Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Safety at sea. ISAF approved course.

Vera and I went to get certified this January! Already certified as a pair of crazy midgets we now have a 5 year certification for the offshore personal survival course. We waved Good Bye to our husbands and did this through BC sailing and Sail Canada at the West Vancouver Yacht club.

We got asked by many of our sailing friends about why we had signed up. Several smirky comments such as “ you just stay on the boat” which did make us wonder if this wasn’t going to teach us much. To all the nay sayers and anyone with an interest in offshore racing and quite honestly anyone who likes living and reducing their chances of seeing the lit tunnel anytime soon, I can’t recommend this course enough.

Primarily it was incredibly interesting. Our course instructors were people who had 30 000 – 50 000 ocean miles under their belts. They had raced in Sydney to Hobarts and the 1979 Fastnet and multiple Vic- Mauii, Van Isles, Swiftsures and deliveries. Our participants were racers who had extensive experience including several near misses with death to humble them. There was us two; with some blue water sailing and experience of racing in lakes close to Winnipeg! It was a bit intimidating, but in no time as always with sailors, there was great camaraderie. The course runs with expert planning and attention to detail on improvements. David Sutcliff who was heading up this course made it clear from the outset that if we left not understanding an issue they had failed and the point of this course was not the test.

We had the honour of an additional participant in our class who is a helicopter pilot for search and rescue based on the east coast. He had plenty of stories to make the information real about rescuing sail boats from storms and practical suggestions to assist us.

Prior to arrival we were given the CYA sea survival text book to read. Knowing that we were going to be tested and that we had a 2 1/2 hour pool time to swim with all of our wet weather gear on, with out and with a life vest, there was some pressure to read and understand it from cover to cover. I also felt that push ups at the gym might be quite easy compared to walking on the pool floor 8 feet under water!

The prior reading woke me up to a lot of what I did not know despite having taken a bunch of courses up to Advanced Coastal cruising and 25 years of messing about in sail boats.

The West Vancouver yacht club is a beautiful location and club, but may be knowing that Vera and I can be distracted by squirrels there was brown paper taped over the view. The class of 24 persons got to mingle in coffee and lunch breaks and during break out sessions to problem solve scenarios.

On day 1 after the intro we covered weather, heavy weather, hypothermia and man overboard, storm sails, damage control, safety equipment, life raft, life vest. There was a practical session on cutting stays and sawing through metal followed by a knowledge review.

On Sunday we got up at 4;30am to drive to the West Vancouver aquatic centre for 5;30am and do our water drills. Fear of drowning does work better than coffee! In wet weather gear and boots we swam a couple of lengths, then tried it again with our life vests on. We swam as a crocodile, held the HELP position, did the huddle, figured out how to suspend an injured person in the water and had the opportunity to don a survival suit. We tried to get up a 15” bulk head (law is a ladder if over 18” and only 2 people out of 24 accomplished this), open the life rafts, tried to right them and get into one with 10 other persons. After some breakfast we covered fire, search and rescue, giving assistance, emergency communications, emergency signals, video and real life and deaths stories and another knowledge review.

I am sure that the big take home changes will be different for everyone, but mine was that I don’t always wear a life vest. The segment about how fast we loose the nervous responses to musculature in cold water hit home for me. I get cold in the water even on warm 25 degree days. There was a video from Manitoba’s own Dr Popsicle about the minutes we have, to be able to swim if the water is 6 degrees. For some well padded guys it was less than 5 minutes. Hypothermia will take a lot longer but if you can no longer swim well, you need your life vest. Inflatable life vests don’t always inflate. The course instructors stated that consistently, they have a group of people who have sailing experience, just read the CYA book on survival and had a lecture the day before and get to the pool and 20-30% do not inflate. Usually human error, but sometimes it just happens. You can inflate the vest manually in the water. I would suggest you try it sometime and then imagine if you were trying to do it in large waves, in a storm or at night. Swimming with a fully inflated life vest is hard, really hard with out a crotch strap. What’s a crotch strap? I‘d recommend you find out rather than find out that you need one. I had never heard of it. We also had people try to don a life vest that was thrown to them while they were in the water. I also recommend that you try it. I know I felt that was what I would do prior to this course! We watched the video of a Volvo Ocean race team loose a member over board in ½ a second. He got posted through the life lines like a slim envelope, yet he was a big man. These are racers who practice MOB. They are a coordinated team. They know exactly who is doing what. It took the team 18 minutes to get him back on board. The usual stuff failed and they had to send in a swimmer to get him. It was humbling. Many of the other real stories did not have happy endings. As crew on a race boat you don’t have many rights. The coast guard won’t be taking any direction from you if the boat’s in trouble, only the Captain. Choose your captain carefully and make sure you feel very sound about her or him and the safety of the boat before you leave port. One nasty story about how the crew stopped dying once the captain died!

Back to that “just stay on the boat” advice I got from a fellow sailor. So what if you do have an aggressive fire or smack a rock that puts a hole in the hull beyond what you can manage, do you have a drill? Got an emergency procedures and muster list?

Do you have a fire blanket on board? Anyone cook bacon? True we are all careful, but it can happen so fast and that’s such an easy fix, they make compact ones to sit near the galley. When did you last have the fire extinguishers serviced? Will it work if you need it? Have you ever used one? Do you know what you need to know about using it in small enclosed spaces like a boat?

If you do fall in, spend the first minute getting your breathing under control. Panic will kill you. Then its about making all the necessary adjustments to your life vest. Swim if you can reach something, but you have minutes. You will lose heat very quickly swimming. Heat conservation is primary. Get into the HELP position. Do not kick your boots off. I thought you did to help you swim! A real life story from a racer in the class told us that you can feel the shot of cold race right through you with the first boot coming off. Seal up all the water exit points from your clothing with the velcro tabs. Expect to get rescued!

Several offshore races are now making this course mandatory. If like us you are going to do little more than LOWISA and Gimli Wednesday night racing you will learn so much and have a really interesting time on this week end course. I can vouch for our instructors who had fascinating life stories and know how to teach, not just impart information. I have taken many professional and just for fun courses. I have never been to a course that could keep the classroom wide awake and immersed for a whole week end like this. Even if you were not a sailor it would be fascinating. Do I think my chances are good if I fall off in a storm in the Atlantic or make it to the Life raft? No! They are not. Some people do survive. A bit more knowledge can not hurt. More than anything I could sail a lot safer than I have been and will make better choices in a critical situation.

Eric Hill the SAR helicopter pilot is running courses across the country and whilst he wasn’t an official instructor on our course I can vouch for how clear he can impart information. As for our course instructors (David Sutcliffe, Stewart Jones, Hale Warren and Vern Burkhardt) they were beyond excellent. Incredible value for $325).

So this is how we used to sail! Time for a lot more safety but just as much fun.

Sally Brodrick

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