Emergencies at Sea – Practicing What Can’t be Practiced
Standing on the bridge wing of a container ship years ago, a captain was telling me all about the Williamson Turn and how effective it was at putting his massive ship on a line straight back from whence it came. He practices them at every man overboard (MOB) drill on his vessel (and logs the training, thank you) and seemed very pleased with himself and his crew’s ability to find find me should I fall overboard. Laying out the details of his MOB procedures, he got to the part where a mate would release the smoke float and life ring from the bridge wing.
“Let try it,” I said. Grabbing the ring to prevent it from falling , “Pull the pin.” I’d been looking at the release mechanism – a simple pin through the bulwark at the end of the bridge wing – and wondered how easily the ring would fall. With a confidence in his stride, the third mate walked past his skipper and grabbed hold of the red handle. “I’ve got the ring, don’t worry,” – then he gave it a twist and pull.
Nothing – nothing happened. The pin was stuck, enlarged by too many coats of paint and expanding corrosion. A full minute and thirty-eight seconds later, after desperate grunting and twisting, he got the pin out. The captain just looked at me and said, “You’re kidding me.” (though he used a different word than kidding – I was feeling his pain.)
“Now do we start that turn,” I asked? Oddly, I was the only one smiling.
Right now, many of you are thinking “lack of maintenance,” but that wasn’t the problem. I believe it was cause by a lack of practice. Until I said “Let’s try it.” the idea of pulling that pin during every MOB had never occurred to them. It was always done as a simulation. The idea of the gravity-dropped life ring deployed by a simple pin pull is so simple, that nobody thinks to practice it. They hadn’t violated any rules or established maintenance practices. The ring was just replaced a few months prior. But how often do you pull that pin? Why would you?
Of all the tools that mariners use at sea, the things they may need the most are used the least. Survival gear and rescue equipment – basically everything in the LSA Code – is stuff you really need when you need it, but rarely get the chance to use. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Lowering and running of the lifeboats happens enough I suppose, sure; but when was the last time all hands fired off a flare, lit off the EPIRB, or….deployed the smoke float and life ring from the bridge wing? They aren’t always things you can do all the way, but those first steps can usually be practiced at any time – scheduled or not – making everyone a little safer and more informed about their use.
How is the spring behind your EPIRB cradle? You can remove that thing and re-cradle it anytime you want. Why would you? So you can be really good at removing it for one, and also because you get to know how the spring behind the cradle looks. Don’t just walk by the pyro locker on the way back to the bridge: open it up. pull out a parachute flare – check out it’s condition – and read the instructions. Why? Well besides the obvious, you get to see that the instruction label is still even there and legible; an important feature of the device if you ask me. And don’t even pretend that all hands can use that line throwing device.
I believe two things about handling survival equipment during an emergency –
1. It is always tougher than it may seem; and
2. It is not something you want to do for the first time (or second or third) during an actual emergency.
You don’t always have to go all the way to full use of the gear to make things better. But why not do what you can when you can? The entire crew is wearing a Type I PFD during a drill, yes? Do they turn on the light? Will all the lights work?
There is only one way to find out, and it’s free. Lots of stuff on your boat is like that. So consider doing more than just walking by the emergency stuff. Do more than simulate when you can. Open the fire extinguisher box to see how easily or not it opens. Removed the cap on the tube containing the fire plan – that is the only way to make sure it’s in there. And, for the sake of anyone who might fall overboard, hold onto the ring and pull that pin.
What other things can be done without being completely done aboard your vessel? Because, going through some of the motions is better than going through none of them at all.
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