NORFOLK, Va. - Recently, officials in the Navy invited a dozen members of the media to see what it was like to be a sailor for a day. Actually, it was four days, a part of which included the Navy’s water survival training course.
“This is now considered high-risk training at this point,” said Tomas Almeraz, the water survival instructor standing poolside and addressing our group of reporters, producers and photographers.
"The core of the whole thing is that these are skills that are going to save your life in the event that you do encounter any emergency,” Almeraz told us.
After about an hour of classroom training, where we learned about all the ways you can die in the water, all the gear sailors and aviators wear and what felt like complicated safety techniques, we arrived at the pool.
Once we proved we could at least swim, the Navy dressed us in a flight suit, boots and a helmet – and told us to do it again.
In the gear, only the breaststroke or side strokes would work. Almeraz instructed us to swim 25 yards in all of our gear. That wasn’t too hard.
Then, we tread water for three minutes, manually inflated our life jackets and climbed aboard a life raft. With the gear on, all of this was harder than anticipated.
Next we learned how to be rescued by a helicopter in fairly real conditions.
The pool is equipped with a two-story crane that simulates a Navy helo.
To make it even more interesting, there are jets of water spraying down from the top and from the sides.
The effect is that of a serious rainstorm with a bit of spray added in from the blades of the hovering helicopter. With helmets on and visors down, it’s nearly impossible to see.
We swam up to the base of the crane and splashed wildly to show the “pilot” where we were. The pilot dropped a padded strap – what the Navy calls a “strop,” into the water in front of the person to be rescued.
Following the classroom training, the person wraps the strop around his or her body, hugs the device close and is hoisted out of the pool to a platform, which in real life would be the helicopter.
As intense as the simulated rescue is, it’s nothing compared to the next series of tests, which are designed to save your life if you ever crash in the water.
Test one was relatively easy. Dive down, feel your way along a pole, turn some knobs, open a door, and swim through. You do this in 3 feet of water.
The next test is worse.
Strapped into a chair with a five-way harness, you are tipped upside down, told to release the harness and swim through an open window.
On my first attempt, I had trouble with the harness release, ran out of air and stood up. I failed.
The second try was a charm. No issues. But I now had second thoughts about the big test of the day: the dunker!
“It's not about scaring students. “It's about building confidence,” Almeraz reminded us.
But, the dunker certainly doesn’t look like a confidence builder. It simulates a helicopter crash in the water.
As the helo sinks, it turns over, leaving the occupants upside down and strapped into their seats.
This time we were in about 8-10 feet of water.
I was strapped in with four or five other people.
With a “here we go” from the instructor, the dunker began submerging and flipping. I waited until the water came up around my neck and began holding my breath.
Waiting until the unit was completely upside down, I twisted the buckle and released the harness.
I had kept my hand on the side of the window beside me.
Once free of the harness all that was left was to pull myself through the window and swim to the surface.
I’m not sure how long I was underwater, but that next breath of air was certainly welcome!
At the end of the day, you feel if you can survive Navy training -- you can survive anything.
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