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SAFE BOAT – SMART BOAT: Abandoning ship Part 4 – Surviving aboard the liferaft

The following is the final installment in our four-part series focused on the decision to abandon ship and then taking the steps necessary to maximize chances for survival and rescue. 

—Editor

Immediately after abandoning ship and gaining the shelter of a liferaft, survivors are likely to be cold, wet, exhausted, and possibly suffering from varying degrees of shock.

Mental and or physical letdown leading to collapse is likely at this stage.  If you are going to survive, you must maintain your self-control and your will to live.

At this point, you will be faced with multiple problems and you must decide the order in which you deal with them.

Inventory and shelter 

Inventory and shelter are high priorities.

Be sure that all survivors have found the liferaft and make it a real shelter by insulating it against the cold.  You must also treat serious injuries and try to prevent seasickness.  You should examine the equipment and supplies in the life raft.

If there are several crewmen onboard, assign each crewman a task to accomplish the task simultaneously.  You must establish priorities, keeping in mind the Seven Steps of Survival.

If you have cut the raft free of the vessel, check to be sure that the sea anchor or drogue has been deployed.  Liferafts can drift rapidly.  The sea anchor reduces the rate of drift and keeps you closer to the last known mayday call position.

Remember, the sea anchor is deployed automatically on the raft and usually there is a spare sea anchor packed onboard the raft.

Close the liferaft entrance when everyone is onboard to keep out the cold and wet, and to keep in the warmth maintained by the crewmen.  Leave only a small opening for ventilation and post a look-out.

Most all liferafts require that you pump up the floor, especially in a northern latitude, to create a barrier of insulation between your body and the cold water.

Take seasickness tablets as soon as possible.  Even hardened fishermen are probably going to get seasick in a raft, and seasickness results in loss of body fluids and incapacitation.

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 director of AMSEA, 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 Insurance Co. a subsidiary of North of England P & I, the principal underwriter for the Point Club and more than 2,000 US fishing vessels, since 1998. 

If you have an EPIRB, turn it on and leave it on.  The battery will last for a minimum of 48 hours.

If you have a handheld VHF radio, transmit distress messages to Coast Guard or first responders.

The parachute flare is the initial flare to activate once in the raft, with peak elevation it is visible up to 15 miles alerting any vessel that may not have heard the initial distress call.

Use distress flares – handheld when a vessel is close, within line of sight.

Remember, however, that handheld flares drop slag, therefore it is critical to have the wind at your back before activating the flare.  In order to accomplish this, you must retrieve the sea anchor to the left of the canopy opening (when facing outward) and then use the paddles inside the raft to spin so that the wind is now at your back.

It is best to use smoke flares when aircraft (helicopters or jets) are overhead, releasing a large orange plume of smoke, increasing your visibility.

Treat all injuries

You must assess and treat serious injuries according to your medical training and/or the first aid book in the survival pack.

Remember, you cannot perform normal CPR on a victim because of the soft floor in the raft.  A suggested alternative method is to place the victim on their back on top of another crewman.

When crewmen are recovered from the water apparently drowned, start mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing immediately and continue until help arrives.

In cold water, near-drowning victims have been revived after being submerged for as long as an hour because of the body response known as the mammalian dive reflex.

Don’t give up on a near drowning victim.

 

Preserving body heat

Remember that cold is the greatest killer.

Every attempt should be made to keep the raft dry, using a bailer and sponges.

If your clothing is wet, remove it and wring it out and put it back on.  If extra clothing is available use it.  It is best if clothing is shared among the crewmen, with special care for the sick and injured.

Keep immersion suits on to stay dry and warm.  Use a thermal blanket or thermal coveralls over wet clothing when you are without immersion suits.

Make every effort to raise crewmens’ body temperatures, which in turn raises the temperature inside the raft.

 

Leadership and morale

Good leadership and morale are crucial for survival.

The leader must take on the responsibility of keeping the crewmen as organized, calm and comfortable as possible.

The vessel captain will normally be the leader aboard the raft, unless he is injured or missing.

The leader should be the person in the best shape, physically and emotionally, to establish priorities and maintain morale.

If you are in charge, it is important to communicate with all the crew.  Reassure them and assess who is best able to carry out vital tasks.  Do everything you can to reduce fear and panic.  Try to establish a sense of companionship and a firm, but positive, level of discipline.

If you must deal with someone who has lost his emotional control, it is important to not let them disrupt the rest of the crew.  It may help to give them an aimless task to perform – to distract from the crisis and refocus their energies.

While the leader has the greatest responsibility, each crewman must strive to maintain a positive attitude and carry out the tasks to which they are assigned.

The survival of the crew depends on each crewmen’s contribution and it is here that preparation and training pay off.

 

Establish the routine

The discipline of a routine not only helps ensure that vital tasks get done, but helps focus attention on the positive work of survival.

The following suggestions should help you establish a routine.

Assign one-hour watches in pairs, with one man on duty outside and one man on duty inside.

Outside.  Look for vessels, survivors, aircraft, and useful wreckage.  Flash the signaling mirror around the horizon when there is sunshine. Look for land.  At night, listen for surf.

Inside.  Maintain the liferaft (bailing, drying, ventilation, etc.)  Attend to injured victims.  Maintain equipment.  Keep rations.  Keep the minds of the crew occupied during waking hours, but do not overdo it.  Avoid unnecessary work.

Water.  Remember your body is about 70% water, so maintaining your body’s water balance is a prime requirement for survival.  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 food if you do not have water, you need water to help digest the food.  Every bit of water you conserve increases your survival time.

While conserving water is vital, so is maintaining enough physical strength to cope with the ordeals of survival.  It is recommended that you begin drinking rationed quantities of water soon after boarding the liferaft.  That amount is dependent upon how much water you have onboard.

I always emphasize the vital importance of bringing water when abandoning ship.  Water, water, water.

Do not drink seawater. It will exaggerate thirst, promoting water loss through the kidneys and intestines, and shorten your survival time.

The same with urine.  It is toxic as well.

General.  Try to lash down all gear so that in case the raft capsizes or is swamped, nothing is lost.

Understand that recovering crewmen in a raft depends on visual sighting.

Never waste your distress signals, flashlight batteries, etc.  Distress signals should only be used with the permission of the leader and only when there is a reasonable chance that they will be seen.

Use the whistle and or shout when close to land and in the fog.

 

In conclusion  

Abandoning ship is an arduous task that demands teamwork and precise activity and deployment.

It is challenging physically and mentally, in a high anxiety environment.

Drills and training minimize the stress and instill the muscle memory developed through repetition of training.

Winter is upon us, so again remember that cold is the greatest killer.  Stay prepared.  Stay smart.  Stay safe.

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