Survival Made Very Simple - Soundings Online

Survival Made Very Simple

Your safety rests with your gear, so take care of it
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Gear that’s in storage can get damaged, so check it regularly.

Gear that’s in storage can get damaged, so check it regularly.

I knew a North Carolina highway patrol officer who once told me, “I’ve never unbuckled a dead man.” His point was that wearing a seat belt makes all the difference in highway safety. Then he asked, “Kind of like life jackets, right?” I didn’t hold back the bad news. “Oh no, sir. People drown wearing life jackets all the time, every year.” Boaters frequently don’t survive accidents because safety gear failed or wasn’t used correctly. A life jacket is not a seat belt.

If you want to decrease your chances of living through a boating accident, buy the best survival gear, stow it on your vessel and leave it there. With the exception of closed-cell-foam-type life preservers and ring buoys, modern survival gear is complicated equipment that requires your attention. Manufacturers of life jackets, immersion suits and life rafts have minimum recommended inspection and maintenance procedures. You need to read those, make an inspection schedule and stick to it. Most often, impending failures are easy to see, but you have to look to find them. For inflatables, that means opening and unfolding the bladders and getting your eyes on every square inch of the thing. For all the equipment failures I’ve witnessed, I’ve also seen some very old life jackets inflate after years on the shelf. How? Well, they spent years on a shelf. If kept in a climate-controlled space, things do not deteriorate, and there are no problems with moisture and corrosion. But “boating” and “24/7 climate control” aren’t things you’re likely to ever read again in the same sentence. Sun, moisture, heat and salt work very hard to slowly destroy gear. When not in use, stow life jackets in the oft-required “cool, dry place.” That sounds absurd, but you can create that environment with sealable plastic bins and desiccants. Rinse anything that gets exposed to salt water with fresh water. Then dry it and put it away. I can’t possibly overstate the importance of this. Nothing takes something from brand-new to useless like salt water.

Do you know which button on your EPIRB is for Test and which is for Activate? Think about that now as you read this. Which side of your life jacket has the inflation lanyard? You need to train like you fight.

Life jackets are not the seat belts of the sea. The gear you rely on is far more complex than a belt and a buckle. Things can and will go wrong. That’s why you should inspect, protect, check and practice with everything you own that’s intended for emergencies.

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue.



Simple PFD Rules Could Save Your Life

When people fall overboard, more often than not it’s at the marina when boarding or stepping off the boat.


Life jacket setup: Pack it to survive a fall overboard

When people fall overboard, more often than not it’s at the marina when stepping on or off the boat.


What Goes Wrong With Survival Gear And How To Prevent It

Most drownings with life jackets relate to cold water, which we are going to get into a lot in the coming weeks. Still, boaters frequently don’t survive accidents because a piece of safety gear they relied on failed, or because they didn’t use it correctly. A life jacket is not a seat belt.


The Truth About Survival Training

Helicopter rescue swimmer Mario Vittone sheds some light on offshore survival training, and the importance of getting schooled on boating safety.


The World’s Greatest Job: How Rescue Swimmers Are Made

You don’t have to be able to deadlift 400 pounds, but you do need to be able to keep your cool under pressure if you want to become a Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmer, writes Mario Vittone in this week’s Lifelines: Safety And Rescue At Sea blog.


Why Go It Alone?

Self-reliance is one thing many boat owners embrace, but that ethos could get you into trouble, writes Mario Vittone. p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; line-height: 11.0px; font: 39.5px 'Meta Serif Pro'} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; line-height: 11.0px; font: 9.0px 'Meta Serif Pro'} p.p3 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; text-indent: 8.0px; line-height: 11.0px; font: 9.0px 'Meta Serif Pro'} span.s1 {letter-spacing: 0.6px} span.s2 {letter-spacing: 0.1px} T here was a time when leaving sight of land came with a good chance of never seeing it again. Before the invention of the marine chronometer to determine longitude, going over the horizon was a risky move. Even with accurate charts and a watch, the sea remained deadly; so deadly that the raised platforms known as widow’s walks on New England homes got their name from the sea captains’ wives, who would pace their rooftops, looking seaward for ships that never returned. Without VHF radios or radar, anyone who sailed offshore was truly on his own. Self-reliance wasn’t a romantic, Emersonian notion; it was a condition. Sailors had only themselves. I’ve met countless sailors who do their best to hold on to the traditional notion of being on their own out there. They speak of self-reliance as part of the appeal of being far offshore, alone in the world with only their skill and wits to protect them. They speak of it as a decision they made to be independent. When I was working in search and rescue, these sailors were the ones who always called at the last possible minute; but they always called. These are the guys who often say silly things like, “Never step off until you have to step up.” They were the first ones to send hate mail when I suggested that being alone in a life raft without having made a distress call meant a sailor had screwed up (“The Truth About Survival Training,” August 2019). “What about a lighting strike that causes a fire?” one man complained. “I guess you’ve never heard of anyone hitting a deadhead in the middle of the night,” another offered. Those who fancy themselves to be like the sailors of yore said I was wrong. Self-reliance, they wanted; blame, not so much. Now, I’m no sailor. While I do love boats and have spent a few years working on them, the bulk of my exposure to modern boating has been through search and rescue. For a long time, I was only on boats that were in distress following a call for help. Perhaps that skews me to one side of this argument, but given that experience, I believe this: The idea that you are self-reliant out there can get you killed, while the idea that everything is your fault is vital to your safety. We are connected in ways our great-great-grandfathers could never have imagined. Our radios can talk to each other. Our boats have alarms and pumps connected to apps on phones. We do not watch from rooftops for sails on the horizon; we log on to websites for real-time information. We are not alone out there anymore. But, make mistakes at sea, and you will, one way or another, invite people ashore to join you in your “self-reliant” adventure. We must never lose the sense of absolute personal responsibility for our own safety. There are rare situations where lightning strikes and submerged containers cause unforeseeable situations, but they are no reason to abandon modern tools and procedures. We don’t take off our seat belts just because there is only a slim chance that oncoming traffic may swerve into our lane. The answer to the rare disaster we can’t predict in boating is a float plan and communication prior to the mishap. I think the last great gains to be made in boating safety are in how we think about being on the water. If you still believe in self-reliance, then Godspeed, but keep your VHF radio on, if only so that your loved ones aren’t walking the rooftops, hoping for your return.


EPIRBs Alone Do Not Save Lives

I love EPRIBs. When asked what one thing I would take with me offshore, I always answer; an EPIRB. There is simply no valid argument against the devices. I recommend them to friends, insist on them for family and think anyone who goes to sea without one is just plain stupid.


Choosing A Life Jacket And Knowing When To Wear It

When I was in the U.S. Coast Guard, I couldn’t say this; but I believe the phrase “Always wear your life jacket” is terrible advice.