A couple of weeks ago, Sarah and I attended a Safety at Sea Seminar. It’s a full day US Sailing Sanctioned Seminar and designed to meet the Safety at Sea requirements for the Newport to Bermuda Race, sponsored by the Storm Trysail Foundation. Coincidentally, the one we attended was also on the same day as our anniversary. So was the seminar worth it, and was it a suitable stand in for more traditional anniversary gifts?
The day had over 200 people, and I’d say we were some of the least experienced among them. Plenty of Old Salty types with a bunch of young hard core offshore racers thrown in. The day was split up into six ~hour sessions:
- Fire Control
- Man Overboard
- Liferafts (pool)
- Damage Control
- Search and Rescue and Communications
The medical review was done as a whole group while still in the cafeteria. Offered in a lecture-style, as I write this, I can’t actually recall anything that was said apart from make sure that you get medical information about your crew before you leave. Admittedly, the time would have been too short to have had actual hands on training, but it seemed that the volume of material covered was too great and too compressed into the time frame.
During this session, USCG and SOLAS grade flares, rockets and smoke was demonstrated. It was quickly apparent that SOLAS flares are a massive improvement on USCG ones. We also had the opportunity to fire off some SOLAS rockets.
I had already fired off some flares with my own family, including the boys, so we had some background. We had not used SOLAS ones however (too expensive) so that was a useful experience. One important note was to read the instructions for YOUR safety flares before you head off. They are all slightly different and being in an emergency situation is not when you want to be reaching for your reading glasses!
A huge surprise during the session was the shockingly large number of failures. About 1 in 5 flares or rockets failed to work.
Thanks to Sea Safety International for facilitation of this section!
There was an opportunity for those that wanted to use a fire extinguisher to put out a small fire. While probably a useful experience if you have never used one, I wonder if this demonstration gave somewhat of a false idea. As it was such a small fire, the extinguisher put it out in under a second for most people. Would a real fire really be like that I wonder?
One important observation that was made was about air flow. Open hatches in a windy mooring/anchorage can serve to funnel air into a boat and fan the flames. As can a fire in the engine compartment if you take off the cover and suddenly introduce air.
A couple of last tips involved the extinguishers themselves. Despite USCG recommendations, you should carry at least four, and one should be accessible in the cockpit. If there is a fire in the cabin in a location that puts the fire between you and your extinguishers, you’re a bit buggered!
The Man Overboard drills were a HUGE eye opener. Probably (maybe?) like many sailors, we had done the traditional “throw the cushion overboard” drill a few times. I’ll be honest and admit that we have run the drill when it’s been relatively easy weather.
At the Safety at Sea Seminar, several captains had generously donated their time and boats to take out into the bay of the East River to run MOB drills. For us, we were on a J-44 with a crew (i.e. attendees) of about 8. I would say they were all very experienced and accomplished sailors.
Earlier in the day, it had been sunnier and real people had been the MOB’s. On our rotation, the winds had kicked up to 30-35 knots and a 2-3′ chop was developing. At that point the instructors had switched to floats for the MOB. I was pretty amazed that it took a very large, and experienced crew about 35 minutes to get the MOB back in. The combination of current, waves and wind just kept pushing us around and away from the pick up. I can only think that in similar conditions with a husband and wife team, if one of them goes over, they are basically FOOBAR. There is simply no way a single person can control a cruising size boat to pick up. Tether people, tethers. Buy ’em. Wear ’em.
We were required to come to the pool session in full foul weather gear and our lifejackets. The time was split into working with lifejackets, and working with the liferafts. Both had some insights
In the lifejacket half, we jumped in and had the experience of our automatic vests inflating. Well, except one woman’s, whose didn’t. In fact, it took her jacket three minutes to inflate. Later in Q&A, the probable culprit was water not being able to get easily to the “bobbin” that causes the jacket to fire. When you pack your lifejacket, don’t cover this up in multiple layers! The next immediately obvious observation was that when told to float face down, for the most part only those jackets with crotch straps turned people over.
We then got some tips about retaining warmth (make a ball), and a few other things. The jackets were pretty uncomfortable and would choke you a bit and press down hard on your chest/lungs. I found it surprising at how tiring it was to simply be in the water wearing the jacket.
The pool had a number of liferafts pre-inflated. We spent twenty minutes trying to get in and out of different models and sizes. Again, quite surprising at how difficult this was. The rope ladder you climb up would tip under the raft as you did so, and your lifejacket would do a great job at bouncing you off the inflated wall of the raft. I going to assume, and hope, that the added difficulty of getting in a raft in the open sea, cold with waves is going to be offset by the superhuman strength that adrenaline will be giving you.
The Damage COntrol section was mostly a show and tell in a lecture style format. Annoyingly, it was in a large room that was also being used for gear off on their MOB rotation. A couple of times groups of people would come in and change, their noise making it almost impossible to hear.
The main value in this session was probably the ability to ask questions. There was not much information that most captains probably don’t already know, but it’s helpful to ask something that’s in your own specific context.
Two interesting items were emergency cutting of rigging and emergency steering.
The presenters had done tests and found that hacksaws, sawzall and such all took about 2 minutes to cut a 3/8″ wire. The clear winner was a battery angle grinder which cut through in about 20 seconds.
The second was tests that had been done using a drogue for emergency steering. It sounded pretty convincing, and certainly something I would consider if the need arose.
Search, Rescue and Communications
At the end of the day, it was difficult to keep awake for this one. I struggled to take notes. The one mysterious one I have in my notebook was that the telephone number for the coat guard on the eastern seaboard is 757 398 6700. Oh, and make sure your MMSI is registered AND you have it entered into your VHF.
So, is a Safety at Sea Seminar worth it?
- If you haven’t really tested your safety equipment, have never run drills, then it’s probably a good move.
- If you are local to one, it’s probably a good move.
- If you have to significantly travel to one (expensively), you have done a bunch of testing, run drills for crew, then I am not convinced that a single day will increase your expertise significantly. You should try to get to a multiple day training.