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Survival of the Fittest

Survival of the Fittest

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The well-structured, thought-provoking course had taught me new skills and increased my awareness of the many challenges of survival at sea …

The course had built my confidence and had developed me into someone more likely to survive such an event were it to happen for real.


Survival of the Fittest

Peter Talbot invests in some Sea Survival training and outlines what the Merchant Navy’s one-day Personal Survival Techniques (PST) course offers powerboat and RIB users.

I’m floating on my back in the training pool wearing a survival suit and life jacket. I’ve lifted my feet out of the water and positioned them high up the side of an inverted 16-person life raft. I’m holding the fixed rope that passes over the life raft’s hull.

‘Pull, pull, pull!’ shouts the instructor, who’s next to me in the water. Doing this lifts my body clear of the water. After a slight pause, more pulling on the rope and some pushing down with my feet, the far side of the life raft starts lifting up. As it heads upwards towards vertical, I’m returned to water level and start backing away, giving the life raft some space to land upright. I’ve just learnt how to right a capsized life raft.

Even though I’ve boated for over 30 years, and followed the Royal Yachting Association’s (RYA) Powerboat qualifications pathway from Level Two to Advanced, via the Intermediate and Safety Boat certificates, I’d never undertaken a specific ‘Sea Survival’ course. My marine survival knowledge was based on what’s covered on the RYA powerboat courses and what I’d picked up from friends and family over the years, and was supplemented by knowledge acquired from real-life accounts I’d seen covered in documentaries and read about, such as in Dougal Robertson’s book Survive the Savage Sea (his family’s tale of surviving 37 days at sea after their yacht sank in 60 seconds following an attack by killer whales).

Thinking some sea survival training would be a useful investment of my time and money, I searched online, discovering both the Personal Survival Techniques (PST) course, part of the Merchant Navy’s mandatory training, and the RYA’s Sea Survival course. The two courses have similar syllabuses, and are both aimed at building knowledge and developing skills to increase your chance of survival if you ever have to abandon a vessel at sea. Both courses, for example, focus on the use of life jackets, life rafts and other survival equipment. They both include pool sessions, enabling you to put the theory learnt into practice.

Due to the similarity of the two courses, I decided between them based on the proximity of training providers. South Shields Marine School was my closest, so I chose to do their PST course. The School had several upcoming course dates, so after double-checking it was open to members of the public like me, I signed up.

The day itself started with Ryan, our instructor, welcoming all 12 attendees, outlining the syllabus and putting the course in context by highlighting a few real-life examples of ships that had sunk. These demonstrated how quickly serious incidents can happen, sometimes leaving the crew with very little time to react, with some sadly involving fatalities.

The morning involved presentations covering theory with photos, diagrams and videos, coupled with some group work. Splitting into teams, we were tasked with examining examples of various survival ‘hardware’ (such as an inflated life raft, life jackets etc.), and were asked to identify desirable features to then share with the other teams. My team compared examples of survival suits, picking what we thought were the best attributes for our list (for example, effective insulation, built-in buoyancy and hood, integrated harness, whistle and Hi-Viz reflective strips). Ryan contributed to our discussion, highlighting additional features not immediately obvious, such as materials being resistant to sunlight degradation and fungal growth (to prolong their effective life while stored).

With the course having a particular focus on life rafts, we learnt about their contents (for example, they contain one and a half litres of drinking water per person, so enough for four days if none is taken in the first 24 hours, and then half a litre is used per person per day after that), how they’re launched (for example, by hand, davit or automatically by a hydrostatic release unit) and what to check before launching them.

We learnt the correct process for deploying a hand-launched life raft in a canister. First, the end of the painter is untied from its ‘weak link’ connection to the vessel. The end is then tied securely to a rigid part of the vessel and enough slack is pulled from the canister (and preferably put out of the way, over the vessel’s side) so the canister will definitely reach the water when thrown, as otherwise, if the painter goes taut while being launched, the excess still within the canister (painters are usually around 30m long) may snag inside, potentially leaving the canister suspended short of the water. The canister is then manually released from its mount (we were shown a pelican clip example), and after checking that the water below is clear, it’s thrown into the water (ideally a two-person job with some clear communication). With the canister floating, pulling further on the painter firstly releases any excess painter, and then initiates the inflation mechanism (please note: the life raft won’t auto-inflate on hitting the water). The importance of tying the painter securely to the vessel beforehand was stressed, as access to it allows you to inflate the life raft before leaving your vessel, and as it remains attached after inflation, it enables you to bring the life raft back alongside, hopefully allowing everyone a chance to board directly (avoiding a swim).

