Visibility is blackout, even before the boat flips over. “Mayday! Mayday!” the radio crackles. Thirty-knot winds rake the water’s surface, whipping up spray in the churning froth of three-foot waves. Thunder booms. The sky opens up and hurricane rains explode like popcorn when they hit the sea. Ping! Ping! Ping! The aluminum hull rings urgently under the downpour of heavy raindrops – the boat is completely inverted now. The cold sea rushes in. In seconds, the whole cabin is under, filled ceiling-to-floor with water. Submerged in this water hangs the entire boat crew, buckled in their seats, upside down with one breath of air in their lungs.
In the world of a professional or recreational boater, all circumstances can change in an instant. Case in point: Whatever this boat’s passengers were engaged in a minute ago, they have a brand-new mission now – to get out of this capsized cabin alive. If you have never wondered how you would perform in this situation, the time to start thinking about it is now.
Many professional boat operators at the top of their trade have planned for almost every operational contingency, and yet have overlooked this most dire crisis: a capsized boat with crew and passengers trapped inside. If you are one who overlooked this, start preparing as soon as possible, but reassure yourself that you’re not the first boater who’s started behind the curve. In fact, the most professional collection of boat operators in the world, the United States Coast Guard, began training in egress procedures relatively recently.
You might be surprised to learn that in the early 2000s, training Coast Guard Boat Forces personnel to escape a capsized boat was not considered a pressing, or even useful, requirement. Surf boats could and occasionally did turn over, but all surf boats in the Coast Guard fleet were self-righting, so the training directed crewmembers to stay in place and wait for the boat to return to its natural hull-down position. Cutterboats had a higher risk of capsizing, but, because there was no closed cabin, neither was there an identified purpose for cutterboat crews to receive special exit schooling. But as an increasing majority of Boat Forces personnel began to crew closed-cabin boats, accelerated by the large number of 25’ RB-S’s put into use in the field, the Coast Guard began to study the practicality of capsized-boat egress training.
By the middle of the decade, the Coast Guard was spending research dollars in search of answers. In February and March of 2005, the Office of Boat Forces performed comprehensive testing of the 25’ RB-S at the Navy Survival Training Institute (NSTI) in Pensacola, Florida. Among the fruits of this testing was the conclusion that Boat Forces personnel had a need for capsized-vessel egress training. And the potential requirement extended beyond the boats that didn’t self-right.
A product study concluded that even some boats formerly considered self-righting had the potential to fill with water and not right if the doors or windows were open when the boats capsized. The same threat could exist if the windows broke in conjunction with the mishap. And, if a self-righting boat were to get caught on something – say, a sand bar – while inverted, the boat could stay upside down indefinitely.
That same year, while the Coast Guard was still analyzing its data, a real-world mishap turned the abstract concept of a closed-cabin boat’s capsizing into a reality. On the evening of September 19, 2005, a 25’ Response Boat – Small (RB-S) with its aft door open was on a security zone enforcement patrol in the Port of Valdez, Alaska. The coxswain executed a high-speed turn, which caused the RB-S to flip starboard and ultimately come to rest in an inverted position. All four crewmembers exited safely through the aft door and crawled onto the upturned hull.
Later, the unit’s Assistant Operations Officer was cited as having provided the boat crews extensive egress training, which had benefitted these crewmembers after their vessel capsized. On top of that, one of the crewmembers credited prior dunker training – received in conjunction with an aviation assignment – with having helped in the immediate aftermath of the mishap. The evidence was there: Even minimal prior exposure to egress training increased survivability in subsequent real-world situations.
This evidence was highlighted a year later, when another 25’ RB-S capsized off Eatons Neck, N.Y., while attempting to tow a vessel off the rocks. As with the Port of Valdez capsize, all the crewmembers in the Eatons Neck egressed successfully, but it is worth noting that even though it was the same model boat in each mishap, the two crews egressed in different ways. All the Eatons Neck crewmembers exited from the sliding side doors, considered the optimal point of egress. The Valdez crewmembers, however, all egressed through the aft door. One crewmember tried to egress through the aft window and got stuck before going for the aft door. Another tried the side door first, but because the boat was inverted, the unfamiliar orientation of the latch thwarted the crewmember’s attempts to open the door.
The Office of Boat Forces Rescue and Survivals System Manager of the era, CWO Tom Dardis, reflected the product study results and the MISHAP Final Decision Letter conclusions relating to the Port of Valdez mishap in the Issue Paper he wrote on “Establishment of Underwater Egress Training Requirement for Personnel Assigned Duties on Enclosed Cabin Boats.” In his Issue Paper, CWO Dardis did not mince words in his call for dunker training. Wrote Dardis: “Personnel operating from enclosed cabin boats should be exposed to in-rushing water, disorientation, darkness, associated confusion and the ability to egress in these conditions to further their confidence. Using devices such as the Modular Egress Training System (METS)…will greatly enhance the chances of surviving a capsizing.” CWO Dardis then worked to secure the Coast Guard funds to begin an ambitious dunker project.
