Ahhh … Sea School. What a great experience. It was five full days of classroom and hands-on training primarily on how to respond to emergencies on-board a vessel but also personal safety, emergency medical response and how best to prevent emergencies in the first place. Phillip and I went to the Sea School in Bayou la Batre, Alabama.
You actually stay there on the “campus” for the course, sleep in dorms (no co-ed … doh!) and eat three square meals cooked daily in the kitchen.
Total cafeteria style food, but it’s perfectly edible and fills you up. The whole set-up really starts to make you feel like you’re on a ship with fellow crew mates, sharing chores, clean-up, meals and plenty of sea stories during every break. Many sea school graduates have also left their mark or insignia on the block wall that leads to the classrooms.
Lookie there. Annie Girl! And a nanner!
And while I’ll admit, many of your days look like this. Eight hours of classroom lessons with a quiz at the end, and it seems hard sometimes to just stay awake … ZZZZZzzzz
Some days look like this! Yowza!
In all, it was a great balance of hands-on versus book learning lead by some great instructors. While Phillip and I learned a TON, I thought I would share here five of our favorite takeaways from STCW training at Sea School:
5. First Aid and CPR
I’ll be the first to admit, I had NO first aid training prior to this course. While I had a general idea of how to administer CPR, I learned in our first aid class that things have changed and the approved method is now different. Rather than 15 chest pumps followed by 2 breaths, they now recommend 30 pumps followed by 2 breaths. We also had a very knowledgeable and insightful instructor for this course, Vietnam veteran (26 years in the Navy) and career firefighter (24 years with the Mobile Fire Department) Karl Ladnier, who opened my eyes to the reality of the force needed to correctly administer CPR. He told us with the first few chest pumps you’re going to feel some “crackles.” He said this was the cartilage breaking up. That would be followed by more cracks which likely meant you were breaking the patient’s ribs, and you know what he said: “I’d thank anyone who broke a few of my ribs to save my life.”
Here is a photo of Karl during our firefighting training.
You cannot be timid, Karl said. CPR requires a lot of force or it will not be effective. We also learned what the true purpose of CRP is. While the hope is it will revive the patient to full thriving order (like it does often in the movies), the reality, as Karl explained it, is that that rarely happens. Only in a very small percentage of the cases does the administration of CPR itself bring a person back. Rather, the CPR is much like putting the patient on a “machine” where outside forces are physically pumping the body’s heart to move blood and blowing in air to maintain oxygen, simply to keep the body alive, but the minute you “pull the plug” or stop CPR, the body will go immediately back into cardiac arrest. Most times the CPR is only intended to prolong the period of time in which shock from a defibrillator machine might save the patient. And, this is only if the CPR is administered within the first few minutes after the cardiac arrest. You see? All good, true, eye-opening things to know about something I thought was quite simple and often saved lives.
A snapshot of Karl teaching us in class. (You weren’t really supposed to have your iPhone with you in school so I had to sneak it … Shhhh!)
Boy did Phillip and I learn a TON in this section of the course. I had no idea there were different types of fires (Class A, B, C or D) that each call for different types of extinguishers. I’ll admit, I thought the canister fire extinguishers we all have on our boats were designed to put out any fire. But, it turns out, the fuel source of the fire can have a great impact on what agents will actually extinguish it and what agents may only feed it further, spread it or cause you more danger in trying to put it out. For instance, if you were to use water or even a foam fire extinguisher on an electrical fire, you could inadvertently shock yourself because both water and foam conduct electricity. Also, using water on a flammable liquids fire can splash the burning liquid and spread the fire to areas that were not yet ignited. Who knew!
I can tell you this newbie firefighter didn’t.
After spending a day in class learning about the different types of fires and the different types of extinguishers that should be used to put them out, as well as how to administer them, it was time for a field day! Off to the fire hut we went to enter a burning room (a repurposed cargo container) in thick smoke and heat up to 800 degrees, with oxygen packs on to learn how to spray a stream of water to put out a fire.
That’s Phillip in his suit there. He actually had an issue with his oxygen hook-up and was without air for close to a minute. But the ever cool Marine in him didn’t panic and handled the situation perfectly.
And there he goes! Off to fight the fire.
Okay, it’s clear I was having a great time donning all that hefty gear. I mean, learning is allowed to be fun, right? I pick July for the FireGals calendar! Smokinnnn’
What we also learned during this exercise was how to properly walk up to and away from fires and effectively attack the fire to make sure we wouldn’t spreading the fire to more places or put ourselves in the center of a burning fire holding an empty extinguisher. It was surprising to see how short-lived these extinguishers were. Some only 17 seconds. That can be a long amount of time if you know how to effectively approach a fire, but a very short time if you don’t, then you find yourself in the heart of the fire with no more extinguishing agent to use. We also learned a very valuable lesson to never turn our back on a fire, because you never know what it might do. This was a hard one for many of us to remember. Here is a great video showing some of our exercises and what the instructors were teaching us:
And, I can report only one small, teensy burn from this training. (And I, of course, lucky Annie, was the only one to get burned, but I was honestly kind of proud of it. Look at that hideous thing! I hope it leaves a little scar. : )
3. Launching, Righting and Entering a Liferaft
Liferaft training was one of the primary reasons Phillip and I signed up for Sea School. To really get a feel for the liferaft. Phillip and I purchased a 75-pound 4-person liferaft in a soft pouch (not a valise or canister) which we keep in our port lazarette when we sail offshore and had read a lot about them in making that purchase (and great article from SAIL Magazine for you all here on how to choose the best liferaft). But, Phillip and I have never actually deployed our liferaft or practiced getting in, out, righting it, etc. So, the training at STCW was invaluable in this aspect. We learned in class how to launch the liferaft manually or using the hydrostatic release. How to cleat the painter line to secure the raft to the boat during deployment and also how to manually inflate the raft and enter the liferaft safely from the vessel. I also learned each life raft’s painter line is manufactured with what is called a “weak link” that is designed to break under a certain amount of pressure if the raft is still connected to a sinking vessel (so the raft won’t go down with the ship). Good to know.
