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arrow Classroom@Sea » News » Teachers put through their paces at the Sea Survival Course

Teachers get their feet wet!

(and the rest of them too)

As part of their preparation for the cruise, Ian and Elena have to take part in and pass a course in sea survival techniques. This ensures that in the unlikely event of an emergency on board RRS Charles Darwin, Ian and Elena will know what to do. The aim of the course is to give the students the essential basic knowledge and experience of personal survival techniques and principles that will maximise their chances of survival in the event of a marine emergency.

The course is held at the Warsash Maritime Centre, just outside Southampton and lasts for a whole day. In the morning, the students on the course learn about the diificulties that they might be faced with in an emergency situation at sea, emergency signals and actions, and all about survival equipment such as liferafts and lifejackets. After lunch, the students are taken to the Andark Diving Centre pool where they put all the morning's theory into practice!

Read on to find out what Ian and Elena thought of the Sea Survival Course...


Ian writes...

"Would you mind jumping, fully clothed, into the Solent sometime in November?" Not a normal teatime question, but one that was asked during the interview for the place on the project. Bravado overcame hesitancy, ignorance defeated wisdom: "Of course not", even adding with a hint of true recklessness, "I enjoy that sort of thing", as if it was a regular activity in my social calendar.

Odd looks replaced the polite smiles on the faces of my interviewers, Professor Phil Weaver and Dr Vikki Gunn. These were not looks of admiration; they were clearly questioning my sanity. So was I!

November came too quickly for my liking. Phil and Vikki never lost an opportunity to casually mention the freezing November waters. I was working with sadists! As the MG purred into the car park of Warsash Maritime Centre, a view of the River Hamble opened up between the reds and browns of autumnal leaves. The weather was glorious, sunny and crisp – just right for training in personal survival techniques.

We were in the hands of an expert. Whilst the course members huddled in their coats hoping that the ink in their biros would thaw, Tiny, our course instructor was in his tee shirt fondly recalling ship abandonments and catastrophes.

What would you do if the Captain orders ‘Abandon Ship’? A key message is to be clear about your responsibilities and know the drills. We tried on immersion suits, fitted life jackets, looked at rations, played with flares and rockets (dummies of course), examined first aid equipment and finished off by having 16 of us squeezed into a liferaft. Good fun, we were all nicely warm and the closest any of us had come to getting wet was by spilling the hot chocolate.

Next, the plunge! Fortune had favoured the meek. Jumping into cold water creates too high a risk of a heart attack so we were treated to doing our survival drills in a nice warm swimming pool at Andark Diving Centre. However, we had to get into the pool first. Tiny ignored the very convenient ladders, dismissed the option of a small spring from the edge or even the 1 metre board, our attention was drawn to the 3.5m board at the side of the pool. I had been trying to ignore it until now.

It's odd how perspectives change, from the floor it didn’t look too high. From the top it looked horrifying. Final instructions from Tiny; "Look ahead, fold your arm over your lifejacket, protect your nose and mouth, keep your feet together. Go!" Fears about damaging my neck, having my nostrils flared or doing the splits as I entered the water all disappeared as my stomach hit the roof of my mouth. Splash! Great stuff, what was all the fuss about?

A giant step for mankind...

Just a blur in the air...


People who had started off as strangers only a few hours ago were now put through drills that demanded a certain level of intimacy and confidence not usually experienced even amongst close working colleagues. Squeezing, pushing and pulling on bits of each other whilst swimming in a conga or getting into a liferaft the size of a dinner table, created a real team spirit. I got a great big hug from Tiny [22 stone man mountain] whilst demonstrating the technique of how to rescue a lone survivor. It took my breath away!

Above: Ian demonstrates how to board a liferaft with dignity...

...and without!

