WWII Watermanship Week: Abandoning Ship

You’re on a ship and the captain tells you to abandon ship, but where do you go? You have no idea. This week we explore what it would be like for people in these situations, with one of our best survival experts: Adam Jahnke.

US War Department watermanship.

FM 21-22, a textbook on military watermanship, was produced by the US War Department in 1944. From how to safely evacuate a sinking ship to how to remain alive in a lifeboat, the booklet covers everything a man needs to know to survive at sea. We’ll be presenting numerous portions of the handbook this week; the material is both intriguing historically and helpful in worst-case circumstances. 

War Department Watermanship Manual, FM 21-22, 1944

Leaving the Ship


a. All passengers who are not assisting the crew should keep low in the boat and out of the way when the lifeboat is lowered into the sea. All men must remain silent and obey only the commands of the commander. To assist personnel lowering into the boat, the lower ends of any ladders, nets, or ropes down the ship’s side should be hauled out and away from the ship. To avoid being crushed or capsized, the lifeboat must be maintained away from the ship’s side. To avoid the sinking ship’s suction, the lifeboat should be transported quickly at least 50 yards away. The sea anchor should be lowered after the danger zone has passed, and all men should keep low in the boat until the confusion has passed. The mast and sails are only rigged when the crew have calmed down, since they may tumble overboard in their enthusiasm. As many survivors as possible should be plucked from the sea without jeopardizing the whole boatload. Men are allowed to cling to the lifeboat’s lifeline. Men on rafts should go across to the lifeboat if space allows. To maximize the chances of rescue and boost morale, all boats and rafts should remain together.

b. All personnel are given the following information before the signal to leave ship is sounded: the ship’s approximate position, the direction and distance to the closest shore, and the outcome of SOS signals. If a rescue ship responds to the SOS, lifeboats stay around the ship’s sinking location. The ship’s position, as well as the distance and direction to shore, may be utilized to guide a course if all else fails.

Right capsized lifeboat by pulling down on girth lines.

By tugging down on the girth lines, the right capsized the lifeboat.

c. If the lifeboat capsizes, five or six men can right it by reaching over from one side and tugging on the keel or girth lines, which are ropes that run across the boat’s bottom.


Lifeboats, for starters.

(1) Lifeboats should be boarded from the middle of one side due to their high sidewalls and general form. Face the boat squarely, loop your arms over the side, wait for the next surge to lift your body, then roll into the boat with a kick.

Vintage helping survivor into boat.

Help the survivor into the boat by elevating him to the point where his body can be bent at the waist, then grasping his leg and pivoting the remainder of his body into the boat.

(2) A survivor should be helped by a guy in the lifeboat who lifts him over the edge of the boat until his body can be bent at the waist. The head and shoulders are now in the boat. The rescuer then grabs one of the victim’s legs and pivots the remainder of his body into the boat.


Vintage survivors on Board rubber boat.

When there are two or more survivors, board the rubber boat over the side. One guy clings to the boat’s side. On the other side, the other inserts one arm in the boat and locks it against the side. With his other hand, he grabs the top of the side, raises his leg over the edge, and hooks his foot inside the boat. As the next wave raises the boat, he pulls it in with his arm and leg, kicks it down with his foot in the water, and rolls into it.

Rubber boats, for example. A lone survivor should board a rubber boat either at the bow or at the stern. When there are more than one guy, it is best to enter from the side. One guy clings to the boat’s side. On the other side, the other puts one arm in the boat and locks it against the side. With his other hand, he grabs the top of the side, raises his leg on the same side as the arm in the boat, and hooks the foot inside. He pulls with his arm and leg in the boat as the next surge raises the boat, kicks down with his foot in the water, and rolls into the boat. After that, the other survivor boards in the same manner.


The boat might be strafed by enemy planes. The plane’s assault will be short due to its high speed. Bullets fired from low-flying aircraft bounce off the water or only penetrate 24 inches below the surface. As a result, everyone who is physically capable should jump overboard and bob beneath the water for 24 inches before to the assault. If sails are set, they must be lowered or the boat will sail away on its own. Another option is to swim away from the boat at a right angle to the plane’s flying path. All guys who are unable to enter the water should sink to the boat’s bottom. If all of the guys jump in, the strongest swimmers should grab the boat’s ropes to prevent it from floating away in the current or wind. Immediately after the assault, use the wooden plugs and cloth to patch any bullet holes.


