By CW4 Michael Carr – We huddled behind the ship’s superstructure, momentarily escaping wind, rain and snow flurries. Soon, though, we would need to leave this protection, and move to the ship’s windward side where we would start lowering and raising lifeboats. Water temperature was in the 40s F and the air was close to freezing.
“OK, today is the day, your final practical lifeboat exam. You must demonstrate to me that you can lead a group of sailors in the safe and proper lowering and raising of a lifeboat.” I was already shivering as I spoke these words. Cold from the wet steel decks was coming up through my insulated boots and wool socks. I gripped my coffee cup, taking gulps for both heat and caffeine.
“Listen, I know this lab is scheduled for 3 hours, but here is the deal, I am interested in your demonstrating the skill, not keeping you out here freezing for 3 hours. Let’s do the skills, demonstrate your ability, and when we are done, we are done.”
“Let’s do a review before we head over to the other side” I continued.
“Put the boat plug in first! If you don’t give a command to put in the boat plug you will fail!”
“Also, if you get out of the proper sequence then just stop. Take a deep breath, a gulp of coffee, and re-group. You won’t fail if you correct yourself and get back on track.”
“OK, one last question, does everyone have their gear?” I stressed during every class the need to carry certain items all the time: a watch, Gerber or Leatherman tool, flashlight, gloves, notepad with two pens (two is one and one is none), hat, eye protection, and a rag.
“When it’s your turn to be in charge stand in one place. Do not move around. Your job is to watch everyone and the lifeboat. Give commands, in a loud and commanding voice. When you stand in one place your crew can focus on your words, and not on confusing you with other voices. Stay put, focus and give commands.”
“Ok, let’s start at the top of the roster and work our way down, Paul you are first. Let’s go to the windward side, and Paul, when you are ready, let me know. Smooth and steady.”
There are a multitude of steps for lowering a lifeboat; involving gripes, frapping lines, tricing pendants, manropes, a sea painter, releasing gear, and a brake. Certain actions in lowering a lifeboat are fairly straightforward, such as screwing in the boat plug so the lifeboat won’t immediately fill with water. Other actions, such as manipulating the brake release lever, are a true art form.
“Close your eyes and feel the friction on the drum as you raise the lever,” I recommended. “Don’t raise the lever too fast, raise it slowly, but pause to give the drum time to start turning. You might not see immediate movement because it’s really cold today, and the grease is thick, its not going to move until the weight of the boat pulls on the grease.”
We want the lifeboat to be lowered smoothly, not jerking and not stopping and starting. A smooth, steady lowering. This requires the brake release lever to be raising with finesse. Keep some tension on the break, but enough freedom to allow the wire drum to turn and the lifeboat to descend steadily and expeditiously.
Once the boat is in the water, and its engine has been started the remaining two crew must climb down the 30 foot long suspended Jacobs ladder into the lifeboat.
“Hands are on the rope sides, and feet on the steps.”
“Go slow and steady, but keep moving, no stopping to look around. You don’t need to look down, the boat crew will grab you when you reach the boat, alternate hands, and feet.”
After several hours of lowering, raising the lifeboat, interspersed with reminders, “I might take a look at the lead on the sea painter, just a suggestion…” and a few warm-up breaks in the lee of the ship’s superstructure, everyone in the group had taken charge of lowering and raising the lifeboat. There had been a lot of feet stamping and observation that; “It’s fucking cold!” Yup. Welcome to Maine.
We had accomplished the Lifeboat exam. This accomplishment might seem small in some ways, but it is a major accomplishment for earning the right to be called a “Mariner.” Maybe it’s similar to the skill required by a pilot when they accomplish a takeoff and landing. These are skills, which require a grasp of both art and science.
We huddled out of the wind, rain, and snow for a quick debrief before I released these students from the lab. “Congratulations, you have all passed!” I exclaimed. “And no one fell in the water, very nice.”
“See you in class later today, and remember to ensure you have all your gear with you. You are dismissed!”