Survival at sea  and in business

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William Sisson

William Sisson

Less than a week before the Miami boat shows, I found myself pulling on a survival suit and jumping off the open transom of a boat and into 36-degree ocean water.

Crazy? Hardly. Four magazine colleagues and I had gone back to school, albeit a very specialized institute of higher learning. We were in the middle of a daylong sea survival course, with an emphasis on cold-water training, given by Survival Systems USA of Groton, Conn., which trains a host of organizations from around the world in surviving aircraft and marine emergencies ( In addition to emergency training, Survival Systems offers leadership and team development programs.

We’re all boat guys, so the training made sense in practical terms, since we spend a lot of time on the water, some of it cold enough to kill you in short order. But the lessons we learned went well beyond firing flares, climbing into a helicopter rescue basket and the dangers of cold shock.

The safety-at-sea team included (from left) Bill Sisson of Trade Only and Daniel Harding Jr. and Simon Murray of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

The safety-at-sea team included (from left) Bill Sisson of Trade Only and Daniel Harding Jr. and Simon Murray of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

I found plenty of similarities between the survival training and good business practices — and not just crisis management. Our classroom and on-water training demonstrated the importance of teamwork, leadership, preparation, communication, contingency plans and building redundant systems. All sound tenants of running a large or small business.

“The whole point of the class is to have a plan and to have a backup plan if that fails,” says survival instructor Steffan Uzzell, a former Navy corpsman.

How fast can trouble strike? We watched as the company’s training simulator, or “dunker,” was lowered to the in-house pool, where it sank beneath the surface and rolled over in four or five seconds, maybe less. Just watching this aircraft/vessel simulator founder was disorienting, especially given the special effects the company creates: The pool room lights went off, a mayday broadcast blared, simulated thunder and lighting (or cannon fire) rattled the nerves, cold water sprayed from giant overhead nozzle, and a powerful fan generated a breeze. It was enough to quicken your pulse and then some.

We learned the value of planning and training in real-world conditions. Don’t wait for real trouble to knock on your door — be it stormy weather or choppy economic waters — before you develop a strategy for dealing with it. “The time to learn how to fire off a flare is not 2 in the morning with a helicopter hovering overhead,” Uzzell says.

And we came to expect the unexpected — a dry suit that leaked enough water to numb an instructor’s legs from the calves down, a life raft that only partially inflated, flares that fizzled or didn’t fire at all. None of that was intentional or planned by the instructors.

An unexpected benefit of the training was the teamwork and camaraderie that developed among our five-person team. Once we were bobbing in the freezing sea, we were able to successfully execute several survival methods we’d learned in the classroom, all of which hinged on the ability to work together.

We arranged ourselves as a group into what is called a carpet formation, which involved locking arms with the person next to you and putting your legs around the survivor across from you. That enabled us to stay together as a group, float on our backs in relative comfort, share body heat, scan the sky and sea for 360 degrees, and support two “injured” survivors across our legs.

Once the life raft was tossed into the water, we formed a chain and swam to it as a group, lying on our backs and locking legs around the person in front and holding the legs of the person behind. Then we “rowed” in unison with our arms while one person at the head of the chain shouted stroke and served as lookout. Again, teamwork and communication.

We all had concerns about how difficult it would be to board the raft in bulky survival suits using a flimsy fabric ladder. Again, the technique we learned in the classroom proved extremely effective for getting into the raft.

“We went to Survival Systems to learn about safety at sea, but it ended up being a great team-building experience,” says Daniel Harding Jr., editor-in-chief of Trade Only sister magazine Power & Motoryacht. “Helping each other into a life raft brings you together in a way no amount of trust falls or zip lines ever could.”

All three methods worked as well in water as they did on the white board. And here’s the takeaway: There was no way we would have come up with these techniques on our own in a real emergency. They had to be taught and practiced.

Success in the workplace and on the water is enhanced if not predicated on advanced training and continuing education. Are you looking to get ahead in this industry? Find the right training and keep learning.

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue.


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