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SAFE-BOAT SMART-BOAT: Abandoning ship-Surviving aboard the raft

Wrapping up this three-part series on abandoning ship, let’s focus on surviving aboard the life raft.  Immediately after abandoning ship and gaining shelter in the life raft, survivors are likely to be cold, wet, exhausted and suffering from varying degrees of shock.

Mental and/or physical let down leading to collapse is possible at this stage.  Therefore, if you are going to survive, you must maintain your self-control and your will to live.

A qualified Coast Guard-approved marine drill instructor, Fred Mattera of Point Judith, RI is the owner/president of North East Safety Training Co. (NESTCo), which conducts fishing vessel drills and inspections and basic safety training workshops.   A commercial fisherman for 40 years, Mattera is a member of the Commercial Fishing Safety Advisory Committee to the Coast Guard, and, since 1998, has been president of the Point Club, a fishing vessel mutual insurance group.  He also has served on the board of directors for Sunderland Marine Mutual Insurance Co., the principal underwriter for the Point Club and more than 2,000 US fishing vessels, since 1998.

A qualified Coast Guard-approved marine drill instructor, Fred Mattera of Point Judith, RI is the owner/president of North East Safety Training Co. (NESTCo), which conducts fishing vessel drills and inspections and basic safety training workshops.
A commercial fisherman for 40 years, Mattera is a member of the Commercial Fishing Safety Advisory Committee to the Coast Guard, and, since 1998, has been president of the Point Club, a fishing vessel mutual insurance group. He also has served on the board of directors for Sunderland Marine Mutual Insurance Co., the principal underwriter for the Point Club and more than 2,000 US fishing vessels, since 1998.

It’s not easy.  You will be faced with multiple problems, and you must decide the order in which you will deal with them.

Good leadership and high morale are crucial for survival.  The leader in the life raft should be the person who knows the most about survival skills and is in the best shape, physically and emotionally.  Unless injured or missing, the vessel captain is normally the leader.

But whether or not it is the captain, the leader must establish priorities and maintain morale.  It is important for the leader to reassure the crew, assess who is the best person to carry out vital tasks, and do everything he can to reduce fear and panic.

Inventory and shelter are high priorities.  Be sure that all survivors have found the life raft and begin to make it a real shelter by insulating against the cold or rigging protection from excessive heat.  Use the manual inflation pump to inflate the floor, which may be in two or three sections, to insulate your bodies from the cold water.

Treat any injuries and try to prevent seasickness, which is very likely and can cause dehydration and incapacitation.  Take seasickness pills as soon as possible.

Examine the equipment and supplies in your life raft survival kit and, if necessary, read the instructions for their use.  If several people are on board, assign each person a task in order to accomplish the tasks simultaneously.  Establish priorities and keep in mind the seven steps for survival – recognition, inventory, shelter, signals, water, food, and play.

If your vessel is still afloat, remain attached to it unless fire or some other danger gives you reason to cut the painter.  There are good reasons to stay attached.  Your vessel may not sink, so it may be a potential means of shelter and, if it sinks in shallow water, your vessel can act as an anchor for the life raft.  Also, staying attached keeps you closest to your Mayday position and certainly makes you easier to spot, both visually and on radar.

But, if you must cut the raft free, use the knife that is always on the right side of the canopy opening.  Cut the painter up and away from the inflated tubes.  Before cutting the painter, check that the sea anchor is deployed.  If there is more than one raft, tie them together because there’s safety in numbers.  There’s more survival gear, and it’s much easier to spot two rafts.

In cold conditions, close the canopy, leaving only a small opening for ventilation, and post a lookout.  Inspect the raft for damage.  If there are leaks, use the repair clamps to seal them.

 

EPIRB, flares, first aid  

If you have an EPIRB, make certain it is on and flashing.  The EPIRB works best in the water where it has a better ground and a stronger signal.  Wrap 2′ of the EPIRB lanyard around your wrist.  Tug on it every five minutes to be sure that it is still attached.

Make certain that the EPIRB antenna is vertical in the water or in your hands inside the raft if the weather is harsh.  This is critical.  A handheld VHF, cell phone, and/or satellite phone are additional tools for communication.

Once you’re settled in the raft, activate a parachute flare – day or night.  This flare is visible for up to 20 miles and can alert nearby vessels that missed your Mayday call.  After that, however, use your flares sparingly and only when there is a likelihood of being seen.

Treat all injuries according to your first aid training or the information contained in the Medical Procedures Manual in your survival kit.

It’s important to understand that it’s extremely difficult to conduct CPR in a life raft because of the soft floor.  If CPR is required, it’s best to place a victim on his back on top of another person who can then perform chest compressions as if he is giving the victim a bear hug.  For a near drowning victim, start mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing immediately and continue until help arrives.  Never give up on a near-drowning victim.

Remember that cold is the greatest killer.  It’s important to pump and bail out the raft and keep the interior as dry as possible using sponges.

If your clothing is wet, wring it out and put it back on.  Keep the interior of immersion suits dry.  Any crewman who doesn’t have a survival suit should wrap up in the survival kit’s thermal protection blankets.  Make every effort to maintain the body heat of the crew.  Doing so will raise and maintain the temperature inside the raft.

 

Water, watches

Maintaining your body’s water balance is a prime requirement for survival.  Remember that water is a higher priority than food.  You can live for weeks without food, but your survival will be measured in days without water.

Do not eat if you don’t have water since your system needs water to digest food.  It’s recommended that you drink a rationed quantity of water soon after boarding the life raft and one liter per day per person afterward.  This is why it is critical to bring water in the abandon ship procedure.  Do not drink seawater, urine, or alcohol.  Drinking any of these is suicidal.

One sponge should be reserved for wiping the condensation from the interior and squeezing it out into a plastic bag or container for fresh water.  You might need it later if your water supply runs low.

The leader should work to establish a sense of companionship and a firm and positive level of discipline.  If someone has lost his emotional control, the leader must not let him disrupt the rest of the crew.  It may help to give an upset crewman a task, even if it is an aimless one.  The survival of the crew depends on each crewman’s contribution, and it is here that preparation and training pay off.

Establish the routine.  This discipline helps ensure that vital tasks get done and focuses attention on the positive work of survival.

Assign one-hour watches in pairs, one for outside and one for inside the raft.  The duties of the outside watch should include the following:  looking for vessels, ships, survivors, aircraft, and useful wreckage; randomly flashing the signal mirror during the day and flashlight at night; and looking for land during the day and listening for surf at night.

The duties of the inside watch should include the following:  maintaining the life raft by bailing, drying, and venting; attending to injured victims; maintaining survival gear; and maintaining rations.

In short, keep the minds of the survivors occupied during waking hours, but don’t overdo it.  Avoid unnecessary work.

Fred Mattera

NESTCo