Boat Life Part 3: Safety
Safety is a big word, and is not intended to sound more dramatic than it is, but does play a big role in daily life on Exiles. Safety at sea is not something to be taken lightly where seemingly small issues can have potentially devastating consequences. Add the reality of the harsh Arctic environment and the margins of error become even slimmer.
Safety encompasses many aspects of our trip, and ultimately on the shoulders of our Captain Nick, but we all need to be responsible and prepared. There is of course significant amounts of equipment that need to be in good working order: the boat itself, life vests, liferaft, immersion suits, EPIRB (emergency location device), flares, medical kit, etc. Then there is more of the day to day, from ensuring that we have enough fuel, water and cooking gas for the next leg of our trip, to scouring the wind and ice charts to ensure that we are navigating a safe route, to keeping essential equipment on board well maintained. Even mundane tasks such as washing and clearing up take a different dynamic at sea. Leave dishes or a cupboard door open, and soon you could have items flying across the cabin – not just a messy clean up job but potentially a few stitches needed to the head as well.
Nearly all equipment on board plays an important role and in a marine environment is also prone to stress and potential breakage. Careful maintenance and quick repairs are essential. Hours are poured into nursing our diesel Volvo Penta engine. For us, this is the equivalent of caring for a child. It needs regular checking, good quality nutrient being put through it (clean diesel, oil, water) and even nappy changes (seriously the engine has a nappy underneath it to catch any leaks). Up here, you need your engine to be working in tip top condition as you can’t rely on a coastguard or another friendly boat being around to get you out of a situation – you’re on your own.
Personal safety on deck is critical, where it can be a matter of life and death. Tragically, many very competent sailors have been lost to the seas in far fairer climes due to being knocked overboard in heavy weather, or even from a seemingly innocuous trip whilst on deck. Wearing life vests and being clipped into a security life line whilst walking/working on deck are a must. Most of the time you will be outside on ‘watch’ on your own with the rest of the team down below. A man overboard here could easily go un-noticed by your fellow crew members and it goes without saying that this could be fatal. The icy Arctic surface water in summer sits between 0 and 4^C, and if you end up in it you may have as little as 10-15 minutes before you lose consciousness. This adds another level of self precaution for all of us while we are on deck.
Finally, and it would not be without mentioning the infamous Titanic to portray a very real danger, colliding with (or being crushed by) ice. Icebergs are all around you and even worse, bergy bits – pieces large enough to sink our boat but at times virtually impossible to see as they bob and camouflage themselves between the waves. Broken pack ice can be a challenge, for example, when at anchor football size slabs of ice can soon be descending on you due to tidal currents or wind. As we discovered whilst at anchor once, the speed that this can happen is scary. We were lucky and managed to break free from its grasp, but it could have easily ended badly with us being haplessly dragged on the rocky shore. Whilst at sea huge expanses of pack ice can be tricky to find a way a safe way through, but more scary is the risk that the ice might close in behind you and trap you in. Negotiating these dangers requires constant attention and re-evaluation, and there are many occasions where we will all need to be on deck to have extra eyes and hands (armed with ice pushing poles) to find an appropriate channel to pick our way through. Someone might even need to be hauled up the mast to get a better vantage point.
We need to keep our wits about us, look out for each other, and look after our beloved ‘Exiles’, who’ll hopefully keep looking after us until the end ………