Friday, 5 December 2014

Sea Survival Course

It was this time of year back in 2011 that we did a family sea survival course. At the time I hadn’t really got into blogging so didn’t write about it. It is a subject that comes up often among those preparing to sail. So, belatedly, this is what we got up to on that day 3 years ago. It is a subject never far from a sailor’s mind and with another big rescue this week it seems like a good time to finally write about it.
Not many places run a sea survival course for families but we managed to find a course running in Southampton and booked ourselves onto it. Having moved along the coast to Portsmouth we set on off the allotted date bright and early - ferry to Portsmouth, train to Fareham then train to Southampton and just a short walk got us to where the course was being run.
It was a very interesting course. Run by an independent company but under the guidelines of the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) it was guided by the RYA book Sea Survival which we were given as part of our pack and contains valuable guidance. As there were two of us on the course it means we have two books, we keep one on the bookshelf and the other lives (as recommended) in the grab bag.
Dog eared from being used for preparation
We spent the morning in class going through information such as what should be in an emergency grab bag, how does an EPIRB work, how does rescue at sea happen, what happens if you drink sea water, how long can you survive without water, what extra things should you include in your planning and other really vital information. It was all presented in a very informative and interesting manner making it easy to sit and listen. The deckhands all joined in and were very good. For the older two it was just like being back at school after a four month break. I found it quite odd being on the learning side of the desk rather than the teaching side.
In the breaks we chatted to the others in the group. With about 15 of us it was a nice size. Many were individuals or couples learning about sailing, others were planning longer adventures, most were fascinated by our plans and asked the children lots of questions and four lads were setting off to row across the Atlantic.
Later in the day we headed to the pool. Dressed in swimming stuff with shorts and t-shirt on top (You don’t tend to change into your swimming gear when you are sinking) we were to practice all the drills we had learnt in theory earlier. At this point we – as a family – were separated off from the others and worked as a smaller group on our own with an instructor. The boys wore their own life jackets which meant that we were able to check them on the children and they were able to see exactly how they work.
Whilst the bigger group headed to the deep end with their instructors we headed to the shallow end. Firstly the Skipper and I followed the procedure for jumping into the water (arm across chest, other hand across mouth, pinch your nose and go). Once we were in the water, the children came in to us one by one. It was done very carefully and slowly, the instructor could not be faulted for his patience, care and the way he talked to the deckhands.
Getting into the water and having the lifejacket inflating automatically was a valuable experience. The children gained confidence in the jackets and also if they had ever needed to use them in anger would have known what to expect. Once we had tried to see if we could sink with the lifejackets on it was time to do some drills. For me as a mother one of the most reassuring was the ‘train’. We were taught how to link together into a chain so that it takes less effort to move around and you all stay together. Knowing that even the youngest (then only 4) could be secured in the water within the family unit was very important to me.
Sometimes there is nothing for miles
We then watched a life raft opening out and had the challenge of getting into the pool, swimming together in our chain towards it and helping each other in – not as easy as it sounds and the instructors also kindly threw water at us to represent (some of!) the spray you would expect. With the pool work done it was back to the classroom for a video of a helicopter rescue, the last few bits to finish off, and consolidation. Finally the course was done and with hand shakes all round we were all presented with our certificates.
A short time later we were waiting on a very cold and tiny platform for our trains back. A couple of hours later, in the dark we stepped off the ferry and met my Dad who had kindly come down to spend the afternoon on Tarquilla keeping the sea dog company. We spent the evening enjoying fish and chips together and regaling him with tales of the day.
The course was extremely good, but in hind sight was it worth it? For the Atlantic rowers  it certainly was. They credit the course with their survival – praise doesn’t come much higher than that. For us, the knowledge we gained from it has been worth its weight in gold. It gave us an understanding of what and why certain things are needed in an emergency and it gave us practical experience of life jackets, life rafts and survival techniques. In the week after the course we went through the grab bag and made sure it was suitable for our needs, adding various items we had not thought of before.
Edit 7/12/14: The Skipper also added spray hoods and lights to the life jackets following the course. 
We have fortunately not needed to actually put any of the information into practice but even so the knowledge was invaluable. A few times when things were looking a bit hairy we were able to reassure the children (and ourselves) that they knew what to do and they knew they could trust their life jackets. When we were actually sinking the whole crew pitched in, knowing what needed doing and getting on with it calmly and efficiently. Once again the course played a big part in this. When we were safely tied to land we toasted the instructors who had been so good.
All in all, although the family courses are not common, it was certainly one of the best investments we made.
The French SNSM demonstrating a rescue at 
the Festival of the Sea, Camaret
We did the course through Tailored marine Services who don’t even know I’m writing this and have certainly not sponsored us in any way.

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