May 26, 2012
The purpose of a Survival at Sea course, we have decided, is not so much to teach you what to do in the case of an emergency (because, let’s face it, your chances of survival aren’t great anyway), but to scare you so thoroughly that you will do everything you can to avoid ever getting into an emergency situation in the first place.
In preparation for heading off-shore, we signed up for the STCW Safety at Sea course – a one-week ordeal that forms part of the RYA Yachtmaster Certificate.
In addition to showing us scary movies of boat fires (zero to inferno in 30 seconds) and sinkings (afloat to Atlantis in 60 seconds), we had some ‘practical’ sessions.
First up was fire fighting. Damian looked cute in his fireman’s outfit and I channeled my inner pyromaniac, but it was pretty full-on, nonetheless. We learnt about all the different sorts of fire extinguishers…and what sort of disaster you can create if you use the wrong one.
Next day, they put us in full fireman’s uniform (mine was a men’s XXL, so I felt like a fire-fighting seal), including breathing apparatus, and sent us in teams of three into a pitch-black, smoke-filled, sound-filled, on-fire shipping container that had been divided into compartments like a ship, with a huge, heavy fire hose and the objectives of us pulling out a dummy ‘body’ and putting out the fire.
Here’s a picture of us in the shipping container:
The second stage of the course involved life raft exercises, which meant actually getting submerged in the briny: four different exercises, four different ‘dips’. The weather on the day was cruel: the water temperature in May is not exactly tropical, and there was a cold southerly wind blasting us with intermittent squalls.
First we had to jump in and swim 50 metres to prove we could actually swim – brrrr.
Thirdly, we each had to dive in, wearing Mae West-style life vest, swim out to an upside down, 12-man, inflatable life raft and single-handedly right it, get inside, wriggle through and get out the other side, and then swim to shore.
Fourthly, all 16 of us in the group had to jump in together, form a huddle in groups of four, then all 16 clamber into the slithery 12-man raft, and flounder around inside (a new definition of ‘cosy’), then try to disentangle limbs, find bailers, paddles etc and paddle our way to shore.
It was total chaos, compounded by a strong tidal current and wind whipping up white caps, and with a degree of difficulty multiplied by the chill factor – it was SOOOOOOOOOO cold!
I admitted to being a wuss right up front and got myself a wetsuit (albeit about five sizes too big), but even then, with all the standing around in between exercises in the wind and cold (the first three each had to be done by all 16 of us, one at a time), it was bitter.
Damian decided he was tough enough not to need a wetsuit… but he was blue by the end of it.
Once again, it was a perspective on the odds of survival should one ever end up in a life raft: they’re not good.
Lesson of the week: Prevention is way, way preferable to cure.
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