The day scientists tried to drown me … for my own good

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Story highlights

MainSail presenter, Shirley Robertson, undergoes a harrowing sea survival training session

Scientists recreate extreme weather conditions before throwing sailors in the deep end

Elite athletes must learn to cope with cold water shock, keep calm in terrifying conditions

CNN  — 

In a laboratory in the north of England, a group of scientists are playing God – or at least, they’re brewing up an almighty storm.

At the Extreme Environments Lab, elite sailors are quite literally thrown in the deep end, undergoing harrowing survival training in a pool as close to the Southern Ocean as you’ll find under one roof.

“I think for quite a lot of them it’s all a bit of a game to start with – they’re all jumping in the pool and having a bit of a laugh,” said Alistair Hackett, who runs the three-day advanced sea survival course at South Tyneside College in Newcastle.

“Then we turn the waves on. Then we turn the rain on and it’s pretty severe – you can’t really breathe properly with it hitting your face. Then we turn the wind on and all of a sudden it’s not quite like going to your local swimming pool anymore.”

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Thrown in at the deep end...the cold deep end
00:57 - Source: CNN

Then it was my turn to join the 24 sailors in the pool, who were training ahead of one of the most brutal sporting competitions on the planet – the Volvo Ocean Race.

Wearing survival suits, we’re standing around what looks like an unfriendly industrial version of your local swimming pool. A siren starts, some unseen machinery strains somewhere deep below, the waters start to move, and as the air fills with spray from the overly aggressive rain makers, the wind machines kick in.

One by one we jump in. But it’s fine, because it’s a swimming pool. Very quickly though, it’s not ok – I’m searching for the features on my lifejacket, someone’s yelling something, but there’s too much noise. I’m struggling to fit the spray hood, struggling to stay safe, struggling to breathe.

The sea safety course is a thorough demonstration of what to expect on the open waters, teaching us how to swim in waves and spray, and right upturned life rafts.

MainSail presenter, Shirley Robertson, takes the plunge in a life raft at the University of Portsmouth's extreme weather lab.

And yet it was still not a patch on what the real ocean could be. Even for these professional sailors about to set off around the planet, this course made them stop and think. It made them prioritize their safety and practice survival techniques as they would any other sailing maneuver. It made them stop assuming somebody else had it covered.

Most of the course was spent familiarizing ourselves with the safety kit onboard, discussing the “what ifs,” and doing the right thing in the right order.

Did I check my lifejacket? Do I actually know how it works? Is my personal Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) in my pocket? Do I always wear that jacket? Is it registered correctly? Is it up to date? Do I know where the life raft is and what it even looks like when it’s inflated? What’s in our life raft and do I know how to use it?

Any complacency I may have had left was thoroughly purged by a morning spent with Professor Mike Tipton, a leading authority in environmental physiology at the Department of Sport and Exercise Science at Portsmouth University.

With the cool clarity of a man that really knows his field, Tipton told me that although hypothermia is often assumed the great