Man in water with Helicpoter behind

I recently took a vacation to Japan. On our last day, my group chartered a boat to snorkel, hike and enjoy a beautiful chain of islands off the coast of Okinawa. On our way back, our boat was overcome by rough seas and capsized – everyone on board had to abandon ship.

Words cannot express what it feels like to literally fight for your life.

I’m sharing this story for a few reasons. By no means did I do everything right, nor was I a hero. Everyone I was with had their own strengths and by working together we ultimately made it out alive. But as I look back, I realize this event was the perfect example of why it’s important to be prepared. I want to share some important preparedness actions we took. 

Make a Go-Bag: Preparing a modified and quick go-bag for myself each time we went on an excursion was the best decision I’ve ever made. It was a “just-in-case” bag. I’m thankful I was already wearing my lifejacket, so I didn’t have to spend time searching for one and was able to use the few seconds I had to grab my go-bag. In my go-bag I had two large canteens of water, protein bars, a small first aid kit and my water proof cell phone. I grabbed my bag because it was the only thing I had onboard and it was quickly accessible – a key part of having a go-bag. The water proof cell phone in my go-bag was used to call the Japanese Coast Guard. My go-bag wasn’t originally intended to keep me alive in the middle of the ocean, but that day it did. Having a go-bag saved my life.

Wear a Lifejacket: The U.S. Coast Guard says, “The best lifejacket is the one you will wear.” It doesn’t matter if you’re an Olympic swimmer – lifejackets save lives. It saved ours. The boat capsized in a matter of seconds. That’s not enough time to find out where the captain has stored them. If you want to survive, not wearing a lifejacket isn’t an option. You can exhaust yourself swimming and eventually your body will fail you. A lifejacket to give you buoyancy, so you can focus on saving yourself.  It is also important to make sure your lifejacket is functioning appropriately before you set sail. I didn’t do that and mine would not zip shut. It made paddling very difficult. In the future, I will ensure my lifejacket zips before setting sail. In addition to the lifejackets, we also used a large floating seat cushion from the boat for extra buoyancy.

Have a Plan: I always identify emergency exits and mentally develop my own personal emergency plan. Whether it’s a concert, a sporting event or a trip to the mall, I am constantly thinking through my next move if something happens. Visualizing actions to take in an emergency is critical in helping mentally train your mind and body to be calm during an incident. I can honestly say that my many years in various emergency management capacities helped me navigate the hectic situation and stay in the right head space – it helped save me.

Emergencies don’t just happen where you live or work, they can happen anywhere. Did you know that emergency services contact numbers are not universal? Japan’s standard emergency number is 119 for land emergency services (ambulance, fire department) and 118 for sea emergencies. More than familiarizing yourself with emergency contact information, make sure you do research on the place you’re visiting beyond the attractions you want to see. Can you use your insurance abroad? Where are the hospitals? Do you need vaccinations? Do you have the appropriate documentation to travel with medical items? Certain items aren’t permitted and could be confiscated at customs in foreign counties.
I walked away and returned safely home with a story to tell: I lived through a shipwreck. This incident will not stop me from loving the ocean or getting on a boat, but it did remind me that nature is a powerful force I cannot control. I’ll continue to be prepared as I can be.