Alone At Sea In An Inflatable Boat

This morning while I was perusing some documents for an EOD group I was brought back to a conversation I recently had with a sailor. We went on about our experiences in the inflatables as part of our military duty and one thing that came up was how utterly alone you feel when it’s just you and the Z Boat on the open ocean. Some of my experiences in the 80s and 90s mirrored his while serving in the U.S. Navy today. Spend a night with just you and the ocean in an inflatable boat and you begin to get an idea of just how hard Dr. Alain Bombard’s journey really was.

To those of you who are scratching your heads on this name it was likely before your time. You have to go back to 1952 in order to remember the achievement of crossing the Atlantic adrift in a prototype Zodiac Inflatable Boat. 

Up until then the World really didn’t understand the oceans at all and those that did were a salty bunch who spent very little time ashore. Everyone knows who Cousteau is and his legend lives on through his children and grandchildren, but who was Dr. Bombard? Suffice it to say Dr. Alain Bombard was the man who wrote the book on surviving at sea, much of which is still utilized today.

Reading his book “Naufragé Volontaire” imparts some of the feelings he had, but spending time on “The Pond” is it’s own lesson learned and once you have you begin to see the incredible fortitude it takes to survive being lost at sea. I used Zodiac Inflatable Boats as a support tool to accomplish whatever mission laid before us but I always had a place, a ship, or a submarine to go to when it was done. Bombard didn’t, Bombard only had the wind in his face and the weather on his head day in, and day out, for months. If that won’t test a person’s resolve nothing will!

Dr. Bombard believed strongly that inflatable boats could save lives and he was right, so much so that virtually every ship at sea has to have an inflatable life raft in order to make passage with it’s precious cargo. Many pleasure boats utilize Zodiac Life Rafts like commercial and professionals do because of the sheer size of the oceans, and the ability to survive until rescue aboard one. Modern Life rafts have supplies such as fresh water/food rations and are designed to accommodate a certain number of people. 

My rule of thumb is to have a life raft with capacity for every soul aboard plus 2 if space allows. If not then multiple smaller boats to cover the full crew and it’s passengers at a minimum. Life rafts can come in a soft pack valise or a canister packed above decks model, and some may even offer hydrostatic release mechanisms that will deploy by themselves if there are no hands available to launch one in an emergency.

Life rafts are inspected and packed with a duty cycle and a shelf life. Reinspection and repacking of provisions or rations occurs when the time is up on the initial or subsequent pack dates. While I served this was a deck dept. job and the bosuns keep a sharp eye on things if a duty falls to them. Pleasure sailors and power boaters should follow the recommended pack dates and reinspection period to ensure that their life raft will be there when or if they need it. Hopefully none of us ever will need to get into a life raft in our lifetime but accidents can and do happen. You may be responsible for your own rescue once you are over the horizon.

Be prepared, have confidence of your ship or boats ability to withstand incredible damage and stay afloat, and always have an abandon ship plan in place. You can’t simply pull to the side of the road like you do when you’re driving a car, and you can’t swim forever either. Take a page from Dr. Bombard’s book and learn from his experiences alone on a big ocean.

To speak with Mike about a life raft call (503)235-2628 

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December 7th Pearl Harbor Day

I remember being stationed in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor and seeing first hand shards of twisted steel reaching for the heavens as clear as it was yesterday. It was 1989 and I was a young second class petty officer who dreamt of surfing the big waves and sailing over the horizon as an impetus to reenlisting for another 6 years. As an active duty sailor I had unfettered access to the many lochs that make up what we call Pearl Harbor. The scars of that unprovoked attack on US soil were still apparent everywhere I looked even then all those years later.

To say it was humbling would be an understatement, even where I was assigned barracks and where I ate my meals told the tales and housed the spirits of those who were wounded or lost their lives. Learning that where you slept and ate were once casualty centers and morgues covered in blood and stained with tears took it’s toll on sailors even then. When people ask me why I take off my cover/hat while on the mess decks or in a restaurant it’s to respect and honor the fallen. It was in these same such areas that were pressed into service during times of war and turmoil and many had died in those locations.

My barracks mate Stan and I were housed above the old morgue together in the “haunted side” of the facility. We were pretty much always left alone while we berthed there because the other service members and personnel steered clear from it’s ponderous past thinking it was full of ghosts.

Loading demolition gear aboard one of the many dive and salvage boats I was stationed on brought into focus even more twisted steel rusting in the salt. Sweating under the merciless sun loading tons of TNT, Dynamite and various High Explosives and seeing the death that surrounded us from the past would always make us pause to think to ourselves just how terrible it was for those who came and fought before us. Sure, we selfishly thought about our upcoming missions, and maybe even let a slight bit of fear creep in for a second, but it fell away like rain drops as we bolstered ourselves to be strong like our brother sailors from WW2.

I was lucky to have served after the second war to end all wars, I was lucky to have been under the command of such Naval luminaries as my old CO Mr. Helmcamp on the USS Reclaimer who would later lead the US Navy Dive School and many other commands. Learning from leaders in the junk boat community and special forces family helped to shape me into the man I am today, a salty dog whose been in a boat once or twice. Friends from the S.E.A.L. Teams, junk boats, E.O.D., Navy Divers, Shellbacks, SBU and Neptune’s Bastards all whom I call brothers remember what December 7th means to us today. Sitting in an inflatable boat in the pitch black on a big lonely ocean will make you believe in yourself, your Zodiac and God if you don’t already. To have experienced the tragedy of Pearl harbor all those years later and operate on some of the best Zodiac inflatable boats whilst trying to live up to the legacy of those who paid the ultimate price makes me respect the iron willed men who salvaged and refloated the fleet.

Zodiacs were clearing ordnance, rescuing lives, and getting our Navy back on it’s feet decades before I was even born. To those who served IBC salutes you and carries on the tradition of “Can Do” when facing insurmountable odds and danger.

On this day December 7th we will never forget.