The Beast

The raft. Mentally, I named it the Beast. It was a 15-person raft, about 11 feet in diameter, a black

Explore the ocean in August with Melissa
and the Corps of Exploration.
Follow the adventure here in
the GSCCC blog and at NautilusLive.org

and orange monstrosity of plastic and rubber and fabric, about a hundred and fifty pounds dry, with a tall peaked roof. We had been in the pool for two and half hours, performing various tests in survival suits, with life vests, and in just our bathing suits. We had thrown life rings and monkey fists across the pool, we had practiced reeling in our partners using the life ring, tying bowline knots poolside and in the water, and even done a float test. The Beast was all that stood between us and our certificates, and it was huge.

My classmates had gone through an intense week that had included firefighting and first aid/CPR classes. They were started to whisper that they had thought the firefighting day was tough, but man, this pool day was even harder!
We had run through the raft exercise indoors, on dry land, with a much smaller raft. It seemed pretty intense, but do-able. One of the bigger challenges was getting team members to remember the sequence: partner holds the painter (line tied to the raft) and then tosses the painter across the raft to you; you pull, pull, pull on the line while the team works to lift the raft and empty the ballast tanks; when the raft reaches a perpendicular position to the water, yell, “Clear,” and wait for the team to clear the area; complete the flip of the raft, and immediately call, “Sound off!”; team members count off their assigned numbers, and once you are sure everyone is safe (and no one is trapped beneath the raft), move to flip it back over to right it. Hand the painter to another member of the team; move to the Jacob’s ladder, mounted to the underside of the raft, now facing the sky; climb on top of the raft, hold on to the Jacob’s ladder, and position your feet to be able to apply leverage with your body weight once the raft starts to lift from the water; “ride” the raft as it flips, being sure not to get caught underneath (difficult to escape with a life vest on!); again, call “Sound off!”; team members count off their assigned numbers, and once you are sure everyone is safe, do it a total of 11 times, since there are 11 people in the class, and each person needs to practice being the leader.

It doesn’t look so bad, does it? The Beast.









Lessons learned, in case you ever need to do this: quickly huddle and talk your way through it with the team. Determine who needs to be positioned where. Get your biggest guys to help flip the raft from the key position, either where the painter or the ladder attaches (depending on whether you’re flipping or righting it). Figure out who your leaders are, and tap their strength. Figure out who your weakest team members are (in a survival situation, they might be exhausted, injured, or scared), and give them a specific job (such as emptying a ballast tank while the team lifts the raft), so they don’t just flail off to the side. Sadly, I only figured this out toward the end of our exercise, once we had naturally figured it out as a team.

The first round was a disaster. Despite having our biggest and most experienced guy as the first to go, we did not have a strategy. It took us several attempts to get the raft flipped and then righted. We were gasping, thankful for our life vests, when we were done. But it was chaos. People grabbed onto the wrong part of the raft. People forgot to empty the ballast tanks. People let go at critical moments. People worked against each other. Moving through team member #2, then 3, then 4, then 5, we started to figure out the techniques that worked, where to position ourselves, who needed coaching, whose leadership skills were lacking.

Two members of the team, their time at the lead complete, had to leave for prior commitments. The class was running long. I was a little panicked because one was our biggest and most experienced person there; we needed his mass to help flip the raft and his leadership to bring this motley crew together. We were going to be down to 9 people, and this task was gargantuan for 11. And it was my turn.
My partner tossed me the painter over the peak of the roof. I caught it, and yelled to my team to get into position. With one of our biggest remaining guys alongside me, I started pulling, pulling, pulling, hand over fist. Already exhausted, I grunted and shouted. I might have called the raft a few unsavory names in my struggle. It seemed to help.
It folded like a taco, and begrudgingly started to rise from the water, coming toward me. I yelped, “Clear!” and my team moved away from my side. With a few more mighty yanks, it came down on me before I knew what had happened. I kicked hard to free myself from the raft, the buoyancy of my life vest trapping me at the surface. Another second or two, and I broke free, sucking air. “Sound off!” I cried, and when a member of my team failed to report in, I repeated it. I was frustrated because some of the team members repeatedly forgot to sound off, or even called the wrong number! But everyone was free of the raft. It was time to right it.

Finally out of the pool, certificates in hand. It felt great!
I climbed atop the raft, no easy feat. A member of the team roughly pushed me up as I struggled to climb the Jacob’s ladder. My arms felt like Jell-O after the struggle to flip the raft. For a moment, a panicked thought intruded: What if I couldn’t do this second part? What if I was too weak? Too tired?
I banished the thoughts, clutching the ladder in my hands. I heaved myself atop the raft and positioned my feet. (In the wrong spot, as it turns out) I called to the team to assure everyone was in position. And then I counted down to start. I pulled on the ladder and tried to set my body to use it for more leverage. As the raft started to rise from the water, my feet slipped and got twisted in the ladder. My #2 at my side saw this and latched on to the ladder, grunting and pulling, and adding his weight to the process. With a few more choice words from me and others, and a sudden motion, it flipped. A sound-off revealed that all were safe. We floated in the heated pool, and whispered to each other, “Can you imagine doing this at sea? With your life at stake?” and caught our breath.
We were now more than halfway through. Gasping, I shouted this out to my teammates. Only the silver-liners cheered; the others groaned. One person, then another, struggled to the edge of the pool with cramps. One guy, a smoker, was wheezing as he struggled to catch his breath. Another, a weak swimmer, dog-paddled with huge eyes filled with fear. Despite his life jacket, he was terrified.

Somehow, we made it through those last 5 rounds. By the time we were done, we were beyond exhaustion. Parts of me that I had not used in years ached. But getting that certificate, and taking a group photo with our class, was amazing and sweet.

I was so tired on the three hour drive home (made worse by heavy traffic), I was afraid I’d have an accident. And that night, and all the next day, I was so incredibly sore. My hands ached like an arthritis sufferer, no doubt from heaving on the painter and the ladder. I groaned every time I moved.
But I had survived, and not only learned techniques to help keep me safe in the case of disaster at sea, but I had also learned incredible lessons in teamwork and leadership. I had found strength in myself through the process, and practiced ways of motivating and encouraging teammates who were ready to give up.
While I hope I never have to use the former, I am glad to have acquired the latter. Teamwork and leadership are vital in so many situations; discovering wells of strength and interpersonal abilities were not on the syllabus, but this proves applicable out of class and out of the pool. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in this training, and to have joined this cohort of mariners as we discovered this together.
*****
In a couple of days, I will be returning to the E/V Nautilus, boarding in San Diego, exploring a region 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 part of a multi-part series to run over the next couple of weeks. 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? Click here to start with the first post from last season.

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