In the 26th edition of our Technology Series, we visit the Maritime Safety Center in Aland to see their facility and to learn more about the STCW (the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping) courses they offer. The Maritime Safety Center offers the wide variety of courses required by professional mariners to achieve or maintain STCW certification. Courses include lifeboat usage, rescue craft and emergency boat operation, firefighting, medical care and first aid, maritime resource management, crowd and crisis management, ship security office. The Safety Center also offers team-building for non-mariners interested to experience what it’s like to operate marine safety equipment.
When we went to visit our goal was to see the wave generator pool and see how it works, to see how they generate large winds and rain, to see the large ship escape slides, to see the rigid lifeboats common on large commercial ships, to learn more about all the safety equipment used, to get a chance to walk through the dark steel structures where simulated fire rescue is practiced and dummies are rescued from the galley, bunk rooms, and engine rooms, and to creep through the hot rooms where firefighting is practiced against gas-fed flames.
Seeing all this up close was going to make for an exciting day at the facility, but they also offered us a chance to actually do many of the exercises ourselves. This turned out to be the high point of the day. We had an opportunity to race into survival suites, don life jackets, and jump into a pool in heavy winds and waves as our life jackets triggered and self-inflated. We tried deploying a six person life raft similar to ours. We learned what it’s like to swim upwind to an upside-down life raft in rough seas. We each had a chance to flip over an upside down liferaft, find the opening, and then climb in while wearing a survival suit and ocean life jacket. It’s not all that surprising, but swimming in a bulky survival suit in one-meter waves against the wind to get to a life raft is actually more work than one might guess when you are reading the liferaft marketing brochure. It was super instructive to get a chance to deploy a life raft, see what can go wrong, learn what can be done about it, and then try it all in the water. We also got a chance to try large ship escape slides.
Overall, it was a super-interesting day and, even though we didn’t spend that much time actually in the water working on life-saving, we were both exhausted by the end of the day. It was a big learning experience and it really drove home the importance of practice and education around life-saving. You never want to be trying things for the first time when lives are at risk. Training like this is required of professional mariners and strongly recommended for anyone that travels on the water.
On the left above is the wave pool with two of the wide variety of life boats in use at the Maritime Safety Center in the background and that very large buoy in the middle is actually an electrically-driven wave generator. When it gets going the water is splashing up against the walls of the facility. The wave maker is a pretty interesting design where a heavy weight is driven up and down, creating ever larger waves.
Above right is the wave pool from another angle where at the very left you can see the lower part of a several floor high large ship escape slide. In this design, that we will get to try later in the day, you plummet straight down where the tension of the material inside the shoot gives enough friction to slow you down and keep the descent rate reasonably safe. Another of the many life rafts in use at the facility is in the corner of the pool with the wind and rain generators above. These large fans have water injected just after the fan and they drive enough air and water to make swimming upwind to a life raft considerably more interesting and more realistic.
Some more of the wide variety of lifeboats available for training at the Maritime Safety Center.
In the two photos above, our host Sam Eklow is teaching us about the life saving equipment found on most commercial ships, how it works, and later in the day we’ll be trying much of this gear ourselves. In the right picture he is describing the operation of one design of large ship escape shoot and how to safely use it.
Sam describing the various types of safety equipment packed with liferafts. The Maritime Safety Center walls are full of safety equipment with details on application and how it works.
On the left above are three forms of survival suit ranging from an excellent cold water immersion suit, a one-hour suit in the middle, and a work suit on the right. The second picture is of a thermal protective aid used to rewarm hypothermia victims. This is a better version of a warm-up blanket where it’s a fully-insulated sleeping bag that can be used with the patient alone or with a healthy person as a gentle heat source.
The Hamnar hydrostatic release, common all over the world, is shown above. These devices allow a life raft to be tied firmly and securely in place such that even a boarding wave won’t move them. But, when under water, they release a spring-driven guillotine that cuts the rope and releases the lifeboat ensuring the lifeboats are released as a ship sinks even if they haven’t already been manually deployed. We have two of these on board Dirona: one is on the life raft and the other is on our EPIRB.
In the second picture Sam has triggered the hydrostatic release and you can see how it works. The short section of rope provides a very strong tie down but, once the hydrostatic release is under water, the rope is cut by an internal guillotine which releases the rope loop. Here you can see the loop cut away.
Over coffee James described to the MSC team some of the high points of our trip around the world in Dirona. From left to right are Jarkko Gestranius, Sam Eklow, Jens Boeving, Susann Friman and Johanna Mattsson. Kristoffer Joelsson was also present, but not pictured.
