Given how much we learned and experienced on our Sea Survival course at the RNLI college in Poole today I suspect that this post is going to be a long one, so for those of you who prefer to skim this blog here’s the summary – being tossed around dark waters in a small inflatable with 6 people trying to keep their lunch down is more fun than you’d think…
We were given the fantastic opportunity of visiting the RNLI’s state-of-the-art training college in Poole to join real lifeboat crews for the first day of a week-long course on sea survival. Not knowing what to expect I foolishly watched the Youtube video below and, having changed into a clean pair of pants, phoned Frazer to find out exactly what we’d signed up for. It turned out that alongside a lot of theory and classroom time we would indeed be spending the afternoon in their hugely impressive simulation pool.
THE MORNING SESSION
Following a fairly troubled sleep we arrived bright and early to the modern facility on the quay and were ushered into the college bar with 60 or 70 capable looking lifeboat crew and lifeguards who would be taking a variety of courses in the building. There seemed to be a wide variety of crew in attendance from those who were in their first months of volunteering to some with years of experience who were back to polish up their skills. Every single one of them was friendly and curious about our challenge and my worries that they’d treat us as crackpots who would have to be rescued all the time faded as we chatted about the difficulties of the trip.
I don’t want to get too mushy about these individuals who volunteer to put their own lives in danger to save others but as the first presentation of the day moved along I found my respect for the RNLI growing into out-and-out awe. The talk was designed to remind these guys what their role involved and pulled no punches in terms of the effects that being a lifeboat volunteer might have on them. The speaker showed us videos and post-rescue interviews from around the country and made it clear how much the charity values these guys. There were sections on how the RNLI spends its money and what plans are being put in place for new stations and equipment. Overall I felt like I’d been privy to a very detailed thank-you.
Before the theory started we were given our PPE for the afternoon’s exercises, which included a yellow jacket and salopettes, and some fashionable yellow wellies. I was disappointed to hear that because we wouldn’t be wearing dry-suits there was no need to have a “woolly bear” which is RNLI code for a really cool onesie.
I’ll not go too deep into the subsequent theory session, lead by a really impressive and confident young man called Nevs, but suffice to say after an hour of pretty harrowing videos and case studies I was fervently promising myself that I’d never go to sea again. The aim, of course, was not to scare the crap out of us but make everyone aware of how quickly things can go wrong even if you have all the right kit. Despite having the attention span of a sugared-up 5 year old in my university days, I had absolutely no problem giving Nevs my full attention as he talked us through the drills we would be using in the pool session and crucially what not to do in an emergency. We were then taken through and allowed to handle various pieces of safety kit before being taught how to pack a lifejacket.
I was glad to hear that I was not alone in feeling some trepidation for the practical session and much of lunch was spent listening to the crews swapping stories that principally involved vomit and it’s effect in a cramped life-raft. Levels of worry increased as it was pointed out that we’d be relying on the very lifejacket we had (in my case rather inexpertly) packed that morning.
THE AFTERNOON SESSION
We trooped into the pool building in our PPE gear and having watching as life-rafts were deployed into the water it was time to get wet. The order was given to get out of our safety gear and line up by the side of the pool where a row of red suits that looked like early attempts to design Tinky Winky were arrayed. These immersion suits, as used by off-shore workers in an emergency, are basically very thick wetsuits with built-in hoods, gloves and boots.
The challenge was to get yourself into one within 60 seconds then swim a length of the 25m pool. Unfortunately when the designers of these suits say “one size fits all” what they actually mean is “this size is bound to fit someone” – that someone being around 7 feet tall and 25 stones if I’m any judge. This meant much ungainly waddling and a swimming style that required the wearer to lie on their back and use both arms in a windmill action that, from the poolside, gave the impression of a teletubby suffering a particularly athletic seizure. For reasons best known to himself, Frazer decided to add a sort of balletic spin as he stepped off the side and was roundly told off for entering the water the wrong way round – you can remove the boy from the dance, but apparently not the dance from the boy.
The exercise was repeated in our PPE gear without lifejackets then it was time to do some jumping. For the purposes of the course, Nevs told us, we were only required to jump from a height of 1m into the water but he felt strongly that 4m would be much better. So now wearing our helmets and the lifejackets we had packed ourselves we were lead to a metal grid on the second floor and invited, after assuming the correct bracing position, to step off it. Only one person screamed (wasn’t either of us) and mercifully everyone’s lifejackets inflated properly so we were then able to get into heat-retaining huddles then try out the reverse-conga that is group crocodile-swimming. After proving we could individually right an upside-down life-raft in the water it was time to get out and prepare for the big simulation.
Having been split into three groups, each of which would have a life-raft, we were told that the weather was going to deteriorate and our ship was going down. Very quickly the blinds on the windows started to roll down, the wind machines kicked in, the waves started getting bigger and with a flash of strobe lightning, thunder crashed out of the sound system as the rain began to fall. The crews all struggled into the life-rafts (hard enough to do when you don’t have an inflated lifejacket on) and we went through the drills we’d been taught, all the while bailing out and avoiding the jets of water being aimed at us by the instructors. Once inside the object was to keep morale high which we achieved by singing Celine Dion at the top of our lungs. In the dark we only caught glimpses of the lights of the 2 other rafts lurching around us and when we heard the sound effects of planes or helicopters flying overhead we scrambled to get flares and torches to attract attention. It felt bloody realistic.
I don’t know how long the exercise actually lasted but it felt like forever (it’s billed as 45 mins in the video). I can’t imagine having to endure that for hours on end and keep morale up when you don’t have an instructor to turn it all off. There were a few green-looking faces towards the end and I was starting to feel decidedly queasy when the wind began to drop, the blinds began to let sunshine back in and we were ordered to paddle our rafts to the scramble nets at the poolside and get everyone safely out.
A short debrief to cement the lessons of the day and to talk about what the guys would be experiencing for the remainder of their week gave me time to reflect on the day and the impact it will have on our challenge. We have always been conscious that safety of our rowing crew is paramount but I now feel far more confident that we have the resources we need to put together skiff-appropriate procedures should the unthinkable happen.
Having gone into the day with a bit of apprehension I left feeling the unique euphoria of those who, when put to the test, didn’t blow chunks. But as I mentioned earlier my overriding feeling was one of awe for the work done by everyone in the RNLI. There can be very few charities where volunteers are required to drop whatever they’re doing to rush out into a risk-laden environment to save others. As one of the lecturers said, “When it’s blowing a gale, the waves are getting higher and everyone else is coming in, we ask you to go out”. I know there are many demands on your wallet from a wide range of worthy charities but if you are someone who enjoys getting out on the water like us why not follow the link in the sidebar and give a donation to what is a voluntary emergency service.
P.S. Huge thanks to Sarah and Lindsey for organising this and to Rick and Pete for moral and comic support.