Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 8 – “We Take Beginners and We Make Them Do the Most Difficult Things at Sea”

Things were thrown into perspective a bit more for me out on the sea this afternoon when one of the instructors told me that the maneuver we were about to do is one of the most difficult things you can do at sea. And here we are, a whole lot of beginners, who’ve just garnered an understanding of the water.

Today’s maneuver was transferring people from one boat to another while both boats were still in motion. This involved the first boat maintaining a course and a constant speed while the second boat comes up beside it, matches its speed, and then cuts over into the other boat, literally making contact with it and then turning slightly into it in order to create friction between the two boats. It’s incredibly insane to think about now that its over, but this afternoon, we did this over and over again, ramming our boat into another moving boat and creating the opportunity for people to move from one boat to the other. Even in the crashing waves and even at high speeds, we were able to figure this out.

Before getting on the water, we also learned how to do a couple of different search patterns. If someone is lost at sea, there are multiple different ways to search for them in order to expand your chances of finding the needle in the haystack. Unfortunately, having to focus so much on our first task of transferring people from one boat to another, we didn’t get to do any search patterns, so I’ve promptly forgotten them all, having not had the chance to cement them in my brain by seeing them demonstrated.

This morning, the day began by being tested on our casualty care response. I was the first participant to go, quickly volunteering in an effort to just get it over with.I did okay, but not as well as I would have liked. Oh well, I’m not worried. We then had a brief one-hour session on boat repair and learned how to patch a whole with fiberglass in the bottom of a boat. I wasn’t super interested in this as I don’t see how this will benefit my existence in the years ahead, but you never know. How did I get here? What am I learning!?

Unlike a couple of other nights this week, we did not have the evening off today. In fact, the evening was very much ON as we were called to a stretcher presentation and ended up doing relay races with our teammates strapped into the stretchers. Terrifying and fun. My group finished last in all three challenges we did. This is about how well I feel I’ve been doing over all. (Joking).

I’m so glad this course is wrapping up, but so grateful for all that it has offered me.

 

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Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 6 – “That’s Show Business”

Navigation and Engine Repair. Two things I know nothing about; two things that instructors tried to teach me about today.

How is one suppose to develop any sort of grasp for how a boat engine works or how to navigate the worlds waters in an hour and a half? I think the answer is that they cannot; however, introducing ideas to us is the basic idea here, I think.

Our instructors here are brilliant. They’re volunteers and they’re passionate, but they teach like professionals and they recognize that everyone has different levels of understanding of all of this stuff. I did my best to keep myself focused on what was being taught, but these particular subject areas are not fortes of mine and I walked away only having learned that I have more to learn.

In the afternoon, my group was back on the water for our fourth session of seagoing. This proved to be my lowest day so far. I just really wasn’t “feeling” getting back into the boat. Prior to launch, some of the instructors showed us on land how to tow disabled boats at sea. This is something we may actually encounter when trying to assist refugees–disabled boats. The demonstration on the land was fine, but once we were on the water it was quite confusing. There are so many different places you have to tie ropes to. Some places need to hold tension and other places simply need to direct the boat.

During our actual execution process on the water, the “disabled boat” needs to be tied to the rescue boat. This requires the rescue boat to hover near the other boat for a long time while the ropes are getting sorted and passed from one boat to the other and then back again. While idling, the engine fumes really engulfed the surrounding air and the waves kept coming in hard. Each time the boat bobbed and each time I took in a breath, I felt a bit queasy, making it much more difficult to focus on the task at hand.

By the time it was all said and done, I was so relieved to be getting onto dry land and for the session to just be over. I really feel like I fell out of the rhythm this afternoon.

For our evening lecture, a lawyer from Bristol came to present “Seeking Asylum in the UK” to us. A fascinating talk with plenty of time for questions. It’s nice to have more information about where the people we would be plucking out of the waters would actually be going and experiencing once they’re on dry land in Europe.

My biggest takeaway is that the United Kingdom seems to be about as messed up as the rest of Europe. They don’t want to help the asylum seekers. In fact, they try to discourage and deter them.

 

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Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 5 – “Two Weeks of Actual Humanity”

I come here for two weeks of sanity every year to be around like-minded people, to be around actual people with empathy. It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make every year, coming here.

Day 5 has wrapped and I’m happy to say I’ve officially cleared the halfway mark of this course!

The intensity continues, but we have the evening off from lecture, so we only had to be “on” from 8:45 until 5:00 today. This is why I now find myself sitting in the evening glow of this early Welsh summer day instead of trying to pound out an update in my bed before directly falling asleep.

