Rescue swimmer training with the United States Coast Guard
By Keating Smith, Contributor
Working in government has its benefits. Good pay, a pension, steady hours, and the occasional opportunity to experience once-in-a-lifetime training. So, when my long-term employer, the Canadian Coast Guard, asked me if I would like to spend a week in Juneau, Alaska training with the United States Coast Guard in a rescue swimmer course, I said yes without hesitation or knowing exactly what I was getting myself into.
Military swimming has intrigued me for as long as I can remember. I was so infatuated with military swimmers that when I was 19, I applied to the Navy to become a diver—and was straight-up rejected because I failed the aptitude test. Still, when I showed up to the first day of rescue swimmer training only to discover that the others in my class of six were not even of drinking age, I immediately realized I had enrolled in a world of physical excursion.
“I’ve pulled over 30 deceased people out of the water in my 16 years as a helicopter rescue swimmer,” said Aviation Survival Technician (AST) and instructor Jason Bunch. Stationed in Sitka, Alaska, Bunch has seen every scenario in the book when it comes to being a rescue swimmer. For example, Bunch told me a story in which a good friend of his stationed in San Francisco pulled a suicidal man out of the frigid, shark-infested waters of Northern California after jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Miraculously, the person survived after hitting the water. When Bunch’s friend swam to recover the disillusioned jumper, the person put up such a fight that Bunch’s friend had no choice but to consecutively dunk the man’s head under the water in an attempt to subdue him. Consequently, he killed him, and was forced to perform CPR en-route to the hospital. Bunch’s friend revived the bridge jumper and he wrapped up one of the most twisted stories I have heard in a while by explaining the catch-22 situations rescue swimmers in the USCG face on a regular basis.
A scary start
With the exception of the first day, the instructors at the course would try their best to drown us in the deep end of Juneau’s community pool. The instructors would dish out a scenario in which they would play the victim and we would play the rescuer. Upon physical contact and retrieval, the instructor would grab a hold of our bodies, mostly our heads, and drag us to the bottom until our knees skinned the pool’s cement floor. I should note that one of my biggest fears in life, next to poisonous snakes, is drowning; the helplessness of dying due to lack of oxygen has freaked me out since I was a young child. However, if you got nervous and wanted to stop the scenario, a quick pinch and twist on the forearm of the instructor was all it took for them to release from their death grip and float us to the surface.
I met up with a friend who is serving onboard a buoy tender stationed out of Everett, Washington on my second day in Juneau. He wailed out a huge laugh of sympathy when I told him I was enrolled in the course. “Dude, you are so screwed,” he said in his thick Texan accent. “They make you swim over 500 metres in less than 10 minutes, get out of the pool immediately, and do 50 push-ups and sit-ups with no break, followed by a mile and half run… A bunch of people on my ship did it last year and didn’t make the cut,” he said.
I let out a huge hung-over sigh. “Maybe I shouldn’t have drank until 3:00 a.m. last night,” I said to myself. But, with the Commanding Officer of my ship having huge expectations on my performance for this course and with my overall performance at work deciding whether I go back to Douglas in the fall or continue working on the ship until winter, I had no choice but to just go ahead and do my best.
I beat everyone by a minute in the swim and discovered that the amount of push-ups and sit-ups they forced on us while having 19-year-old kids from quaint places like Nebraska and Minnesota scream in my face “Just explode, dude! You got this!” wasn’t so bad after all.
Coast Guard Olympics
On my third day in Juneau, six ships including mine participated in what is known as the “Coast Guard Olympics.” Events range from tug-of-war to smashing molten steel with sledgehammers to swimming as fast as possible in the freezing 10-degree seawater Alaska has to offer. I’m sure you can guess which event I was involuntarily signed up for? It wasn’t the tug-of-war.
Four crewmembers including myself were mustered from my ship to compete in the survival swim race. Two of the people in our team are avid surfers and the other was a complete fitness nut.
“No worries, we got this,” I said to myself—and that we did. Upon completion of the swim we found out that our team had beat all other competing ships by over a minute. However, with that being said, that water was cold, and my body hated me for three days, even when some big brass from the USCG in Alaska handed our team an award for our outstanding effort and placing first in the competition. As Canadians, we all know the ongoing jokes and competition between the two countries, and with all politically correctness aside, it never felt so good to beat a bunch of Americans at their own game.
What did I learn?
The actual US Coast Guard rescue swimmer-training program based in North Carolina is very challenging. Only 75-100 Coast Guard personnel attend the school each year and the attrition rate in some years has been as high as 80 per cent—though the 10-year average is roughly 54 per cent. This is also some of the most difficult training the United States military has to offer, and I was fortunate enough to get a small sample of it.
“Every move your body makes during a rescue swim is like that of a ticking clock,” AST Bunch constantly reminded us during the course. “You are also under the clock, and by making your movements in unison with the clock you will come home alive… Along with the prevailing weather and seas you will have to endure out there, time is your worst enemy during any swimming operation. Take the time to think and set yourself up to be safe. If you want to be successful, always remember that tick and tock will always determine whether you come back to safety alive, or not so alive.”