In the army, the moment you were over water, you wore a PFD, or personal floatation device. As an engineer we had to build bridges and that meant once we were over the ‘wet gap’, we wore the PFD. Not easy when you had to also wear full webbing and a slung L1A1 SLR. When we operated assault boats, heavy ferries or any other form of water craft, we wore a pfd. On Exercise Drought Master in 1980 I ‘sold’ dozens of them to troops we ferried across the Darling River. Exchanged the pfds for cigarettes, beer and other goodies. After all, we hadn’t signed for them, some infantry battalion had done that, then discarded them after they made their assault across the river.
As a sailor of small boats I have been out in seas that had the top of the mast below the crest of the wave before the hull was at the bottom of the trough. Scary stuff but after a while you realise the sea is just doing what the sea does and so too your 19 foot Savage Nautilus sloop. At times like that i was always grateful for the self inflating pfd I wore. If I were knocked overboard, even unconscious, my pfd would automatically inflate when I hit the water and turn me face up. After that, given I was usually out at sea alone, I would have to fake it until help arrived. Mind you, in those seas I always had a safety line tethering me to the boat. If I did go M.O.B. I would be dragged along until I could come to and haul myself back aboard.
If I learnt one thing sailing small boats on big seas was that preparation is the key. Preparation and attention to detail. Having the anchor ready in case you needed to stop yourself being blown onto a lee shore. Having fenders close at hand or already out when close to boats and jetties. Knowing your safety procedures, having a working radio and EPIRB, checking the pumps work before you flood the bilge and having the engine ticking over in case you needed to get away from a tricky lee shore when wind against tide made it less than guaranteed you could go about without going into irons.
I have been scared witless in Sydney Harbour! Crossing the mouth of the harbour when big seas are running or trying to get back in from out the Heads and watching the Manly Ferry corkscrew its way across, bow out of the water with enough air from keel to crest of wave to drive a car under. At times like that you fell back on the level of your training and relied on the quality of your seamanship. There was no room for error and no place for half measures. This was not a theme park, it was nature, real life. Or death.
Too many take the sea, and water in general, for granted. It is such an intrinsic part of our makeup yet it can be lethal. Never turn your back on the sea, she will win every time.