The check in area at Douglas was quite a sight for a Sunday morning. As well as the "normal" passengers checking in for the Ben-My-Chree's usual sailing to Heysham, there was a varied selection of others- coastguard personnel, policemen, fire brigade officers, Red Cross, St. John's Ambulance, more than the usual Steam Packet people, the Manx Marine Administration, and us. Who's us? We were the hundred and odd volunteers who had said we would take part in LOMEX; a simulated emergency at sea starring the Lady of Mann and a cast of thousands.
The Ben-My-Chree sailed on time as usual and the passengers for the exercise started to check in. We had proper tickets for the sail and were issued with boarding cards as usual plus a small yellow piece of paper which was our passport to free refreshments on board.
At 09.32 the gangways were up and Captain Alan Albiston briefed the passengers on the procedure. We were to behave as if the sailing was a normal run to Liverpool but on the way there was to be a serious "incident". We would be attended by the lifeboats of Douglas, Port St. Mary and Ramsey but to everyone's' disappointment the Rescue helicopter from Anglesey had gone technical and could not attend. At 09.41 the ropes were off and the Lady of Mann steamed out of Douglas Harbour. All the usual announcements were made from the Bridge and customer services as if it was a normal sailing. However the course for Liverpool was not held for long as the ship began to swing southwards and sail along the Manx Coast. At 10.07 the ship swung around to port and turned a full 360 degrees. We were just about off Santon. At 10.12 the Captain announced from the Bridge that there was an emergency on board and there were 7 long blasts on the ship's whistle followed by one long blast. The crew leapt into action- well actually the customer services crew leapt into bright yellow tops and pants and caps with "crew" written on them. It made them look a little like students at an American Summer school but I suppose they stood out from everyone else! A few of them did look a little embarrassed; if they stood together they looked like Fyffes finest.
The passengers were all ordered to the muster stations down below. I happened to be in the forward part of the forward lounge. The steel fire doors of the ship slammed shut and the distribution of the lifejackets began. The crew busily distributed them as well as showing passengers how to put them on. Captain Colin Duggan was present in our area and he took control of the situation, demanding quiet so people could hear instructions and generally getting into the swing of things nicely. Quite speedily lifejackets were given to all including the children, one of whom was taking it all a little seriously and bawling at several decibels higher than the ship's whistle. Still I suppose it added to the realism. The life jackets on the Lady of Mann are the most uncomfortable things I have ever worn; they were obviously bought several years ago when Torture Implements R Us went into liquidation; however if they save your life what does half an hour of excruciating spinal spasms matter? I happened to get the only one on the whole ship that was faulty. Sternly Captain Duggan ordered another one and I was helped into it by a very attractive young lady from customer services who scolded me for not getting my tabs in the grooves- bliss!
Meanwhile on deck the lifeboats were being lowered and we could see out of the port holes the Douglas lifeboat and other small rescue craft hurrying to the scene. At 10.30 the Captain announced that all life saving equipment had been activated and outside assistance was on it's way. Then a minute later, even though we knew it was just a simulation, a chilling order from the Captain-"Abandon Ship"; I never want to hear that for real. We were all mustered on the boat deck and we were there for eight minutes. Our part in the exercise was then over as it was assumed that we had all got away in the boats which were dangling, Titanic fashion, over the side. We were then taken back down, lifejackets were taken off and we were told we could go back out a observe the various other exercises taking place on the ship.
While all this had been going on the coastguard crew who were on board were simulating the casualties resulting from the emergency and Stage 2 of the emergency was put into operation which was the deployment of a liferaft and the arrival of the Port St. Mary lifeboat and the boat from Ramsey. It was about this time that Captain Duggan started to put a couple of spanners in the works. He was in the main lounge and one of his tasks now became clear; he was charged with telling the Bridge of other emergencies that were happening- emergencies that up to that moment the Bridge were not aware of! They must have been thinking that things were going fairly smoothly when Captain Duggan suddenly radioed to them that there was a medical emergency in the Family Room- a woman was having a baby and a medical team was needed. Anyone who knows the Lady of Mann will know that the family room is right down below. A team was rushed into action and sped to the scene of the happy event. A few minutes passed and then with a glint in his eye Captain Duggan played his trump card- he informed Captain Albiston that a major fire had broken out on the upper car deck and a fire fighting team was needed at once. Clutching their hoses firmly a team was dispatched.
As all this was going on various simulations were taking place out on deck and in the water; casualties being evacuated, the life raft launched while the lifeboats stood by. At 11.55 the Captain announced the end of the exercise and the ship steamed back to Douglas were we arrived at 12.27.
We thought it was all over for us but no; the idea was to make it as realistic as possible and so we "survivors" were looked after in the terminal lounge by Red Cross and St. John's Ambulance who even though it was "pretend" were very kind and patient with everyone. Forms had to be filled in about next of kin etc. and on the quayside ambulances were taking casualties to hospital. They apparently were on alert as part of the simulation. The only over the top bit I think was the presence of a Priest!
I am not in a position to say whether the exercise went well or not; there were plenty of observers on board taking notes. What I can say though from my observations is that the officers and crew of the Lady of Mann took the exercise very seriously and behaved with the utmost professionalism and courtesy and certainly gave me the impression that if it had been for real we would have all had a good chance of surviving. It was a testing time for the officers and crew and an experience for us all- one none of us would like to go through in reality.
An hour or so later I was back on the Lady of Mann for her afternoon sailing back to Liverpool. I bet I was not the only one hoping for a calm uneventful crossing. It was; the only disaster being the tea machine in the cafe broke down-blissful reality had returned.