If you are engaged in a water sport or are travelling on or over water, there should always be life jackets available to you, and possibly life rafts. Do not be complacent, assuming that you will never need them. Pay attention and make sure you know how to use them.
One of the most essential aspects of a survival situation is knowing what to do next. This greatly reduces fear and confusion, and gets you moving in the right direction without even thinking. When I have done helicopter underwater escape training, the emphasis is on doing the required drill over and over so that there is a much greater chance of doing it right during a crisis. Experience has shown that those in survival situations, who have had training, have a very high survival success rate. Studying up on it before hand, as you are doing now, can make a major difference in a crisis situation, not only for yourself but maybe for others as well.
Water survival exercise photo courtesy of Sheerness Lifeboat Station
If you find yourself in a situation where you may have to ditch into the water, here are some important points:
- Put a life jacket on. Put your life jacket on when and how instructed, but DO NOT inflate it yet if you are still in the cabin or an enclosed area of the aircraft or vessel, etc. Wait until you are outside. An inflated jacket blows up quite firm around your chest and neck, and can make it very difficult to move around to get out of the enclosed area. Plus, if that place is filling up with water and you need to swim under water to get out, it will prevent you from doing so.
- Inflate the life jacket. When safely outside the cabin and in the open, inflate the life jacket as instructed. This usually requires quite a firm tug on the red tag or handle on the string on either side of the jacket. If one of them doesn't work, there will be a mouthpiece to blow it up manually.
- If there is no life raft. If you do not have a life raft available and are in the water without anything to hang on to, then it is a good idea to have everyone huddle together, if they are willing. This has several advantages, like staying warmer, making it easier for the search team to see you, and gaining from the support and experience of others in the group.
- Life raft inflation. If there is a life raft on board but it is not yet inflated and no crew members are available, you will need to inflate it yourself. There should be instructions on it for you to follow. If not, it will probably be attached to your vessel by a rope. It can usually be inflated by throwing it into the water and tugging on the rope. If the rope is pulled tight when it is thrown into the water, it will probably inflate on its own. After inflation, it is usually over-pressured for a short while, and there are usually over-pressure valves that let the excess pressure out until the pressure is correct. So you may hear air escaping from the raft in the beginning. Don't freak out if you can help it! Give it a chance to settle down.
- Life raft inflation, CAUTION! If there is a wind blowing and you inflate a life raft, it will get blown away by the wind unless it is attached by a rope to something firm. If it is not so attached, do not inflate it until everyone in your group is right there and ready to hold onto it as soon as it inflates.
- Life raft entry. Do a head count to make sure that everybody that is in your group is there, and help them into the life raft. This is done best by getting yourself in first, and pulling the others up. There are usually also stairs made of straps hanging down into the water to climb up on. If someone is injured, have one person on either side in the raft, holding onto the injured person's lifejacket. The injured person should be facing away from the raft. Then "bounce" them in the water twice, and on the count of three, pull them up.
- Life raft rope. If you need to cut the life raft free from the vessel, there should be a special knife with a blade on the inside of a 'V' shaped tool in a pocket inside the raft. If you think the vessel or aircraft might sink, cut the life raft free before it does, even though the rope is supposed to break anyway on some advanced models (usually at about 500 lbs pressure!). The 'V' shaped tool is basically a knife that you cannot accidentally puncture the life raft with (or you won't be very popular with the rest of the group). If your craft is not in danger of sinking, like a large capsized boat, it is better to stay attached to it, as it will increase the chances of someone seeing you.
- First things first. Please review the first five items in the Bush Survival section: Steps to take after a crash or breakdown. They apply equally here:
a) Safety first.
b) Call for help if you can.
c) Tend to the first aid needs of yourself or others.
d) Stay calm and think logically.
e) Decide on a plan of action.
- Plan of action. Ideally someone should be in charge, and this does not have to be the captain of the vessel if they are there. Life in a life raft can be pretty traumatic, and if you are not organized, your situation can deteriorate in a hurry. Help people to get comfortable. Have everyone sit with their legs to the centre of the raft, and let the air out of their lifejackets to give them room to move. They can always blow them up manually in about three puffs. One of the major factors is sea sickness. If anyone is feeling sick or thinks they may get sick, give them a sea sick pill immediately, which you should find in the first aid kit in the tool bag attached to the floor. Then make sure people keep warm. If there is a cover over the raft, close it up. (See "Heat loss" below.) A good way to keep people from panicking or thinking about the worst is to keep them busy. As mentioned in the "Stay Calm and think logically" section under Wilderness Survival, it's important to break things up into small manageable tasks. There are lots of items in the life raft tool bag to hand around. Give each person a task, like bailing out water on the raft floor. (See "Survival tools" below.)
- Heat loss. If the body's core temperature dips much below the 98.6 F/37 C degree mark, a person can die within hours. Whether you are in a life raft or not, if it is cold, cover your head with a hood or some type of clothing if possible. The head area is a major source of heat loss. The other main areas are the arm pits and groin. So stay huddled up and stay dry. Bail out any water in the life raft. And pump up the floor if possible. Advanced rafts have floors that you can inflate, although you usually have to do it manually. There will probably be an accordion-like hand pump available, and valves in the floor of the raft to pump it up. This will provide a major insulation factor from the cold water.
- Survival tools. There are usually several survival tools and features in the lifejackets, like whistles and lights, so make sure you look in all of the pockets. Life rafts will have a lot more tools in them, possibly an ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter), pyrotechnic flares, sea sick pills, water treatment kit, bailing bucket, hole plugs, sea dye, etc.