NO DRILL!: Safety at Sea is no Accident

By Mark Roye

 

Editor’s Note: This is one of the most powerful seamanship tales I have ever read, and I urge you all to read it through. It talks to having a high awareness of Safety Issues, and Preparing, and Practicing for emergencies, which in this case came. It is not often you get to learn about Abandon Ship and Life Raft practices from someone who has done it….TWICE!

Learn from the Best… Read On.

 

Part of what attracts many of us to cruising is that it is rather demanding. If we think that distant anchorages are often too crowded, imagine how it would be if getting there were easy! We bring to cruising skills that we have developed in a lifetime of professional work, hobbies, home repair projects, even our culinary adventures. But we are also compelled by our desire to sail to challenging destinations to advance our knowledge and master skills we know will be required, and which we know that we currently lack.

 

I was always enamored with boats, and wished nothing more than to spend a life following that love. But it was essential that the obsession finance itself. Not possessed of an innkeeper’s temperament, I knew that I was unsuited for charter work. Instead I turned to fisheries.

 

As the seasons passed, as my boats grew larger, so too did my skills. From self taught mechanical and engineering skills, to formal training in handling medical emergencies, helicopter evacuations, managing vessel stability, communications, fire fighting, retrieving crew overboard, survival suit and abandon ship procedures, my expertise grew with the training and miles beneath the keel. In addition, I became certified to train my crew and to hold monthly drills.

 

Some of this was driven by federal regulations, as well as by the instinct for self-preservation. The desire to succeed in my chosen profession played a good part as well. But most of all, experience simply left its mark. No career could possibly have prepared me better for cruising than the one I chose.

 

Twice I had to abandon ship to the life raft—in both cases in very cold water. I’d had to fight a fully involved fire a hundred miles offshore in the Bering Sea, quickly recover crew overboard in that same very cold water, retrieve an unconscious diver, resulting in CPR and air evacuation, handle flooding, and even made the helicopter trip once myself. I’ve had a number of friends undergo similar experiences. Some were injured, and some were lost.

 

All of those years of experience, through all sorts of conditions from the Gulf of Alaska to the Bering Sea, enabled Nancy and me to safely sail Tamara from the Arctic to the Antarctic and realize dreams we’d held for lifetimes. But those experiences also imbued me with yet another obsession—safety at sea.

 

I became convinced that training and drills are essential---essential even for those of us who have extensive experience, as there are always new techniques to master.

 

The first time I’d been forced to take to the life raft, I was alone aboard a small boat fishing salmon. I say “forced to take to the life raft”, as it had been drilled into us that one should never give up on the boat until it’s given up on you. Put another way, not to board the raft until you have to step up! The boat is always a better place than the raft, and only when she’s no longer by definition a boat---floating still qualifies—is it time to leave.

 

While the boat did a slow roll all the way over, I ran up the side like a Laser racer who’d been too hard on the mainsheet., but soon I was in the water, by myself, with the raft and survival suits still aboard.

 

Since the raft had no hydrostatic release, I had to swim in order to set it loose and pull the painter to inflate it. I was only in my thirties, very fit, and an excellent swimmer. But within minutes I was nearly incapacitated. I grabbed a survival suit as it floated by, crawled into the raft, and struggled to don the neoprene suit. The friction between the material of the suit and my wet clothing was so great that, in the effort to get the suit fully over my shoulders and zipped up, I pulled muscles in both of my shoulders.

 

The raft was appropriate for service in what was considered near shore waters. It had a full canopy, a single floor, virtually no water or rations, a few flares, and precious little else except the 121.5 MHz EPIRB that I had added. But I was aboard, and in my suit. Within a short time was able to kneel in the door and, by drawing one of the paddles directly toward me, slowly pull the raft closer to my ice chest, which was now drifting close by. In the ice chest was a six-pack of Canada Dry ginger ale, a one pound block of Tillamook sharp cheddar cheese, and a smoked turkey brest. I was elated, and felt like I could drift all the way to Japan if I had to.

