Abandon Ship

What to do when a life raft becomes your only option.

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.

STUFF HAPPENS

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.

"The time to get into a life raft," says IYTD President Mark Fry, "is when your right foot is already wet, and you have to step up into the raft with your left."

Simply put, there are occasions when you just don't have a choice. Fire can cause smoke and toxic fumes, forcing abandonment even if your boat's still afloat. Collisions with other vessels, despite advances in radar, are far from unheard of in fog and other low-visibility conditions. And, as bizarre as it may seem, each year a handful of vessels are sunk by amorous whales, who can mistake small craft for potential mates or rivals. A more common hazard is the thousand or so 40' cargo containers that annually slide off freighters and float mere inches above the surface, lying in wait for unsuspecting boaters.

How any given individual will fare in the face of catastrophe is hard to predict, but studies of survival-at-sea situations suggest about 15 percent of boaters have the right stuff to triumph over even the most horrid adversity, another 75 percent can be trained to survive, and the bottom 10 percent are pretty much doomed.

"No one knows why this is the case," Taylor tells us during today's "Sea Survival and Rescue Boat" lecture. "Everyone hopes to be in that top 15 percent. But the truth is, you won't know until you're actually tested."

ONE STORY, YEARS OF RESCUES

Taylor also relays more optimistic news. Thanks to evolving signaling technologies, the reality of life raft survival has vastly improved. "Today, only a few hours at most are likely to separate disaster and your collection by the authorities."

But even short-term survival requires well-honed skills. Failure to successfully deploy and maintain a life raft following a shipwreck in cold waters, for instance, can lead to death by hypothermia long before even the speediest rescuers can find you-in fact, the Four Vital Actions, which maritime survival experts say increase one's chances of survival, were developed 25 years ago after just such an incident.

In the winter of 1975 the freighter Lovatt sank in frigid waters off the English Channel. The crew of about 15 managed to deploy a single life raft designed to carry 10. So a handful of crewmembers remained in the bitterly cold water, hanging on via lines. This was their first error. Life rafts can generally handle twice as many people as they're rated for. If the crew had packed themselves in like sardines, the raft would not have sunk, and lives might have been saved.

Their second error was failure to stream the sea anchor that comes as standard issue with all life rafts. As a result, the raft drifted miles from the scene of the shipwreck, making it harder to locate by rescuers.

Their third and ultimately final fatal mistake was failure to close the life raft's doors and canopy, which left the boarders vulnerable to bitterly cold winds and waves. "By the time rescuers found them," says Taylor, "they were stiff."

The Lovatt disaster has since resulted in compulsory education for commercial seamen, with the centerpiece of this being the Four Vital Actions:

  • CUT the raft's painter line and steer clear of the foundering vessel.
  • STREAM the sea anchor to prevent aimless drifting.
  • CLOSE the raft's doors and canopy to seal out inclement weather.
  • MAINTAIN the raft by bailing out water, inflating the floor, checking for leaks, and so on.

Only after you've attended to these should you move on to subsequent actions, such as operating location devices like EPIRB or SART, setting a lookout, and giving everyone a job to promote morale.

TRUE SURVIVOR

I stick a prescription anti-seasickness patch behind my ear and check the Weather Channel. Tropical Storm Isaac is moving north toward Bermuda, and another tropical depression is predicted to become a hurricane sometime later in the week. For the next 24 hours, however, the weather in coastal Miami looks fine but hot.

Five hours of uninterrupted motel room air conditioning later, I join Taylor and Harrison aboard the 54' motoryacht Ciao 2, which is skippered by their friend Craig Bell, a 29-year-old professional captain from South Africa. Joining us are photographer Rob Martin and IYTD Admissions Director Stacy Coakley.

We set anchor nearly out of sight of land. By sunset, spectacular cumulus formations glow in the distance like giant pink babies. Coakley and I grab opposite ends of the Switlik Inflatable Life Raft SOLAS MK-II valise and, on the count of three, toss it overboard. Unlike the raft we deployed in the pool last night, when I trigger the firing pin, it deploys in perfectly right-side-up position.

Coakley and I then help each other step down from Ciao 2 and into the raft. Climbing directly into the raft is best, Taylor says, because you stay dry. In cold water the benefits are obvious, but even in today's 85-degree bullion, staying dry eliminates the likelihood of painful sores-virtually inevitable when salt water, skin, and friction combine.

"Cut, stream, close, and maintain!" I yell once we're safely aboard the raft, which rocks gently every time either of us moves. Of course, I only pretend to cut the painter line, our umbilical cord to the mothership and the only thing keeping us from drifting. Next, I stream the nylon sea anchor by simply tossing it overboard where lackadaisical currents soon fill the bag. Together, Coakley and I close the canopy with zippers and Velcro. Inside the resulting steam bath, we begin to maintain, the first step of which is to open the emergency kit and sort through the flares, freshwater rations, radar reflectors, smoke signals, thermal protective aids, and numerous other items designed to increase our odds of being rescued. Eventually, we open the canopy to let in a slight breeze. As the sun sinks beneath the horizon, Coakley reboards Ciao 2, leaving me to my own devices. Although Bell has picked a spot where the raft is unlikely to encounter much boat traffic, there's always the possibility of my accidentally getting smashed as I sleep.