When forced to leave ship over the side, take the following precautions:

a. Go into the water with the intention of finding a boat, raft, or other item to help you. If at all feasible, select your goal first.

c. Stay out of the water:

(1) In the presence of oil or flame.

(2) Between the ship and a nearby boat or raft, which may crush you against the ship’s side.

(3) If the ship is moving, near the propellers.

(4). Amidships, since your vessel may have a bilge keel there that can’t be seen under water but might inflict major harm if you hit it while falling.

d. Step into the water:

(1) If feasible, from the portion of the ship closest to the sea, either fore or aft.

(2) On the windward side of the building. A ship that has been hit on the windward side and is leaking oil or gasoline on that side may be an exception to this rule. Enter the sea on the other side of the ship and row or swim away from it as soon as possible, preferably beyond her stern.


(3) In an area that is clear of debris.

(4) The area with the fewest barnacles.


a. Safety precautions; wearing a life jacket while leaping.

Jumping with life preserver from high freeboard.

Jumping from a high freeboard while wearing a life preserver. In one hand, hold the life preserver. With a short line, secure it to your belt.

When all other options for escaping the ship have been exhausted or are unavailable, jump, not dive, and look before you leap. In addition to the precautions given in the “Jumping” section, take the following measures:

(1) Before leaping, take a big breath.

(2) With the ship’s downward roll, step forward as though taking the next stride, and bring the legs together in the air, launching from the opposite foot. Drop into the water vertically. Take care not to get swept back against the vessel when the lower side of the listing vessel is also the windward side.

(3) Avoid looking down. Keep your wits about you.

(4) Leap as far away from the ship as possible.

(5) Do not use your hands or arms to stop your fall.

(6) Keep your legs close together. Open them after entering the water to assess the depth of the plunge.

(7) Armed conflict.

(a) Without the use of a life preserver. Protect the face by holding the nose.

(b) With a life raft.

1. Jump with one hand clutching the jacket; if it is pulled from your grip as you hit the water, regain it when you surface. (As seen in the photo above, on the left.)

2. Use a small piece of line to secure your jacket to your belt before entering the water. When you reach the surface, look for it. (Right, as seen above.)

3. With arms on top of the jacket, push down firmly with forearms, one hand gripping the nose; use enough of muscular energy to keep jacket down and prevent it from hitting your chin as you hit the water.

c. As a kind of support, a shirt.

Jumping to use shirt as support in water.

In the water, I’m jumping to utilize my shirt as a support. Before leaping, button your shirt and pull the shirt front out of your pants, holding it down and front to sweep up the air.

Before plunging into the water, fully button your shirt to act as a support. Draw the front of the pants out and hold it down and forward, 6 to 10 inches from the body, with arms fully extended. This causes the shirt to fill with air, which will help you get to the surface quickly. On the water, assuming the breast-stroke posture creates an air pocket at the back of the garment. For a limited period, this gives some assistance.

d. Trousers as a form of support

Jumping to use trousers as support in water.

In the water, I’m jumping to utilize my pants as a support. Tie a knot at the bottom of each trouser leg, button the fly, and pull the pants over your head.

Remove your trousers and dampen or wet them. Make a knot at the end of each leg or close to it. The fly should be buttoned. Hold the trousers in front of your body by the waistband, legs down. Arms extended, wrists flexed, and backs of hands down, flip the pants over and behind the head.

As feet hit water wrists flip forward bringing knuckles up as body enters water.

Wrists rotate forward as feet contact water, pulling knuckles up as body enters water.


As soon as your feet reach the water, whip your hands forward from the wrists to submerge the waist of your pants. The trapped air in your legs aids in your rapid return to the surface.

Take prone position and place one leg of trousers under each arm pit.

Place one leg of your pants under each arm pit in a prone posture.

Take a prone posture and lay a leg of the pants on each side of your body, below the arm pits, for surface support.

Jumping to use barracks bag as support in water.