Given we were talking to maritime safety professionals, it’s not surprising we were asked “any scary moments?” We have had two: 69.1 Degrees and Alarms at 1:15am. Both these events still feel big but it’s kind of amazing that in more than 10,000 hours and after crossing every ocean including the Atlantic twice, we really haven’t seen that much that was uncomfortable. In 76,000 miles and all those hours, we’ve really only have 12 hours of discomfort. That feels like a pretty good deal to us.
A local newspaper came in to interview us, and in the right photo above are taking a picture of us in front of the training pool a floor below.
Flipping Inverted Liferaft
Jennifer showing she can get into a survival suit faster than James can. Also pictured is Susann Friman of the Maritime Safety School, who will be accompanying us in the water.
James has been told he’s on a sinking boat with a life raft deployed upside-down. In the photos above, he’s jumping in to swim to the deployed life raft, right it and climb in.
In the left photo above, James has landed in the water and returned to the surface with the life jacket just starting to inflate. We were expecting the lifejackets would inflate as soon as we hit the water, but there was a small delay and they weren’t fully inflated until after we’d reached the surface. At right, his life jacket is now fully inflated and he can start swimming to the life raft where he’ll have to right an upside down raft and climb in.
Above, Jennifer is doing the same exercise and has finished swimming to the upside down raft where she is climbing up onto the bottom. In the second picture, she has grabbed onto the bottom and is leaning back which will flip the raft over.
Above, Jennifer has the life raft starting to flip over into its proper floating position before she can board it. Once the life raft has flipped over, she needs to keep a hold of the raft strap and swim out from underneath it.
Jennifer has come up from underneath the now upright raft.
Above, James is boarding the 12-person life raft after it has been inverted.
The process of righting an inverted life raft is fairly simple. You climb onto the bottom of the upside down raft, grabs the bottom, and then fall back holding the bottom of the raft. This works surprisingly well but the raft will land on top which can be a bit disorienting the first time but it’s pretty easy. You just need to keep a grip on the boat, swim to the outside, find the door, and then climb into the life raft. The only hard parts are climbing up onto the bottom of the overturned life raft and then, once it’s righted, climbing in.
In the background of the pictures of Jennifer righting the raft, James is visible climbing the pilot ladder. If we ever do lose a boat at sea and are lucky enough to be spotted by a commercial boat, the most likely form of rescue will be for the rescuing boat to lower their pilot’s ladder. This is the ladder that pilots often use to get from the pilot boat up to the boarding stairs or rarely all the way to the top of the boat they are boarding.
James found that climbing the ladder in full survival gear from the water is actually fairly difficult if your technique isn’t great. The trick is to get your arms as far above your feet as possible. This helps the ladder stay close to the boat and allows fairly easy climbing. But, if your hands too low, the ladder pivots at your hands and pulls back from the boat with your feet staying at the boat. In this climbing mode, you are essentially climbing upside down and it’s very tiring.
In the picture above, James is resting above the water after climbing the ladder without keeping his hands far enough above his feet (a tiring way to climb) and is watching Jennifer get the life raft upright.
Since we use a six-person hard shell life raft, Sam decided to get us one to deploy, to get a real world view of what’s it’s like to deploy a life raft from a boat. He selected a recently-donated life raft to use and here is demonstrating how to deploy it. He has thrown the hard shell assembly into the water with Jennifer holding the life raft line. She is quickly pulling out the line and, at around 30 meters, it’ll hit the end, and the next tug will cause auto-inflation.
Jennifer has just hit the end of the life raft line and has given the quick tug required to trigger the auto-inflate mechanism. It didn’t, so she pulled harder and we could hear a thump and the life raft was bulging at it’s seams but it still didn’t inflate. Jennifer snapped the line hard again but it was pretty clear that the raft wasn’t going to inflate. It was bulging against its seams but not deploying. Above right, Sam has cut the bands that hold the raft in the hard shell case to allow it to partially deploy.
With the straps cut the raft partially deploys but it’s clear that either the gas cylinder wasn’t properly charged or it’s leaked out over the years. This is kind of frightening since this life raft was inspected by an authorized life raft service shop 2 years ago but if ever there was a time to learn about failure, it’s on the side of a wave pool in the Maritime Safety Center rather than in the North Atlantic.
We pulled the raft over to the “swim platform” and used a shrader valve bike pump to fully inflate it. The good news is that we have such a pump on board and it did pump up quickly. I’m guessing it would pump even more quickly when standing on a sinking boat :-).
