Something I wrote a few years back on marine survival equipment.
When It All Goes Wrong …
Hands-On Knowledge Can Save Your Life
By Capt. Gary P. Joyce
One of the most dangerous occupations in the world — if not the sole resident of this dubious top honor — is commercial fishing, but anyone who takes to the sea in ships stands a better chance of encountering a situation fraught with danger than, say, someone who has the ability to pull over to the shoulder of the road should something go eskew.
Because of the inherent danger in offshore boating, we spend a fair amount of cash on equipment that is meant to insure our safety should all else go wrong. But, how well do we really know how this safety equipment works?
I recently had an opportunity to attend what is — and feel free to correct me if you know of another (go to www.fishermensnews.com for a list of safety courses available, most charge a fee) — the only publicly-funded safety and survival course in the nation. The course — Fishermen’s Basic Safety Training — occurred on the Right Coast in the historic fishing town of New Bedford, Massachusetts (where Ishmael and Queeg-Queeg of Moby Dick fame meet), and evolved out of the Christmas 2004 loss of all hands save one off the scalloper, Northern Light. The newly elected mayor of the town promptly gathered federal, state and local leaders, as well as members of commercial fishing businesses, authorized the economic resources and the end result was a course that — over the past four years — has provided free hands-on (an important factor) safety training to nearly 900 commercial fishermen.
Although most mariners are aware of what their safety equipment is and looks like, it’s only those who have had to use the equipment that have hands-on experience with it. And an emergency is not the best time in the world to gain that knowledge. That’s the premise of the course — to provide the mariner with some hands-on knowledge to go along with the theoretical.
But does any of this — directed at commercial fishermen — have applications for the recreational boater? Well, as it turned out, a damn sight more of it did than you might think.
Undoubtedly, you have some of the equipment covered in the course on board your boat — especially if you journey out of sight of land. Survival suits, life rafts, EPIRBs, flares, etc. But it’s familiarity with this equipment that is lacking, and that’s what can pull the proverbial chestnuts out of the fire should it all go wrong.
There are three basic type of survival suit: the traditional Gumby suit ($225 to $250 from Imperial, Stearns, Viking, Mustang and Helly Hansen among others), the unique Norsea from Guy Cotton ($300 to $350; entered much like one gets into a sleeping bag; excellent if you have bad shoulders) and the trilaminate with separate insulating layer (Mustang Commander and others; around $600). Remember that a survival suit (like a bailout bag) is no good buried belowdecks.
•A Gumby-style suit has a 10-year-life expectancy; that’s $25 a year for life insurance.
•If your suit has yellow striping, it’s out of date and needs to be replaced. Suits evincing “elephant skin” (compressed with irregular lines) have lost up to 25 percent of their buoyancy and insulation.
•Suits should be inspected monthly. Check for holes at seams and stress points. Lube zippers with dry zipper lubricant (Snap Stick by Shurhold; around $5, etc.). Inflator hoses are easy to rip off.
•Suit should be stored dry with zipper opened. Feet/boots should be rolled from above ankle joint to waist; arms folded and rolled down. Suit should be stored in bag (different colored bags are available for sight-sizing).
•Practice donning your suit. More than a minute is too long; shoot for 30 seconds with a flat deck (i.e., calm).
•Some suits can be entered with footwear on. It’s suggested you keep soft sole shoes with your suit, regardless, to avoid tearing. A watch cap is also handy. Ensure zipper is fully closed.
•Suits with hard-sole boots attached (Commander style) are good for working to the last minute on whatever problem is causing the sinking. Ditto on removable gloves.
•Accessories should be limited. A whistle (check Storm whistles at www.wind-storm-whistles.com; $5) and a personal strobe (ACR C-Strobe, etc.; $25) are sufficient. Streamline your suit.
•Entry to water should be as smooth as possible. If jumping is necessary, cover top of head with arm nearest boat, use other arm to cover face seal. Check water for debris, cross legs, and enter.
Man Overboard (MOB)
If you’re a solo boater, pray you have a water-activated engine-kill switch (Autotether, www.autotether.com. The unit costs $295 with four activation sensors. There are other brands); it’s a long swim home. All the traditional boating skills (Williamson Turn, approach from upwind, keep props away from MOB, etc.) apply.
•Have one crewmember solely tasked with watching the MOB.
•Get something that floats out to the MOB immediately. Testing done at the US Naval Academy found an 18-second average to get a retrieval device to an MOB. In 10 seconds at 10 knots, the MOB is 168 feet away; 20 seconds at 10 knots, the MOB is 336 feet out.
•In heavy seas, throw anything that floats (coolers, fenders, seat cushions, etc.) overboard to create a debris field that will lead to the MOB. Remember three Bs: Bigger, Brighter, Better.
•Notify Coast Guard, etc., on VHF 16, or SSB 2182. You can always cancel the alert; it takes the CG up to 30 minutes to get a helicopter off the ground. Never discontinue search unless told to by CG.
•Practice, practice, practice the skills; especially the retrieval back into craft. The Governator — in his prime — couldn’t lift an MOB back into a boat alone.
•If you are the MOB, hope you’re wearing an inflation device (suspenders, a waist pack, etc.; Grundens has suspenders that replace those on their foul weather coveralls); remember the HELP position (Heat Escape Lessening Posture; i.e., curl up into a ball and float. You’ll need to practice this).
