Post Egress – Tips and Things to Think About

Fred EshelmanIn the last issue of Small Craft Advisory, we discussed egress from a capsized boat. After reading that article I hope you started to think seriously about the possibility and ponder what if scenarios. I also hope you put plans in place to prepare for that possibility.

The Coast Guard’s motto is Semper Paratus (Latin: “Always Ready”), but are you Semper Paratus? Preparation is the key to not only getting out of a capsized boat but in knowing what to do once you are out. 

Here’s the scenario, as you were returning to base from your patrol, the weather was deteriorating with winds and seas picking up, and then it happened. A freak wave approached from astern and drove your bow into the next wave, forcing the boat to heel hard to starboard, and before you knew it, you were capsized. 

Let’s assume you have successfully escaped from the capsized boat. You pop to the surface and hear sound of the overturned hull being slapped by waves. The wind is driving the rain so hard it makes it difficult to see. The thunderous noise is disorienting, yet eerily quiet. The time for preparing for survival from a capsized vessel is not now – rather it was hours, days, weeks, arguably months ago. 

Here are some things to think about:

#1: Account for everyone who was aboard the boat.

If you were the only one aboard, there’s nobody else to be concerned about – just get yourself focused on your plan. Otherwise, you’ll need to account for the other crew/passengers.    

#2: STAY WITH THE BOAT!

Most Coast Guardsmen learned hard lessons from some of our fallen friends: Staying with the boat provides the best option for rescue. The reasons for this are numerous, but, for starters, it provides a bigger target. Search and rescue aviators say that looking for a person in the water is in essence looking for a basketball floating in the water. The overturned hull provides a much larger target for search crews.

If possible, climb onto the overturned hull. This accomplishes two things. Number one, it will help you stay warm. Water robs your body of heat many times faster than air. Hypothermia is a real threat to your survival in this situation, and staying in the water is the least preferred method to wait for rescue. Number two, it provides some stability in what has already proven to be an unstable situation.

If getting out of the water and onto the hull is not possible, you will start to get cold. Try to stay upwind and up current if there is gasoline present in the water. While afloat in the water, do not attempt to swim unless it is absolutely necessary to reach a fellow survivor or a floating object that can be grasped or climbed onto. Swimming can remove any warm water between your body and clothing or hasten water intrusion into anti-exposure coverall or dry suit. Also, unnecessary movements of arms and legs send warm blood from the inner core to the outer layer of the body, resulting in a rapid heat loss. Consider these proven techniques for conserving body heat.

If you are by yourself and wearing a life jacket, the Heat Escape Lessening Posture (HELP) is helpful. Since water is a good heat conductor, and a lot of the body‘s heat is lost through the head, placing the head in cold water rapidly reduces your body‘s core temperature. Other key heat loss areas are the sides of the chest, the neck, and the groin.

The HELP technique protects these high heat loss areas. To execute the HELP technique, if possible cross the legs at the ankles and draw the knees up to the chest, keeping the face forward and out of the water. Cross arms, keeping the upper arms tucked close to the sides of the body and the lower arms crossed over the chest as illustrated below.

HELP position

If there is more than one survivor, and everyone has a life jacket, the huddle position (shown below) is also helpful at conserving precious body heat. By huddling together as closely as possible, you can limit the amount of heat lost. This position also allows a rotation for resting if needed. 

Huddle position

#3: What are you wearing?

Were you wearing the proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)? Proper PPE is critical to your survival. There is a delicate balancing act between dressing for comfort underway and survival in the water should you end up there. Remember, the air temperature might be 70 degrees but the water temp can be 40 degrees. Agency policies need to address the realities of working on the water. Wearing the right gear for the operating environment is important, but have you ever been in the water in that gear? Says Rodger Norcross, program manager for NASBLA’s Officer Water Survival course, “Officers need to understand what they can or cannot do in the water in full uniform.” He also mentioned that attendance at the NASBLA course has helped agencies make changes to how their officers are outfitted.   

#4: Signaling devices – Know how to use them and when to use them.

In the Coast Guard, we are outfitted with a wide variety of signaling devices. From a hunting perspective, you might say we’re loaded for bear – from a basic mirror, whistle, strobe light, to two different kinds of flares, both handheld and aerial. We also carry Personal Locator Beacons (PLB). PLBs are handheld versions of the larger Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB). They operate on the same frequency and can get searchers to your area quickly. I sincerely hope that every officer is equipped with as much survival gear as we are, if not more, but understand that may not always be the case. Now, for my lesson here, be picky about when you use them. Not just because you want to make sure that there are boats, planes or people that can see your signal before you use it, but also because you don’t want to use a handheld flare in water that may now be filled with gasoline leaking from your tank. It might be a better option to activate your PLB and use a strobe light instead. Finally, make sure you are checking your equipment to make ensure it is in good working order. It’s better to discover a bad piece of equipment on land than when you are in the water. 

#5: Attitude is everything.

Keep a positive attitude about survival and rescue. The will to live makes a difference. When faced with an open water survival situation, remember that environmental obstacles are as much mental as physical. Being in good shape before helps prepare for the physical demands but being mentally prepared is important too. Stay calm, remain positive and don’t let fear take over. 

#6: Finally, did you have a float plan? Did you stick to it?

Filing a float plan about your planned patrol area may seem restrictive but we learned the hard way about how float plans and sticking to them is important. When communications are lost and a search is started, you want the searchers to know the general area you are patrolling.

So while post-egress from a capsizing is the time for action, the preparation for this event should have taken place long before you capsized. Your gear was checked and proper for the conditions. Your escape plan was rehearsed and your operating area was made known to others. Your physical and mental well-being is strong with a positive survivor’s attitude. 

Stay safe. And please take advantage of the latest tool to give you an edge on the water – the United States Coast Guard’s first boating safety mobile phone app is now available. Read about it at http://www.uscgnews.com/go/doc/4007/2511702/, and download the app at http://www.uscg.mil/mobile.

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