What to pack in your grab bag

packing a marine ditch bag

If you’ve ever watched the television show “NCIS” you’ve heard Special Agent Gibbs shout “grab your gear” about a hundred times. Of course, he’s not talking about boating. But in the event of a serious emergency, it’s vital to have a bag packed and ready to take with you if you need to abandon your boat in a hurry.

What is a grab bag?

Whether it’s called a grab bag, ditch bag, or abandon-ship bag, these bags are commercially available and relatively inexpensive. And since it’s important that they are waterproof and buoyant, it’s best to purchase one designed specifically for marine use. Since we boat primarily on small inland lakes on a 23’ runabout, we opted for the McMurdo/Pains Wessex SOS grab bag as it is bright yellow for optimal visibility, has a fold over top secured by strong Velcro, an additional strap to ensure extra sealing power, as well as a long, adjustable shoulder strap.

What to pack in your grab bag

Preparing the contents of your grab bag will depend on the type of boating you are planning. Whether you are cruising on a small lake, or the Great Lakes, the items you include may vary. But always remember, you are looking to be rescued in the least amount of time so the grab bag should contain, at a minimum, items to signal for help as quickly as possible. Items such as a:

  • Functioning, registered EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon), or PLB (personal locator beacon) to inform rescuers of your location
  • Handheld VHF (waterproof or in a sealed pouch, with extra batteries) to communicate with the rescue services
  • Handheld GPS (to communicate position by VHF or cell phone)
  • Flares and smoke signals
  • Whistle
  • Signal mirror


This list is simply a starting point and you’ll want to create your own list of supplies and equipment depending on your circumstances. Most importantly, be sure to test everything you plan to use in an emergency to ensure you know how to operate the equipment and that it’s fully functioning. But all this is moot if you can’t find the grab bag in an emergency, so be sure to keep it in an accessible place (we hang it from a hook on the wall of our head). More often than not there’s little time to prepare during an actual emergency so it’s paramount that you have a plan in place, and everyone on board knows the location of your grab bag, should you have to abandon your boat. Only then can you be assured that you have prepared for the worst and enjoy your time on the water.

About the author: Karen has been boating for 25 years and is a Markel boat insurance customer. Her 23’ Chaparral is slipped in the Chain O’Lakes, in northern Illinois, where she and her husband spend as much time as they can during the summer months.

packing a marine ditch bag
This article is intended for general informational purposes only regarding non-insurance matters and is not designed to provide professional advice.
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