Note: First of two parts

Before dawn on April 9, the second day of Surface Rescue Swimmer School Class 18005, the 27 students found out exactly what they had volunteered for. It was something most were not prepared for.

“The biggest shock was that I have never been in an environment like this,” said student MN2 Zachary Miller from USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19). “I have never been challenged physically or been in this stressful of an environment.” 

The day began with the In Test, in which the students had to meet standards in push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, a 1.5-mile run and a 400-meter swim to qualify for the class. And then it got tough.

“Week one was horrible,” said STG3 Lauren Charles of USS James E. Williams (DDG-95), one of two female students in the class. 

“The first week they get a lot of intensity from the instructors,” said AWS2 Grayson Young, an instructor at the school. Intensity is defined by instructors yelling, getting in the face of students and seemingly non-stop swimming and physical training (PT).  

It is designed to push students beyond what they think their limits are.

Students in the class ranged in age from 19 to 36. All but one was Navy personnel.

Miller, Charles and the rest of the students did not have names during the class. The instructors referred to them only by numbers. Miller was one-six and Charles was zero-four. 

“The first week we have to break them of a lot of their habits,” said Young. “We also have to get rank out of their heads. That’s why they just wear numbers on their shirts, no ranks, no names. When they get here, they are all put on the same level.”

This being a rescue swimmer class, the students are never far from the pool. While they are still aching from the PT on day two, they get in the water for pool conditioning exercises. Pool conditioning is a technical term for lots of swimming.

One of the biggest obstacles for many students is mask clearing. 

“Our first in-water evolution is mask clearing, where our instructors teach them how to clear water from their mask,” said PR1 Parnell Nauta, an instructor at the school. “Sometimes students don’t do well during mask clearing. We’ve had students dropped from the course during this period.” 

All of this takes place on the first day of training.

Physical training is just part of swimmer rescue school. When the students are not in the pool or doing PT, they are in the classroom learning the techniques that will help them save lives in a real-world rescue situations.

“We will train you up,” said EN1 Joseph Chase, an instructor who went through the class himself in 2011. “It is a firehose of information and there are four weeks of it. That is not a lot of time, but we will get it in you. We promise.”

Mental toughness, the ability to stay focused when a person is tired and when the body is aching, is critical to success in this class.

“Being mentally tough is the most important part,” said student QM2 Christopher McGann (number one-three) of USS Jason Dunham (DDG 109). “Being physically tough is great, but at some point everyone is going to get tired, everyone is going to be put in uncomfortable situations and you are going to have to push through it. You are going to have to decide if you want to be here or if you want to leave.”

Another week one evolution that causes problems for many students is parachute canopy escape, where students have escape from being entangled in a parachute in the water.

Students stretch a parachute out in the pool and then take turns swimming to the center and being wrapped in it by an instructor. They must then free themselves from the parachute.

While the physical aspect will remain vital throughout the four weeks, as the class moves into the second week the focus gradually shifts to the classroom.

“Week two we start to get more into the academics,” said Young. “We start teaching them a little more of the fundamentals in the pool.”

Learning how to use primary rescue devices, practical first aid and multi-rescue scenarios are big parts of week two. Students are taught how to evaluate injured victims in the water and how to use rescue devices to get them to safety.

“The first two weeks are tough,” said CWO3 Steve Ayers, officer in charge. “The instructors are hard on these guys, because when the call comes, they have focus on what they are doing and not the stressful things that are going on around them to get the victim out of the water.”

Ayers said that one of the recent graduates from the school had a 23-person rescue a few months after graduating. “Mental toughness is one of the strongest attributes, being able to focus when chaos is all around you.”

The Navy has two surface rescue schools one each in Jacksonville and San Diego. Students volunteer for the program, must be recommended by their ships, undergo an extensive screening process and must pass fitness and swim qualifications. 

Even with all that, the dropout rate is high. On average, about 30-40 percent of students do not graduate.

By the end of week two, class 18005 already had 10 of the 27 students drop the course.

And there were still two more weeks to go.

To be continued next week.