How to abandon ship

The most important thing is to look before you leap: you have to expect the water to be full of debris, as well as your shipmates, and you don’t want to land on either of them.

May 19th, 2018

United States

Dear Zipf,

Chlöé says that she and her uncle both passed the highest ARC water-safety tests, but that her uncle, who got his cert a generation earlier, had to learn to jump into the water from destroyer-height, wearing a Mae West, without having the vest break his neck on hitting the water.
She wondered whether you’d learned how to do this, and if so, how to do it.
March 20, 2018
Dear Reynaud,

Yep, sure did. The most important thing is to look before you leap: you have to expect the water to be full of debris, as well as your shipmates, and you don’t want to land on either of them. The vest thing makes perfect sense, but I don’t remember what to do about it–the old kapok vests have a high collar, which is meant to keep your face out of the water if you lose consciousness, and indeed, if forced straight upwards hard enough, it could probably take out your cervical spine. What I do remember how to do is that when you jump, you hold your balls.  And, no: I’m not kidding about your balls.  The idea is to avoid them getting racked up when you hit the water.  Today there are women on board ship, but I don’t know what they’re told to do.  You’re also taught to use a hat, your shirt, or your pants as flotation devices.  That last one is effective, but fucking HARD to do–I got worn out the first time I tried, and had to do it again to pass the test.

The basic thing once you’re safely off of the vessel is to get as far from the ship as quickly as possible: you don’t want to get sucked down when it sinks, and depending on how deep it is when (if) the engines explode, you could get injured by the shock.
The thing that they didn’t have us practice is swimming with burning oil on the surface.  They told us that at night, the burning oil lights up the water underneath it, so you look for a shaft of darkness, swim up to the surface through it, take a breath, and then submerge again to find your way away from the oil.
Here’s a video showing how to use your pants as a flotation device.  This is actually better than what they were teaching when I was a squid (slang for “sailor”), in that we were taught to tie each pants leg individually, which is a hell of a lot harder than what this guy does: tie them together.  Note that this guy is using a floating technique, so he’s not expending very much energy while he prepares his pants–we just treaded water, which is exhausting when you can’t use your arms to help ’cause they’re occupied trying to get your pant legs tied and the @#$% things inflated.
My ship, the USS Biddle. It’s a cruiser, formerly called a destroyer escort–bigger than a destroyer, but smaller than a lot of other things. Picture source:  Hey, guess who didn’t serve?  Donald Trump–multiple draft deferments for college, and then a claim of a bone spur in his foot.  Snowflake.

English notes


  • ww11-raf-pilot-in-full-flying-clothing-with-mae-west-lifejacket-DXB07W
    Royal Air Force pilot wearing an inflated “Mae West” flotation device. Note how it comes behind the pilot’s neck–that is meant to keep his head out of the water if he’s unconscious. Picture source:

    ARC: American Red Cross.

  • cert: certification.
  • destroyer: a small ship, mostly used to screen big ships from submarines and aircraft.
  • Mae West: a kind of life vest.  It’s named after Mae West, a film star of the epoque known for playing super-sexy roles.
Mae West showing how you get a life vest named after yourself. Picture source:
French notes
This vocabulary comes up in Jean Genet’s lyrical Le miracle de la rose, in the occasional flights of fancy about shipboard promiscuity.
la frégate: frigate.
le destroyer or le contre-torpilleur: destroyer.
le croiseur: cruiser.

5 thoughts on “How to abandon ship”

  1. Tell me more about how to make your trousers into flotation devices ….. but only if you want to. What I really mean is I thoroughly enjoyed this lesson and found myself making copious mental notes – who knows when I might need it. Really.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Genius …. thank you – I will ensure I am always wearing trousers on the tow path in future should a stray gust of wind or a rogue runner knock me sideways. I am perfectly serious 🙂


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