“You’re not a survivor until you’re in the pub telling your story over a pint three days later,” says John, our Sea Survival Training instructor. “Until then, there’s still a chance you could die.”
“That has to be the quote of the day,” I think…until John says, “No one’s died in a Clipper Race YET. But it’s only a matter of time. I mean, statistically speaking.”
John is full of inspirational gems like this. He drives home the necessity of Sea Survival Training with terrifying stories of death and danger on the high seas, assuring us that this course will significantly decrease our chances of dying.
But all I can think about now is that one of us might very well die on this race. I mean, statistically speaking.
If you’ve ever met me, you know I have quite an extensive mental archive of disaster stories I’ve collected over the years as cautionary tales to taking on crazy adventures like, say, climbing Mt. Everest with Jon Krakauer (the Angela Lansbury of the mountaineering world – wherever he goes, someone dies) or, say, sailing across the Southern Ocean. Which no novice sailor in their right mind would do.
I often recount the tragedies I’ve cataloged in my head in great detail when I’m feeling nervous about the latest adventure on my horizon or when I’m anticipating ALL THE WAYS I could die. It’s a habit that causes my friends and family to seriously question my lifestyle choices and makes me wish I hadn’t read so many Jon Krakauer books.
But I can’t help but be attracted to disaster stories. I devour stories of freak avalanches in Outside Magazine and capsized ships in Sailing World. These stories resonate with me so acutely that, years later, I can remember the exact wording of the original article.
Travel writer Mike Sowden says, “Storytelling is SEO for human brains.” Which might explain why, when I meet women on boats who leave all the sailing to their husbands, my brain recalls the story of Luke Stimson, the British sailor who fell overboard when sailing from Japan to the UK. Luke’s pregnant, non-sailing wife stood on deck as her husband disappeared from view behind the vessel, frozen by incompetence, unable to stop or maneuver the boat. Luke was never seen again, which resulted in the manifestation of my #1 biggest sailing fear: Losing someone overboard.
And then there are the sailing-in-storms disaster stories that generate oodles of money in book deals and movie rights, like The Perfect Storm where the boat is destroyed and EVERYONE DIES. Scenes from movies like this come to mind any time I find myself caught out sailing in bad weather. It’s like the Google app in my brain automatically adds the word “tragedy” to any search for “sailing stories.” Because adventure + disaster = memorable.
Remember that great story about that happy, well-adjusted guy who sailed around the world, saw some beautiful places and never had a single thing go wrong? No? Oh, that’s right. BECAUSE THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN. And if it did, it would hardly be worth talking about.
I’m furiously taking notes during my Sea Survival Training Course, which Clipper has required us to take as part of our Level 2 Race Training. And my brain is working over-time as it archives story after story of things gone wrong during rescue missions, mistakes made by crew when deploying life rafts and, really, any tale that ends in death or injury.
I justify my obsessive note-taking, telling myself it will help me remember how to survive in an emergency if I ever need to abandon ship. But the truth is my brain just switches to auto-archive mode any time the subject of “death” or “dismemberment” comes up.
As a result, following my Sea Survival Training, the “newly archived” section of my brain now reads like this:
- 1979 Fastnet Race: 303 yachts started the race; 86 yachts finished. Force 11 storm. 24 yachts abandoned. 5 ships sank. 18 died (15 yachtsmen, 3 rescuers).
- Maurice and Maralyn Bailey: Survived for 117 days on a rubber raft before being rescued in the Pacific Ocean. Maurice wrote about the experience in his book 117 Days Adrift. Note to self: Don’t read this while at sea.
- 1998 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race: 115 yachts started the race; 44 yachts finished. 55 sailors had to be air-lifted from their yachts by helicopter. 6 sailors died. Because of this disaster, all offshore race crew are now required to have Sea Survival Training.
When John, our Sea Survival instructor, explains there is still a chance you could die from something called “secondary drowning,” even after you have been rescued and are firmly planted on dry land, I open a new mental file containing stories illustrating all the indirect ways I could die at sea.
And here are some of the things I learned in Sea Survival Training that are now permanently burned into my brain, for better or for worse:
- Secondary Drowning: For three days after any ocean rescue, you are still at risk of dying because of the trauma your body has endured. It’s crucial to remain mentally aware of your fragile state and fight any urge to relax. The difference between survival and death after rescue comes down to mental tenacity.
- Stay with your boat as long as possible: I’ve heard the saying, “always step up into the life raft,” (because if the boat hasn’t sunk, you’re safer on board) but it was the stories and statistics told during training that really drove home this concept. The fact that so many abandoned ships are found intact, floating into ports weeks and months later shows that boats really are stronger than the people who sail them.
- Don’t eat or drink for the first 24 hours: Apparently you can kick your body into survival mode and help it conserve energy by refraining from eating or drinking for the first 24 hours of being in a life raft. This helps you save your rations AND lets your body know this shit’s for real.
- Your life raft pump can be turned into an enema: I know, right?! So, drinking sea water will kill you. But apparently you can absorb salt water by enema if you’ve run out of fresh drinking water. Who knew? Sure, you may never be able to look your crew in the eye again, but hey, at least you’ll live to keep that secret FOREVER.
- Conserving energy and body heat in the water is a team effort: We learned how to form human “lily pads” and “chains” in the water to increase our collective chances of survival. By pulling your knees up to your chest, and staying with your crew, you will keep your core warm in the water for longer until you can get to your life raft.
- Don’t get into the life raft when it is upside down: You need to be in the water to turn the life raft right side up. You can’t flip the raft over once you’re inside it. This is important to know because our instructor told a story about a yacht crew who got into their raft when it was upside down and decided to cut a hole in the top of the raft (which was really the bottom) rather than get back in the water to right it. The raft sank and they all died. The end.
So, what did I take away from all this talk of dying at sea while floating around in a life raft in a heated swimming pool?
Well, for one, I actually know what a life raft looks like now and what it does. I’m guessing many of the cruisers who have life rafts strapped to their foredecks have never actually seen a raft in action and therefore may not know what to do with it in an emergency.
So, was this a useful class to take, even if I wasn’t planning to go ocean racing? Absolutely. I’ve learned the right and wrong way to deploy a life raft and I learned how to save someone’s life with an enema (which is hands-down my favorite “life hack” of the year).
Will I actually remember anything I learned if I find myself in need of being rescued on the ocean? Most likely.
Why? Because of the crazy disaster stories. SEO FOR HUMAN BRAINS, PEOPLE. I’m telling you, it works. That’s why the world loves a good disaster story. Because tragedies are memorable. And, if we’re lucky, we can learn from them.
Tasha and Ryan are competing in Legs 1 and 3 of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race starting September 1st, 2013 from St. Katharine’s Docks in London, UK. Tasha is competing on CV21 with Skipper Eric Holden and Ryan is competing on CV28 with Skipper Chris Hollis. You can read more about the crew and the boats here at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/crew