The day scientists tried to drown me

Published on February 19th, 2015

by Shirley Robertson, CNN
In a laboratory in the north of England, a group of scientists are playing God — or at least, they’re brewing up an almighty storm.

At the Extreme Environments Lab, elite sailors are quite literally thrown in the deep end, undergoing harrowing survival training in a pool as close to the Southern Ocean as you’ll find under one roof.

“I think for quite a lot of them it’s all a bit of a game to start with — they’re all jumping in the pool and having a bit of a laugh,” said Alistair Hackett, who runs the three-day advanced sea survival course at South Tyneside College in Newcastle.

“Then we turn the waves on. Then we turn the rain on and it’s pretty severe — you can’t really breathe properly with it hitting your face. Then we turn the wind on and all of a sudden it’s not quite like going to your local swimming pool anymore.”

Then it was my turn to join the 24 sailors in the pool, who were training ahead of one of the most brutal sporting competitions on the planet — the Volvo Ocean Race.

Wearing survival suits, we’re standing around what looks like an unfriendly industrial version of your local swimming pool. A siren starts, some unseen machinery strains somewhere deep below, the waters start to move, and as the air fills with spray from the overly aggressive rain makers, the wind machines kick in.

One by one we jump in. But it’s fine, because it’s a swimming pool. Very quickly though, it’s not ok — I’m searching for the features on my lifejacket, someone’s yelling something, but there’s too much noise. I’m struggling to fit the spray hood, struggling to stay safe, struggling to breathe.

The sea safety course is a thorough demonstration of what to expect on the open waters, teaching us how to swim in waves and spray, and right upturned life rafts. – Full story and video

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