Battered and bruised, I’ve passed my 5-day training to renew my merchant mariner credentials.
The final day was pool day. Once in the water, a swimmer in the eastern Pacific has approximately sixty seconds to catch their breath and orient, then about ten more minutes before limbs begin to lose functionality. If a swimmer doesn’t do something fast to get out of the water within that time, they cannot help themselves. Unless meaningful help arrives, a swimmer will die within an hour, assuming they don’t drown first. Yesterday, I learned first hand what it’s like to be in the water in an immersion suit. It had been years since I’d tried one of those bright orange suits on, and never in the water. We call them Gumby suits because when donned, the person looks a lot like Gumby, but is significantly less nimble.
Adam, our drill-sergeant / instructor, gives the order to “abandon ship.” I grab my survival suit bag and swing it back, then jerk it forward. The suit leaps out and onto the deck. I kneel and flatten it out, then turn my butt onto it so I’m sitting on the inside, just above the ‘waist.’ Getting it on is easy, and I’m zipped in 45 seconds, well within the 60 seconds given, even though grabbing the 3-inch zipper pull is a challenge with the neoprene gloves.
It’s clumsy, like being loosely wrapped in bubble pack, with tape at my wrists and ankles. I shuffle to the pool with the rest of the class, each of us a rigid zombie as we approach. Standing sideways to the water, we jump off the edge, one by one. I’m last. As I consider jumping in, I remember my list of instructions. I put my inboard hand on top of my head, and the outboard hand over my nose and pinch. I push myself as far away from the edge as possible, then quickly bring my legs together, crossing my ankles. A lot to remember in an emergency.
I hit the water and sink. Uncrossing my ankles and loosening my arms, I reach for the surface, though it isn’t necessary; the buoyancy of the suit has me breathing air in seconds. And though the warm water of the pool feels good, that changes almost immediately. With all but a 3” circle around my eyes covered in heat-retaining fabric, my world heats up quickly. People begin to talk about sweating. Adam allows that we can take our hoods off for a few minutes. But, minutes after it’s off, it’s time to get into the 4-person survival raft. We break into two teams, five people each, and my team is first. Jack is a wiry guy with great muscle tone and self-confidence. He fashions himself a leader and races to get in first. He pulls himself up to the raft, but can’t make it over the top. He slides down the side and tries again. And again. Between the friction of his suit against the rubber and the buoyancy of the raft, it’s harder than it appeared. I’m nervous about my chances, but remind myself it’s only a pool.
Jack is successful on his third attempt. Survivor #2 has caught on and makes two attempts, up and over, while #3 is even faster. My turn. It’s quickly apparent that I haven’t caught on. My dearth of upper body strength, combined with my lack of attention to exercise and the pizza I had for dinner last night make it next to impossible to get into the raft. I push, they pull. The one team member left in the water pushes. Five other men look on, along with the instructor. I force the tears of humiliation to stop just before they start, then somehow access a final burst of strength. I find myself breathless in the water-filled raft, now full to capacity, with one more to come. I have to get out of the way, fast, but there no room to move. Every inch I gain lessens the room my suit and I have to maneuver. I crawl over my companions to the rear of the raft where I try to regulate my jagged breaths. Even safe within this pool, my brain tells me I cannot survive this. As the last person is dragged into the raft, I catch my thinking error and breathe. Attempted Zen-gasps that turn into real breaths.
“Everybody out!” yells the drill sergeant. “Now!”
Shit! I just got in! I don’t want to get out! But, I crawl on my belly, and push up on hands and knees at the door. I pull my butt up onto the pontoon. I enter the pool head first, feet sliding behind me, like all of my co-survivors. I slip in like a mermaid might glide into the water from a rock. Graceful, I’m sure.
The suit immediately rights me and I stand by for our last survivor to get out. Chris, weighing in at a self-reported 350#, comes to the edge looking more like a sea lion than a merman, and I second the whole mermaid comparison for myself. He begins to slide purposefully over the side, into the pool. But one foot gets caught inside the raft and he is facedown in the water, unable to right himself. His arms are flopping, but nobody in front of me is moving. I yell “His leg! Get him out!” as I begin to haul my weighted body toward him. By the time I reach the raft, the closer team has figured it out and gotten his leg untangled. Chris’ face is red as it pops up from the water. He sucks air as he looks around like a lost child looking for his mom.
During our next entry, I have trouble, but it’s not quite as bad as before. I come out exhausted, but happy that I’ve done it. Barely. Class is almost over. But, Adam says he still wants us to take our suits off and put them back on, while we’re in the water. Obedient, but leery, I stay in the shallow end of the pool and remove the suit easily. The water feels exquisitely cool against my skin. Adam shows us how to put it back on. He makes it look effortless, but I’m pretty sure it’s not: Float the suit out flat, face up; bring the legs together and maneuver them between my own legs. Easy enough. Without touching the pool’s bottom, I enter the trouser segment of the survival suit with only a few rollovers. I scooch my butt down and wiggle into the suit, then bring my right arm in close and shove it into the sleeve. I reach back and grab my hood, pulling it over my head. Water envelopes my face, up my nose and into my mouth. I know the floor is near, but I don’t want to use it. In real life, no floor would be available to me, and I want the exercise to be as realistic as possible. I get my left arm in with a bit of difficulty, and am now completely inside. I reach for the zipper. It takes a few swipes to find the pull, then I there’s some trouble holding onto it. I finally get a good grip and yank. It’s stuck. I swipe my hand inside to make sure my bathing suit and top aren’t caught. Clear. I try again and again, but no go. I turn to a classmate and ask for help. He grabs the zipper and can’t budge it. I grip the neoprene beneath it, and he reefs on the zipper and gets it to move upward.
Following our instructions, I leave the zipper a quarter open. My suit is full of water, but the neoprene makes the additional fifty or so pounds of weight seem weightless.
“Back into the raft!” What? I thought we were done! I can’t do this again! But here we go. Jack makes it first, again. He has some trouble getting in this time, and I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s tired. I decide I’m just going to get the humiliation over with. I do not want to stew in my own embarrassment while I wait. But, as soon as I touch the raft, I recognize my error. There is only one person inside the raft to help me. Shit. This is going to be one more moment where my 54-year-old body will not do what these 20 and 30-year-old men’s bodies will. I’m defeated before I even get my hands to the rope that I’m supposed to use to pull myself up. I give myself a mental slap and find a pinprick of the spirit that brought me to this course to begin with.
To gain momentum and courage, I bob once, then twice. I fill my lungs with air and on the last downward push I use all my strength to force my body into the water. Like a bullet, I shoot back up and throw myself over the pontoon. I’ve forced my fulcrum over the top! From there, it’s easy to get the rest of my body into the raft while Jack drags my water-filled boots in behind me. But my triumph is short lived. As my feet enter the boat, I wallow on the sunken deck. The water inside my partially zipped suit surges toward my face. It rushes out and joins the water on the deck, closing around my head. I try to push myself up, but the suit is too heavy, and the panic begins again. I hear “Roll! Roll!” and remember the training we’ve just had. I shift to my side and am able to slowly bring my head above water, then crawl to the back of the boat to help the next survivor get his face out of the water.
I have already learned many of the things I learned in this class, but having the experiences in life-like situations has changed my understanding profoundly. I’ve learned skills that may save a life one day – mine or someone else’s. I’ve learned to trust my teammates, and that working together saves lives. Probably the most important thing I’ve learned is that I do not know my own strength, and that when I think I’m done, there is another force deep within me.