‘We had no real plan for how to get back onto our boat’ – lessons from a man overboard

After an unscheduled night swim, Phil Sampson goes back to school with an RYA Sea Survival Course

With ten years of boating and a Day Skipper qualification under my belt (not to mention being an avid viewer of Saving Lives At Sea and the equally gripping Deadliest Catch), I thought I was fairly well aware of the potential hazards of putting to sea.

But of course accidents pay scant regard to all that, and the night my wife and I found ourselves bobbing around in the pitch black after a poorly executed transition from a tender to our boat was something of an epiphany for us.

It wasn’t so much that we had lost our footing and gone in. We know that’s always a possibility, so we were both wearing lifejackets. It was two other factors that really took us by surprise.

After an unnerving incident on his boat, Phil enlisted the help of Steve Nottingham

Firstly, we had never experienced our auto-inflating lifejackets in operation; and secondly, we had no real plan for how to get out of the sea and back onto our boat.

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In the event, our lifejackets certainly did their job. The buoyancy they provide is more than adequate but that only served to highlight the fact that our crotch straps were far too loose.

As a result, our jackets rose up above our ears, which is by no means that useful in an emergency. After tightening our cords (which is simply a matter of tugging the forward strap downwards) we realised the only way to board the boat was to deploy the bathing platform ladder. And it was at that point, as I was fumbling in the darkness, that I vowed to sign up for the RYA Sea Survival course.

Taking the plunge is a key part of the course

Lessons learned

The course I opted for was delivered by the Hamble School of Yachting (HSY). This was partly because the timing suited me and partly because they are based in Mercury Marina, just down the road from our Hamble base. Despite its name, HSY also caters for motor boaters.

That said, of the 15 delegates on my course, every one of them except me was a yachtie. Some were on a 17-week Yachtmaster course, some were in training for the annual trans-Atlantic ARC event and some were simply attending in a bid to refresh their sea survival skills.

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In addition to examples of best practice and lashings of common sense, the course syllabus draws heavily on the lessons learnt from past maritime disasters, most notably the 1979 Fastnet race. That year, 15 yachtsmen lost their lives, seven of them after taking to their liferafts.

Subsequently, it was discovered that all seven came from yachts which were still afloat, leading to one of the course’s key takeaways – your boat is your best liferaft. Do not abandon ship unless it’s sinking or is uncontrollably on fire.

Righting and climbing on board is a major mission

Liferaft etiquette

In spite of the advice above, liferafts do still form an integral part of the RYA Sea Survival course and after a couple of hours in the classroom, instructor Steve Nottingham led us to the local swimming pool for a two-hour encounter with an eight-man raft.

Togged up in wet weather gear, we undertook exercises on how to work as a group to deploy, right and board our floating refuge and how to rescue an unresponsive casualty.

Conditions on a raft are far less pleasant than the smiles suggest

It proved to be an obstinate brute (the liferaft that is, not the casualty) which appeared to do everything within its power to repel invaders. Nonetheless, we all eventually managed to scramble aboard into a decidedly unwelcoming environment.

It is said that there is no etiquette on a liferaft and after a few minutes on board, you can see why. Lord alone knows how Dougal and Lynn Robertson, plus their three children and Robin Williams, coped when they spent 38 days in a dinghy and a liferaft back in 1972.

Back to the classroom

After lunch, it was back to the classroom for another intensive session. Such was the level of engagement, with numerous questions and discussions, that we overran by an hour and a half.

Testing the raft in non-emergency conditions is a valuable exercise

To his great credit, our instructor didn’t rush as the clock ticked away, and at the end of the day, receiving our RYA course certificates felt like a genuinely worthwhile achievement. It would have been nice to have had a few more motor boaters around to share the moment, but having finally got the course done, it’s certainly something I would recommend.

Whether you’re a seasoned boater or not, having that first-hand experience of what to do when things go wrong adds a fresh level of awareness and confidence to your boat life that you really can’t put a price on.


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