Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The what ifs

I think a lot about the "what ifs". What if something really bad happened? I don't really worry about medical emergencies. Being a WFA instructor, and having worked as an EMT and a Paramedic I know that I am either going to be able to handle a bad medical situation, or not. But I know I won't panic. I have treated hundreds if not thousands of patients. The what if  that keeps me up at night is this...

I am in rough water. Ocean. White Caps. I somehow end up out of my boat, and the water is too rough to get back in. She is also flooded. Here is the odd part of this particular what if scenario, they are looking for me. Maybe I got off a mayday call on the VHF. Maybe I hit 911 on my spot device. They are looking, and they don't see me. When it is really bad, I see them, and they still don't see me. The Cost Guard jet flies overhead low enough that I can smell its exhaust. Or when I am at the top of the swell I can see the Coast Guard Cutter. But they don't see me. No matter what I do, they don't see me.

I first started thinking about this close to thirty years ago when I read Adrift:76 days lost at sea by Steven Callahan. His sailboat sinks, unexpectedly in the middle of the night while crossing the Atlantic. He has time to evacuate. He launches his high end life raft, designed for 6 people. He grabs a survival ditch bag. And he waits. I forget at what point he sees his first ship, and uses 6 of his 9 aerial  flares, which the crew on the container ship never see. He estimates they are only a couple of miles away. He thinks he is saved, and they never see him. The problem is modern ships have very small crews. Particularly at night, there may only be one person on the bridge of even a supertanker. At the end of Cast Away with Tom Hanks, a container ship slides past him in the water. Close enough to hear the PA system on board. They see him, and bring him to safety. In reality, they would have gone right past him. They never would have seen him. It's a fairytale.

I am viewed as somewhat fanatical about the gear I carry when I am kayaking. In the front pocket of my pfd is a rescue strobe, a chemical light stick, a compass, a mirror on a string, a really loud whistle and a Buddhist good luck charm. I also always have a dry bag in the cockpit with me. It contains sunscreen,  another chemical light stick, power food, and a water additive. My cell phone is powered off, in a hard pelican case. Waterproof. Crushproof. No matter where I am paddling I have this gear with me. On a lake, I have a rescue strobe. Many call it overkill, but I like to know I never have to repack. I grab my PFD and it is there. ready to go. I would like to upgrade from a spot connect, to an ACR PLB. I like how robust it is. How prepared for the what ifs it is.

My brother texted me recently. He sails, and is in the process of buying a new boat. The boat is in St Martin, and a hired crew will bring it to Florida, and then up the coast to where he lives in New York. He asked if I wanted to meet him in Florida, and sail the coast to North Carolina. Sailing the coast didn't really interest me, but the thought of sailing from St. Martin to the US did. Twenty years ago I spent two weeks sailing in the British Virgin Islands, but I haven't sailed on open ocean and would really enjoy that. I immediately started thinking about the gear I would pack. All of it fell into the what if category. Dry suit, PFD, SPOT, VHF, GPS. I would have to stand watch, and if I had to stand watch at night, I would do it wearing this gear. People get washed overboard all the time. In the book the perfect storm they talk about a fisherman whose hand gets hooked on a long line being let over the stern of the boat. It is rolled out from a  large drum. A man connects a drop line to the main line, the drop line is covered with hooks and chemical light sticks. He then throws the drop line over the side. The main line is miles long with a radio beacon on both ends so they can retrieve it hours or days later. One of the thousands of hooks went through his palm and yanked him off the deck. One second he is on the deck, the next he is in the water. It happens so quickly that not a sound is made. You could just turn around to say something to him, and he is gone. You might think he just fell overboard until you retrieve the line a couple of days later, with your friend on it.

I don't know where my fear of being searched for and not found comes from. I grew up on boats. Father had boats, when I was fifteen I had a boat. I have always loved the water. But somewhere this fear of being searched for and not found surfaced.

Years ago I had a scary realization. When a kayak is upside down in the water, particularly rough water, with white caps, the white overturned hull would look just like a wave. Despite the fact that my boat is 17 feet long and red, searchers would probably only see its overturned hull, which is bright white. Just like surf. And even though I am wearing a red dry suit, with a red pfd, all that would be above the water would be my head. When they are searching for a swimmer, they are looking for something about the size of a volleyball. In the water. The open water. Miles of open water. They could fly right over you, and never see you. It is like looking for a needle, in a pile of needles.

Trapped on a  desert island is a walk in the park compared to lost at sea. It rains in the tropics, there is food and trees on tropical islands. Survival is easy. One of the islands I stopped on when I was sailing in the BVI was Jost Van Dyke. It is three square miles of lush beauty. Yeah, a tropical island is easy.

A few months ago I read a wonderful book that brings the "stranded on a tropical island" theme to a new realm. What if you were trapped on a desert planet. Mars. Not only isn't there water, or shelter, there isn't even air. Ironically, it probably wouldn't be that hard to find an astronaut trapped on a Mars. The problem is getting to him. I have been reading a lot of Sci Fi lately, and I learned that getting to something in orbit, isn't like on a boat. You can't point your nose at something and fire an engine, because your orbits altitude is dictated by your speed. It takes heavy math to get from one orbiting location to another. In the film Gravity, when they go from the ISS to the Chinese space station it wouldn't be as easy as point and go. Which means if you were trapped on Mars, it is conceivable that the rescue ship could make it to you, and screw up the orbit, and go right by. Almost close enough to see you. It would go right by at 18,000 miles an hour. If it skimmed the atmosphere you might even see your rescue ship, as it raced away without you.

This was all brought back to me when I saw the second trailer for The Martian. It is the ultimate survival scenario. Alone, on a  planet, with no air, water or food. Now I have something new to keep me up at night.

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