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August 27, 2013

Abandon ship!

Preparing, being equipped essential to staying alive

by Tom Groening

Don Wagner of McMillan Offshore Survival Training climbs into an immersion suit.
Don Wagner of McMillan Offshore Survival Training climbs into an immersion suit. TOM GROENING

SEARSPORT — At 2 a.m., 35 miles out to sea, with winter winds howling and water temperatures around 40 degrees, there can be no two more frightening words.

On a perfect summer day off the town dock, though, "Abandon ship!" was more educational than terrifying.

Sponsored by the Penobscot Marine Museum, the demonstration by Don Wagner of McMillan Offshore Survival Training of Belfast gave visitors a glimpse into how important training and equipment are in surviving a sinking.

A six-person raft that was to be used in the demonstration failed. But Wagner turned that into part of the lesson.

At sea, the raft would be removed from a canister and by pulling a line, would be filled by a charged tank of C02. The raft has a safety valve that opens if the pressure from the tank is too great, and then it closes once filled. On the raft Wagner brought, the valve failed to stay closed and so it would not hold air.

The 15-year-old demonstration raft had been condemned during an inspection several years ago, he explained.

"This is why it's so important to have a raft inspected and to have survival suits," he said.

As a group of children from Newburg watched and listened from a nearby float, Wagner reviewed the safety checklist: VHF radio to contact the Coast Guard, life raft, EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon), survival suit and flares.

With the raft now a casualty, he set the scenario: "I tried launch my raft and it didn't properly deploy." Now what?

First, some facts about water temperature. Even with the surface temperature on this 80-degree day hovering at about 68 degrees, after three, four or five hours, the body begins to chill.

"Water robs body heat 30 times faster than air," Wagner said.

The Coast Guard rates a region's waters as "cold" if the average annual temperature is below 70 degrees.

"In Maine, we don't operate in cold water. We operate in very cold water," he said, which is why immersion suits are required on many boats. Wagner showed the three, color-coded bags for the suits, corresponding to the size of the user.

Getting into the suit comes with its own risks. Standing on deck in an emergency situation is not likely. Donning the suit in the cabin can make exiting that confined space difficult.

The best approach, Wagner said as he demonstrated, is to sit on deck, unroll the suit and back into it.

Even entering the water can be hazardous. The suits are so buoyant, that jumping in feet first might result is bouncing back, head first, into the hull of the boat. Pushing off from the dock, with an elbow locked at right angles to his body to protect him from bouncing into the imaginary boat, Wagner was in the water.

He held onto the EPIRB, explaining that rescuers would come to it. It's important to link up with others who leave the boat, either by locking elbows or holding hands. If someone is hurt, a kind of "mat" can be formed in which the group arranges itself head-to-feet in an alternating pattern. The injured person can lie, almost out of the water, atop the human mat.

Another pattern, that looks like "a big, mutant starfish," would make it easier for rescuers to spot the group, Wagner said.

In the Gulf of Maine, rescue typically comes in less than 72 hours, not in weeks or months, "so I'm not out there cooking sea turtles with my flares," he joked.

The training, which McMillan Offshore Survival does for NOAA and other agencies, takes Wagner all along the New England coast.

"What kills a lot of people is panic," he said. Preparing for that possible bad day is essential. "And there are some really bad days out there."

click to enlargeTwo boys watch Don Wagner prepare to enter the water.
Two boys watch Don Wagner prepare to enter the water. Tom Groening
click to enlargeWagner floats in the immersion suit.
Wagner floats in the immersion suit. TOM GROENING

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