Surviving inside an upside-down hull
The boat heels over suddenly for an unknown reason? it stays over, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. You hold on tight to avoid tumbling over.
In a flash, you are forced to admit what is now obvious: the boat is capsizing. The hull swings up and everything briefly comes to a standstill with the mast and sails floating, before it slowly sinks and overturns.
At that moment, when every second counts, you can only do what is vital. You’ve been through before it in your head, just in case. But of course, reality is very different from fiction. It takes immediate improvisation. The hull is upside down and will stay like that. All at once, this cocoon, which you knew so well, has become unrecognisable.
The world is turned upside down with the ceiling becoming the floor, everything you have carefully stored has been thrown upside down with kinds of the loose objects bouncing around with the motion of the waves. The water is icy cold. In this unknown universe, danger lies everywhere. The hull, buried in the water, is tossed around by the sea and the cabin has become a shaking prison. It is hard to stand up and move around. Each element of the cabin, now the wrong way up, is hanging from the ceiling, a permanent threat to your head in particular.
The biggest danger, however, comes from the sea. In the water, there is a rapid cooling effect and hypothermia is 30 times more intense than in the air. First come the shivers as the contraction of your muscles produces heat to make up for the sudden loss. But the body’s reaction rapidly exhausts your reserves of calories. If you remain in the water for very long, your body will move to another strategy, rather like a snail in its shell. The aim: do everything possible to protect your vital organs from the cold.
So, your blood moves away from the skin to avoid further cooling. The skin turns white and your muscles, which are no longer being nourished, will stiffen ? limiting your movement. Then, in spite of “going into hiding”, your overall temperature continues to fall. Your brain is gradually sent to sleep. Your pulse and breathing, which were initially accelerated to fight against the cold, will gradually slow down, as if you were hibernating. Once down to 30°, you lose consciousness. At 28° any chance of survival is remote. In water at 5°C, in normal clothes, you fall into a coma after about an hour, depending on various factors. Thick clothes and body fat improve your resistance to the cold.
On the other hand, if you move around in the water, that accentuates the loss of heat and tires the muscles. So the best thing to do is try to shelter out of the water. Even if you’re soaked, the rate cooling is much slower out of the water than in it. Put on your survival suit if at all possible ? the neoprene insulation keeps in the body’s heat for a long time. In this upside-down world, you feel your way to find things. But it is there where it is supposed to be. Put it on like you have learnt. The survival course and training sessions were there for a reason. Now, get organised and wait. There’s nothing else you can do. Remain confident. Think of Tony Bullimore, who capsized after losing his keel near the Kerguelens.
He endured five days of waiting for the rescue teams sheltering in the dark in the bow section. All he had to eat were a few pieces of chocolate. At the time, we were afraid he would asphyxiate with the carbon dioxide from his own breath. He could not renew the air he was breathing, as this is what was keeping his hull afloat. However, the fear was unfounded, as the gas dissolves in water ? that is all you need and he had plenty of that… The lack of oxygen is a bigger problem in such a confined space. During his row across the Pacific, Gérard d’Aboville experienced the problem. In storms he took to his tiny watertight cabin. To control the amount of oxygen, he lit a candle. When the flame began to waver, he knew it was time to renew his air supply. Think of Thierry Dubois and Raphaël Dinelli, who also experienced the anguish of overturned boats, which were gradually sinking in the particularly brutal 1996 Vendée Globe.
The situation concerning Raphaël was very worrying. It has become the perfect example in survival classes. In the Roaring Forties in the Indian Ocean, to the SW of Australia, the boat was slowly sinking, but was just sitting on the surface. Raphaël just had time to put on his survival suit and to climb on a deck covered in water. The water was 3°C. Waves kept hitting him and knocking him around, throwing him off the deck. Each time, he climbed back on and hung on. His fight to survive lasted almost 30 hours. When Pete Goss finally recovered him, his muscles were taut, and he was dozing. Pete, a former Royal Marine commando ran through all the checks. His conclusion: Dinelli’s body temperature was below 33°C.
At that point, it is difficult to warm up the body, and if not done properly it can be dangerous. The basic rule is to move the victim as little as possible. The warming up must be gradual and gentle. If you don’t have any other way to do it, the best way is simply to place your body against his and blow warm air into his mouth as he breathes in. Do not massage or rub the body to get the blood flowing as this will transfer the cold to the vital organs. Don’t give him anything to drink, unless you are certain that he is fully conscious.
Although he was close to the point of no return, Raphaël was not afraid to return to the race in 2000, then in 2004. This year he is out there again, sailing what is probably the hardest boat in the fleet. Having such a passion for the race is quite impressive. The cold is felt throughout the body. You shiver.
The reaction is due to the stress your body is under, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Find what you can to cover up. Put yourself in the foetal position to protect the most sensitive areas: the stomach, armpits, neck. And do all you can to get out of trouble before you reach the point Raphaël was at. As a keen sailor, you know that you have to be ready to act at any time, but to fight against hypothermia, the best method is to keep a cool head. Dr Jean-Yves Chauve