That boat dunker is now a reality for the United States Coast Guard, and that capsized-boat scenario from this article’s opening actually takes place many times a day at the Rescue Swimmer Training Facility (RSTF) at Coast Guard Support Center Elizabeth City, N.C. As realistically pulse-pounding as the experience is, every condition of the emergency is manufactured. The winds are generated by large industrial fans. The rain showers out of overhead pipes in the fashion of a hotel fire sprinkler system. The mayday calls and realistic thunderclaps are electronic – two of numerous “environmental” features that accompany the dunker. The cabin inverts and submerges by way of a gantry system, under the control of cables manipulated from outside the platform. If an emergency arises, the gantry crane can lift the dunker cabin straight out of the water under electric power, or a backup compressed air system, with the press of one button. There are also trained divers with air tanks and scuba gear on hand to pull participants out of the cabin when needed. And the churning sea itself is a giant swimming pool. But no feature is more groundbreaking than the dunker shell.
Known as a Modular Egress Training Simulator (METS), the shell is a critical element of any dunker: The more authentic the METS, the more motivating and realistic the training. And the METS in Elizabeth City is an inside-and-out replication of the cabin boats operated by Coast Guard boat crews now. There have been dunkers for other conveyances, beginning with civilian oil-worker helicopter METS decades ago and evolving in the ensuing years through various military branches’ different platforms – helicopter to HMMWV – but this is the first boat dunker the world has ever seen. And it wasn’t even on the Coast Guard’s radar a decade ago.
The Coast Guard’s dunker training is only two years old, and already countless lessons have been taught. One of the earliest lessons was one of those that seems obvious only after you hear it: Personal flotation devices can increase the challenge of egressing a capsized boat. Whether your life jacket is inert foam or an auto-inflate model, that same buoyancy that keeps you afloat on the surface of the water can stick you to the ceiling (or the inverted floor) of a flooded boat cabin. This is not to say that wearing a life vest isn’t recommended – on the contrary, your life vest is still your ally in a sinking boat situation – but your extra buoyancy is something you need to plan for ahead of a potential capsize.
And while training offers many teaching points, so do actual mishaps. Contrasting the Valdez and Eatons Neck capsizes illustrates that there are multiple ways to egress a boat. While you should have a primary in mind, you should also be aware of the backup exits in case circumstances prevent you from escaping through your optimal exit. We’ve also learned that a capsized boat is not simply the same picture upside down. The Valdez crewmembers specifically cited waterborne gear, both personal and boat equipment, that hindered their efforts to move through the submerged cabin.
Also challenging that crew during the capsize: Visibility. Despite the fact that it was twilight on the surface, the crewmembers reported zero visibility in the inverted cabin. These are considerations you need to think about before you actually have to egress a closed cabin under the worst conditions. What is the best way out of the boat? It isn’t necessarily the way you came into the cabin, although it may be. And, if that route is blocked, what are the alternates? What personal gear might you need to drop in order to egress the cabin smoothly without getting hooked up or having your egress be slowed by nonessential personal equipment? And are you confident you can do all this by feel in a zero-visibility flooded cabin?
The best news is that, time and again, real events teach us that preparation works. In November of 2013, a Coast Guard Special Purpose Craft – Law Enforcement (SPC-LE) crewed by several graduates of the dunker training capsized in the surf off the coast of Puerto Rico. The crewmembers survived and, in a real-world validation of the dunker course, they attributed their successful egress to their training at Elizabeth City.
If you are a regular operator or passenger of a closed-cabin boat, it’s not too late to educate yourself on egress scenarios. Even boats that aren’t supposed to capsize can and do. Take the Coast Guard’s lessons as your own lessons. Whether it’s familiarizing yourself with the orientation of the door and handles in the event that the boat is inverted, feeling your way on the inside of your moored boat with your eyes closed to simulate no visibility, emphasizing egress strategy with your fellow passengers, ensuring that basic egress techniques are incorporated into crew briefs, or simply picturing egress scenarios in your head, preparation pays dividends. You may not have a boat dunker at your service, but you don’t need one to increase your odds. Remember, the boat dunker didn’t exist at the time of the Valdez mishap – where survivors credited mental preparation for saving their lives. If you haven’t run through egress scenarios, start now.
The urgent calls on the crackling radio. The winds. The waves. The thunderclaps and the hurricane rains. The cabin inverted, the water rushing in. That could be you. You – the operator or passenger –upside down with one breath of air in your lungs and a single purpose to find your exit and escape to the surface.
If you and the other people on your boat have thought this through, you will be ready.