I spin round and catch sight of the flames starting to blaze in the corner just a few feet away from me. Everyone’s shouting; alarms are blaring. It all melts into a single disorientating racket. I can’t think straight. It’s getting hotter. What do I do now? Who’s doing what? Where’s the fire extinguisher? Is it the right type? How does it work? It’s getting really hot now. “JOHN! HAVE YOU SHUT OFF THE ENGINE?!” Er …
“PREPARE TO ABANDON SHIP!!”
Ross from Vortec Training takes pity on us and opens the door, allowing us to escape into the cool, fresh spring air. He puts out the fire and turns off the alarms. We breathe more calmly and try to think about what’s just happened.
All of us in the crew have spent quite a lot of time on boats of various sorts, in difficult conditions at times, and have had to deal with incidents and emergencies in different situations, yet we would have lost the boat and perhaps some of the crew if that had been for real. We’d met each other briefly a couple of hours before, exchanged greetings and had an introduction to the course.
Ross then took us to the simulator – codenamed Pressure Cooker – and explained the controls and what was about to happen. But he’d only explained it once. And we hadn’t drilled it. This was one of the themes of the weekend. Practise as much as you can the things you can practise so they become automatic. Do them again and again and make sure everyone can cover different roles. This will give you more brain space to think about the situation you’re in.
Because, in an emergency, there are very few “in this situation, do this” rules. But there are guiding principles, aids to prioritisation.
We’ve just spent a weekend on an ISAF/RYA Offshore Safety/Sea Survival course run by Vortec Training in Port Solent. On Saturday, James, our trainer, focused on what you can do to avoid forfeiting the race and get the boat home still afloat with all crew on board – hence the fire-fighting training, as fire is one of the most serious hazards on a boat. We examined races and events where, tragically, lives were lost, and from which important lessons have been learned. One of these was the 1979 Fastnet, after which many improvements in safety equipment were made. Another was the 1998 Sydney-Hobart, which highlighted the importance of training – not just having the equipment, but knowing how to use it, and more generally what to do when things turn against you. In both of these races some boats finished, battered but intact. They weren’t the biggest boats, but they were the best prepared.
On Sunday we looked at what to do if you can’t get your boat home. The first thing is – stay with the boat as long as possible! It’s your best liferaft. When do you abandon ship? Only when you have absolutely no other choice.
What would we want to take with us on a liferaft if we had to abandon ship? What would we expect to find already on a liferaft? How much space is there to take all the stuff we’d like? (Answer – not a lot!) How can we be best prepared to make sure that we can get our hands on everything we’d need? And if we could only take a few things, what would they be?
What are our priorities?
PROTECTION (shelter, warmth) – LOCATION (be found) – WATER – FOOD.
How long will you survive if you’re immersed in water? 3 hours at 15OC. If you’re lucky. 3 minutes at 5OC. If you’re very lucky.
What does my PLB do? Is it AIS or EPIRB? What do these TLAs mean?! Flares. Hold the cold end! Read the instructions well before you need the flare. Be familiar with your equipment.
We learned the Survival Rule of Three: 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water, 3 minutes without air.
We ended the day in the pool, getting very familiar with each other climbing in and out of a four-person liferaft (it’s tiny!).
It might never happen but … if it does, I’ll be glad I did the training … again. I first did the course 5 years ago and I realise how much I’d forgotten, or never really taken in. It was also a good intro to the rest of the crew – Jason, Dhara, Luke, Mark, Phil, Woody and Trevor – I’m sure they’ll have my back if I need them.