In the water, jumping to utilize a barracks bag as a support. Wet or dampen the bag and leap as if it were a pair of pants. Keep a firm grip on the bag to prevent it from overturning.

d. Pillowcase or barracks bag Wet or dampen the bag and continue as if you were wearing pants. To avoid tipping, grip the bag with both arms after entering the water. If there isn’t enough air in the bag, take a deep breath, submerge, exhale into the bag’s mouth, and rise to the surface.

d. When using a sheet, poncho, or canvas squares to jump. To make a bag, gather or tie the four corners. Follow the steps mentioned above.


a. Overarching Fuel oil is usually carried in tanks along the sides of ships, which may be blown up by bombs or torpedoes, discharging the oil into the ocean. Thin oils and thick oils are the two types of oils. Heavy oil is used for ship fuel, however thin oil may be present on board and distributed by the explosion. Thick oils are normally non-flammable, but they are exceedingly difficult to swim through or navigate in a boat through. Never attempt to swim through heavy oil or leap into it. The distance to which oil or flames spread from the ship is determined by the following factors:

(1) Ship’s speed. If the ship is moving forward, the oil will flow to the back. If the ship is motionless, the oil might encircle it.

(2) The wind. The oil or flame may be blown away from or back to the ship by the wind.

(3) A portion of the ship was damaged.

(4) The state of the sea. It doesn’t matter whether it’s smooth or rough.

(5) Water temperature. The oil may congeal and stay in one spot when exposed to cold water.

(6) The amount of oil on the surface of the water. The oil coating becomes thinner as it spreads until it can no longer spread.

b. Safety precautions When jumping from a ship when there is oil or flame on the surface, take the following measures.

(1) Submerge your life preserver and everything else that might help you reach the surface in oil or flame. Remove your shoes but retain your shirt, pants, and socks. If the carbon-dioxide life belt has not been inflated, it may be kept.

(2) Fasten all buttons on your shirt and pants, and tuck your trouser legs into your socks to avoid trapping air beneath your apparel.

(3) If you must leap into oil or flame, jump to the windward side and swim to the windward side. Instead of driving with you, the wind will blow the oil or flame away from you.

(4) Before entering the water, close your eyes and mouth.


Vintage removing shoes in water.

In the water, taking off your shoes. To begin, pull one leg up and undo the shoe lace with both hands; relax the lace and remove the shoe.


a. As soon as you’re in the water, walk away from the ship, utilizing the basic back stroke to defend yourself from ship explosions, torpedoes, or explosives. If there are no lifeboats or rafts available, swim at least 50 yards away from the ship to avoid the sinking ship’s suction. When you’ve gotten over the danger zone, keep in mind that buoyancy is the most crucial factor; the distance you swim is basically inconsequential until you can see shore. Assist yourself with any debris or disaster. If at all possible, cling to it. Keep clothes and shoes on hand to protect yourself from the elements, salt, and oil.

Vintage removing shoes in water# 2.

In the water, taking off your shoes. a. Tie a knot by wrapping both ends of the shoelace around your index finger and drawing them through the loop. b. If the lace is short, put your hand through the loop and the shoe will hang from your waist, leaving your hand free. Bend the long lace loop over itself to make a wrist slip noose. c. Do the same with the other shoe. b. Walk in water while passing one shoelace loop through the other. d. Pass each shoe’s laces through its own loop, fastening both shoes’ laces. Continue swimming while wearing your shoes over your neck.

b. It may be essential to strip in the water, either to relieve the weight of clothes and equipment or to inflate the garments to provide support. To undress, take a deep breath, imagine yourself as a jellyfish floating with arms relaxed, and begin to remove any equipment or clothes in a natural way. When you need to take a deep breath, a few of strokes, like a modified breast stroke, will lift your lips above the surface. All motions should be gradual and deliberate. If you don’t have to, don’t throw anything out since it could come in handy later. Shoes may be strung together and worn as a necklace.


Open your eyes after entering the water and swim away from the ship. Look for thin patches or fractures in the oil, which are represented by lighter regions, when submerged. Come to the surface with hands and arms ahead of the head and eyes closed if your breath gets short before you’ve found a break. Spread the oil using a sweeping and pushing arm action, similar to a modified breast stroke. Kick your feet aggressively to get as far above the water as possible before inhaling. Before sinking again, open your eyes and attempt to find the next clear place. Sweep the oil away from the surface while staying above it. Before you dive in, close your eyes.


Vintage jump feet first to windward of ship or airplane.

Jump feet first to the ship’s or airplane’s windward side. Cover your eyes, nose, and mouth with both hands as you leap. Take a deep breath in and out. Continue to hold your breath until you reach the surface.

a. Jump feet first to the ship’s or airplane’s windward side. Cover eyes, nose, and mouth with both hands if leaping with a life vest from a modest height, such as from an airliner. Take a big breath and hold it until you reach the top.

a. Look for thin spots or breaks in the fire where you can get a breath before reaching the surface. The relative dullness of these spots may be identified; bright patches indicate a hot, intense fire. If a break can be discovered, take it; if none can be found, take the narrowest place possible.


