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Sea Survival Skills for our Lifeboat Crews

This week I had the opportunity to attend an awesome training course with fellow lifeboat crew member Ross at the RNLI College in Poole.

If you're visiting our shores from around the globe you can find out all about our incredible Lifeboat service by following this link:

So what did the two of us get up to, what was it like and what did I take away from my time here to be safer on the lifeboat and an even better Scuba Instructor for you? ... read on and I'll try to convey all of this and more!

With crews coming from all over the UK I'll start by saying just how incredible it was to meet others volunteering their time to protect fellow water users around our coastline. Unlike many countries our front line cover is provided by the RNLI; the charity that saves lives at sea. With the vast majority of us volunteering our time to provide this emergency cover 24/7/365 you can be sure we'll stop what ever we're doing and come to your side if you ever get into trouble on the water!

What did we get up to?

The course is focused on two key aspects that go hand in hand with each other:

  • Crew Emergency Procedures - RNLI role specific

  • Sea Survival (STCW) - Maritime and Coastguard Agency standardised training

Let's kick off with looking at the RNLI Sea Survival Centre; it's mind blowing and World Class (seriously!). This building is home to bridge simulators, equipment rooms, demo kit and the all important 'dunk tank' ... the 4m deep, 12.5m wide and 25m long sea simulator. Fitted with wave machines, wind fans, rain/spray cannons, a mega sound system and lightening simulators trust me when I feels realistic!

We kicked off with some dry training in the class room and out on the pontoons. This included topics such as distress signals, communication, fire fighting and capsize procedures. Building upon/reinforcing the training and drills we do here at our station on the Isle of Arran.

Then it was off to the tank to practice the safe re-righting of the D-Class and Atlantic 85. This was a totally new experience for the two of us as clearly we cannot do this for real back at home! Whilst we drill and walk through these procedures there is nothing that compares to having to do it for real. The sight of an upturned 85 is humbling when you're being bobbed up and down by the waves even in the pool!!

The Atlantic 85 is our home vessel and one which you can come and meet for yourself during open days and on one of our speciality courses (more details below so keep reading!). With a top speed of 35 knots, weighing in at 1.8 tonnes and powered by 2 x 115hp outboards this bit of kit is one of the most versatile when it comes to performing rescues around the UK coastline...OK we may be a bit biased here! On Arran we have an Atlantic 85; B-876 Rachel Hedderwick which entered service on the 7th July 2014. This lifeboat was funded by the generous bequest of Miss Rachel Antoinette Hedderwick.

Did you know that all of our boats are funded 100% by donations with the name of the vessel normally being that of the person(s), charity or business that funded it! It's an incredible legacy...

After honing our skills in flat water it was time for the blinds to come down and the wave machine turned on to simulate a re-righting at night out at sea! This included locating a missing crew member under the vessel and completing all the checks before making the boat ready to restart. The drills from home paid off with Ross and myself smashing the tasks and getting the remaining crew and boat recovered in double quick time. The most important thing on the lifeboat is teamwork; no one crew member can do any of this alone and that's why we train and socialise together most weeks.

Shattered but buzzing stories were compared over dinner with the other crew members before hitting the sack. To top it all off we were treated each evening to some incredible sunsets!

The next day began with Sea Survial theory in the classroom before heading back to the Sea Survival Centre for practical in water training. This course is standardised and not just RNLI specific however doing this at the College was without doubt the best possible environment to experience all of the elements. From donning survival suits and making a wet escape in under a minute, running simulated ship abandonment from height and culminating in our deployment and abandonment to life rafts.

By the end of the day we had the skill and knowledge for our final test; night time abandonment in a storm!

The window blinds started coming down and the deafening sound of the general alarm boomed around the centre ... the night storm was about to begin

With a final headcount check at our muster station and with our grab bag in hand we prepared our crew to abandon to the liferafts. The speaker system boomed into life with the sound of a storm and the strobe system began to giving you glimpses of your crew and raft as you swam through the waves. At the raft we executed our plan and boarded quickly ensuring every member was accounted for. Taking each emergency step in turn we got ourselves made safe and hunkered in for the ride.

During my turn on watch I was greeted with a face full of spray from the water cannon as the strobes created life like lightening across the water. The space was pitch black save the 2 lights on the other rafts to our right which rode the waves with equal gusto. Thinking of our fellow crew members doing the same skills and having the same banter put a real smile on my face...I won't lie it was epic but the closest I hope I'll come to being in this situation out in the sea.

During one of the lookouts I couldn't hide my surprise despite the noise and commotion as a hand appeared at the side of the raft. A quick shout to my fellow crew and quickly we had the casualty bundled into our raft. It was certainly cozy in there but with great spirt the time flew by. The defending sound of a helicopter approaching through the storm signaled the time for a hand held flare deployment (simulated clearly) and I could see through the water cannon spray other hands appearing from the 2 other rafts.

The wave machine slowed and the lights came back on ... now the paddle back to the net ladders to complete the drill.

Clearly I was somewhat busy at the time so didn't manage to get any photos from this incredible excersise so you'll have to use your imagination to conjure up the experience!

What was it like and how do I feel about my time at the College?

For someone who loves being out on and under the water this experience is like no other! From a lifeboat perspective this course was totally and practice at our station is one thing but doing it in realistic conditions with the safety and control that the Sea Survival Centre offers is simply awesome. I've grown as a crew member and have even greater confidence in our equipment and training.

What are my take away points and will this make me a better scuba diving instructor?

We all know in diving that you "plan the dive and dive the plan" but sometimes things can go wrong. Knowing what to do and reacting with muscle memory could mean the difference between a great outcome and one not so! This was very much the same for this course. By practising and drilling the skills we have committed them to memory ready for recall if required (but hopefully never!). It's one of the reasons all crew do this course every 5 years.

In Scuba Diving the risk of error is ever present and it's our actions or in-actions that normally begin the snowball of events that lead to an incident. Thats why conducting skill practice and emergency procedure drills should be part of your dive routine.

So for me this course not only improved my safety and skill on the lifeboat but also as your instructor when it comes to underwater safety. This personal experience feeds into one of my favourite speciality courses which I hope you'll sign up for soon! I promise it's unlike any other...

The PADI RNLI Diver Sea Survival Specialty Course will provide you with the skills and knowledge to deal with unexpected emergency situations whilst diving. You will also learn how to initiate a faster and more effective rescue. Mastering sea survival skills will give you additional confidence if you find yourself in an unwanted situation. During the course with myself you'll get the chance to use the same muscle memory learning as we cover:

  • Diving in low-visibility conditions

  • Dive planning

  • Dive preparation

  • How to deal with out-of-air emergencies

  • How to deal with an emergency on the surface

  • Navigation and safety equipment on dive boats

  • Use of surface marker buoys (SMBs)

  • Ways of calling for help

However the learning doesn't stop there when you do this course with myself. You'll also come down to the station and get to explore our Atlantic 85 in person. We'll look at the kit from a search and rescue perspective and wrap up all the learning from your 2 open water training dives. This is unlike any other version of this course you'll find else where! I also donate at least £10 of the course fee to the lifeboat so this really is a win/win for us all.


I hope you enjoyed reading about this mini adventure and I look forward to welcoming you onto a scuba course at some point soon!

Don't forget to follow our lifeboat team on Facebook and Instagram!

If you have a trip planned to Poole make sure you book a night at the RNLI College and do the tour!


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