The wind is howling in the darkness, and as I take a step out and fall the three meters down into the cold waves, I hear the thunder behind me. I look up and see Esben follow me into the water. We get a hold of each other, and together we move slowly away from the entrance site, fighting the wind and the waves. Around us, we see the others in the water, and soon we have formed a small group of four people, creating a tight ring to keep each other warm, while we are pushed around by the waves.
We had signed up for the offshore safety course arranged by the Danish Ocean Cruising Association and Falck Nutec a couple of months ago, and had arrived in Esbjerg the same morning for a day of learning. After a cup of coffee and a quick chat with the other course participants, we moved into the class room, which had been filled with a lot of different safety equipment such as life jackets, harnesses and a tiny model of a life raft.
The two theory instructors, Kim and Hans-Jørn, are experienced long-distance sailors and certified safety instructors, and for the next couple of hours they shared their expertise, showing pictures, explaining facts and statistics mixed up with anecdotes from their long sailing career.
And soon it was time to move to the pool. We were all given dry suits and boots, and after a quick change and a sandwich we donned the life jackets. Most people had taken their inflatable life jackets from home to test them, and Esben and I had actually bought new ones because it was the same price as adding light, a knife and a sprayhood to the ones we already had.
We all jumped in the water, one by one, and while Esben’s life jacket inflated immediately, mine took a while. And the lights seemed a bit strange, sometimes on and sometimes off, while some of the other types of lights, like on the Viking vests, seemed much better. But it was really good to try. After we had gotten used to swimming around in the water, we tried out a number of different techniques to stay together and keep each other warm. I think most of us realized that this makes a big difference. And then the waves were turned on, and we got our spray hoods out.
Our instructor from Falck, Jan, got us out of the water again, and now it was time to get the life raft in the water. By a lucky coincident the life raft we would be inflating was the same type we have bought for Chip-Chip, which was great. The main lesson here was to remember to tie the raft to the boat before throwing it in the water.
The challenge now was to get into the bloody thing from the water. Not very easy the first time – a few of us were helped by a big push from our friends. But learning the right technique made all the difference, and the second try went much better. I do, however, think we will try to enter the raft from the boat and not the water, should it ever become relevant to abandon ship. Also, seeing our instructor turn a raft that was upside down in the water made us happy that we have paid the extra price to get a self-righting version for Chip-Chip.
And finally, after more than two hours of exercises, the light was turned off and the “storm” was turned on. At that point I think most of us were pretty cold, and yes, it did cross my mind how easy it would be to just leave – but of course non of us did. We jumped into the cold waves once more, found each other in little groups and waited for the signal to swim against the wind and waves to enter the big life raft. Here, we huddled together, waiting for the sound of the helicopter that would pick us up, while the raft was thrown around in the waves. Then we were air-lifted out one by one, first those who were getting sea sick, then those who were cold (that would be me…) and then all the rest.
In the warm showers we all agreed that it had been a cold, but very educational and thought-provoking experience that can be highly recommended to anybody who go sailing – not just long distance cruisers. As we drove home that night, the conversation kept returning to the subject of safety. Like inflatable life jackets for the kids, or how to get somebody who has fallen in the water back on the boat. We were also discussing these subjects before the course, but it has without a doubt given us a different view on things, having been in the water, feeling how difficult it is to move and how quickly you get cold.