The fully inflated six-person life raft. The supplies from the bottom of the life raft, above right, were complete and in good condition. The only problem appears to be the inflation cylinder wasn’t properly charged or the O-ring that seals the bottle has leaked. With either of these failure modes, it’s quite likely the liferaft would not have inflated even within its service period. That’s a good argument for a second liferaft.
Both of us both practicing swimming across the pool up-wind and into the rain towards the life raft and climbing in. The second photo above gives a good view of the waves. Later we were testing in the dark with all light into the pool sealed off, the wave machine up to full, and in heavy rain. It felt pretty realistic.
Jennifer following James into the life raft. We were both successfully “rescued” at the Aland Maritime Safety Center.
The entire time we were training in the pool, it had been snowing outside. Even above 60°N in Aland, this is unusual for May. When the curtains were pulled back to let the light back in after night testing, we saw a heavy snow coating everywhere. We had to go out and see it in person. Pictured with us is Susann Friman of the Maritime Safety School.
Large Ship Evacuation
Larger ships present additional challenges. Not only do you need to get into a life raft but you also need to get down from the passenger or crew decks to the raft deployed to the water below. Some ships are set up to deploy life rafts with passengers already boarded but many deploy the rafts to the water below and use slides to get to the rafts.
Above you can see the two slides we’ll be using. On the right is a conventional slide used on many ships and aircraft. On the right is a vertical drop shoot where a full-speed descent is arrested by friction through frequent narrower sections of the tube as you drop towards the water.
Above left is a view down the slide from the top. It’s a fair distance down but the slide works well and the speed of descent is easy to control. On the right Jennifer is heading down the slide using her feet pushing outward against the slide walls to slow her descent.
James heading down the vertical slide, above. You can see him moderating his speed by pushing his hands forward which generates more friction and slows descent rates.
James coming out of the bottom end of the vertical slide before dropping into the life raft.
That wasn’t bad, even though it was straight down.
Outside in the snow where the high speed rescue boats are stored. Looking up you can see the 31 person life raft that is made to be launched down the slide before dropping the final 9 meters into the water. That must be a ride! The view from the top of the life raft slide gives a perspective on how far that boat is going to fall during launch.
Sam Eklow opened the life raft at the top of the slide so we can see how it works. The seats in the life raft have their backs to the front so the shock of hitting the water and the G-force that results from it is just forcing you deeper into the back of the chair. On the right above is a view of the life raft and its slide to get a perspective on how far they fall. It looks to be a long way but we’re told that the impact isn’t that bad. In some ways, the popping back up to the water surface feels more disorienting than the impact on the way in.
A photo at the Aland Maritime Safety Center showing the life raft just after impact from a launch from the top of the slide.
A rescue boat designed to be lowered from a rescue vessel to load up people in the water and then hoist them to safety. The normal use case is to drop in a high speed rescue boat and then this life raft. The boat and/or rescue swimmers get people to the life raft for hoisting onto the rescue boat.
It was a cold day for early May with snow accumulating all over but was even more surprising was that the sea surface was just starting to freeze.
For most mariners the threat of fire ranks in the top two risks to be most avoided. For sure, the best defense against fire is prevention. After prevention, early detection and effective fighting are the best options available this is an area where practice can make a very big difference.
In facility pictured here at the Maritime Safety Center in Aland, there are actually two firefighting test areas. The area on the right is called the cold area where thick smoke fills the “ship”. Students have to work their way through the hallways to rescue possibly trapped or injured crew members or passengers. To the left is the hot area, where massive propane burners create hot and dangerous areas to practice rescue and escape.
The second picture above shows one of the dummies that needs to be “rescued” from the hot area of firefighting test facility.
Pictured above are a galley and bunk room inside the cold (smoke filled) training area of the fire-fighting test facility.
Aland Maritime Safety Center
Our host Sam Eklow and Jennifer beside the Aland Maritime Safety Center service van.
The video above gives an overview of the facilities available at the Aland Maritime Safety Center. Our favorite part of the video is watching the launch of the lifeboat down the slide and through free to the water below with up to 31 crew members.
The Aland Maritime Safety Center team. What an excellent experience this was. If we ever have to deploy our life raft in an emergency we’re in a much better position having launched and boarded a raft several times. The practice can really make a big difference to your overall odds of survival.
If you are a commercial mariner, you will already have taken SCTW courses and will be taking periodic refreshers. Some of our recreational boating friends having taken SCTW courses even though it’s not a formal requirement. Having spent some time with aspects of the SCTW curriculum, we can see why they found the experience valuable. We recommend that all recreational boaters that operate in cold waters or plan to go off shore, take a course that includes life boat deployment and use.