Just before you pop to surface, make a breathing hole in flames by swinging arms overhead, splashing flames away from head, face, and arms.

Make a breathing hole in the flames by swinging your arms upward and spraying flames away from your head, face, and arms just before you burst to the surface.

c. Cross your arms on your forehead, palms up, and kick upward with a hard kick just before breaking through the surface. Swing your arms upward upon breaching the surface to keep flames away from your head, face, and arms.

Vintage swim into the wind. Use breast stroke.

Swim against the current. Breast stroke is a good option. Before each stroke, splash water forward and to the side. Every third or fourth stroke, dip underneath to keep your head cool.

d. Swim against the current. The breast stroke should be used. Splash water forward and to the sides before each stroke. Keep your mouth and nose as near to the water as possible. To keep it cool, duck your head every third or fourth stroke. Swim in a single file if there are numerous males. Allow the strongest swimmer to splash a way for the others to safely follow in his wake.


Vintage swimming underwater fire.

Swimming through flames while submerged. Keep flames away from your body; keep your head towards the water’s edge; and, if you’re wearing a life vest, deflate it by removing the valves. Sink under the surface, feet first, taking a deep breath but not inhaling fumes. Swim as far as you can upwind. Come to the surface and splash away the flames; take a deep breath and resubmerge. Repeat the method until the fire has been extinguished.

Swim beneath water if the heat is too severe or the flames are too high. To do so, follow these steps:

a. Throw flames away from your body.

c. Keep your head at the water’s edge.

c. If you’re wearing a life jacket, release the valves to deflate it.

c. Inhale deeply but do not inhale fumes.

a. Submerge yourself, feet first, beneath the surface.

g. Swim as far upwind as feasible.

d. As you near the surface, squirt the flames out. Take a deep breath and return to the water. Repeat the method until the fire has been extinguished.

h. If you’re wearing a life jacket, re-inflate it with your tongue. If you are unable to continue swimming underwater, come to the surface as indicated above and perform the breast stroke as a last option.


If you’re in the water and don’t have a life preserver, make do with what you have.

Vintage lie on plank for flotation; use arms and legs for propulsion.

Float by lying on a board and propelling yourself with your arms and legs.

a. Make use of trash. Any floating debris and wreckage should be utilised, and it should be shared with as many guys as possible. Clinging to planks, crates, and other floating objects is preferable than climbing on them. By clinging to floating trash, you increase your body’s buoyancy. If at all possible, cling to rubbish. Attempting to climb up on an item often results in frustration and tiredness. Only board things that are big enough to provide complete support. Support may be obtained by resting the hands or elbows on an item or wrapping the arms around it. By reclining on a plank, spreading the legs for balance, and propelling with the arms and legs, a plank may be used as a surfboard.

Vintage using shirt for flotation.

Flotation may be achieved by wearing a shirt. All buttons should be fastened. Assume that jellyfish float by taking a deep breath. Between the second and third buttons, blow air into the garment. If required, repeat the operation.


c. Put on a shirt. All shirt buttons, including those on the collar and cuffs, should be fastened. Take a deep breath and imagine that the jellyfish are floating. Form an opening in the shirt front between the second and third buttons with your fingers, raise your lips to the opening, and blow into the shirt. This action is repeatable. An air pocket arises at the back of the shirt when the prone posture is regained.

Vintage using trousers for flotation.

Flotation may be achieved by wearing pants. (a) Take off your pants, tie a knot at the end of each leg, and button the fly. While treading water, place one arm in each leg. (b) Quickly lower arms and pull waistband beneath surface. Take a deep inhale and exhale it into your pants if you need additional air. (c) Underarm pits, place one trouser leg on each side of the body.

c. Put on a pair of pants. Remove your pants and tie a knot towards the end of each leg before buttoning the fly. Hold the pants above water while treading water by putting one arm in each leg. This permits air to flow freely through each leg. Pull the waistband beneath the surface by swiftly lowering the arms. Air is trapped in each leg as a result of this. In the prone position, the support may be employed by putting one trouser leg on either side of the body beneath the arm pits. Take a deep breath, dive while holding the waist band below the surface, then expel the air into the pants if there isn’t enough air trapped in the legs.

Complete the Series

Swimming for Survival How to Climb Down Ropes and Cargo Nets on a Ship Getting By in a Life Raft


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