Hurricane Survival – No Place for Absolutes

Mario Vittone
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October 29, 2012

By Mario Vittone

A former USCG rescue swimmer, Mario Vittone is a leading expert on immersion hypothermia, drowning, sea survival, and safety at sea.

As I write this, the Coast Guard is still searching for two sailors missing from the the tall ship Bounty; the ship itself lies on the bottom of the Atlantic; and speculations have begun about what exactly happened out there. (Hurricane Sandy didn’t exactly sneak up on anyone.)  If I’ve learned anything in my career, it’s that speculation rarely lines up with facts. Those of us back on the beach are always missing some critical piece of information and all we can really do of value is hope. Guessing about what was done or should have been done is useless – and sometimes even dangerous.

Hands down the worst advice I have ever heard spouted from otherwise smart people – and I’ve heard it twice in conversations about the Bounty – is this: “You never step off until you have to step up!”

  • It’s a wildly stupid speculation about how things might go during abandoning ship.
  • It is bad advice that takes nothing outside the hull into account.
  • I never sail with anyone who believes it.

No one takes the decision to abandon ship lightly, but I have seen it made too soon, and too late, both with tragic results. The sea isn’t a place for absolutes and a hurricane-tossed sea even less so.

You have to consider all the variables.

Losing power 10 miles from shore is not the same problem as losing it 180 miles from shore, with a line of storms approaching. You may be able to keep up with flooding in calm seas, but that doesn’t mean you will be able to with green water shipping over the bow.

Big weather creates problems not just for those on the water, but for those you might call on for rescue.  (Consider what the Coast Guard is flying in right now to find the lost crewmembers.)  The H-60 is an all-weather aircraft, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have limitations. Leaving when things are manageable for both you and the rescuers may be a better plan than waiting to see how it goes. The number of times I’ve heard “We’re going to wait until the morning,” as the last call a captain ever made would chill your soul.  That wait sometimes makes a rescue impossible.

With an out-of-control fire or progressive flooding, you are going to end up off the boat one way or the other, but that doesn’t mean those are the only times to leave the boat. Big wide hurricanes are unforgiving things, and no matter why you find yourself faced with one, consider everything when deciding how best to survive it.  When faced with approaching storms, I’ve seen sailors leave perfectly sound and watertight vessels and it was exactly the right thing to do.

The owner of Marine Flower II abandoned his perfectly good sailboat in November of 1994. It is exactly what he should have done. His boat wasn’t sinking, but after two days fighting seasickness and fatigue, his wife and daughter could only lay below with his infant son. In a matter of hours, he would have to single-hand his 64-foot ketch through a hurricane.  I don’t think he would have made it.  If he hadn’t called for rescue when he did, the search and rescue would have likely been just a search. Stepping down into the ocean was a very good idea. If you’re thinking you would have done differently, then you are exactly the kind of boater the Coast Guard often looks for, but never finds.

The water is cold out there and time is running out for the two left in the water from the Bounty – in survival suits I hope – and I know that rescue crews are doing all they can to find them while there is still light out there to look with. (on infra-red – an immersion suit is an invisibility suit)  For the rest of us safe at home, let’s keep the speculation to a minimum.  We’re almost never right about it anyway and sometimes, speculation is a very dangerous thing.

The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.

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