In the pool, we practiced getting in and out of the liferaft, which can be a more physically straining than you realize, particularly considering you will likely already be pretty exhausted at that point, and how to right the liferaft by using the handles on the underside and standing on the side of the raft.
This is the 4-person raft we used during our pool training:
So liferaft learning. Check! I’m hoping if Phillip and I ever have to use ours, we’ll look this chipper and dry when we get in. What do you think the odds are? ; )
2. Using Your Pants as a Floatation Device
This was definitely my favorite take-away from STCW school, probably because I didn’t think it would actually work and I was shocked to find how well it did in fact work, and how easy it was to do. While you can do it with a long sleeve shirt, too, by holding the neckline tight around your face just under your nose, breathing in through your nose and out (into the shirt) through your mouth, the shirt method was more difficult and more tiring than the pants. The pants trick is a great resource for anyone who voyages often offshore and may someday find themselves treading water without a floatation device for God knows how long. So … the method:
I found a good post and video for you here demonstrating the technique.
While this guy uses the method Phillip said he learned in the Marines, that is flipping the pants over your head to scoop air in, the method we learned in STCW class seemed more efficient with less use of energy. (It can be a bit harder than you think to tread water and effectively flip wet pants over your head to capture air, particularly when you will probably be pretty exhausted by that point already.) Rather our instructor had us put the pants, deflated, around our neck, hold the waistline opening under the water with one hand and scoop air down into the water and into the waist opening with the other, while the pants are already in place around your neck. This proved to be a much easier, quicker method, particularly for the necessary periodic refills. I was really blown away by this trick. It can get very tiring treading water and this is a fantastic way to use something you probably already have on your body to give you much-needed rest at a time when you are probably tired, a bit panicked and in need of a moment to just float and assess your situation. One other tip we learned: shoes will really weigh you down if you’re treading water. They should be the first to go, BUT pull the laces out of them first as those may prove very useful for tying or fastening things later.
1. The SEA STORIES
As Karl, one of our favorite instructors put it: Stories start one of two ways, “Once upon a time,” or “This ain’t no shit.” Pardon my French but I think that accurately captures it. This one, Numero Uno on our list, was actually Phillip’s pick. One of his favorite takeaways from our week in Sea School were the Sea Stories. Most of Karl’s stories fell in the “no shit” category. It seemed for each teaching point in the book dealing with how to attack certain types of fires, how to check a hot door, how to approach an injured victim, on and on, Karl had a real-life personal firefighting story that would make you shake your head in disbelief but put some real life experience to the lesson to really make it stick. After twenty-four years serving as a firefighter, he had clearly racked up some stories. He told us about crazed people who had pulled a weapon on him, sad children who went back in to save their dogs and never made it back out, fellow firefighters who had made simple but grave mistakes, and of course some very funny stories as well. The best one involved a beautiful topless woman and a request that he help hold up her chest. I won’t repeat the details here, but trust me, it was rich!
Many of our fellow students also had some wildly bizarre stories to share as well. One was a long-time tug boat captain who had dealt personally many times with fires aboard the ship, a breach of the hull, fouled props, failed engines, you name it. It seemed everyone had so much to contribute in the way of real life experiences. (Thankfully we had a few too from our voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, that were fun to share.) One, however, that our personal safety and pool instructor, Larry, focused on in discussing the design elements and equipment in the liferaft was Adrift.
Have any of you read or heard about this book? Steve Callahan survived 72 days at sea in an inflatable liferaft and he shared his harrowing tale in this sobering book. It really is eye-opening. Larry, our instructor, also told us of another recently confirmed survival story about a guy who floated in a fishing boat from Mexico all the way to the South Pacific, spending 438 days and drifting over 7,000 miles at sea. It’s unreal. But it is also very real. What we learned primarily from this course is how to deal with emergencies, yes, but primarily how to prevent them at the outset, how to follow procedures and safety precautions designed to ensure you never have to deal with an emergency in the first place. But, if Phillip and I ever do find ourselves facing an emergency out there, I’ll at least know we have a good working foundation to initiate the best response in light of the situation. For anyone thinking about preparing for extensive offshore voyaging or, in particular, working in the maritime industry, this would be a great foundation for your training.
You’re looking at two fiery grads here. Five days at Sea School. Done.