Sunday, March 30, 2014

Safety at Sea Seminar

Well this is a new one.  I've been working on this blog for over six months and learning as I go.  It's been super fun, and my brain has soaked up a ton of insight in the blogging realm -- a lovely addition to my generally useless academic skills.

A bunch of people have told me they tried to comment on posts but couldn't, so yesterday I did some googling to see if there was a solution.  I figured out the problem (so comment at will) but in the process somehow erased the entire content of this post.  Who'da thunk it was possible?  This problem became an opportunity when I discovered "cached pages" -- another modern miracle . . . just like salmon bacon or the mute button.

Hark, now hear the sailors cry,
smell the sea, and feel the sky
let your soul & spirit fly
into the mystic.
-- Van Morrison

I love boats.  I love being on the water.  Skimming along on a summer's day; muscling through waves on a gray ocean; floating quietly at anchor.

But I have a confession.  I'm afraid of water. Terrified of it.  Always have been -- always will be.  I like to tell myself it's a healthy terror; placed in my head by generations of sailors who met an unkind fate at the hands of the sea.  Like a terror of grizzly bears and tigers.  Like a fear of tailgating.  I know in my heart all the time I'm on a boat that Bad Things might happen.

To minimize both the possibility of these Bad Things happening, and my fear of them, I spent a perfectly lovely spring day in Newport -- not seeing the sights, but learning all the ways they might write our obituaries if the worst happens, and why the worst happens (so we can avoid them).  The Cruising Club of America held it's biennial Safety at Sea seminar, as preparation for the many sailors racing from Newport to Bermuda this year.  Now I have to say; some of the least safe experiences I've had on boats were with racing crews (there are some stories there!) so this is probably a much needed meeting for most of these sailors.  Damon and I aren't racing (we'll be hard at work on the island) but this was a useful meeting for us nonetheless.

This was a really useful seminar.  First off, they let us put our hands on lots of stuff.  Knives, inflatable lifevests, tethers, personal AIS units, etc.  Second, they brought in some of the top marine safety people around.  The range of expertise was impressive -- weather experts, medical experts, electronics experts.  (Unfortunately, the only gal they had speak was someone talking about clothing for about 5 minutes -- really?  Is that the best we can do in this day and age?  The Ocean Lover was not impressed by that.)  (Damon has pointed out I am completely wrong here, and as usual he has a point.  The first day, run by the Cruising Club of America, was man-centric.  The second day, run by a private company, featured Theresa O'Connor, who was badassity personified.  The photos below show her saving us from disaster time and again.)  This was all topped off by dozens of stories illustrating how to stay safe at sea.  We heard a lot about disasters (with analyses of why they occurred), a lot about outstanding leadership in the face of overwhelmingly difficult decisions, and a lot about mistakes and poor judgement.  We really did hear people's obituaries; a powerful lesson for the hundreds of optimistic sailors packing the lecture hall.  

Lessons learned:

I never, ever, want to see Damon in this position unless it's practicing in the pool:

This is the look on his face he would have when the rescue swimmer arrived.
It's worth it to get a boarding platform on your life raft.  Rope boarding ladders are worthless, especially while you are wearing a giant inflated king-sized pillow on your chest.

Attempting to board; this raft has a boarding platform and even so; it was very difficult to get in (imagine if there were waves!)

Learning to right a liferaft.  This one has the ballast bags removed.
Take seasickness pills.  Don't be a pansy about it.  Especially if you are in a liferaft; you will get seasick.

Before we went in the water -- nervous laughter abounds.

Seeing how long it takes our new friend to be rolled on his back by his inflatable.

Now we all try it.  Happy to say all the life vests inflated!
Electronics are probably the most important thing you can have in your ditch bag nowadays.  Invest wisely.

Demonstrating the best way to use a signal mirror.  Make a target sight with your fingers then get the light between them.  Ignore the directions on the mirror!

Learning which knives actually cut line.  Many did not; or only with great effort.

Looking at many tethers.
Try out your equipment before relying on it to save your life.  A great advantage of the seminar was having a bunch of items out for you to try -- like knives.  Some looked very useful -- until you tried to actually cut a line.  And that chintzy little whistle you have on your lifejacket -- it sucks.  Get a serious one -- and try it out before committing to it.

