BANG! My PFD exploded into action and wrapped itself around my neck and supported my head within seconds of getting wet. My husband, David, had already deployed the four-man life raft and I was swimming for it. Somehow, I thought my boots and foul-weather gear would make it impossible for me to swim, but it barely hindered me at all.
I reached the life raft and now I had to get into the thing. It kind of looked like a big, covered kiddie pool. It’s round, so I had to spin it and swim around to find the opening, which was about two feet above the water. I’d have to somehow get up and over the pontoons and into the opening. A rope ladder hung beneath the water in front of the door. I put both feet on it and reached over the pontoons and grabbed a white line attached to the inside. The plan was to hold onto that line and sink as deep as the PFD would allow, then let the buoyancy and upward momentum lift me up high enough to get my waist over the pontoons so I could galumph, seal-like, into the dark space within. I dropped down into the water, but that PFD was doing its job like a BOSS and I couldn’t sink much. I gave it my best ONE—TWO—THREE! and pushed up with my legs, pulled as hard as I could with my arms and … could not get into that raft to save my life. Literally.
After several attempts at this, I gave up. I really needed to rest my burning arms. I just didn’t have the upper body strength to pull myself up and over that two-foot height. I let go of the life raft and laid back, panting to catch my breath. I stared up at the domed glass roof of the Crystal Pool and wondered how I’d ever do this for real, in the middle of a dark and stormy night.
“Ken! You get in and then pull Joan and Trina in!” called Jim from the side of the pool. I watched as Ken got a foot on the rope ladder and reached in to grab the white rope. He too struggled at first to get over that two-foot hurdle, but with his greater height, he was able to reach into the raft far enough to get a hold of the yellow lines. From there, his upper body strength enabled him to overcome the pontoons and pull his torso aboard. Then he did the seal-wiggle galumphing thing and the life raft gobbled him up like it was sucking in a string of spaghetti.
Next it was Joan’s turn. She got her foot onto the rope ladder and struggled and struggled to get into that thing. I helpfully tried to push her up by the rump, but it was Ken who was the most helpful, pulling her up by the armpits. There was no grace here. No dignity.
My turn. I repeated the steps from my first attempt and certainly would have failed again had it not been for my two new “besties” dragging my sorry, soggy, self up and over the hurdle and into the dark, wet cavern. Next came a large man, Peter, and once he joined us, we were four sardines packed in water. I could not imagine spending ten whole minutes inside that suffocating, claustrophobic place while floating in the calm pool under bright lights, much less doing it in storm conditions at night, in the cold, in the middle of the ocean, for days. However, that is exactly what this little vessel is meant for. I guess it’s better than the alternative.
Our pool-time adventure came on the heels of a two-hour classroom session with the formidable Jim Steele. Jim has forgotten more about safe seamanship than I’ll probably ever know. He’s a very funny man, with a knack for talking about worst-case scenarios in a way that makes them seem manageable. None of it felt overwhelming to me. I could have happily sat another hour or two listening to him tell me what I need in a ditch bag, what should go into a safety plan, how to care for an immersion suit, how to deploy the life raft—possibly more importantly, WHEN to deploy the life raft. He covered things that I might have figured out in the heat of the moment as well as things I wouldn’t have thought about at all. We got a copy of his PowerPoint and I made notes. I guarantee that David and I will be putting together a safety and abandon-ship plan before our next big sailing trip!
Ken, Joan, Peter, and I slipped out of the raft to make way for the next four people to board. Sometime later, not satisfied with my inability to get into that raft under my own muscle, I tried it again. This time, I let out about half of the air in my PFD before the attempt. This enabled me to sink a little deeper into the water and thus get a bit more upward momentum. It also allowed me to get my chest closer to the pontoons, so I didn’t have to overcome as much horizontal resistance. If I had my druthers, I’d have shortened the rope ladder about four inches (or grow my legs longer). ONE—TWO—THREE! With Herculean effort, I pushed up, pulled in, was able to grab the yellow lines and get my torso over the pontoons! The crowd went wild! But then… I was stuck. With my butt sticking out there, large and proud for all to see, I still couldn’t get myself into the raft. Then I got the giggles. Snickering to myself and tugging on the lines, I felt ridiculous. Finally, out of sheer desperation I started kicking and flailing like an attention-starved two-year-old and finally, finally managed to pull/splash my way aboard. Everyone gave a huge WHOOP and it was to a round of applause that I stuck my face out the entry, grinning ear-to-ear and flashing everyone the victory sign! Ya Baby! I’m a ROCK star! NO WAIT… I’m a survivor.
Abandon Ship! Stay Alive in Your Life Raft was offered in Victoria, February 2019, and it was such a tremendous success that BCA will undoubtedly run it again in 2020. Great info, great time. Don’t miss it!