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Bill Sisson, Dan Harding, and Simon Murray

Bill Sisson, the author and Simon prepare for the plunge.

I kicked my feet as hard as I could—fighting against the incredible buoyancy of my survival suit—trying to right myself. With wet, freezing fingers I struggled to wipe the salt water from my face. My eyes adjusted and through fogged up, crooked sunglasses I spotted our liferaft in the distance.

I never thought I’d find myself in this situation, treading water in Long Island Sound on a 38-degree day (with 36-degree water) in February. Thankfully, this exercise was planned; five colleagues and I were neck deep in an at-sea survival course taught by Survival Systems USA in Groton, Connecticut.

Our morning began in the classroom, where we were led through survival theory and preparedness lessons, complete with an exam at the end. The afternoon portion was hands-on—or rather survival suit-on—instruction during which we practiced various drills. We arranged ourselves in a “carpet formation” in the water, which involved holding one another’s legs close to our chests. There was also the chain formation, which involved wrapping your legs around the person in front of you and paddling in unison with your arms. I like my coworkers but I (and our HR department) hope we don’t get any closer.

We then boarded a liferaft, fired off different types of flares and were challenged to taste survival rations (a carb- and calorie-rich biscuit). Our instructor looked on in shock as we choked them all down before ripping into the survival water to wash it down. “Well, we’ve been in the liferaft for four minutes and we ate all the rations. Not a good start,” I offered. “I’ve never seen someone actually eat them,” said the longtime instructor.

The author in his Mustang Survival Suit

The author in his Mustang Survival Suit

After braving Long Island Sound, we found ourselves immersed in another body of water, albeit a much warmer one: the indoor pool at Survival Systems. There, we practiced being lifted from the water by a Coast Guard helicopter basket. Don’t think that sounds so bad? Neither did we until they shut off the lights and hit us with freezing rain and wind, and blared the sound of gunfire just for good measure. It gets your heart pumping in a hurry.

We completed the course around 6:00 p.m. then took part in a local, time-honored, seafaring tradition—a round(s) of pints at the Griswold Inn in nearby Essex. We sat around the table joking, laughing and reliving our experience well into the night.

The thing that struck me most about the course was how much I learned. As a lifelong reader of survival stories, I thought I was a strong student of the subject. My boss, Editorial Director Bill Sisson agreed. “We probably would have locked arms when we got in the water,” he said. “But we never would have thought to put ourselves into that carpet pattern, or the chain formation.”

Those were just two of the life-saving strategies we practiced that day. You’ll find many more of the lessons we learned from Survival Systems USA in Managing Editor Simon Murray’s feature “Back to School” in our May issue.

I had a lot of fun going through the course; it was a team building experience that no amount of trust falls could ever replicate. It was also a sobering lesson in just how stressful any emergency at sea can be.

Be prepared. That’s the biggest takeaway I left survival school with and that’s what I hope you take away from our May 2018 issue. We can share survival advice with you; we can teach you why and how to pack a ditch kit and we can introduce you to a family that is alive today because they had the right electronics aboard. We can do all of that but it’s up to you to pack the right emergency supplies—and know how to use them—and practice MOB and other emergency scenarios with your crew. It’s up to you to be a safe boater.