We learnt that hydrostatic release units (HRUs) are designed to release a canister life raft from its mounting when submerged past a depth of around 1.5m. HRUs need to be located carefully, as a breaking bow wave, for example, could have enough force to cause an accidental release. While the HRU will release the canister, the life raft’s painter will still be attached to the vessel via a ‘weak link’ (near to where the HRU is fixed to the vessel, but independent of it). The theory is that if a vessel sinks in a depth less than that of the painter (but more than 1.5m), an HRU-attached canister will be released to float to the surface (still tethered to the vessel by the painter), with a manual pull on the painter being required to activate inflation. If the vessel sinks in a depth of more than the length of the painter, the pull by the buoyant canister may either break the ‘weak link’ connecting the painter to the vessel (so the canister floats to the surface as above, but this time is untethered) or, if the ‘weak link’ doesn’t break at first, the pull could activate inflation, which then might break the ‘weak link’ (resulting in an untethered, inflated life raft appearing on the surface). Crew, therefore, may need to swim to a life raft to reach it, which will be challenging in complex weather conditions (especially if it’s untethered, so itself at the mercy of wind and waves too).

We learnt the actions to perform immediately after boarding the life raft: cut the painter (to detach it from the vessel), stream the sea anchor (to slow drift), close the doors (but keep a lookout), maintain the raft (bale out, check raft integrity etc.). Secondary actions include administering any necessary sickness pills (even if you’ve usually got a strong stomach), reading the on-board survival guide, taking stock and congregating survival craft. Other theory covered included the risks from cold-water shock, associated in particular with the first few minutes of being in cold water.

Finishing off the theoretical part of the course after lunch, we completed a multiple-choice question paper based on what we’d covered so far.

With everyone passing the assessment, we headed to the pool for the practical session. The purpose-built pool is an impressive facility, with lots to take in when you first enter. In addition to the walkway around the pool, an extra floor above, overlooking it on three sides, hosts various additional items of training equipment. These include a helicopter simulation capsule, an Avon Searider RIB and an aluminium workboat, plus the cranes necessary to deploy them into the pool below.

A wave machine can be used in combination with large electric ‘wind’ fans and ‘rain’ sprinkler nozzles to recreate the additional survival challenges posed by bad weather. Loudspeakers can play sirens and mock emergency announcements. The main lights can be turned off to simulate darkness, and flashing warning lights turned on. Everything has clearly been designed to integrate well and gives the training team access to a large range of resources and equipment to draw from and deliver a variety of safety courses.

Once dressed in survival suits and wearing inherently buoyant life jackets, two instructors demonstrated the best way to make the 2m jump into the water (i.e. arms across the chest to help keep the life jacket in position and nose pinched with the fingers of one hand, with the same palm held over your mouth and resting on your chin to keep water from your airway). Once in the water, they demonstrated the ‘HELP’ (Heat Escape Lessening Position – knees against your chest, hands under knees) position to combat cold-water shock for the first few minutes after entering the water, then the secondary position (lying back with legs crossed and hands on your chest, under your life jacket). They showed us the two-person huddle (keeping together to minimise heat loss), the one-person tow and the two-person swim. A winch was used to demonstrate a helicopter rescue with one sling (under your arms) or two slings (the second sling going under your knees) adjusted to fit. We learnt that if you are being winched alone, it’s important to give a clear thumbs-up signal when ready, and in all cases to keep your arms down during the lift, and to let the discharge cable earth first to avoid being shocked (a helicopter, we were told, can build up 85,000–95,000 volts of charge on a 20-minute flight to a casualty).

As a group, we followed the drill we’d learnt in the morning to launch a canister life raft, watching as it inflated (within 60 seconds) and vented off the excess gas. In the pool, we practised the positions we’d seen demonstrated – alone, in pairs and as a group. We practised forming a ‘blot’ of survivors (an inward-facing circle with arms linked and legs extended towards the centre), learning that as it grows, rather than opening up to let people in (and risk breaking the circle), additional people needed to ‘force’ their way into the circle (joining firmly to it, before it opens the minimum amount required). The ‘blot’ helps keep people together, making them easier to spot than if they were separated and dispersed. Forming an inner circle within the circle (legs now down) allows a denser mass to form. It’s possible for someone to be positioned at the very centre, where they’re raised at least partly out of the water, possibly keeping them warmer by half a degree, which could make a crucial difference in terms of their survival.

We practised moving from a ‘blot’ to swimming as a single-file ‘snake’, propelling ourselves backwards using our arms (with everyone holding onto the person in front with their legs). The ‘snake’ allows progress to be made towards a life raft or other vessel while keeping everyone together (so a ‘blot’ can be formed again if necessary). With the sprinklers now on to simulate heavy rain or spray, we covered our faces with our hands to reduce the chance of inhaling water.

Boarding the raft once we’d got to it was next, with everyone taking turns to use the grab handles to first get their knees onto the inflatable boarding step, and then clambering in. Once inside, we went over the primary and secondary actions we’d learnt in the morning. We also practised working as a team to ‘rescue’ our instructor from the other end of the pool using oars, and also throwing the drogue out ahead and pulling it back rapidly for propulsion. A rescue quoit was thrown once within reach. Moving around on the flexible floor wasn’t easy, and care was needed to avoid standing on and injuring anyone. We discussed the difficulties that we’d be presented if we ever had to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on such a flexible floor, with the instructor suggesting laying the casualty on the legs of others to increase the effectiveness of the CPR.

