Alaska is one of the most dangerous places in the world to have problems on the water (or land). Between cold water and even colder air, there is little room for error. And if you end up in the drink, the time you can survive is very much a function of the gear you carry, and the actions you take.
Up through 20 years ago the safety record of the commercial fishing fleet in this part of the world was not good. A combination of economic pressure, the concept that "it won’t happen to me", and the tough Alaskan environment, was deadly. Then a new organization, AMSEA (Alaska Marine Safety Education Association) was started ( www.amsea.org ). Their mission was to develop safety protocols and then get these implemented throughout the fleet.
To better get their message across, AMSEA developed curriculum to train instructors, who in turn would train the fishermen. Their focus has expanded to include all Alaskan boaters. This is a dedicated group, working long hours, and their mission has been successful. There has been a significant drop in accidents and deaths in the fishing fleet as well as the boating public at large. Since 1990, there has been a 74 percent decline in deaths of commercial fishermen in Alaska, and a 51 percent decline in the annual fatality rate amongst recreational boaters, according to the AMSEA spring 2007 Marine Safety Update newsletter.
As so often happens when you are cruising, we were chatting with a nearby fishing boat that had just been through AMSEA-sponsored fire training. This included a smoke generator, and a series of portable redlights which represented fires that had to be found.
Shortly after this discussion we met Jerry Dzugan, head honcho and instructor atAMSEA. Jerry indicated they had a safety and survival course starting the next day, and "Would we be interested in sitting in?".
We were planning on leaving, had a bunch of work to finish, but this sounded fascinating, so we changed plans. The next day and a half were the most interesting we’ve spent in a long time. Following this blog you will find five articles which barely scratch the surface of the information we picked up.
We want to emphasize that the AMSEA courses are going to be incredibly valuable to anyone who spends time afloat – not only in Alaskan waters, but in more temperate regions and the tropics. What we learned about fire fighting, using pyrotechnic signaling devices, immersion suits and life rafts, man overboard situations and hypothermia we’ve not seen anywhere else.
We are going to try to get Jerry and AMSEA connected with some of the folks we know in the marine community who might be in a position to help them multiply their efforts for cruisers, without detracting from their primary goal which is focused in Alaska. In the meantime, we highly recommend the course we took here in Sitka. It’s definitely worth a flight up.
Our course took place over a very intense day and a quarter. It was taught by Dug Jensen, who also teaches survival skills on land to the Coast Guard, various government and industry specialists, and even some of the military special forces. This course is designed to be taught over two days, but had been telescoped to fit the local fishermen’s busy summer schedule. Dug is an intense, hands-on guy, but also very entertaining. You won’t be bored in his classes.
The course is partially classroom work, partially field work, finishing up in Sitka Harbor on a boat. In the photo above Dug has us teamed up with four others, all commercial fishers reviewing "station bills" where each person on board is has an assigned job during person overboard, fire, flooding, and abandon ship situations (an idea we will adapt to our two-person crew).
We were shown a variety of tools and supplies for controlling flooding, and discussed different approaches to keep the boat afloat.
A great deal of effort goes into explaining the causes of hypothermia, how to avoid it, and what to do with a hypothermic victim. Linda is shown above in the correct position to minimize heat loss. Note that this is different than what is taught by the Red Cross.
The class is full of interesting information on gear. Above is a common, reusable heating system. There is a plastic container with a chemical and catalyst. You bend a piece of catalyst inside the package, which sets off a chain reaction, and the package gets hot – great for helping keep your body core warm (they are reused by boiling, which reconstitutes the material in the pouch ready for the next cycle).
We’ve known for years that cotton was not good material to be dressed in if you are wet. But Dug had a simple experiment, which you can conduct at home, to graphically illustrate the difference between cotton, wool, and polyester. Take a bowl of water and put a sock of each material into the water. Wait fifteen minutes, and then remove the socks and see how much water you can wring out. The cotton sock will be soaked. The wool will have half the water of the cotton. The polyester will have one sixth the water of the cotton. Now, imagine yourself fighting for survival while wet, perhaps in a life raft or maybe on the beach. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that polyester pile is the material to be wearing. Dug says survival specialists refer to cotton as "death cloth".
We were shown some fascinating videos about hypothermia. One of the things stressed was that if you have to get into the water, do so slowly, allowing your body to adjust. Your blood flow to the extremities will reduce, conserving heat for the chest and brain, and you won’t have that involuntary gasp that occurs if you jump in. By reducing movement in the water, heat is further conserved.
In an emergency, when you have to go swimming, because the boat is sinking under you and you don’t have an immersion suit on, this will reduce the risk of ingesting water with that first gasp.
If you start to exercise after beginning to suffer hypothermia, blood flow to the extremities will make them feel hot. This, combined with mental degradation from hypothermia, has caused some victims to remove their clothes because they felt so warm (which only brings on the end more quickly).
We learned that if your heart can stand the cold – blood becomes thicker as the core temperature drops and the heart has to pump harder – it is possible to survive between a half an hour and three hours in really cold water – don’t give up.
As part of the course there, you are given a series of books, pamphlets, and check lists covering a variety of areas. We’ll be adapting some of these lists to our style of cruising.
Here are some odds and ends we picked up:
- Make sure there are whistles on flotation devices and immersion suits. They can be heard a lot further away than the human voice.
- Have a mouth-to-mouth mask aboard for resuscitation, as the odds are a near-drowning victim is going to be throwing up his stomach contents.
- Hearing is the last of the senses to go when the body is fighting for survival. So, if you have recovered a victim, he or she may seem comatose, but there’s a good chance they are hearing what you are saying. Keep this in mind when communicating amongst the crew within earshot of the victim. Talk and think positively.
We discussed helicopter rescue. AMSEA has produced an excellent DVD on this subject (available on their website). Dug added a few comments, including the fact that the winch bay for hoisting and command pilot on Coast Guard choppers are on the starboard side, so be aware of this when trying to communicate with the helo crew.
We finished our course in Sitka Harbor, doing a variety of drills aboard Wind Horse. We’ll cover these in subsequent articles. Above are our classmates. Starting from the left and going clockwise; Bo Abbjorn (retired fisherman), Robert and Stacy Meacham (cruisers), Carter Hughes (F/V Radio – a 1920s era troller), Dug Jensen (our instructor) and then Carina and Ryan (twins from a local fishing family who come home from college during the summers to work).
Dug had several sayings that he repeated numerous times. In particular "When in doubt, chicken out." Translation – don’t make a bad situation worse by getting more people in trouble by taking action before thinking through consequences. If there is substantial doubt about the outcome, don’t do it.
We’ll close this section by saying we think this is the most valuable day-and-a-half of instruction we’ve ever had. It has changed the way we look at a variety of safety at sea subjects. We recommend the AMSEA courses and instructional materials highly to anyone who wants to be prepared.
Note: Five articles follow with photos and notes that we picked up in class. These are in no way intended to replace the course material. As detailed as the articles may appear, they only scratch the surface of what we experienced.
Also, we recommend Beating the Odds in Northern Waters, a comprehensive book on this subject available from AMSEA.org .