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Old 08-07-2002
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Understanding Rescue Methods


The rugged coast of Maine is the perfect location for emergency rescue training according to the author.
I spent some time in Castine, Maine, earlier this summer, helping to teach a Fast Rescue Boat course at Maine Maritime Academy. For sailors, Maine is wonderful place to be in mid summer. Castine is not as crowded as the better known town of Southwest Harbor, but it has all the same appeal—the pleasure of crystal-clear waters, hundreds of nearby islands to explore, and continually changing weather. But I was there for business.

A Fast Rescue Boat course is required for Coast Guard licensed mariners who want to work as coxswains and need to know how to properly operate rigid hull inflatable boats for search and rescue, man overboard, and other emergency operations. Of course most sailors will never need to perfect these skills, but knowing what’s required of someone who is trying to offer you or your crew aid from aboard a high-speed inflatable can be valuable information. And the coast of Maine, with its 50-degree water temperature, fog, and rain, makes the ideal location for teaching firsthand the impact of hypothermia on a person who falls overboard.

Our training boat for the week was a 20-foot rigid inflatable, with a deep-V, aluminum planing hull topped by high-buoyancy foam tubes. Powered by twin 70-hp outboards, the boat accelerated quickly and cruised at 25 knots. This powerful and rugged boat, officially called a Fast Rescue Boat in USCG parlance, can do amazing things. It can outrun wind-driven waves, come alongside other vessels at high speed, and maneuver quickly to pick up a person in the water. That last operation, however, requires special training since the boat’s power, high buoyancy, and light weight can lead to it flipping over and ejecting the crew if it’s not operated properly. Our goal was to train three new coxswains that week. One student was a longtime member of Greenpeace, so I felt like I knew his objectives; another was a master on an offshore oil exploration vessel; and the third was captain on a Mississippi River paddleboat. Needless to say, this was a diverse and interesting group.


High-speed, rigid-bottom inflatable boats like the one above are often used in rescue situations, particularly those that occur in coastal waters.
We started the first day with fog, which eased into rain and assorted rainbows. On the second day the fog was thick as a forest fire smoke, but burned off by 10:00 a.m., giving us a cloud-free, sun-filled afternoon. On the final three days we had rain showers while the sun was shining, early morning fog, and more rainbows before the late afternoon clouds rolled in. Each day we started with classroom work and then spent each afternoon in the boat teaching and practicing drills. The students each took their turn driving the boat in search patterns, running alongside other vessels at speed, towing other vessels, and maneuvering near rocks and shoals, as well as around docks and piers.

In this course, particular emphasis is placed on maneuvering, especially turning the boat at high and low speeds. There is a real art and science to driving a twin-engine vessel like this, and mastering that art is especially important when you are maneuvering to pick up a person, or persons in the water or aboard another boat. Understanding triage, i.e. prioritizing injuries, and picking up people in the water are also critical skills for a coxswain.

The other important aspect of this training is that each student takes a turn at being the victim in the water and getting picked up. For this part of the course we used exposure suits to enhance safety and prevent hypothermia (students can spend hours in and out of the water). With rain and fog, as well as sunshine coming and going each day, the gear we used required careful consideration. I recommend to my students in these courses that they always bring plenty of water to drink, as well as a hat and sunscreen. In addition you always need foul-weather gear, warm clothing, and good boat shoes or boots. Since gear cannot be allowed to scatter over the boat this course also builds good skills in securing personal gear as well as all the gear the boat is required to carry.

Pulling an injured or immobile person from the water into a Fast Rescue Boat requires students to learn several new knots that are tied into tubular webbing and then used to make a harness around the victim. Of course simply locating a person in the water is a difficult task in itself, which involves the use of precise search patterns, followed by bringing the boat alongside the victim, and then finally getting that person or persons into the boat. I can tell you from firsthand experience that pulling a waterlogged person into any type of boat is a difficult task, even into an open RIB with relatively low freeboard. The history of offshore rescues is littered with too many cases where victims remained in the water hanging alongside a boat while its crew was not able to get them onboard.


These rescue personnel are clad in exposure suits to guard against hypothermia. Such suits are often used aboard high-speed, open-ocean racing vessels.
This problem was the impetus for development of the now well-known Life Sling man-overboard retrieval system, which should, I think, be on board every sail and powerboat over 25 feet. Because of the relatively low freeboard on a Fast Rescue Boat, tubular webbing is used to recover the victim from the water. Usually, the webbing is slid under a victim’s chest, and the person is then hoisted or rolled into the boat. This technique works extremely well and allows a Fast Rescue Boat crew of three to bring persons into the boat expeditiously and with little effort.

We also trained our students in retrieving victims from beaches and rocky shorelines, taking into account tides, currents, and the actions of the wind. Maneuvering around rocks with two outboard engines is a tricky proposition, and in a real rescue you cannot afford to damage either propeller if you plan on conducting a successful rescue. Of course Maine has the rocks and shoreline needed for truly effective training in this skill.

My favorite component of the Fast Rescue Boat course is running alongside another vessel underway so as to transfer personnel. It’s not something that most sailors or boaters will ever have to do, but it can teach you some interesting things about the behavior of boats, and those lessons might one day come in handy. Since Fast Rescue Boats are most stable and controllable when planning this process is done at speeds of six to 10 knots. While the larger displacement hull vessel steams along on a fixed course and speed, the Fast Rescue Boat approaches off the larger boat’s quarter, maneuvers up alongside, and once in contact with the vessel’s hull, the crew attaches a sea painter. A sea painter allows the Fast Rescue Boat to ride alongside while the passenger transfer is conducted. To detach, the Fast Rescue Boat powers up, takes a strain off the sea painter, and then the crew casts it off, whereafter the driver makes a sharp accelerated turn away from the larger boat.

"A proven rule regarding such things is that it takes 36 repetitions to learn a new skill and 1,000 repetitions to make that skill an unconscious reaction."
This process of allows the rapid and controlled transfer of people from boat to boat in rough as well as calm conditions, which is necessary when injured or hypothermic victims need to be offloaded to a larger vessel for care. Practicing this underway offloading of passengers is similar to what airplane pilots do when they attempt to perfect their landing skills by way of “touch and goes,” and it brings home an important aspect of all training, which is “repetitious drill is the only way to learn and habituate skills.” So in the Fast Rescue Boat course we practice these drills and the others over and over. A proven rule regarding such thing is that it takes 36 repetitions to learn a new skill and 1,000 repetitions to make that skill an unconscious reaction. That’s a lesson regarding emergency situations that all sailors need to understand. And for me, Maine in mid summer is the perfect location for conducting repetitious drills.



Suggested Reading:

Modern Crew Overboard Rescues by John Rousmaniere

When the Worst HappensSending Out a Mayday by Brian Hancock

Crew Overboard Gear by Tom Wood

SailNet Store Section: Rescue Equipment

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