In case a life raft inflated in an upside-down orientation, or capsized after inflation, we learnt the correct ‘righting’ technique, with everyone having to do it themselves. While fairly strenuous, the instructor was on hand to offer advice, and everyone accomplished this.

With the syllabus covered, and everyone having passed the continual assessment in the pool, we were given the option of putting all our newly learnt skills together in a single ‘abandonment’ exercise. So, with the lights turned off, and with the wind generator, sirens, rain sprinkler, waves, and flashing lights all turned on, and ‘Abandon ship!’ being broadcast loudly from the tannoy, we entered the water, formed a ‘blot’ on the far side of the pool, ‘snake-swam’ together to a life raft at the far end of the pool, boarded it and propelled it back to pick up our instructor. This finished off perfectly what had been an excellent day of training. The well-structured, thought-provoking course had taught me new skills and increased my awareness of the many challenges of survival at sea, and also how to deal with them. The course had built my confidence and had developed me into someone more likely to survive such an event were it to happen for real.


Personal Survival Techniques: course information

The Certificate of Proficiency in Personal Survival Techniques (PST) meets the applicable requirements of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers. The course is mandatory for all Merchant Navy seafarers.

Where: There are 80+ Maritime and Coastguard Agency-approved providers of the PST course, running public courses (see Internet link).

Cost: The one-day course at South Shields Marine School costs £220. The half-day refresher course (required every 5 years) is priced at £110. Prices appear to vary between providers.

Prerequisites: None; however, you’ll need to be over 16 years of age and medically fit enough to complete the course. Being able to swim, or being a confident swimmer, is not a prerequisite.

Assessment:  Knowledge of the theory covered was assessed via a multiple-choice written test. Practical skills (for example, being able to board a life raft) were continually assessed during the pool session.

Certificate: I received my certificate at the end of the day. It’s valid for five years, after which a half-day refresher is required.

Who would benefit from doing the course?: While the PST course is designed to meet the learning needs of merchant seafarers, having done the course, I’d recommend it to anyone going to sea, no matter what size of vessel they’re on. For anyone wanting to go for a commercial endorsement of their RYA Powerboat certificates, a valid PST (or RYA Sea Survival course certificate) is a necessary requirement.

Even if your own vessel doesn’t carry a life raft (some RIBs do carry life rafts), knowing how to use one could still be beneficial, and there’s more than enough other content to justify attending the course (for example, techniques to combat cold-water shock, how to stay together in the water etc.). The opportunity to practise your new skills in the pool is an important element of the course, as you embed what you’ve learnt by ‘doing’. There were always two instructors in the pool with us, with additional staff on the pool side. Being a confident swimmer is not a requirement for the course. Our instructors asked whether there were any non-swimmers in the group, saying they’d get extra support.

I’d rate the course I attended as excellent. The experienced training staff, coupled with the superb facilities, allowed me to get a lot from the day.


Peter’s top tips for the course

  • Research courses/venues before booking and don’t be frightened to raise any questions you have.
  • Take a pen and paper and make your own notes, which will help you get the most from the day.
  • Ask questions. Your instructor will have valuable knowledge and experience (ours were happy to go over elements again if requested).
  • If you’ve never tried you own life jacket in water, the pool session is a great chance to do so; just check beforehand that it’s possible.
  • Read the questions in the multiple-choice paper carefully and double-check your answers before submitting them.
  • Read any joining instructions (for example, you’ll likely need to take along a form of identification to attend, and for the pool you’ll need your swimming gear and a towel).

And remember: enter fully into the course to get the most from it!


South Shields Marine School

Established in 1861, using a trust created by Dr Thomas Winterbottom, South Shields Marine School (now part of South Tyneside College) is the UK’s oldest maritime training centre. It is world-renowned for marine training and education, and one of the largest Merchant Navy training colleges in the UK. In addition to the main campus, the Marine School includes several different sites, such as the Marine Offshore Safety Training Centre (MOST), which includes a recently opened world-class fire training centre and a separate radar station. MOST has a purpose-built training pool in which a full range of adverse weather (e.g. wind, waves and rain) can be created. At the main campus, its Marine Simulation Centre contains examples of the world’s most advanced navigational bridge simulators, which are used for training and research purposes.


Useful websites

South Shields Marine School: http://www.stc.ac.uk/marine

Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) list of approved Personal Survival Techniques course providers:

https://www.gov.uk/guidance/mca-approved-training-providers-atp

Maritime and Coastguard Agency: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/maritime-and-coastguard-agency

Royal Yachting Association (RYA) Sea Survival course: http://www.rya.org.uk/courses-training/courses/specialist/Pages/sea-survival.aspx


About the author

PBR features contributor Peter Talbot has owned small Zodiac SIBs (soft inflatable boats) for over a decade. His travels aboard them have included several multi-day camping journeys with friends in the UK, Norway and Sweden. He has RYA qualifications up to Advanced Powerboat level, and has also helmed SIBs in Greenland. Away from boats, his other adventures have included ski touring in Svalbard and on the Greenland ice sheet, glacier surveying in Norway and undertaking scientific research on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica.


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