“But what if you fall in?” The Admiral said. “I’ll never get you out!”
I took that to mean, “I will never be able to get you out,” but when one has just bought a 36-foot sailing vessel and has just finished attending an old salt’s “things you should know about hypothermia” seminar at the ever helpful Seattle Boat Show, one is at a loss to discern the meaning of many comments. The alternative (as in, “… and I will have no intention of doing so, even though I have just lovingly encouraged you to buy a boat that will enable us to sail into the sunset of our lives”) seemed too macabre to contemplate.
Four years later, Selah is equipped with five inflatable whistle- and light-festooned personal flotation devices (PFDs), both automatic and manual, more 50- 90-pound capacity children’s PFDs than we need for the five grandchildren, six orange Kapok PFDs that came with the boat, tethers for adults and children, a jackline system, a Novalift davit that serves double duty as a putative (wo)man overboard (MOB) and outboard motor hoist, two mandated throw cushions, a Lifesling II, and a keen sense of What Could Go Wrong from reading four years’ worth of “The Voice of Experience” columns in sailing magazines.
But we had never really tried it out.
So it was that we found ourselves poolside with 15 other sheepish souls on a recent Saturday afternoon, clad head to toe in “what you would wear for a day on the Sound” in 36-degree weather: long underwear, bib foulie pants, wicking long-sleeved shirt, long-sleeved fleece, foulie jacket, wool socks, sea boots and fleece hat — all of them wet from a spell under the pool shower. We were seated in the bleachers and sweltering in the heat of the Ballard Community Pool, all of us eager to hear what might come next.
It turned out to be Ben Braden’s mother, Mary.
I am sure that Ben introduced Mary, but she hardly needed it. At five-foot diminutive, in her no-nonsense black bathing suit, her quiet voice (“I’m not going to shout, and whistles are for lifeguards, so you had just better listen”) dripped with the multiple decades of her water safety experience with the Red Cross and the Girl Scouts and the Safety at Sea folk.
Then she told us to jump in: “No PFDs, just jump in — any depth of the pool, but you need to swim across and back without touching the bottom. Oh — and get out on this side when you’ve finished.”
Most of the class chose the five- to seven-foot depth. You never know. I let the Admiral go first; it wasn’t just the influence of my upbringing. Also, it was fairly crowded poolside. Once I saw how it was, I edged over to the deeper side, where a few others had been and stepped off the edge.
Interesting: I actually floated. With the velcro closures at my wrists and ankles strapped tight, air pooled in the shoulders of my foulie jacket and my bibs. And swimming — even in sea boots that were rapidly filling with water — was, well, possible.
On my way back across, I thought I would try getting up on to the deck of the pool without benefit of a ladder.
That took three tries and a whole lot of kicking.
Back on the deck, Mary told us to loosen the velcro and jump in again. It was more difficult, but doable. Also, I think I strained a hamstring, trying to bring all that water with me back onto the pool deck without benefit of a ladder.
Poolside, Mary elucidated: “You all know not to wear cotton underneath that gear: It not only absorbs water, it loses its ability to insulate. But wool and, to a lesser extent, polyester fleece, has another problem: It is an excellent insulator, even when wet, but it absorbs a lot of water weight. Now: get your inflatable PFDs on.”
Ours had never been in the water, not since we purchased them four years ago.
I jumped into the water and immediately sank (This marks the last time I would forget to empty my boots of water before going in). I readied myself for the C02 explosion and immediately reassuring bob upwards. Instead, I felt a slow rise, and once I surfaced, found myself surprisingly… deaf. The inflated pillows had risen up with the PFD and were covering my ears. The second thing I noticed was my inability to go anywhere. The PFD was doing a great job of keeping me on my back, but was so efficient that it was all I could do to propel myself backward.
I now know why the standard MOB advice is just to keep warm and wait to be rescued. Once you end up overboard in an inflatable PFD, it doesn’t matter what sea state you find yourself in. You are going nowhere under your own steam, and anyone who tries to do so is wasting valuable calories. Just trying to find the zipper to my light and whistle proved to be challenge enough.
The class went on: We got back out, deflated our PFDs, jumped in, and inflated them by mouth. We buddied up and learned how to throw non-inflatable PFDs to a (wo)man overboard, who then put it on in the water using the roll technique. (Those orange Kapok vests that you see on the ferry? The ones that are sitting neglected in Selah‘s lockers below decks? They’re the easiest to put on in the water.)
Then we tossed those Coast Guard-mandated throw cushions to each other and learned how to wear them so that the waves could not strip us of our floatation. (Mary’s invaluable hint: One leg through one strap, and the opposite arm through the other. So much for the cartoon drawings on those aircraft emergency information cards.) We learned how to conserve heat while afloat and how to scoop air into our clothing if we lost our pfd or went in without one. Inspired by the tale of a recent MOB rescue, we removed our sea boots in the water, filled them with air and used them as flotation devices.
Poolside again, Ben talked us through his own experience racing J/boats and explained how to disconnect the spinnaker from a halyard on a downed keelboat (“that’s probably the only reason she hasn’t righted herself”) and where to position the crew so that they will land up on deck once she rights herself.
But most of us were cruisers, and as we broke up into groups of four to work with recovery using a Lifesling, the couple with us shared the same concern we had: assuming that we followed the procedure and got the rescue line and float-belt out to our mate and putative MOB, could we get them back on deck? The men refused to voice any concern about whether their upper body strength would be sufficient. “I suppose,” one woman said hopefully, “my adrenalin will kick in.”
On my turn to be rescued, I swam out as far as the Admiral said and made appropriate MOB gestures. She threw the sling underhand as she had been taught; one stroke later, it was around me. Then she pulled. My simulated distress must have provided adequate motivation
; my landward trajectory left considerable wake in the pool. (Perhaps it was just all displacement.) The Admiral pulled back with her legs bent and I found my hips on the pool deck. A simple roll from me and I was on the deck, waterlogged boots and all.
Later, the Admiral would pinpoint that moment as the most valuable of the afternoon: “All these years, I didn’t know if I could do it. Now I know: I can.”
We learned a great deal more that afternoon: Why the “help position” is important, how it can best function, how important it is to speak calmly and clearly with the MOB as you are working with them to bring them in.
The Admiral and I are changing some things about our onboard safety plan. Since we require all crew to wear a PFD and we keep those throwable square cushions in the cockpit (usually safe from the wind, under someone’s bum), we had never thought about the importance of having a spare Kapok PFD in our emergency locker to throw out in a man overboard situation, nor the importance of having to instruct someone on how to put it on in the water. We have one in our aft on-deck emergency locker, now.
Of course, we had only participated in a simulation.
In the locker room after class, Ben Braden pointed out that the odds are against one’s going overboard, especially for cruisers. “That,” I replied, “is nothing to bank on. We cruisers already bank on too much going right, too often.” Ben agreed.
I’ve seen the training videos of experienced Coast Guard swimmers hitting 50-degree water for the first time. I’ve seen and heard about the involuntary paralysis, the need to consciously breathe in the first few minutes. I understand that falling overboard in the Puget Sound or the Pacific Ocean is vastly different from consciously stepping into a 10-foot, temperature-controlled pool in Ballard, Wash. We could always learn more.
We think we’ve increased our odds of surviving a bad situation.
The Pool Plunge Seminar is run by the Seattle Sailing Club. As non-members, we each paid a fee of $35. For information on participating in a future seminar, call or email Joe Cline, club manager, at 206.782.5100, firstname.lastname@example.org. Ben and Mary Braden also lead seminars in yacht clubs and other venues around the Puget Sound.