1-10-1 Principle of Cold Water Survival
Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, (aka, Professor Popsicle), a Professor of Thermophysiology at the University of Manitoba, performed some testing on spring ice-out lakes in 2008 and arrived at his 1-10-1 Principle. The eight subjects — men and women — were cold-weather watermen in peak shape. Their common denominator to survival was wearing a life jacket.
1 — First minute of immersion in cold water: uncontrollable gasping and hyperventilation that quickly passes if you do not panic and concentrate on controlling breathing.
10 — Ten minutes of meaningful movement before incapacitation resulting in the inability to self rescue or call for help.
1 — Even in ice-cold water, it will take approximately one hour before hypothermia creates unconsciousness and another hour before cardiac arrest.
Sign on to www.coastguardnews.com to get an idea of just how often the people from Semper Paratus are bailing us out … literally and figuratively. The Coast Guard is the most visible proof of your tax dollars at work and cheap at the price when you need them. There are several things of which boaters need be aware in regards to CG helo ops.
•Maintain headway, keep bow 35 to 45 degrees to the right side off the wind. Brief your crew.
•Clear decks of everything not fastened down. Dolphin helicopters produce a downdraft in excess of 80 mph.
•Lower any masts/antenna.
•Maintain commo with helicopter at all times (VHF 16; SSB 2182).
•Cease flare use, never shine lights at helicopter, do not use a flash camera!
•Keep evacuee warm, secure medical records/meds with person, position evacuee immediately before lift.
•Do not touch anything (tagline, litter) lowered from the helicopter until it has grounded out on water or boat; the static charge can make the situation a two-person evacuation.
Every coastal state mandates the carrying of signaling equipment such as flares and, if you journey away from land, an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) should be a no-brainer. But in the case of the flares, there is a huge difference between those inshore recreational boaters carry, and those used offshore under SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) mandates.
Offshore handheld flares burn at around 15,000 candlepower, whereas a normal recreational flare rates around 700 candlepower. However, the former are around $23 each, whereas the latter are four for that price. A SOLAS-rated hand-held red parachute flare, reaches nearly 1,000 feet, burns nearly a minute at 30,000 candlepower and can be seen from 20-plus miles away. Typical recreational types produce half the light and height. An Orion Alerter kit retails for around $40 with four flares, whereas the Orion Parachute Signal Flares retail around $60 each.
(Do not attempt to test fire your flares unless you receive permission from your local US Coast Guard station!)
Your EPIRBs must be — as of February 2009 — a 406MHz model. Monitoring of the 121.5/243 MHz has been discontinued.
•An EPIRB is no good unless it is registered. Do so at: www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov/ or call 1-888-212-SAVE.
•An EPIRB needn’t be held aloft. It is designed to operate in the water and may have a better range as a result.
•Keep the EPIRB away from metal structure.
•Update registration info every two years or whenever it changes.
With most recreational vessels made of fiberglass, fires — usually engine room related — tend to be catastrophic. Here’s a “duh:” the faster you extinguish a fire, the better your chance of surviving it, craft intact. Fires tend to grow at huge geometric rates; a fire cooking for a minute will grow 25 times its initial size in a minute and 100 times in size in three minutes.
•Check fire extinguishing systems regularly. Know types, delays and where manual overrides are. Check fire extinguishers regularly.
•Remember extinguisher type vs. fire type this way: A class — anything that leaves an Ash. B class — anything in a Barrel or that goes Boom. C class — Charge; i.e., electrical fires.
•Install some type of view port to your engine room. This allows visibility without admitting excess oxygen to the fire, as well as a means of accessing the fire with an extinguisher.
•When using an extinguisher, remember PASS: Pull pin, Aim at base, Squeeze and Sweep.
When all is said and done, it’s time to activate your life raft. Virtually all offshore boats have canister rafts, but few have ever had occasion — hopefully — to use them. Needless to say, ensure inspections of the unit are up to date. The canister should be mounted in a cradle in an area where it can float free. Read the instructions on deployment (and how to right an overturned raft) regularly.
When manually deploying a life raft, the canister should be carried to the lee side of the vessel and tossed into the water with its painter attached to the boat and all straps attached (i.e., do not cut them); stay with your boat for as long as it floats or is safe to do so.
•Once the canister is in the water, pull the raft’s painter (some may be up to 250-feet long) to ignite the raft (hydrostatic releases only fire under water).
•The canister blows apart forcefully when ignited. Any loud roaring noise you hear from the raft is the raft equalizing pressure, not a leak.
•Reel in the raft as soon as it is full; do not let it run to the length of its painter.
•Wait for full inflation — canopy erected — before entering.
•Enter raft from water. Do not jump into raft.
•Once in raft and settled, take water and Dramamine. (Ed. note to those who “never” get mal de mer: the men with whom I took the course made Richard Shaw’s Quint character in Jaws look like a up-chucking ferry-riding tourist. Those who’d been sunk and took to rafts agreed on the Dramamine usage.) Tend to injuries.
•Fire an aerial flare.
•Activate EPIRB. Do not use signal smoke unless there is a helicopter on site.
•Be careful of anything that can puncture your raft.
Seven Steps to Survival
No mnemonic or acronym here, just seven groups of thinks you should mentally consider to stay alive.
1. Recognition. Admit that your life is in danger; Act!
2. Inventory. Decide what can help and what can hurt. Do first aid.
3. Shelter. Preserve body heat with materials that insulate and protect you from the environment.
4. Signals. Help rescuers find you.
5. Water. Find a safe source of water; drink two to four quarts a day.
6. Food. After you are safe and warm, food will help long waits.
7. Play. Stay busy and keep a positive mental outlook.