Surviving Survival Training

Explore the ocean in August with Melissa
and the Corps of Exploration.
Follow the adventure here in
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It was dark, and the sound of water splashing around in the pool beneath me reverberated throughout the indoor space. I was standing on a platform 3 meters above the surface, peering through the dim light to the water below. I was clad head to toe in a survival suit, a thick, ill-fitting wetsuit that included a hood and inflatable bladder looped around behind my back. The bladder was currently devoid of air. The hood was up, muffling all sound around me.
I shuffled forward to the edge of the platform, water sloshing noisily around my feet. I placed my left hand next to my jaw, stretching the hood away from my face, and held my right hand flat atop my head, pressing down on the hood. Failing to do so could result in rupturing my eardrums. With a deep breath, I looked ahead of me and stepped off the platform, crossing one leg behind the other at the ankle. One second, two, and SPLASH! I was in the pool, and bobbing back toward the surface.
My teammates cheered me on and I paddled toward the flashing emergency beacon about 5 meters away. I quickly inflated the air bladder using a tube attached to my chest. We huddled there together until the last member of our team joined us. Then, in the darkness, we followed the instructor’s orders barked from poolside: “Form a human snake! Now, go to help position! Now, huddle position! Now, form a human raft!” Together we worked to position ourselves and each other into the various formations we had learned about two days before. Those of us who were more clear-headed helped to coach those who were lost. The strong swimmers supported the weak. The calm soothed the anxious.
I pictured doing this at sea, among high swells, and wind, at night. Dark water stretched off in all directions, no land on the horizon, and a mistake could cost you your life and those of others. I shuddered. Practicing in an indoor pool, gently heated, calm, in the middle of Hawthorne, California was challenging enough.
Wearing the survival (“Gumby”) suit.

We moved smoothly through the various challenges, survival (or “Gumby”) suits keeping us warm in the water, although incredibly buoyant and bulky and difficult to get around in. (Exiting the pool was an exercise in agility and strength all its own: the suit, when filled with water, is VERY heavy. One has to ease out of the pool and into a “plank” position, alternating raised legs, to drain all of the water out of the suit, from the opening near the chin!)

I was here at the request of the Ocean Exploration Trust, completing the pool portion of Personal Survival Techniques (PST) training, a component of the STCW (Standards of Training and Certification of Watchkeeping) training. Regulated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the STCW Basic Safety Training course is mandated by ALL flag States for all working seafarers, and is the international standard. OET needed some more people trained in the PST portion of this training for my leg of the expedition. Reading the course description, I got that familiar little tickle in my belly that told me, “Are you crazy? That sounds pretty intense.” So my response, naturally? “You got it! I’m in.”
I had completed the classroom portion of the training two days before, and it was a whirlwind of emergency devices and frequencies, protocols, and warnings. Through it all, I feverishly practiced my bowline knot, which our instructor assured us was vital to passing the course. As I repeatedly tied the knot, I heard the voice of the classmate who had taught it to me in my head: “The rabbit comes out of the hole, around the tree, and goes down the hole again.”
My classmates were participating in the full training, an intense week that included, in addition to the part I was enrolled in, first aid and CPR, firefighting, and more. The members were varied, from first-time cruise ship workers to experienced captains.
When we first donned the survival suits, during the classroom portion of the class, we laughed and clowned. However, playfulness quickly dissipated as claustrophobia set in. It was hot, and I started sweating almost immediately. The suit was sized for someone a little taller than me, so the zipper came right up to my chin; it would have covered the lower portion of my face if I allowed it to. The thick hood made me nearly deaf, and my hair kept wanting to creep out and into my face, blinding me. The instant we were given the direction to remove and repack our suits, I scrambled out of mine, gasping. I was more than a little nervous about spending several hours in the pool, much of it in that suit, for the remaining portion of the class. I hoped that water would help to ease the claustrophobic nature of it.

I only kind of knew what I was in for when I arrived at the pool.

And so two days later I stood, in the dark, 10 feet above the water’s surface, and ran through all the steps we’d learned about abandoning ship. The lights were off to simulate night. My heart was pounding. I had gleefully jumped off of high dives and rocks and other locations as a kid, but couldn’t remember the last time I had done such a thing. This was exciting and new, and I was tired after just a few trips across the pool, up the ladder and out. And we were just getting going! After our survival suit exercises, we would complete all the same activities with life vests. Then a timed float. And finally, the raft.
The raft. Mentally, I named it the Beast. It proved to be a much bigger challenge than I had anticipated. Read my next blog post to discover why.
In a couple of days, I will be returning to the E/V Nautilus, boarding in San Diego, and exploring a region off the coast of Southern California known as the Southern California margin. I will be blogging here on the GSCCC website, and contributing weekly columns to the Ventura County Star, in the Sunday edition. Please join me, and share your comments. And please join me through the Nautilus Live website as we explore the deep sea alongside the Corps of Exploration!
What are some things that you have done that have scared you? Did they somehow promote growth? Please share!
The above is the beginning of a multi-part series to run over the next couple of months. Melissa Baffa, Vice President of Program and Volunteer Services for GSCCC, will be joining the Corps of Exploration again this year, exploring the deep sea aboard the E/V Nautilus. This blog series will chronicle her dive into the Unknown.
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Want to go on an adventure with me? Skip to the next blog post by clicking here.

Want to catch up on this year’s adventure so far? Go back to first blog post for this season.

Want to catch up on what happened last season?

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