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Updated 31 January 2014

16 months adrift in Pacific: 7 greatest dangers

A man has been found after spending 16 months adrift in the Pacific Ocean. Here are the seven greatest dangers he faced.

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An emaciated man whose boat washed up on a remote Pacific atoll this week claims he survived 16 months adrift on the Pacific, floating more than 12 500km from Mexico, a researcher said on Friday.

Is this possible, and if so, what would be the greatest dangers facing someone in this unenviable position?

Dehydration is a major problem to people caught in ocean water. Obviously salt water is not for drinking as its concentration of salts is up to 220 times that of fresh water. Drinking of sea water will hasten the process of dehydration considerably. After a few days, most people on boats will be dependent on finding a way to catch rain water, which this survivor obviously did. He also said that he drank turtle blood when water was not available.The average human being can survive without water for about three days. But in extreme heat, this time is much shorter.

A huge danger for someone adrift alone on the open ocean would be drowning. In rough seas it is not difficult to fall off a drifting boat, and if you are on your own, it could be difficult or impossible to get back on board. Once in the water, even good swimmers can only keep going for so long, and in rough seas anyone can drown. If someone is unconscious when hitting the water, chances of drowning are extremely high.

After a short while, hypothermia becomes a problem. Mr Ivan, as he says he is called, was in a boat, so possibly had some protection from the elements, even if it was just a tarpaulin. He was, however, only wearing tattered underpants when he was found, so most probably had no protective clothing after 16 months.

Then, of course there is always the possibility of a shark attack. Sharks tend to investigate things out of the ordinary - such as boats adrift on the ocean. The Pacific Ocean teems with sharks. A 24-foot fibre-glass boat doesn't provide much protection against a large and determined shark.

Starvation is an obvious threat to someone in this situation. Humans can do without food for much longer than they can do without water. Depending on the conditions they find themselves in, and their physical state when food runs out, it is thought to be anything between 28 - 72 days. Even if someone manages to catch fish, or turtles or seabirds, they are likely to start suffering from vitamin deficiencies before long. Scurvy plagued sailors on long journeys as recently as 200 years ago.

Sunburn can be deadly. But it seems that Mr Ivan might have had some covering on the boat, as it is unlikely for anyone to survive for this long without any protection at all. Excessive sunburn can lead to further dehydration.

Humans have a fundamental need for closeness and interaction with other human beings. Prolonged involuntary isolation can cause depression, psychosis and extreme anxiety. Prisoners held in solitary confinement quickly suffer from these conditions. For someone in a boat on the open ocean, one wrong move could mean death.

(Sources: seagrant.umn.edu; expeditionfleetblog, Health24; scientificaamerican.com)
 
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