 

It wasn’t long before the cold water sapped my elation. Even wearing the survival suit, the cold beneath the floor of the raft was numbing. My shivering brought me to the realization that I must keep my head. I opened the ice chest to get one of the cans of ginger ale, even though I wasn’t thirsty. I’d learned that even mild dehydration, particularly in time of stress, often leads to poor decision-making.

 

Taking the can from the ice chest gave me yet another idea---I could sit atop the red plastic box and get farther away from that cold water under the fabric of the raft. That yielded yet another possibility---it was easy to sit there, prop my elbow against my hip, and hold the EPIRB outside the raft to give its puny antenna a better chance before the battery failed.

 

After a night holding the EPIRB aloft, I was cold despite the suit and my seat. I now consider an inflatable double floor raft essential. Even tropical water is twenty or so degrees colder than your essential body temperature, and absolutely nothing is as effective at absorbing heat as water.

 

Finally the EPIRB attracted an airplane. As the plane drew near I let loose the last of my flares, and the pilot wagged his wings. An hour or so later a Coast Guard helicopter picked me up.

 

 

 

A few years went by, and by then I’d acquired a boat more than twice the size of the aluminum Bristol Bay salmon fishing boat that had dumped me into the drink. Along with my experience, additional training had made me even more safety conscious. Besides, now I had crewmembers for which I was responsible, and now our operations took us to far more dangerous waters, over a much longer season. Things were dangerous enough in mid-summer in sheltered waters, but now we worked offshore even in late winter.

 

Another thing had changed. The 1988 Federal Fishing Vessel Safety Act had mandated a very high standard for training and equipment. Lessons had been learned too often in the Bering Sea, and the industry, as well as the regulators, was taking note. Superb training programs were being founded, financed by the fleet itself, and materials were being developed regionally that eventually spread throughout the country. Our experiences became the model for training others.

 

Taking advantage of these offerings, I was quickly able to attain safety training certification equal to that of ships officers licensed for any ship in any ocean. Better yet, our training was not just for any ocean. We were trained specifically for the North Pacific and Bering Sea—50º and beyond.

 

Periodically I would take further training, or simply refresh what I’d done before. My crew participated as well, and back onboard we’d think through what our response would be in a given situation, then we’d walk through drills. In addition, at least once a month, we’d hold realistic drills, practice in the swimming pool, or even hold competitions with other boats.

 

  1. fleet itself became the most powerful motivator for safety, and only fools complained about the regulations. Still, despite every effort, each season brought about the death of some of our friends. We were engaged in an inherently dangerous activity. But each season fewer were lost, and the effort to make the occupation safer continued. It continues still, with more easily accessible training, new techniques and equipment.

 

 

 

Ten more years went by. By then my boat was bigger yet, the specially designed, 91-foot Quin Delta. Our area of operations now covered thousands of miles, and the “season” included parts of all seasons, winter as well as summer. I was on watch as we were in transit from Bristol Bay in the Bering Sea to Prince William Sound off the Gulf of Alaska. The locus of the important annual salmon season was changing as the return of different species got underway, and we were on a one-week, 1,400-mile passage, being re-located by the seafood company for which we provided tendering services.

 

Our job would be to receive product from a fleet of salmon seine boats in the 46- to 58-foot size range fishing in fairly remote locations, quickly refrigerate that product, and transport it to processing plants. In turn we would provide fuel, groceries, water and other services to the smaller boats. As part of this, we carried 600 gallons of gasoline for aircraft and skiff engines.

 

From the generator air vent in the bulkhead of the bow compartment, some 60 feet forward of my comfortable chair in the wheelhouse, I could see wisps of smoke trailing aft. Before I’d even crossed the deck to investigate, flames were issuing from the vent--we were ablaze, a hundred miles from shore, far from help, with 600 gallons of gasoline just outside the compartment containing the fire. I closed and dogged the aluminum watertight door, then triggered the fire suppressant system in the compartment. But the engine failed to shut down, drawing the suppressant right out of the compartment. I ran back to the wheelhouse, and sounded the general alarm.

