In the Water: Two Salutary Tales

Posted in General News

Two lifesaving stories for you: one in which, at first, there seemed little hope, and one in which, at first, there seemed little risk. In both cases knowledge and skill saved a life. We can learn a few lessons.

In January a BBC documentary told the story of a young student who fell into the North Sea from a DFDS ferry one September night. "I just remember being near the barrier, looking out to sea and looking down," she said. "I don't know whether I leaned too far or the ferry moved or there was a gust of wind, but the next thing I knew I was falling."

She fell some 18 metres into a cold, rough sea. "My first memory is being above the water and seeing the ferry and it was already quite far away. It was the worst feeling I've ever had in my life – just being completely alone.

I remember shouting after the ferry, asking for it to come back, and at once the sheer terror kicked in... I never gave up. I did definitely come to the realisation that my time was up, but I don't think even then I ever gave up, I was always going to try for that not to happen."

The student had some luck on her side. She survived the fall; friends who had been with her on deck immediately raised the alarm; and the ferry had an excellent crew. Captain Andreas Kristensen takes up the story:

"I was in my office when the 2nd Officer told me there was a man overboard. To be honest, I expected that it would be extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to find anyone in the water, since it was already night-time and it was quite some sea.

You feel a huge responsibility and urge to find her, but still you know that you are looking for that needle in a haystack." The student had no detection aids.

Captain Kristensen turned his ship and launched his rescue boat. He also called for helicopter assistance, knowing that the aircraft was fitted with infrared cameras. And he told his passengers and crew what was happening.

It was people on deck who first spotted the student in the water – it is possible that they heard her cries before they saw her – and a team of paramedics among the passengers made themselves known to ship's staff.

They treated the student after the rescue boat had recovered her and before she was airlifted to hospital as a precaution. She herself remembers nothing of her recovery from the sea: it is clear that she would not have survived much longer.

The lessons? The swift and thoroughly seamanlike response of the DFDS ferry's crew was exemplary. To get back to the man-overboard position requires navigational skill, and not all ships will launch rescue craft at night or in poor conditions. This crew was well-trained and ready.

The use of passengers and crew as extra lookouts has been debated in the past – you have to be sure that over-excited passengers will not put themselves in danger while trying to help, and you have to have a system for dealing with their reports – but it proved its worth here. Keeping the passengers fully informed also produced important additional resource in the shape of the paramedic team.

Captain Kristensen's knowledge of the SAR services available to him locally, and his early alerting of them, provided a very effective 'Plan B'. And, last but not least, the student's own attitude helped save her life. She knew the danger, but she did not panic: she did not give up. That added time to her survival: just enough time...

We are grateful to Mario Vittone for our second story – see his blog at He tells of a skipper who dived fully-clothed into the sea to swim fast towards a couple splashing in the water between their anchored sportfisher and the beach.

"I think he thinks you're drowning," the husband said to his wife. "We're fine, what is he doing?" she asked, a little annoyed. "We're fine!" the husband yelled – but the skipper swam straight between them. Directly behind them, not ten feet away, their daughter was drowning.

"Drowning doesn't look like drowning," says Mario. It's not the violent splashing and cries for help that TV has taught us to expect. "Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event." In this case the child did not utter a sound until the boat skipper pulled her from the water.

Mario cites Dr Francesco A Pia's description of the Instinctive Drowning Response, in the United States Coast Guard's On Scene magazine (Fall 2006 edition).

  Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. Breathing takes precedence. 
Drowning people's mouths are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help.
Drowning people cannot wave for help. They instinctively extend their arms laterally and press down on the water's surface.
Drowning people cannot control their arm movements. They cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people's bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued, they can only struggle on the surface of the water for 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

"Sometimes," says Mario, "The most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don't look like they're drowning. They may just look like they are treading water. One way to be sure? Ask them, 'Are you alright?' If they can answer at all, they probably are.

"But if they just return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them."

Contact Info

International Maritime Rescue Federation
50 Allardice Street
AB39 2RA
United Kingdom

Telephone: +44 (0) 1569 767405

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