YW's Fastnet rookie undertakes the RYA Sea Survival course and learns that getting in and out of a liferaft is not as easy as it seems, Jo Cackett reports

As part of the qualifying requirements for the Rolex Fastnet Race at least 50 per cent of the crew needs to have completed the RYA Sea Survival course. This weekend (7-8 May) it was team Puma’s turn.

One of the main lessons from tragedies such as the 1979 Fastnet was that leaving the yacht for a liferaft should be the final option. Nearly half of the fatalities were people who had left the boat for a liferaft, either from drowning, exposure, or both.

Doug from Stormforce Coaching met a group of us in the Sailing Logic offices for some serious lectures about safety. We looked at the various lifejackets and got to handle some dummy flares, which was a good way to get the feel of how they work without the risk of blowing a hole through the roof. Unfortunately, a planned exercise for letting off live flares in the marina carpark was cancelled due to former complaints.

Covering yacht abandonment procedures, we looked at the importance of EPIRB (Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacon) and SARTS (Search and Rescue Transponders), and what equipment to put in your grab bag. One handy piece of equipment was the TPA (Thermal Protective Aid), which I modelled in front of the class – a very becoming large orange foil-like suit that does seem to work as I was rapidly roasting inside.

Over to Hamble pool, we jumped into our oilskins ready for a session in the liferaft. After inflating the raft, we had to wait for the carbon-dioxide gases to hiss out of the release valves. Judging by the time we had to wait before we could board the raft, I think the yacht would’ve sunk beneath us! Once six of us were sitting inside the raft we all found it quite difficult to breathe because of lack of oxygen.

Getting our breath back, we went through the procedure of entering a liferaft. Sitting inside such an enclosed environment with five others is not an ideal situation to be in as it was hot and stifling but I figured unless we were stranded off the Bahamas it is less likely we would be in conditions similar to a heated stuffy swimming pool.

In the water, we went through various drills where we had to swim up the pool attached to each other. It was quite difficult manoeuvring our way around, and I’m sure would be even more difficult in big seas, waves and a current to deal with. Also, wearing a pair of foulies with only a swimsuit underneath was also difficult, so to imagine wearing layers of thermals would be three-times as hard. But as we learnt, contrary to the former perceptions of the Navy that you’ll be warmer in the water with your clothes off, the more layers the better.

Other difficult exercises were getting in and out of the liferaft from the water, which I thought would be easy until I did it myself! After a few more drills, we did a final scenario where I played an unconscious person who had to get dragged into the raft while a spray of cold water from the hose was constantly directed at my face.

Exhausted, our liferaft training ended and we went back to Southampton for a pub meal. For the last few hours we went through search and rescue and viewed a video that showed Olympic breaststroke gold medallist Duncan Goodhew being dunked in ten degrees of water, proving that he could only hold his breath for ten seconds. This is interesting for British sailors who spend most of their time sailing in water temperature averaging six to eight degrees in winter and 14 to 18 degrees in summer.

All in all I found it to be a great comprehensive course that I recommend for any sailor.

For details on the RYA Sea Survival course contact Doug at Stormforce Coaching 44 (0)7803 582286 or go to: http://www.stormforce.biz