 

Ordinary fire extinguishers would be no help. We’d need the fire hoses with a protective spray pattern to even get close enough to use them, but the generator compartment was fully engulfed. Not only could we not get to the panel to switch on line the aft generator, it would do no good in any case, as the wire insulation was by now burned off. That would mean a fault direct to ground. All of our powerful electric pumps were useless.

 

The crew mustered to their stations. As hundreds of gallons of hydraulic fluid and lubricating oil, epoxy paint and other fuels fed the blaze, we took stock. It’s wouldn’t be long before the gasoline tank, secured just inches from the bulkhead of the forward generator compartment, would take the emergency from serious to critical. I decided we had no choice but to launch and board the raft, with the intent of remaining tethered to the Quin Delta by the lengthy raft painter. With luck, the specially designed tank filled with gasoline would perform as its design intended, the fuel would not explode but burn off, and we could then re-board and fight the fire. But I was not about to trust in luck, not here, not with other lives my responsibility. It was time to abandon ship

 

One crewman began throwing buoys and other floating objects overboard in order to create a visible debris trail—what we trained as making us “Bigger, Brighter, Different” from the surrounding sea. Two others gathered the survival suits, handheld radios, and abandon ship bag. I had previously broadcast a May Day call on the HF-SSB radio when I first sounded the general alarm, but now the fourth crewman brought down the large Furuno Locata EPIRB from atop the wheelhouse. This powerful beacon broadcast on both 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz, and included a bright strobe. We were assured of good communications.

 

We all donned the survival suits in less time than our drills, and launched the state of the art life raft. I’d learned from my prior raft experience---this one was the absolute best on the market, had a double insulated floor, enormous ballast pockets, was equipped with extra provisions, flares, parachute rockets and smoke signals, and was by all accounts the best in both design and construction.

 

The crew was well trained and knew their stations in the abandon ship procedure. Our training and equipment was the best. But like the flip of any coin, most rafts have an even chance of inflating upside down. We lost the coin toss. We were pros, and we knew how to re-invert the raft. Trouble was, we had to actually do it, and do it now. We weren’t in the pool---this was no drill!

 

Righting the raft was not something I was willing to delegate. I clipped the suit’s built-in tether to the raft painter and entered the water the way we’d been taught, protecting my head with one bent arm, the other out-stretched. Swimming to the raft, I grabbed the righting straps, stood on the CO2 bottle, and heaved backward. Nothing happened!

 

The rest of the crew, still onboard, lent a hand. As a team they hauled the raft close aboard, leaned over the rail, grabbed hold and lifted. The raft flipped as intended, but, predictably, it landed right on top of me. In the survival suit I was very buoyant. Now pressed up tight to the bottom of the raft as it filled with water ballast, I had to get out fast or drown. With a desperate grasp on a ballast pocket I hauled myself clear, and climbed aboard. The bigger of my crew followed, and then together we grabbed hold of the next two in turn to yard them effortlessly aboard.

 

Best laid plans….. As the boat drifted, the raft, still tethered, drifted alongside. Right alongside the burning gasoline tank! We’d have to cut loose. There’s supposed to be a blunt tipped knife secured at the door of these rafts for just this sort of situation, but no knife could be found. Nor was there a knife in the equipment bag---a crewman was already inventorying its contents as he’d been trained.

 

I had a knife in the pocket of my jeans, but with the survival suit on it wasn’t an easy matter getting to it. I’d learned not to un-zip the suit, so I wriggled my arm free of the neoprene sleeve, got my hand down into my pocket, then worked it up to the face flap of the suit. From there I could open the knife with my teeth, restore my arm to the sleeve of the suit, grasp the knife in the clumsy mitten of the suit, and cut the painter. In the process, I once again pulled all the muscles in my shoulder, just as I had years before. It was another object lesson. Do not take for granted anything having to do with your equipment!

 

As we drifted along with the boat we gained enough distance for safety, but not so much that the dramatic smoke and shooting flames wouldn’t serve as a beacon to our location.

I’d gotten off a clear May Day, and within a few hours a USCG high endurance C-130 Hercules aircraft hailed us by VHF. We answered with one of our hand held radios, and offered an orange smoke signal to aid his approach. The pilot politely declined, “No thank you. We can see the smoke and flame just fine from here.” Feeling silly, I simply thanked him for his professionalism.