How to patch your life raft.  Patch kits suck; this thing rocked.  Damon knew what it was; no one else had a clue.
You can't have too many fire extinguishers.  You just can't.

Stuff you might want in your ditch bag.

Immersion suit.  I want one.
People have NO idea the difference between a Mayday situation and a Pan Pan.  Here's what I want you all to remember:  if I ever end up in the water, call a Mayday.  I can't tell you how many times I've had this conversation with people:  if there is any possibility I have a serious injury or may die, just call a Mayday.  Yes, I may die if I go overboard.  You can cancel it later if you recover me from the water or whatever injury I have proves to be minor.  Until then, don't waste my life on a Pan Pan; got it?

Inflating a life raft.  They hiss at first -- they're not leaking; they're stabilizing the amount of air for the local conditions.
Don't fall off the boat.  Don't fall off the boat.  Don't fall off the boat.

There it is, in a nutshell.  If you're a sailor, I can't recommend this seminar enough.  Get down there in 2016, find out about the Bad Things and how to avoid them, and I'll see you out on the water.

1 comment :

  1. > Demonstrating the best way to use a signal mirror.

    No - I've used that method and many others, at ranges of 10-22 miles, and I can assure you the depicted method isn't even a poor second.

    In fact the US Coast Guard will not approve a signal mirror that doesn't have a better aiming method than that depicted. They will only approve one that can be aimed by the double-sided mirror method (like the one in the photo) or one that has a retroreflective (aka "reflex" aimer). You can read the US Coast Guard requirements for approval of emergency signal mirrors at the USCG site online here:

    > Make a target sight with your fingers then get the light between them.
    > Ignore the directions on the mirror!

    Please don't do that - the life you save may be your own.

    Despite that comforting light on your fingers, the beam at range is a tiny fraction of the area between your fingers - reflect the light on a shaded wall 50-100 ft away to see that - it will look like this photo:

    The US Coast Guard, Royal Air Force, and National Bureau of Standards put a lot of work into finding effective ways to aim signal mirrors, including live tests in both the US and Britain with hastily trained novices then put in rubber rafts and rated at signaling to passing planes. They found that signal mirrors with retroreflective (aka reflex) sights worked by far the best, and double-sided mirrors next best (almost half as effective). You can read the US test report summary at these two pages:;view=1up;seq=135;view=1up;seq=154
    The foresight aiming method mentioned there is a more sophisticated version of the finger method, using a far more accurate machined aiming wand. It came in 3rd, and is accepted for lifeboat use by many countries other than the US.

    The mirror in your photo is intended to be used as a double-sided mirror. A good training diagram and instructions on using that type (from a 1985 US Air Force survival manual) is here: The WW2 instructions are here: The WW2 training film for the glass double-sided signal mirror (same principle) is on YouTube here:

    Our Boy Scout peak-peak signal mirror event (usually at ranges of > 10 miles), used double-sided mirrors from 1980-2009, but now have mainly switched to retroreflective aimers. Those who have used both have commented on how much easier the retroreflective aimers are - that's the type of mirror the USCG crew and USAF are equipped with.

    There used to be USCG-approved retroreflective signal mirrors, but not popular with shipowners because they were more expensive than the one in your photo. The last manufacturer I know of that made USCG approved retroreflective aimer lifeboat signal mirrors went out of business a few years ago.

    There are many retroreflective aimer signal mirrors out there (in fact all US military issue signal mirrors are of that type) mainly 3"x5" and 2"x3". However, the USCG requires 17 square inches of reflective area for approval (see above) so they don't qualify for USCG approval. Nonetheless, the USCG issued 3"x5" glass signal mirrors with retroreflective aimers to their own members up until the 1980s or so, and issue 2"x3" plastic signal mirrors with retroreflective aimers to their crew now. A photo of a number of currently available retroreflective aimer signal mirrors (and one "lookalike") is here:

    We teach the Scouts to make their own retroreflective aimer and double-sided signal mirrors (the former not waterproof) here: