I was over at the home of ejection seats recently; the Martin Baker factory. My job was to advise on what survival kit should go into the seat pack for the RAF's new F35 jet. The kit will help keep a pilot alive after ejection on land or at sea, as their aircraft will be flying from the Royal Navy's new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. There will be different kit options if they're operating in Desert, Arctic, Jungle or Temperate regions too. That's a lot of gear to fit in a small box – it's all about prioritising.
I've had the bonnet up on one of the chapters that I'm writing for my new book. I've had some great feedback from my publisher, very useful considering how different it is now from the first draft of six months ago. Editing 7000-odd words was too eye boggling on the laptop for me, so I had to go at it old-school; paper and crayon style.
I was asked to design a ‘challenge' coin for the annual SERE symposium. The winged boot motif came out ok, it's a modern take on the WW2 badge of the Late Arrivals Club. It was originally awarded to RAF airmen who made it back to friendly lines after being forced down in the North African deserts.
Over the summer I was invited to talk as part of the Sunday Papers Live, representing the travel section. I spoke for about half an hour and gave survival themed tips on how to arrive in new places with the least amount of stress; ideal if you're going away on any trip.
I've been up to Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island with the Canadian Forces Survival school. It was the coldest training I've ever experienced; we had a low of minus 64 Celsius (that's a mind bending minus 83 Fahrenheit). They have a great setup there, and I learned lots of new skills and techniques, including making a candle lantern from a block of snow – it burns all night and makes a great location aid.
I was lucky enough to spend the other day learning how to make traditional willow lobster pots. My teacher was a true expert, a retired shell-fisherman who’d been making ‘withy’ pots all his life, learning the craft when he was a lad from an uncle.
The day started early with a trip to the withy beds- willow that is coppiced right back each winter to produce long, straight, pliable rods. You need to cut a lot of willow to make a pot.
Once they had been stripped of any leaves and the wider tips had been whittled, we set the rods out in the pattern jig and started weaving. There’s a lot of difference regionally between traditional crab and lobster pots, due to local resources and individual techniques. I’ve made bamboo fish traps before in Asia and the aim is the same there- entice the prey into a baited chamber through an entrance that won’t also serve as an exit.
The form of a cornish lobster pot slowly started to emerge from the jig, as I was taught each step and then practised practised practised. The real bonus of learning from someone who’s lived the life is knowing why each feature is so important. Fishermen have been dragged overboard by poorly made pots.
It was a great day but above all it was nice to work with my hands practicing a disappearing craft from close to home. Thank you David.
I was interviewed recently by Newsweek asking for some input to their one off survival special, released in the States as “Off Grid”. We chatted about the importance of clean drinking water in dire situations and it was great to be able to get tried and tested advice out to a big readership.
Naturally “big bubbles, no troubles” got a mention, but just as important to survive is knowing what not to do. Thats why the magazine also debunks common misconceptions or practices that actually accelerate dehydration, some of which you may even see wrongly advocated on TV.
My last game of Survive That! – it was all about water…
I got dropped off (cut-away?!) into a Cenote during the “Mayan Sacrifice” episode of “SurviveThat!”. Cenotes are deep caverns, often linked like a maze, that are formed when the limestone in the Yucatan region collapses. They are usually flooded and were very important to the Mayans as a source of water. When the light catches them they are beautiful, but swimming around inside what is actually a toilet for millions of bats was minging.
As soon as I exited I felt at home- Jungle. The instant heat and humidity was a welcome change to the cold dark caves. The problem with that region, I soon discovered, was that because the limestone is porous all the water in the region soaks away downwards. There were no streams- not even any mud. All the vines were dry too. I tried everything I knew to find jungle water, even attempting to use the caving helmet as a well bucket to reach the cenote water deep below. Nothing.
That’s the paradox of jungles- at certain times they are dry, it’s why Deiter Dengler postponed his escape for months during the Vietnam war. They remain hot and you sweat but there’s nothing to put back in. Dehydration is the inevitable result. I’ve never been that dehydrated before or since but I kept going til I found water at an old Mayan site and then coconuts at the beach. We were playing a game, but in the real world I would always have enough water with me and access to more.
I’ve just returned from French Guyana in South America, where I was taking part in a Jungle Survival Instructors’ workshop. There were reps there from many NATO countries, swapping ideas, examples of survival kit and best practices in Jungle Survival. We were inserted by Helo and exited via “dugout” canoe. A great way to keep on top of perishable skills.
Best practice I saw: the French teams’ electric coffee machine, c’est bon!
I’ve been up in the High Arctic of Norway running a SERE Instructor package. Part of what I taught included movement in this environment. I’ll cover Arctic survival navigation in another post but here’s a bit on survival movement in deep snow.
If the snow is deep it can be almost impossible to move through- up to 24hrs to cover 1km. You have to move over it. If a vehicle breaks down it’s normally best to stay with it but there could be occasions where moving to a better area is the right choice. In that circumstance you need a pair of skis or snowshoes. If you haven’t brought a set with you you’ll have to improvise. I made sets of survival snowshoes in two designs- one long and thin (not quite skis!) and the other more rounded (“bearpaw”).
All types have pros and cons: Long & Thin “float” better but… bearpaw are easier to use in the woods etc. etc. It all depends on where you are, where you’re going and what you’re doing. But the best option is to be prepared…
The final set I demonstrated are made by a European firm called SmallFoot. Designed for use in emergency by extreme sports types I think they’re perfect for anyone entering the wilderness in winter. They’re tough, easy to use, float really well and pack away very small. Inflatable snowshoes. We live in the future! You could even use your ejection seat liferaft as a pulk/toboggan for your gear.