Seven short blasts are followed by one long one. Adrenaline pumps through me. I scramble from my bunk to the muster station on deck. My crew of four is right behind me. As captain of the pleasure yacht The Nausea, I am sickened by what I see in the blood-soaked waters below. We've hit a whale and are sinking fast. I have no choice but to give the order every captain dreads: "Abandon ship!" "You two," I bark to half my crew, "deploy the life raft. Now!" The men heave 120 pounds of tightly packed raft overboard, then trigger the firing pin on the CO2 canister, which initiates rapid inflation. Like a huge coin that's been flipped into the sea, the odds of our raft inflating heads up are 50-50. It seems that luck of any sort has abandoned us today. Two crewmembers leap into the water. One pushes against the submerged lip of the raft to break the seal of water tension while the other grabs hold of a line that bisects its base, then leverages his body weight to flip the raft over. When they've both scrambled in, I nod to the next man on deck, who jumps in, swims over, and is quickly assisted into the raft. The last crewman jumps in but winds up unconscious. I leap in, turn him on his back, and tug him to the raft, where the other three students in today's survival exercise manage to yank us both into the cramped wet womb of rubber-scented safety. "Cut, stream, close, and maintain!" I yell.
As I yell the "Four Vital Actions," I glance toward Chris Taylor, director of International Yachtmaster Training and Deliveries (IYTD) in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Taylor nods his approval from the deck of the International Swimming Hall of Fame diving pool.
Then I yell out the two "Subsequent Actions" that Taylor has patiently drilled into us during the half-day of classroom training that preceded this evening's hands-on exercise. "Someone deploy the EPIRB. And you," I say, addressing Bob Harrison, a veteran of the South African Navy who is helping Taylor teach the course, "now that you've recovered from your head injury, take the first watch."
Later that night, when class has adjourned and we're discussing my appalling seamanship over a couple pints of Guinness, the eminently affable Harrison tells me what I'll be in for tomorrow. The planned caper: Spend an entire night in a life raft floating in the Atlantic eight miles off Biscayne Bay. "Nobody I know," Harrison warns with a shrug, "has gotten into a life raft in the ocean and not been violently seasick within a short period of time."
Being a highly suggestible sort, I immediately feel queasy. It's all I can do to keep my beers down.
When it comes to life rafts and their deployment, there is one Unconditional and Incontrovertible Golden Rule: Don't do it-unless you have absolutely no other choice.