 

It wasn’t long before another boat arrived. As the gasoline burned off (the tank had performed precisely as intended) they assisted us in re-boarding. There was only one piece of equipment aboard with which we could fight the fire, but it was the perfect piece.

 

Our drills had brought home the understanding that there may be an emergency situation that might render our numerous, powerful electric pumps helpless. This could have included rapid flooding that submerged the electric motors on the pumps, fire or some other event that disabled the electrical system, as happened to us, or flooding or fire on another boat which might require our assistance.

 

My crew had suggested that we put a portable pump and the necessary accessories in a high dock box, and secure the box in a safe place on deck. A 3” NPT Honda powered pump, two-handled nozzle, rigid suction hose, plenty of pressure hose, and a spare can of fuel were kept in the deck box. This equipment was used at each monthly drill not only for training, but also to assure that it was in good working order. Besides, it was great fun. We were the only boat in the harbor that could shoot high pressure water all the way across the turning basin between our dock and the next, and our drills provided much amusement as my crew would try to soak their friends. We had turned training into fun. Eventually competitions broke out that included not only “Hoser” contests, but also survival suit races, team boarding of rafts and other relevant events.

 

Now the event was real. With our pump, and later a smaller one dropped by the C-130, we began pouring thousands of gallons of seawater on the outside of the compartment. Immediately the fire subsided by half as the cascade carried heat away. Then we worked the once watertight companionways (the aluminum doors had not only melted, but burned away) and vents. Switching the nozzle’s spray pattern, we closed off those openings with a curtain of water, starving the fire of air.

 

Eventually we could enter the compartment, and finish off the fire. It had taken us nearly three hours, but we’d done it. We’d gotten great help from the boat that helped us re-board and from the second pump provided by the Coast Guard, but we’d extinguished that blaze by ourselves, as a team.

 

It took us another several hours to pump off all of the water that we’d pumped on to fight the fire, then twelve more to make our way a hundred miles to the very remote salmon cannery at Port Moller. It was a trying run, exhausted as we were, without electrical power to cook a hot meal, or clean up with showers.

 

No power meant that we had to take turns at the wheel all night, as the autopilot had no power for its electronics. Many boats of this sort do not fit alternators to the main propulsion engines, as they are a source of electronic noise, and, as a generator is usually on-line for other purposes, a sophisticated smart charger is better suited to long term battery charging. We had only limited emergency battery power for one VHF radio, an HF-SSB radio and a GPS. We couldn’t even power running lights. But we felt like champions. We’d done what we’d been trained to do. No one had been hurt. We’d saved our boat, and were going home the same way we’d come.

 

When the USCG investigators concluded their two-day on site incident review while we re-worked electrical panels so we’d have power, and waited for new fire extinguishers and life raft, the lead officer shook our hands and told us that we’d done everything right. Astonished, I asked him what he meant. He replied that even in the Coast Guard they teach their personnel to get out of the way of a gasoline fire, then firefight when it can be done prudently. He added that we’d worked well as a team, even the aircraft crews could see that from the air, our equipment was good, we knew how to use it, and that we’d kept our heads. We were gratified. In our universe this was high praise.

 

It was a long trip the rest of the way back to Cordova, then all the way to Seattle to the shipyard. We had lots of time to reflect on what we’d learned by our experience.

 

I learned never to take anything for granted---even something so small as the knife that should have been in the raft. We learned that all of the drills, the discussion sessions, the walk-thru practices had not only taught us our tasks, but had made us an effective team and given us confidence. Even though two of the crew were in their first season aboard, college kids working for the summer, they performed exactly as we’d drilled. None was the least bit frightened, even when we could hear explosions inside the burning compartment, even though all were fully aware of the gasoline stored just outside.

 

Most of all, we learned that there is absolutely no substitute for hands on training; getting wet in the pool, swimming around in survival suits, hosing down our friends with the fire pump, because when we had to do it for real, in the most difficult of circumstances, in the most dangerous of locations, it went every bit as well as it had when we’d just been having fun.

 

CCA Contact Mark Roye