Man Over Board!

Putting on a Personal Flotation Device should be as automatic as fastening a seat belt in a car. Here’s why!

Wearing a Personal Floatation Device (PFD) or a life jacket is important even on a good day.

Summer is here and many of us love messing about in boats. Do you wear a personal floatation device (PFD) when you are on the water, even when it’s flat calm, or you are just making a short trip from the dock? Maybe you are strong swimmer and don’t see the need? If you are one of the many people who don’t then this true story might make you pause and think, because accidents are, by their very nature, unforeseen and unpredictable.

After several years of living on a sailboat, I must admit I had become quite blasé about water safety. Then one day, about 20 years ago, three of us could have died, and only a bizarre second “accident” prevented a tragedy. Here is the story and some of the lessons learnt.

It was a beautiful, late spring day and I was sailing along the UK’s south-west coast. A light breeze was blowing as I dropped anchor off the sleepy Cornish village of Cawsands. I was about 500 meters from the beach which, at this time of year, was only lightly populated with tourists. The only other boat in the area was a small sailboat, about 15 feet in length and crewed by a man and a child.

I was preoccupied with setting the anchor when I heard a distant splash. It was obviously a little more significant than a fish jumping from the water and it distracted me enough to look up. I was alarmed to see that the little sailboat, about 200 metres distant, now only had one occupant, a small child, who sat perfectly still at the rear of the boat, which was still moving under sail.

When I saw an arm rise from the water, some distance behind the boat, then disappear again below the waves the shocking reality of the situation I was becoming involved in started to sink in. Figuring that it would take too long to pull up the anchor and get underway, I threw my very small, inflatable tender over the side of my boat, grabbed a paddle and headed towards a struggling figure in the water.

As I headed towards him, I noticed that the sailboat, its sails full in the light breeze, was starting to turn out to sea. As it passed nearby I realised that its traumatised occupant was probably only 4 or 5 years old. “Do you know how to steer?” I shouted. No response came – he was frozen with fear and I was concerned that a gust of wind could capsize his boat at any moment. There was no way I could paddle fast enough to catch up with him so I concentrated a reaching the swimmer, who unlike the child, was not wearing a PFD and was clearly in considerable difficulty. At least, I thought, somebody ashore must have seen what happened and initiated a rescue.

After an exhausting few minutes of paddling I pulled alongside the man in the water. He was a big man, very overweight, exhausted and frightened. I could see blood in the water from a gash in his side. His knuckles whitened as his stiff hands gripped the line that ran alongside my little inflatable. I realised that pulling him aboard was going to be impossible, as he was already too weak to assist. A combination of shock and hypothermia in the cold Atlantic waters were taking hold. “OK, I want you to hold on and I’m going to paddle us ashore,”I said realising at the same time I was being very optimistic as wind and tide where conspiring to push us further out to sea. He was too exhausted to answer but made a feeble attempt to pull himself out of the water. I instinctively reached out to help him and tried in vain to heave him aboard, but I became alarmed as the tender started to buckle under the load, leading to a situation that could quite easily end up with both of us in the water.

At this point, a bizarre piece of luck occurred which probably saved lives. In the struggle with the swimmer I had lost track of the sailboat, which thanks to mother nature and some random sail settings, had come around in a wide circle and was now moving at a brisk pace and on collision course with us. The first I knew about it was when my tender was stuck with a dull thud from behind, nearly catapulting me into the water. Somehow in the confusion I managed to grab hold of the sailboat’s rigging and hold on for dear life. It turned out to be our salvation, as I managed to clamber on board, find some rope and put it around the man in the water. It was still impossible to pull him aboard so I set sail for the beach, dragging him and my inflatable alongside us.

As we approached the shore, the young boy sat opposite me, shaking and speechless, tears rolling down his cheeks. Looking towards the village the realisation dawned on me that the frantic running about and launching of boats I had expected to see just wasn’t happening. Life was going on totally oblivious to the drama on the water.

As I later paddled back to my boat, I patted myself on the back for a job well done with one hand, and hit myself over the head with the other for not wearing a PFD myself. Putting on a PFD should be as automatic as fastening a seat belt in a car. Remember, being a great swimmer isn’t any help if you are injured or knocked unconscious during a fall overboard – only a PFD is likely to save you!

There were other lessons to be learnt too.

  • Two or more adults should be available when taking young children onto the water.
  • Have flares or other signalling devices readily at hand and know how to use them. Looking back, if I had taken 30 seconds to fire off a flare or sound the horn before jumping into the tender, I would have alerted people ashore and made a successful outcome more certain.
  •  Understand that if some one falls overboard you may not be able to get them back on board easily. This is where a floating line, lifebuoys, and boarding ladders become important together with a predetermined plan that everyone on board understands.
  •  Briefing your crew about the location and operation of safety devices, as well as man overboard procedures, is an essential responsibility of the skipper. Putting it off because it “might alarm the crew” or set a sombre tone is misguided. Ultimately, remember, it may be the skipper who needs rescuing!