I was sea-going this morning at 8:45 once again and, unlike the last two days, the sea was really calm this morning. Of the six boats, there were only five instructors so, once again, my little team of two was overlooked and not assigned an instructor by accident for our daily morning check-in. I’m trying not to take it personally. After that was sorted, my partner and I prepped the boat, making sure we had all of the essential equipment we would be needing was strapped down to the hull and gave the engine a practice try. We then lowered all of the boats to the sea as we do each day and were off for another morning of boating on the Bristol Channel.

Today, we learned how to rescue a “man overboard”, how to direct the boat in reverse, how to idle next to another boat in an effort to gain information, and how to do figure-eight patterns. When it comes to maneuvering the boats, I feel like I’ve got a decent handle on it. I’m not bad at getting the boat to specific spots quickly, and I’m pretty decent at scooping people up when they fall overboard. Trying to make the boat go in reverse proved to be the most difficult task of the day for me, but I’ll keep working on it.

Each day, as all of these other misfits and I slip into our wetsuits and throw on our bright yellow helmets and vests, I can’t help but think ahead to what doors these two weeks here may open for us and what they will actually bring forth in our lives. We’re doing practice scenarios for rescuing people in distress at sea. This means that, indeed, we may one day actually have to save drowning people from the water. At the very least, we’ll be trained to do so.

Even after nearly a week of being here, I still find myself uneasy. Floating out on the Channel, glancing around at the other five boats speeding around in the waves, I feel out of place. This isn’t my comfort zone, and my body is consistently reminding me of that with this odd feeling in my gut that won’t go away until l’m off of this campus. That being said, how long can one last outside of their comfort zone? How much discomfort is too much? These are important questions to consider before people should be thrown into refugee camps for undetermined lengths of time.

This afternoon, we had two short sessions. The first focused on how to use a radio, which was self explanatory and boring, as the instructor pointed out himself. The gist is, you say as little as you can when you have to talk on the radio and really, you should not talk on the radio unless you absolutely have to. The second session was focused on using Psychological First Aid, meaning how you interact with people initially who are experiencing or have experienced a traumatic situation. The session lasted a bit over an hour but could probably have been taught for ten or twenty. There is always so much to cover when it comes to mental health. For the most part though, refugees receive NO psychological assistance throughout their tumultuous journeys, and neither do the volunteers who come over to do this difficult work.

Halfway through. Still in the game.

Although operating on a ridiculously full schedule, my heart is still back on Leros. I’m mentally checked-in here, but my heart is on that island. It’s been a really sad realization knowing that my time there will end, and all the ooey gooey-ness I’m feeling in my heart for the place right now while away from it will increase ten-fold when I actually leave for good. Tough to think about, but it’s a familiar story for me at this point, one I’ve both heard and told before.

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Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 4 – “Worth it for One”

This morning, I participated in yet another round of casualty scenarios with a few other members of my team. This time around, I got to play a man having a stroke and assist keeping a girl in epileptic shock stable until help arrived. I’m slowly growing more confident in my ability to identify what is wrong with pretend patients and then follow protocol for helping them and keeping them safe. I love how this stuff is just getting drilled into our brains each day.

One of the best parts of these trainings is that they take place outside. Right now, Europe is bracing for a heatwave, but things here in Wales are sunny, blue skies, and maybe 75 degrees with a nice wind off of the Bristol Channel. I’m loving this UK summer! That being said, when the afternoon rolled around and it was time to have another session out on the sea, the winds were too rough, so we didn’t launch the boats. However, the instructors were keen on getting us used to rough seas, so they had us swim off of the slipway into the open water and then circle up as a group and all float together with the current. I thought it was kind of fun, but the initial impact of getting smacked with frigid Welsh waves is really jarring. Even with a wetsuit on, this water is cold!

Being one of only two Americans in this group, once in a while I’ll miss something one of the instructors or other participants is saying because of their accents mixed with the volume of the sea or some other natural noise occurrence. I missed the instruction to swim out to sea, so I was caught off guard as everyone started jumping into the waves. That being said, even with a slow start, I still kept up with most of the group. This is a bit of a goal of mine as well. Whether it’s in the sea or on the land doing casualty care, I just want to make sure I remain with the majority for my time here. I refuse to fall behind or become one of the people running in the back of the pack.

After our dip in the sea, we took a lifeboat into the outdoor pool on campus and practiced capsizing drills. What would happen if your boat flipped and you were suddenly bobbing alone in the sea? Once again, we were split into groups of three but my group only had two. We were the leftovers again. I’m starting to find this comical. Unfortunately, my partner was very nervous about this particular scenario, so, as we fell off of the boat and had to fight to climb onto it’s flipped hull, her nerves were getting the best of her. I helped pull her up and then, together, we flipped our boat back over by falling backward into the pool while using a rope to yank the boat back over with our momentum. It was a bit unnerving given the heightened emotions in the water, but we got through it. None of these exercises are easy.

