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SAFE BOAT – SMART BOAT: Abandoning ship – Boarding the life raft

The crew made a mad dash for the life raft but wasn’t successful.  The flames and heat were far too intense.  The fire had started in the engine room and engulfed the living quarters and pilothouse.  Everyone had to abandon ship wearing their immersion suits and holding their EPIRB.  Fortunately, a nearby fishing vessel retrieved them within minutes.

There are several lessons to be learned from this scenario.  First and foremost, early launching of the life raft when the fire initially started in the engine room would have been a more prudent decision.

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.

Getting the life raft ready early is insurance against problems that may occur later if abandoning ship becomes necessary.  If there is a chance that the vessel may suddenly sink or become engulfed in a fire, the raft should be launched at once from the lee side, with the painter attached securely.

So, let’s review how to get into the raft.  If possible, board the life raft without entering the water to avoid the effects of cold water.  You may be able to jump from the rail directly into the canopy entrance or lower yourself to the raft with a ladder or line.

If aboard a raised foc’sle vessel that forces you to exit from the fore deck, consider using a large polyball and line as a lowering mechanism.  Make several wraps around a rail or cleat.  Then, have a crewman step over and straddle the polyball between his legs and slowly lower him to the canopy opening.

As a last option, and if the height isn’t too great and there is no one else inside, jump directly onto the raft canopy.  Just be sure to think before you jump.  Your odds of surviving will be significantly diminished if you hurt yourself.

If you must enter the water, select a safe place to leave the vessel, keeping in mind the following points.

If at all possible, enter where you can use the painter line to guide you to the raft.  Without contact with the painter line there is a possibility that you may be swept beyond the raft.

The first person in the raft should immediately get the coit/throw ring ready to pitch to a crewman if he is drifting away from the raft.

Beware of hazards below you.  Don’t jump onto people, objects, or burning oil or fuel.  Jump from the lowest suitable point to minimize impact.

If you are wearing a PFD:

•  Be sure it is fastened securely;

•  Cross your arms over your chest to hold it down;

•  Block off your nose and mouth with one hand;

•  Protect your head;

•  Check the area below before you jump;

•  Jump feet first; and

•  Keep your feet together.

If you are wearing an immersion suit:

•  Be sure it is fully zipped and that all closures are snug because you want to keep water out;

•  Don’t inflate the flotation bladder until you are in the water;

•  Hold the top of your suit to protect your head and to prevent escaping air from popping the hood of the suit off your head;

•  Check the area below; and

•  Jump feet first, with legs together.

 

Get out of the water

Once in the water, avoid staying there one second longer than you need to.  Remember that water takes the heat from your body 25 times faster than air.  Your body will lose heat in the water more rapidly than you can generate it, which can lead to hypothermia and, eventually, even death.  There is no doubt that wearing extra clothing will help delay the start of hypothermia.

Get into the life raft as soon as possible and stay attached to the vessel if it is safe to do so.  Staying with the vessel keeps you closer to your distress position and makes you easier to spot, both visually and on radar.

If the vessel looks like it is going to sink, remember that there is a knife with a floating handle in a sheath attached to the right side of the raft’s canopy opening.  Grab the knife, reach for the painter, and then cut it, up and away from the raft.

If there is more than one raft in the water, tie them together.  Again, there is safety in numbers.  It’s easier for rescuers to spot two rafts and more survival gear.

Boarding a life raft from the water without assistance is difficult.  Pull yourself in head first using the boarding platform and lifelines at the raft entrance to get your upper body aboard.  It may help to bob down first and then use the buoyancy of your immersion suit to help lift you out of the water.

Try to pull yourself in with the lifelines rather than the canopy, which can be torn by your weight.  Once the first person is aboard, he can straddle the side of the canopy opening and assist the remaining crewmen aboard.

 

Righting the raft

One person can right a capsized life raft if it is done before the canopy fills with water.  Swim to the side marked “Right Here.”  If there is no marking, go to the side with the CO2 cylinder.

Most importantly, maneuver the cylinder side of the raft so that it is downwind.  Then, reach up and grab the righting strap.  Start pulling yourself up onto the raft.  It may help to kick your feet out as if swimming.  If that seems too difficult, try placing your knees on the inflated tubes or cylinder and use them as a fulcrum.

Holding the righting strap, lean back with all your weight and pull on the righting strap.  Between the wind and your momentum, the raft will follow you and will land on top of you unless you spring backwards just as the raft lands on the water.

If the raft does land on top of you, don’t panic.  The bottom of the raft is soft and flexible and your head will form an air pocket.  Stay face up, catch a breath, and pull yourself out from under the raft.

If the inverted canopy fills with water, put as many people as you can on the righting straps and try to pull the raft over using the wind to assist.  If you still can’t right the raft, you will have to cut a hole in the fabric of the canopy.  Just be careful not to deflate the canopy.

In the next SAFE BOAT, we will discuss surviving aboard the life raft.

Fred Mattera

NESTCo

 

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