This week, as part of my preparation for sailing off-shore in the Southern Ocean (an ocean not universally recognized, but which many define as the large, uninterrupted and very tumultuous body of water that encircles Antarctica), I am taking a basic safety training course at SUNY Maritime College in the Bronx, NY.
The class is called STCW, which stands for Standards in Training and Certification of Watchkeepers, and is a US Coast Guard administered, internationally recognized certification that is required on many vessels, from private yachts to the Merchant Marines. The four sections are Personal Safety, Personal Survival, Basic Firefighting, and First Aid. All components are taught specifically for shipboard life.
We spent the last two days focusing mostly on personal survival, i.e. how to stay alive as long as possible while floating in very cold water. Since rescue is the real goal, the two main tactics are increasing the length of your own survival, and decreasing the time it takes to be found.
When forced to abandon ship, cold water is the greatest and most immediate threat to survival in most parts of the world. Your body loses heat 32 times faster in water than in air. The dangers of being submerged in cold water are three fold: 1) “cold shock”, which hits immediately upon entry, can be disorienting and demobilizing, and can even cause cardiac arrest in vulnerable individuals; 2) hypothermia, which sets in after longer periods of exposure; and 3) post-rescue collapse, which can be the result of re-heating a hypothermic victim too quickly or improperly.
Yesterday we spent the second half of the day in a pool practicing with the type of cold-water survival gear that most off-shore vessels carry. We practiced donning an immersion suit, learned different techniques which conserve heat and energy, and how to right an upside-down life-raft. None of this is easy to do in the “gumby suit”, and requires a huge amount of energy. I declined help when pulling myself into the life raft, because I wanted to see if I could do it myself. It wasn’t until I was inside panting that I realized how much I’d exerted myself, and not until I got home that I felt the pulled muscle in my shoulder…
I think the most important piece of information I took away from this training was the importance of the Will to Live in any survival situation. It’s estimated that up to 20% of deaths in these situations can be attributed to “spiritual failure”. I wonder what defines those of us whose Will to Live endures the longest….is it the optimists among us? The fighters? The blissfully ignorant? Hard to say. I’m sure knowledge and confidence in skills plays a big part, and I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to take this course.
Today and tomorrow are basic fire-fighting, and tomorrow I get to don full fire-fighter gear and put out a fire! Stay tuned…!
Today we visited SUNY Maritime's training ship the Empire State! This is one of their self-righting, fully submersible life-boats. Photo by York Bergin-Pugh.