This evening, we had a lecture about the history of Atlantic Pacific and where it hopes to go in the future as an organization, including some plans it has in place. Fascinating stuff, and an wonderful to hear about how this organization came into being and where it plans to go. I’m honored to have been selected to be a part of it.

Earlier today, we also had a talk about Sea Watch, an NGO that operates in the Mediterranean doing search and rescue missions with planes and ships. That is a whole different, sad tale though.

Still not getting enough sleep each day. Grateful for coffee at this point.

Peace.

Fun fact: Atlantic Pacific initially set out with the goal of saving one life. There slogan was, “worth it for one”, meaning that if all of their trainings and efforts resulted in one life saved, it’d be worth it. To date, five years on, their estimates are that their trained crew have saved thousands of lives.

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Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 3 – “The Deep End”

“We’re gonna throw you in the deep end,” said one of the instuctures yesterday in reference to what we would be doing today.

Today was likely one of the more anticipated days for the majority of the people here taking this course. It was our first day “seagoing”, the first time we got into the boats and got into the water. Prior to this, it’s all been medical stuff.

Directly after breakfast this morning, the team was divided into four groups and two of the groups were sent to the water first. We suited up into our wetsuits and helmets, and then were introduced to the many different lifeboats that exist at this school for training purposes. We were divided up into the boats. Each boat had three students, except for mine. I thought I drew the short end of the stick by only having two people in my boat, but it turns out I’ll just get more individual attention, so it’ll work in my favor over the course of the week.

My partner and I both have zero experience with rescuing people at sea. In fact, neither of us really have boat experience. She’s been on sailboats before, but nothing with a motor. As we were told about the boat we were about to be cruising across the open sea in, I did my best to, once again, have my brain on hyper drive. I just didn’t want to miss anything about what was going on in front of me. I paid very close attention. One by one, we brought the boats down the long slipway as a team, lowering them slowly on tethered ropes. When we reached the sea, we guided the boats into the waves and fought our ways onto the vessels when prompted by the instructor. The next thing we knew, we were off, crashing our way through the notoriously choppy Welsh waters.

As we picked up speed, and I found myself clinging to the ropes on the boat, unaware of how stable my seating was, I just thought, “screw you, comfort zone.”

I’ll be seagoing each day for the next week, so I’ll do my best to write in more detail at a later point about what it’s like to be on the water. I did get a chance to drive the boat today though, which was cool.

After lunch, my group and I had a three hour session on tying knots and throwing ropes and line and then did yet another scenario with Casualty Care. I was in the role of “first arrival” on the scene and had to patch up someone’s head. The instructors said I did better than anyone else in the same scenario for the day. I found this rather unbelievable, but maybe I’m retaining some information!

After dinner, we were given two lectures. The first was about the disastrous situation in the Southern Mediterranean Sea and all of the people dying there due to horrendous European Union bureaucracy, and the second was about recognizing the signs of and coping with PTSD. It was a long day, but I’m so grateful for all of this information being thrown at me.

To bed.

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Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 2 – “Trial By Fire”

Another day of the crazy course has come to a close, but in so many ways we’re just getting started. It’s Wednesday, but I have to spend a long time thinking about what day it could possibly be before I find myself landing on an answer. Though I’ve only been here for 48 hours, my world has shrunk down to just a handful of buildings, a small strip of land, and a few dozen people. Every so often, my phone rings, reminding me of the life I’ve built and have waiting for me back in Greece, but that’s on the back burner right now, certainly.

This morning, I shuffled over to the castle for breakfast again and then joined my cohort in the lecture hall for our second day of “Casualty Care.” Today, our talk was focused on stabilizing patients, burns, infections, illnesses, drowning, sea-sickness, sun stroke, and hypothermia. All of these little lessons we’re having thrown at us are being presented in such a way that, if we were to encounter them in real life, we have the tools to quickly assess what’s going on and respond accordingly. All of us here have experience working with refugees, so the course is specifically designed to cater to what could be happening in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas.

In between our lectures, we had the opportunity to run some scenarios for dressing wounds, placing splints and moving patients on stretchers. None of this is overly difficult to do, until you realize just how much brain space has been taken up by two full days of medical lectures on topics you know nothing about. I’m so out of my element here, but I still refuse to fall out of the race.

In the evening, after dinner, we were rounded up once again to attend a lecture about Tsunamis. This felt a little odd to me, but it was totally fascinating. The engineer presenting the information for us had a clear passion for the material and it was fun to get a glimpse inside of his brain. While tsunamis didn’t strike me as totally relevant to what we’re doing, it turns out that this organization provided lifeboats to people in Japan after the Tsunami in 2011. The boats were used to rescue people once the water came ashore. I suppose I should just brace myself for a week of unique lectures. My takeaway from this lecture: Tsunamis are scary, and if you see the sea retreating, it means you’ve got five minutes to high tail it out of there before the big wave comes ashore.

