Article

 August 4, 2016   Savannah McKenzie

From the April 2005 issue of 48° North. Story by Warren Miller.

A friend’s small boat sank out from under him in a storm recently, but fortunately he had a survival suit on board and was able to climb into it before he was afloat in 45° water for several hours.

Since a survival suit saved his life, I thought it would be a good idea to buy one for my wife and myself. If you fall in our very cold water, you have about 20 minutes before hypothermia sets in at which time you can no longer function and simply drown.

A survival suit is similar to a pair of coveralls that are at least fourteen sizes too large with hands, feet and hood attached, and is made out of quarter inch foam rubber. When you finally get into one, all anyone can see of the real you is about six square inches where part of your face is supposed to be. Assuming of course that you have put it on with the opening for your face pointing in the right direction, which I didn’t do the first time I tried to put mine on. After half an hour of trying to get into mine in our living room, I finally took my shoes off and then it was fairly easy to dress for disaster. By the time I got the massive zipper pulled up and the Velcro seals all closed, I was already sweating and my wife was breaking up laughing at the way I looked. When she finally pulled herself together she said, “There’s no way I’m going to look as dumb as you do. What if someone comes by and sees us? They’ll call the police and have both of us locked up.”

Whereupon she got her camera and snapped a few shots of me looking exactly like Gumby, only in fire engine red. When she finished laughing she said, “Since this is an emergency drill, I’m going to the post office and let’s see if you can get out of that thing by yourself.”

I couldn’t!

The two fingers of the gloves are also made out of quarter inch, foam rubber so I couldn’t grab the too small toggle on the zipper and make it work. Remember the suits are designed for someone who weighs twice what you do, no matter what size you are. That way you can float around and take longer to die in the 45° water than if you just said, “This is it,” and gave up.

Attached to the waist was a genuine police whistle. That’s in case a policeman comes driving by after your boat sinks and you are still floating. The massive size of the gloves makes it almost impossible to do anything except slowly paddle backwards while you are afloat.

By now my clothes were wringing wet in my survival-sweatsuit while I had visions of the newspaper headlines,

Film Maker found dead in a heap of red foam rubber on his living room rug. Dehydration blamed.

I then decided to fall down on the living room floor knowing that my wife would be home from the post office fairly soon. I was trying to get comfortable lying down in my giant survival-sweatsuit, when the phone rang. By the time I was able to get up to answer it, the answering machine had clicked in:

“Hi, Warren. It’s Laurie. I just ran into Grace at the post office and she’s invited me into town for lunch. I hope you’re out of your survival suit by now and I should be home in a couple of hours.”

Click!

I didn’t want to try and stagger up to the street and get some passerby to unzip me from this portable sauna. Instead, I thought I might as well really test the suit, so I staggered down to our dock and flopped into the 45° water.

The suit worked great. Except that I forgot about the three-knot current flowing by our dock. I quickly drifted a couple of hundred yards west, and out into the main channel where none of the passing boats bothered to stop and try to rescue me.

A half hour later I paddled ashore on our neighbor’s beach where Elmo’s wife was having a bridge party on her deck. When the eight women saw this soaking wet, fire engine red monster, draped in seaweed and sand, stagger up over the bank from their beach, they all screamed and ran for the safety of the house. A few minutes later, I could hear the siren on the sheriff’s car headed our way.     

Twenty minutes after that, I had my now sandy-wet-survival-sweatsuit under my arm and was walking towards home. That’s when my wife drove up, stopped and asked, “What are you doing wandering around in broad daylight, all sweaty, with your new survival suit under your arm?”

“I’m practicing safe boating.”