Surviving the Sea Survival Course

When Chris Knight asked me weather I would like to do the Sea Survival course my first thought was: why on earth would I want to do that? I’ve been on loads of boats, I have been diving in all types of sea conditions for years and I am a qualified diver Cox. Surely, I don’t need to do another course.

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Then I read the report about the dive boat that sank off Plymouth this year. The skipper and his mate went into the water without buoyancy aids or thermal protection. The life raft failed to release from the wreck. One of the divers onboard nearly lost his life trying to get out of the wheel house as his drysuit had him pinned him against the ceiling and he was unable to get out of the doorway. Although a Mayday was sent for some reason no one heard it. When they eventually managed to get into the life raft the survivors were projectile vomiting over each other due to the swell. Thankfully, a passing yacht saw their distress flare and coordinated the rescue. From the time that the skipper thought there was something wrong with the boat until it sank was just four minutes! Thankfully, no one died but the harrowing report that one of the divers put on the web makes for sombre reading and convinced me that maybe I should learn some basic sea survival skills.

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So it was that nine of us set off for BOSS (British Offshore Sailing School) in Portsmouth to do their basic sea survival course. When we got there we met our instructor who had spent 34 years in the Royal Navy as their chief survival instructor. The first part of the course is all theory and is carried out in the classroom with the help of some excellent photographs and video.

All the basic theory about sea survival was covered from the different types of equipment and how to use it to “what to do if” scenarios. The instructor punctuated the theory with real life examples, such as the sinking of the Estonia car ferry a few years ago. Unfortunately, most of the life rafts on the Estonia were upside down when they came to the surface. As the passengers hadn’t seen a life raft before they thought this was normal and so sat on top of them. This meant they were open to the elements and practically all of those who made it to the life rafts died of hypothermia. There were 989 people on the Estonia and only 137 survived, 852 either drowned or died of hypothermia.

We also covered the sinking of the Yacht Uozo off the Isle of White in 2006. The three sailors on board were all very experienced and all had the proper offshore sailing equipment on. All of them drowned. Two of them died after 3 hours and the third one died after 12 hours. The reason that there is such a big time difference between the first two and the third drowning is that the first two didn’t have their crotch straps on their life jackets done up correctly. This meant that as they became hypothermic they could no longer pull their life jackets down keeping their heads above the water. As they let go with their hands they sank beneath their life jackets and drowned. These scenarios highlighted the fact that it isn’t enough to just have the equipment you must know how to use it if it is to work as intended and save your life.

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After the theory part we headed down to the local swimming pool to do the practical part. We were issued with foul weather gear (offshore sailing jackets and salopettes) and life jackets. We were then shown how to enter the water, swim whilst fully kitted and swim as a team. We then went on to deploying the life raft. The one we had was an 8 man life raft with full canopy and survival equipment. Marcela was tasked to launch the raft which meant tying it onto a secure point then pulling the inflator cord. If you haven’t seen one of these rafts self inflating I would recommend it as it’s quite a spectacle. We then all got in by stepping in form the side of the pool. Richard being the shy retiring type was first in quickly followed by the rest of us. The rafts are filled using a CO2 cylinder and once filled the excess vents into the raft which makes it a tad difficult to breath when you first get in not to mention claustrophobic.

When we were all in (which was a bit of a tight squeeze) the door was closed and we were left for a few minutes to appreciate what its like to be in one of these rafts. It was amazing how hot it became with the body heat generated by all those people. Next we had to get into the life raft from the water which is a lot harder than it sounds with all the wet weather gear and life jacket. We then had to work as a team to do all the different tasks such as deploying the sea anchor, bailing out the water, dealing with the casualty (Dave, had broken his leg) and posting a lookout. We then went on to learn how to turn a life raft over in case it deployed upside down (as in the Estonia sinking). By the end of the session we were all elated but rather tired.

This really was a fantastic course but one thing kept coming back to me throughout the day: why is this not compulsory for people who regularly go out on boats? As divers we spend a lot more of our time on boats out at sea than Joe Public yet there are no BSAC courses, or any other agency courses, which deal with sea survival. The skills we learned would be just at home on the club RIB, a liveaboard in the Red Sea or Scapa Flow or even on a day boat on the south coast. I would thoroughly recommend that as a diver you seriously consider doing this course. It may one day just save your life.

Many thanks go to Chris Knight who not only organised the day but who also acted as our minibus driver and videographer. Thanks also go to Chris Hunka, Dave Allan, Richard Rayner, Trish Emery, Marcela Turnanova, Mark Cockram, Brett Champion and Roz Hepple, my fellow survivors, who all contributed to making this an excellent, highly informative and very amusing day.

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