At the conclusion of the evening, we were told that we had completed our Casualty Care portion of the course for the next few days. This was a lie though, because as we made our way down to the locker room to get fitted for our wetsuits for tomorrow, we were encountered with a surprise triage scenario.

There, scattered in front of us on the rocks and the slipway next to the sea were FIFTY-NINE actors, all sprawled out on the ground and screaming and running around, creating a mass casualty situation for us to run into and triage. It was completely overwhelming. There were three drones flying overhead, recording what we were doing. It was total chaos. All of a sudden, everything I had learned over the last two days flew out of my brain, along with everyone else around me.

Even though it’s so clearly fake, it’s incredibly overwhelming to witness dozens of people all fighting for your attention, and for you to assist them. I was so thankful when the scenario ended, because I was completely lost the entire time it was happening. The instructors rounded us up when it was over and debriefed with us. They told us we had done a good job even though we had done horribly. We’re all a bunch of amateurs with two days of experience. It’s not exactly fair to expect us to be able to sort out 59 hurt people. But, at the very least, it was the end to another exciting day.

I’m hanging in there! I’m waaaaaaaay outside of my comfort zone here, but I’m still alive.

Before breaking this evening, we were all fitted for our wetsuits and we will have our first go on the boats in the sea starting tomorrow morning.

Cheers!

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Lifeboats Where There Are None: Day 1

I’m off of my rock in the Aegean and sitting in the country of Wales in the United Kingdom. It’s nearly 10pm and overcast, with a bit of gray mist hanging in the air and despite the clouds, the daylight will persist for another hour or so. The birds sound different here, and the temperature is a welcomed relief from what I was experiencing in Greece. I was never bothered by the heat and humidity of Leros, but coming to Great Britain now in late June, I’m reminded of just how wonderful cooler temperatures and cloudy days are. Greece is all sun and heat these days.

I’m at Atlantic College on the southern coast of Wales taking a two week intensive course on learning how to launch lifeboats and perform CPR and other minor medical procedures.

When I initially came over to Europe, I figured over the course of the year I would go to many different places. I thought I’d hang out on Leros for some time and then bop around to other camps in Greece. I figured I’d work on the shores and help bring in boats of newly arriving refugees and when I had my fill of that, I’d travel to the mainland and perhaps hop over into Serbia or France to see the conditions of camps in those areas. I also had the idea of coming over to the UK and taking this course, but it was really only in the back of my mind.

All of a sudden, it was March and I was still on Leros. I had been continually and consciously extending my stay over and over again, each time recognizing how rewarding it felt to fall deeper and deeper into a community of people. But when the application deadline for this course was looming, I knew it was something I didn’t want to pass up. Certainly, I’m out of my element here, having taught English to refugees for nearly a year now, but the whole “refugee experience” for a volunteer can be more comprehensive than what is happening literally on the ground. Refugees come over from Turkey to Greece on boats or through the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy and Spain, and more often than not, they need assistance.

I thought by taking this course I’d be furthering my understanding of the overall story being told in this corner of the world.

Having arrived yesterday, I’m just getting a feel for how things will be around here, but so far, I can see myself learning a lot. The people I’m taking this course with all seem to be intertwined through the volunteer work that they’ve done in the Mediterranean and on the island of Lesvos. As everyone was introducing themselves yesterday evening, I was one of only two people in the group of thirty that named a different Greek island as the place that they’ve been based in. I found this curious, but it makes sense, Lesvos has always had the highest number of refugees, by far. I feel like a bit of an odd ball, having not been involved with rescue operations like so many of these people seem to have been, but at the same time, it’s good to open the horizons a bit more and see a different crop of people with the same hearts.

Today, for Day 1, we spent 9 hours learning how to triage trauma situations. Sitting down at 9:00, knowing that I was stepping into my first day of intensive classes, I really wanted to stay focused. It’s too easy to let time zone changes and intense social situations take control. I’m also using these brief few days to practice getting back into the headspace of school. I want to be here. I really want to learn all of this information that is not usually my speed. I want to learn medical mumbo jumbo and all of this crap about putting boats into the water. Why not try something new? But, on that note, this is why I have to pay such close attention.

I felt my brain trying to drift at one point today and immediately forced myself back into the moment. Everything the instructor is teaching us is fascinating, I just need to remind myself of this every so often since it’s not usually information I’m intrigued by.

The first two sessions of lectures were interesting, but then we actually got to practice CPR and triage scenarios for the third part of the day. This helped stimulate my brain a bit more and likely assisted in cementing some of the lessons into my memory.

The two weeks ahead are setup to be intense. There isn’t much downtime at all. But this is why I’m going to try to stay so focused, because I want to absorb it all!

I’ll try to keep the updates coming.

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The dining hall of this campus we’re on is an actual castle from the 1100’s.

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