Bush Flying – A Pilots Dream Or Dangerous Nightmare?

This year has been marred by many tragic plane and helicopter crashes in remoter areas of Canada, the most notable being First Air’s 737 in Resolute which killed twelve and injured three, and Arctic Sunwest’s Twin Otter Float-plane that crashed in the centre of Yellowknife killing its crew of two and injuring seven passengers.

These are just two of several fatal accidents that reached national headlines but of course there have been others, some less serious, including my own, which occurred as I was flying workers and supplies into a remote mining strip. Although my passengers and I were badly shaken, there were no serious injuries and we were all able to walk away from the crumpled and partially submerged wreck of the small, fixed-wing plane. It was a humbling and life changing experience.

Later, my employer calmly told me that my accident was actually “the fourteenth wreck at that particular airstrip.” He knew exactly what conflicting emotions I was feeling, but “stuff happens” and like many well seasoned bush pilots (and I consider him one of the very best) he had “been there – done that.” Given the fact that this rather nasty airstrip is currently in the epicentre of a rather frantic new gold rush, it may be only a matter of time before wreck number fifteen occurs and its victims may not be as lucky.

What drives pilots to work in such dangerous environments? In the bush plane world it is definitely not the high salary since this type of flying often pays no more than an average blue-collar trade in Canada (although helicopter pilots usually fare better).

In the very long days of the very short northern summer, pilots can find themselves on duty for 14 hours a day, often in far less than ideal conditions. Much of a pilot’s time is not spent in the air – they are usually loading and unloading aircraft, cleaning and refuelling them and at the end of the day they will spend what can be several hours completing what seems like volumes of mandatory paperwork. Fitting in a healthy meal and getting 8 hours sleep are real challenges.

Yet, there are career bush pilots who thrive in these conditions. They find the challenges, the risk management, the camaraderie and self-sufficiency are exciting and enjoyable. These people are the true professionals and the backbone of the industry, but even so, few of them are immune to lapses in judgement when subjected to strong commercial pressures. They are only human after all.

Young, aspiring airline pilots are often lured into the bush with memories of heroic bush pilot adventures they have read and the promise of those invaluable flying hours they will need to land a job in the more lucrative and safer right seat of a 737. They find themselves on a very steep learning curve requiring close mentorship and many leave to fly more complex aircraft as soon as the opportunity arises. I know that, when I fly as a commercial passenger, I would much rather be sitting in that 737 knowing that the pilot at the controls had served his time in the bush, rather than someone straight out of aviation college.

I enjoy working in the bush. It allows me to experience parts of the world others seldom see. Wilderness flying is pure adventure and I do it because I love it. The fact that, in the course of this work I also meet some wonderful, interesting people, is a bonus.

Unfortunately, there are operational realities that make this one of the most hazardous occupations in North America. To start with, bush strips are often miles from the nearest road. It takes little more than a chain saw and a bulldozer and then you are open for business. There is no safety net of air-traffic controllers or emergency vehicles with crews waiting to roar down the runway and cover crashed air planes with fire suppressing foam. Often, in the mad rush to stake claims and mobilise crews, these small airstrips gradually become surrounded by oceans of fuel drums, supplies and make-shift camps, as well as the usual inquisitive and unwelcome wildlife – all creating serious hazards to arriving and departing aircraft.

Weather is frequently a factor in accidents. In Northern Canada, weather reporting facilities are scarce and, in truth, many experienced pilots quite rightly pay less attention to forecasts and rely more on personal observations and interpretations.

As long as we continue to extract resources from remote areas, bush pilots will be needed. Wilderness flying will never be as safe as scheduled air transportation. Most people willing to go into the bush, whether as pilot or passenger, know that it is an adventure and as such has risks and benefits. Everyone involved should be well aware of those risks and weigh them carefully.

Bush operations could, and should, be made safer. Satellite tracking technology – which effectively narrows a search for a missing aircraft down to a small area – is now affordable even for small charter companies and it seems just common sense that aircraft operating in remote areas should be fitted with these devices. Perhaps it’s time to make them mandatory. Canadian pilots are allowed to work much longer hours than pilots in the US or Europe and fatigue undoubtedly contributes to some accidents. So why do we allow such long hours? Why are dangerous environmental conditions allowed to develop at busy bush airstrips?

Flight safety is a collective responsibility with the pilot at the “sharp end.” Only when all stakeholders – pilots, operators, clients, passengers and regulators stop to consider why we do things the way we do and start tackling some of the issues will these risks diminish.

So remember, the next time you hear the term “pilot error” quoted as the “cause” of an aviation accident, be aware that the pilot was probably just the final link in a very long and over-stretched chain of decisions, over-expectations, necessities and under-regulated work environments.

Barrels and parked aircraft line the edge of this busy mountain strip, creating a serious hazard.

Copyright David Skelhon, 2011