The raft's standard lights, powered by self-charging sea batteries, plus a couple of blinking strobes thrown in for good measure, add visibility. For the next hour, I read my novel by the light of a head lamp and glow stick, now and then glancing up at shooting stars in the heavens overhead. The combination of the waves' gentle rocking and the scopolamine leeching from its patch into my bloodstream induces an irresistible drowsiness. I nod off.

Around 3 a.m. I'm awakened by a violent flapping. The wind has picked up to 15 knots, and the raft now bobs like a waterbed in mid-orgy. Still mercifully free of any seasickness, I find the sensations rather enjoyable. I locate the loose flap of fabric, secure it, and restore relative silence to my domain. Ten minutes later, I'm asleep again.

The blast of an air horn at 7:20 a.m., accompanied by much hilarity aboard Ciao 2, brings me abruptly to consciousness. Bell jokes it could have been worse. The raft was so quiet in the middle of the night, he explains, that he worried I might have fallen out. So he gently reeled the Switlik in on its 50-yard tether and found me sleeping like a neonate. "I wanted to blow the horn at one in the morning," he says, "but the others talked me out of it."

Coakley joins me back on the raft as Bell accelerates Ciao 2 in tight circles around us. In no time, we're bouncing about on four-foot breakers. Fun at first, but even these relatively light seas begin taking a toll on my not-medicated-enough stomach. Ciao 2 finally slows to a stop after I threaten to shoot off a flare to solicit Coast Guard rescue.

To be sure, I've no doubt now that the well-crafted Switlik could handle infinitely worse conditions than these-and significantly increase the odds that even the bottom 10-percenters might survive till rescue. But unless a real catastrophe at sea strikes, count on me obeying life rafting's Golden Rule: Don't do it (unless you have absolutely no other choice).

THIS IS NO ALFRED HITCHCOCK MOVIE

Buying a life raft is like buying life insurance-you know you should, but it's hard to get enthusiastic about something you hope never to need. Compounding the ambivalence is the lack of any official regulations requiring life rafts on U.S. recreational craft. Now factor in expense-from $1,600 to over $5,000 for initial purchase, plus another $500 or so in annual maintenance-and it's easy to see why many boaters would just as soon ignore the subject altogether. But experts in maritime safety say this can be the biggest mistake you'll ever make. "Never, under any circumstances, go offshore without a life raft," says Mark Fry, president of International Yachtmaster Training and Deliveries in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. "If you get shipwrecked in the Gulf Stream, even if it's a mere five miles from shore, your next port of call could be the coast of Ireland." But how do you weigh the value of a life raft against the amount of money in your budget? Here are a few key factors to consider. ****

NUMBER ONBOARD. Life rafts allot four square feet per person and come in sizes that can accommodate anywhere from 4 to 50. When in doubt, go the next size up. If your boat can accommodate seven people, buy a life raft that will fit eight. ****

YOUR BOATING ARENA. The need for durability, redundancy of safety equipment, and the amount of packed fresh water and survival gear all escalate-as does expense-as the distance you travel offshore increases. Unless you consistently hug the shoreline, choose an offshore or ocean model life raft, which features two separate inflatable compartments plus an inflatable sole to provide cold-water insulation. "Even 80-degree water feels cold on your butt after a while," says Jerry Dzugan, director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association. ****

PACKAGING. Rafts that come in a valise must be stored in a dry, protected, but readily accessible spot. These are manually deployed-usually it takes at least two crewmembers to heave it overboard. Canister models, on the other hand, are permanently bolted in a spot clear of rigging. The latter should also have a hydrostatic release unit, which automatically releases the raft when the ship sinks below 15'. Because of such idiot-proofing, canisters are arguably safer but hard to justify on small vessels with tight deck space.

BALLAST SYSTEM. All life rafts have a passive system for trapping water underneath the raft, which helps keep it from flipping over in high seas. One such stabilizing device prevents capsizing even in hurricane-like winds. The Coast Guard, for its own personnel, uses life rafts featuring a design that traps a doughnut-shaped mass of water. Either of these two approaches are a safe bet. ****

APPROVAL BY SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea). This international maritime organization sets basic safety standards. It also standardizes the survival equipment that's packed along with the raft. Such packs include an array of basic items, from bailing buckets and fresh water to flares and radar reflectors, along with instructions on how to use all these devices. Important note: Taking a class in sea survival before you get in trouble is infinitely preferable to learning on the job. ****

NONESSENTIALS. Pack any personal items yourself. You should invest in as much safety technology as you can afford-EPIRB, SART beacon, handheld VHF, GPS, and so on. Also, buy a large, waterproof, floating ditch bag and use it to hold:

  • passports, wallets, ship logs, and important papers, all inside zippered bags.
  • extra drinking water-the 1 1/2 -liter-per-person SOLAS allotment doesn't last long.
  • a high-energy food source, such as Power Bars.
  • any personal prescription medication and eyeglasses, including sunglasses.
  • scopolamine patches, which work better than oral medications, especially when it becomes impossible to keep ingested items down.
  • a strobe light, air horn, and binoculars.
  • a mask and snorkel for underwater raft repair.
  • flashlights and extra batteries.
  • basic fishing kit with gardening gloves and pliers to dehook fish.
  • something to do while you await rescue.