24 May 2014

Personal Survival Techniques

My current employer wants me to live! Such a heart-warming thought. They even want me to survive being at sea for six weeks. And even if something goes wrong. So they sent me off to the Fleetwood Offshore Survival Centre (FOSC) for a Personal Survival Techniques training. It sounded like fun! But have you not been to sea before, you may ask? And would your employer at the time not have liked you to survive? Well, my first cruise was on a French ship, so they would just have a glass of wine and assume all will be well. Being allowed to join German and Norwegian cruises without safety training is a bit more surprising. The Norwegians are in general not risk-averse at all; au contraire, they all go off-piste skiing, in the dark of needs be, and climbing and sea-kayakking in high winds and when they are hungry they go and catch a cod from a rickety boat or they go to the nearest reindeer herder and buy half a carcass and make it into a meal. Well maybe not all, but in Arctic Norway, there are a whole lot of people around for whom all of that is perfectly normal. So maybe that's why. I'm not sure about the Germans!

The Brits, however, don't like taking chances. And that is annoying in general, but this time it worked out well for me. Off I went to Fleetwood! Pretty much everybody else who would be on the cruise had already done the training, so I would go alone. But somewhat prepared; I had heard all the stories of being lectured on things such as hugging full sick bags to fight off hypothermia, jumping into the pool from high up, clumsily clambering into safety rafts, trying to keep warm in the water (which, I was warmed, involved rather high levels of intimacy) and whatnot. Not all of it sounded like fun! But most surely did!

The nautical campus

I sat down in the campus canteen. Some people who looked like they were not cadets were there too; they may have come for the same thing! But they looked grumpy so I didn't approach them. And when a chap showed up to take us to the lectuyre room it turned out they indeed were also PST cases.

We sat down. The course started easy; they took some 4 hours to tell us about what to do in case of an emergency. Things such as: if an alarm sounds, put warm clothing on if you can; once you get to a muster point, don't leave it unless instructed to do so; don't jump into a life raft, what will you find inside a life raft, how will a life raft deploy itself if the ship goes down so fast you didn't manage to do it, and all such things. Not really 4 hours' worth of knowledge! But fortunately it was an engaging teacher. And he was not in favour of hugging vomit! That was a relief.

When he was done we all did a quick oral exam. We all passed! As expected; the guy had had enough time to prepare us and getting the knowledge lodged firmly in our heads. It was a doddle!

And then the fun started. We were taken to the pool. We were told to change into our swimming gear, and put a (provided) boiler suit over the top. They talked us through a few more things, let us deploy a life raft, and then it was time to get wet! We got into survival suits (hot!!) and buoyancy aids and were told to step into the pool from 3m high. I never liked the 3m board as a child! I still don't! But a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do so I was the first to get in. They had rightly warned us about the risk of being punched in the chin by your life vest upon impact. I write this with a slightly sore jaw! But that was a detail, and it was all fine. And in an emergency you have other things to worry about...

Relieved we got out of the survival suits. Fine in the atlantic; not so fine in a heated room! But we kept the life vests. And with these we first did the surviving in the water exercise. How to not lose heat on your own! How to swim in a life vest, being generously sprayed with cold water! How to swim in chains of two or three, still being generously sprayed with water! And there the intimacies already started. You make a chain by grasping someone's waiste with your legs! I was glad to have found a very friendly cruise hostess to chain up with. And we were demonstrably a good pair - we outswam all the males at every single time. And then the keeping warm in pairs happened. I could see why that could get uncomfortable; you can't all be paired up with someone with whom you're perfecly happy to do that! But this was not a coffee break; this was survival training.

After this exercise we practiced righting an overturned life raft, and getting in. And what to do once you're in. In the end we all ended up in the water; we made a ring in order to stay warm. And below the water line that was alright; everything that stuck out was mercilessly hosed down! I really wanted to protect my head, but as I was holding on to the people next to me I didn't have any hands free. Nobody had. And one by one we separated from the ring, and were winched up by the kind of winch a helicopter would have. And then we were whisked off into the men's changing room. Time for the piece de resistance!

A pic from Wikipedia of a similar training. I didn't have a camera on me!

Being in changing room, smost of us took the opportunity to stand under a hot shower for a bit; many were shivering. That was my chance of a shower in the men's! I took it. We were told we would hear an alarm, go up the stairs, get into our life jackets, jump off the height again but this time in a simulated emergency situation in the dark and with smoke and noise and waves and rain and whatnot. Then we had to form two rings, and then later get into two life rafts. It didn't really go like that; we didn't hear the alarm, so one of the instructors had to go and get us. But otherwise it worked! The darkness and noise and smoke really added to the atmosphere, although it's not enough to make things intimidating. And bobbing up and down is quite different when the wave machines are on. Soon we were in a big circle; the plan of making two (for more heat efficiency) had failed. Individuals clearly prefer to join an existing circle rather than starting a new one! And then the rafts were "discovered", and we all clambered in. I regretted getting in soonish; I immediately felt this would be just the place to get seasick. I stuck my head out to play look-out; that helped! When we were all in and had evaluated what we would now do we were all let out before the vomiting would start. We were done!

After a shower we got our certificates in the canteen. And then it was 20:30; we all vanished abruptly. Some to get home before it got too late, and me to go and find something to eat. After all that I could do with a nice meal! I chose spicy bean soup as my starter; after all that adventure involving cold water I felt like some comfort food, even in mid May...

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