The climax of the session was a surprise abandon ship drill. In our temporary absence, the instructors blacked out the pool, set up a cold rain storm and broadcast distracting noise through loudspeakers. We had to act as a team – jumping from the ship’s side, forming up in a circle then swimming in a conga to a liferaft. Entering the liferaft one more time, pulling others on board, breaking out the emergency survival gear and closing down the canopy. All of this was achieved with remarkable efficiency and good spirit.

On returning to Warsash our day finished with a consideration of what to do with survivors and how to treat possible health problems. I learnt a lot, for example that people can drown without being in water, that hypothermia sets in at a body temperature of 35ºC, that symptoms of hypothermia are slurring of speech, slow physical and mental responses and irritability [sounds like a bad day at work].

I hope that I never have to use the skills learnt but that, if I do, I am confident that my survival chances will be significantly improved. The whole day was very well put together by the instructors at Warsash and was interesting and great fun.


Elena writes...

I had spoken to several people and had been told many stories of what to expect on the Survival at Sea course but the day still held many unexpected surprises.

It all started at 8.30 a.m. on Tuesday 28th of October at Warash Maritime Centre, a particularly cold morning, where I meet up with Ian and another fourteen people on the course. Many of the participants had jobs on cruise liners and will be sailing to the Caribbean and other exotic destinations as I write. I must admit I felt quite jealous and wished I didn’t have to wait more than six months to depart on my own particular sea adventure!

The worst thing (or maybe the best thing) about the course was the expectation of what lay ahead!! (or should I say beneath!). I realise now that in undertaking this course I have inadvertently become a member of a most secret society! I shouldn’t repeat my experience to anyone, especially if they are to do it themselves. But in the interest of national security I feel I can divulge certain information (names and locations may have been changed to protect identities).

If you have ever wondered how it would feel to jump from a height of more than three meters into icy cold water, fully clothed, or how to right a capsized liferaft in blizzard like conditions, please read on. It wasn’t something I had planned for a cold October morning of my half term holiday. Luckily, after having met everyone, we were told we wouldn’t be getting wet until the afternoon (hopefully the temperature would have slightly improved for the better!) We started off with discussions on the theory behind sea survival; the actions prior to and at the abandonment of a vessel, how to launch a deck stowed liferaft, how to help injured people on board a liferaft and so on. I was surprised to learn that during the first 24 hours of being adrift you do not need to eat or drink anything and after that you could survive for over 40 days just drinking fresh water (just ask David Blaine).

The practical side of the course was scheduled for the afternoon and although we all felt a bit anxious about what we were expected to do, we were informed that before it was our turn the instructors would give us a demonstration! I have to admit I have always enjoyed water activities and jumping into water from a three metre height is the kind of thing I would like to try for the kick of it. I was, however, a bit more worried about getting into the liferaft from the water, especially after one of the participants described how difficult this was. But, the warm water and the fun atmosphere eased the activity - I imagine that if you have to do it for real, it wouldn’t be such an enjoyable experience.

A leap of faith...

faster than a speeding bullet...


We spent about an hour and a half practising what I thought were just about all the possible 'wet' scenarios you could come across after abandoning a vessel. I was feeling cold and tired; I really needed to get out of my wet and heavy clothes. I was hoping the activity was coming to an end but we had a surprise in store! We were asked to leave the pool area and a drill was set up; we were briefed about a hypothetical situation and told to act accordingly. For the next 30 minutes we practiced everything we had learned during the day. Finally we had completed the practical part of our 'survival at sea' course.

Getting to grips with the raft...

a helping hand...

Home and dry

One of the things that amazed me most was to discover how, in such a short period of time, all the participants bonded and felt so comfortable together. On the whole we had a great day and learned a tremendous amount on how to act in any emergency situation. As the day came to an end a couple of people asked if Ian and I would still remember what to do in an emergency since we don’t depart on our cruise until June 2004. My answer to them was that although I feel much more confident having learned it all, my real hope is that I never need to use anything that I have learnt in this course today.

Elena shows how to right a capsized liferaft in 3 easy stages...

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