Ready for a rescue: Navy conducts man-overboard drills in the Arctic Ocean
“In a real emergency we can’t control the weather”
For the navy, five minutes is the benchmark rapid response time for recovering a person from the sea.
For victims of a man overboard, five minutes is an eternity.
“Especially in the Arctic,” said Sub-Lt. Kevin Callahan. “Sea survival time is not good in these temperatures.”
As an officer of the watch in training, Callahan was in charge of running a man-overboard scenario on board the Royal Canadian Navy’s HMCS Charlottetown on Tuesdaya, Aug. 28, while the vessel sailed through the Davis Strait en route to Greenland.
The 134-metre naval frigate has been sailing in northern waters since early August, taking part in the annual Arctic military exercise, Operation Nanook. That exercise is now wrapping up and the vessel is heading south after a refuelling trip to Nuuk.
At the beginning of each deployment, the crew do at least two practice runs of this overboard rescue drill—and more as the trip continues.
Nunatsiaq News was on board for one scenario where the crew rallied to rescue Oscar, a dummy named for the nautical flag that is known internationally as a signal for “man overboard.”
Orange and floating, Oscar was easy to spot bobbing in the waves. But since a real person might not be so visible, the crew threw flares overboard to mark the place where the ship had been. The flares act as guides for the rescue team preparing to deploy from the ship on a small craft.
If it were nighttime, a whole string of flares would be thrown overboard, in a practice known as “sewing the gate.” This way the rescuers and bridge crew know what line the person they are saving could lie beyond as the ship retraces its path.
The seas are calm for this daytime drill, but it wouldn’t be uncommon to have to save someone in two- or three-metre swells, Callahan said, adding, “In a real emergency we can’t control the weather.”
It’s very uncommon for someone to fall off the ship, but if it happened, they would be rescued in a small, flat-bottomed boat lowered over the side of the ship by crane.
As a Zodiac driver and a rescue swimmer suited up to venture out in one of those boats, another sailor ran from person to person collecting names and bunk numbers for a head count known in the navy as a verification muster.
But, while the weather was cooperating, the engine for the small rescue craft wasn’t.
“The starboard Zodiac engine didn’t start. Immediately you have to start thinking, ‘What’s next?’” said Callahan.
It’s practise like this that trains sailors how to react when a rescue doesn’t follow the textbook procedure.
Thinking ahead of the ship
A successful rescue also depends on the navigation team that works to turn a ship as big as the Charlottetown around to route back.
“We call it thinking ahead of the ship,” Callahan said.
This time the bridge team steered the vessel around in a loop that left the floating victim and the small craft within the warship’s wake, and on the side of the vessel where waters are protected from the wind.
In this case that was the right, or the starboard, side.
This kind of manoeuvring creates a “lee,” or “an area where the seas and the winds are benign,” Callahan said.
Because the ship is in the North, during the drill Callahan and crew also had to keep an eye out for icebergs. The only nearby berg was about a mile and a half from the vessel, but if it had gotten within 800 yards of the ship, he would have had to do some manoeuvring to steer clear of that hazard, Callahan said.
Canada’s Halifax-class frigates like the HMCS Charlottetown have double hulls, but they are not strengthened for ice.
When the rescue scenario wrapped up, crew gathered on the bridge around the commander’s chair for a kind of post mortem.
The drill went well overall, but “it could have been a little quicker,” Callahan said. “We’re not just concerned about hypothermia, we’re concerned about drowning.”
An overboard victim could be unconscious or have broken bones.
Once Oscar was safely on board, the rescue swimmer stepped in to act as a rescued person, so the first-aid team could practise treating for shock and hypothermia, along with injuries.
A polar plunge
Earlier in the ship’s journey, more than a quarter of the company of about 200 did go overboard—but this was on purpose, for a polar bear dip.
Blocked from sailing into the High Arctic by heavy ice conditions in Lancaster Sound, the frigate found itself anchored for a few days in Frobisher Bay while finishing in the Canadian Armed Forces’ annual northern exercise, Operation Nanook. This gave the crew time for a swim that they weren’t able to schedule during a recent sail in the Bahamas.
If Iqaluit residents had been looking through a telescope, maybe they could have seen as many as 70 sailors heading for a dunk, one or two at a time, out in the bay.
In warmer waters, swimmers would have been seen scaling back up the side of the ship on a rope net. But frigid August temperatures called for a staircase and more organized boarding, including rescue swimmers out to practise, medics on standby and support crew ready with blankets for the successful, but shivering, polar dippers.