survival rations packed into the life raft, but have a grab bag with a wider range of food that can be checked and replaced a bit more regularly.

Lots of good ideas on the thread, but I also have some multi-vitamins in my grab bag. They take up near zero space and whatever you are eating you will be missing out on many vitamins and minerals. Multi-vits might help you feel a bit better at near zero weight or bulk. Also, I have a small bottle of electrolyte powder. This makes it easy to mix up diy rehydration fluids if someone is vomiting or otherwise dehydrated.

After reading too many accounts of sailors adrift in life rafts – I also quadrupled the supplies of fishing kit in my grab bag. It is light, inexpensive and compact. Very, very easy to have 200m of line (on two hand reels) and 20 or so lures of different kinds. Why skimp on something so cheap and live saving.

More important than *all* of this is access to water. Very few people are adrift long enough to starve to death – but you don’t go long without water.

Steven Gallion

Some survival bars have better formualtions. I recently obtained some made by a company called Quake Care, their ERbar. Of the 410 calories per serving, 170 calories are from fat and 30 calories from protein. They also provide 100 percent of most vitamins and minerals and are Coast Guard approved with a 5 year shelf life. The company is owned and operated by the “Lighthouse for the Blind”, which makes them even nicer.

I am also a big fan of the Garmin InReach devices. They use the Iridium satellite network, so work everywhere you can see the sky and are small enough for every day carry any time I might be out of VHF or cell phone range, be it land, sea, or air. Never had to use one in an emergency yet, but I use it regularly for 2 way communications and tracking when hiking in the mountains. I can only imagine what a relief it would be to know that someone actually received your call for help, has your ongoing position, and how long it will take for rescuers to arrive.

Steven Gallion

Certainly agree with your take on EPIRBS, I use the InReach mainly for backup to the EPIRB and for the 2 way communication aspect. I expect that EPIRBS with 2 way communication ability will be available eventually.

While the InReach has no international standards to meet, I am able to verify that it is working and communicating with the network on a daily basis, if desired. Also, I expect that on receiving an EPIRB alert, the RCC would be really grateful to get a report on the actual emergency situation.

The thing with EPIRBS and PLB’s for me is that I would not know if my signal was received until someone showed up or was at least in handheld VHF range. For hiking, I carry only the InReach (and a cell phone) – for sailing, when outside, a PLB is in my inflatable life vest and the InReach is on my belt in a soft floating case, usually also accompaniied by a submersible handheld VHF w/GPS and DSC distress calling.

While getting a bit off the survival cookie topic, I just want to know if I’m really going to need to eat them or will help be here soon.