We left the dock in a gray morning light. Dolphins rode in the bow wave as we passed Fort Sumter and headed towards the deeper water of the Gulf Stream for our transit north. During this travel time we will be getting ready for the 24/7 days of ROV operations, CTDs, Box Cores and trawls.
We prepared for potential emergencies, and that is where “Oscar” came into play. Oscar is a fabricated head and shoulders of a person, encased in immersion suit material, which was tossed overboard for our drill. Once he was spotted, we maintained a point on his location while the rescue boat was launched. After he was recovered, the report came back that he was “unconscious but still breathing,” which made us all smile, considering he really doesn’t even have lungs!
During our abandon ship drill we had the chance to feel a little bit more like Oscar. We arrived at our designated lifeboat position with the required pfd (personal flotation device), hat for the sun, long sleeved top and immersion suit. Then we each got a chance to try on our immersion suits to make certain that we had an appropriate size. Immersion suits are made of highly insulating material that also acts as a pfd. Because they have to fit a variety of wearers and be easy to don, the gloves and boots are large, making one look like “Gumby,” a cartoon character from the 1960s. It becomes difficult to recognize each other once we have them on. For me, the hardest part was rolling it back up so it would fit in its bag afterwards.
The NC Museum of Natural Sciences has just finished hosting “Titanic: the Artifact Exhibition” in the traveling exhibit gallery which inspired reflection on the value of these drills and the improvements in safety gear. A quick search on the history of pfds led to a great essay that traces flotation devices over time, from inflated goat skins used by the Assyrian Empire sometime around 865-860 BCE to the “Mae Wests” of World War II and the arrival of new synthetic materials which have greatly improved this gear. I wonder if, on her maiden voyage, those passengers had a an abandon ship drill? I wonder if the crew was fully briefed on what to do in case of a man overboard? I wonder how they prepared for an emergency? And even though we laugh in our Gumby suits, and smile as Oscar is retrieved, I am grateful for the commitment to safety from the ship, her crew and the science team.