For all you sea fearers out there, you’ll (hopefully) know the drill for surviving at sea. For myself, the closest I’ve ever really thought about it was whilst on a Fast Cat travelling from Portsmouth to Cherbourg with mints being distributed afterwards due to the conditions; luckily I didn’t need one but couldn’t resist a freebie. My initial perception towards the compulsory Personal Survival Techniques course was that of apprehension – a day filled with battling waves, jumping off high ledges and the excessive consumption of chlorinated pool water (never a good experience).
The day started early on a crisp Thursday morning (early by student standards anyway). A crew a four newly appointed PhD students headed into the sunrise in the east with the destination set for the coastal town of Lowerstoft. Sparks were flying as each took their turn to think aloud; a meteorologist destined for Antarctica, a second meteorologist heading to the centre of the Indian Ocean and a Marine Biologist within the Shelf Sea Biogeochemistry programme, just like myself.
Arriving with minutes to spare, we dashed into the classroom where the ball got rolling. A theoretically based presentation; drawn from personal experiences and knowledge laid the foundations of the type of procedures to follow during events at sea. The chain of command clearly highlighted with your individual role pressed forwards into the quest for survival. The best part of the morning consisted off listening, thinking and absorbing the wealth of information that was given. The mood was drawn to excitement by Malcolm, the presenter, who trusted in us to handle live pyrotechnics along with previously expired equipment. Thus the practical session had begun.
Lunch commenced with the purchase of a Sunday chicken roast (yes, on a Thursday) and a warm slice of sticky toffee pudding drizzled with cream. I contemplated a slice of pizza on top of this, but vetoed my initial decision knowing that I’d soon be jumping and swimming around – and good job too! Once our dinner had settled, we entered the pool and we were instructed to jump off a 3m high platform with a life jacket on, a task that all but one of our 16 person group completed (my suspicion was the excessive lunch, but who knows!). After everyone was paddling about in the pool, we formed a cohesive, almost indestructible ring to insulate the inner members of the group and fight off the encroaching waves. At this point the water came alive and the ‘rain’ soared down. Waves gained in amplitude reaching a swell of 1.5m; far above the water level in which my head was sitting just above. And there we remained as one single unit. A good achievement even under controlled conditions. Then we were taught to right a capsized life raft; a simple but cleverly engineered task using one’s own body weight and position (and the only time that water was able to breach my defences and leave me with an after taste of chlorinated bubblegum sweets; I shall remember to breath out, not in next time!).
Our next challenge was to embark the free-floating life raft in the middle of the pool. I was first to pull myself into the inflated ‘tent’ before taking the initiative to aid others. One after another, I was pulling people up and out of the water into the raft; legs were flying left, right and centre which added to the amusement. Once we had our fun floating around for a bit, we were told to abandon ship and head back up to the raised platform where our final test awaited.
And then it happened. Total darkness curbed all visual sensations. Splash. One after another we jumped off the platform into the sea of darkness (with time to swim away from the landing zone before the next jump of course). Overall I would say it was a great experience being able to practice fundamental survival techniques whilst enjoying it and having fun. My only criticism would be that it ended too early!
And so after a long day, the four of us headed West, driving into the golden, settling sun.