Out on America’s West Coast, just to the left of California about 60 miles, lies a 21-nautical-mile-long geographical wasteland known as San Clemente Island. It makes up the southern tip of California’s Channel Islands, making it the metaphorical hell to the comparable heaven of Santa Catalina Island, which is located a bit to the northeast.
While San Clemente might be considered beautiful and a piece of untamed nature to some, to the indoctrinated it is an infernal hellscape, populated by more foxes and feral goats than humans, and the scene of unspeakable tortuous training meted out by Navy SEAL instructors during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) Third Phase.
Ok, I might be employing some hyperbole here, but in the mind of the typical BUD/S student, still trapped in the almost-completed 26-week training program, San Clemente Island represents the last big hurdle of SEAL training. It also represents a voyage into the heart of darkness, where BUD/S instructors have free reign over the trainees, unbridled by the rules of civilized society found back on the mainland, at the BUD/S compound.
There ain’t no Navy brass to save you on San Clemente Island.
Given that BUD/S instructors have only about three and a half weeks left to make a final determination regarding a trainee’s fitness to become a full-fledged Navy SEAL, before the class heads back to Coronado for graduation and movement on to SEAL Qualification Training (SQT), the San Clemente portion of training has assumed a mythical standing as a unique and final crucible within BUD/S.
Due to that reputation, and the necessity to make students prove themselves one last time in training, the time spent on “The Rock” has assumed its place in BUD/S lore alongside Hell Week and Pool Comp as a major obstacle to be overcome. God knows, this author witnessed some of his strangest and craziest moments at BUD/S while at San Clemente. Here are just ten of those, though there are surely more that my feeble mind has tucked away in its darkest, most recessed inner gray matter, never to be thought of again. Self preservation in action.
1. The surf zone brakes a trainee’s leg
San Clemente is known for its big surf and cold water. In fact, one of BUD/S’ numerous fatalities occurred at the Island some years back, when a trainee emerged from the 5.5-nautical-mile swim (which used to be held at San Clemente), and died right there on the shore, of hypothermia. The water and the surf zone are no joke.
In this author’s BUD/S class, for example, one of the best students in the class was swimming ashore through the surf zone, with fins on, when a giant wave caught him, turned him over numerous times, caught his fin on the bottom, and snapped his leg. He was lucky enough to be so near the end of training that he limped through the last week or so on crutches. The Island surf is merciless.
2. Another trainee gets revenge by crapping in the surf zone
Shortly after the aforementioned student had his leg unceremoniously broken by the waves, yours truly took his revenge on the surf zone. This author (barely) made it into the waves at the end of a long field training exercise (FTX), and unloaded his bowels into Neptune’s layer. The hours-long FTX had literally beat the shit out of me, and as an act of defiance, I let loose the turds of hell while exfiltrating through the surf. The excrement in question made its way easily from my pant leg to the water, and rarely have I felt such relief as I did in that split second. It is the small victories that get you through BUD/S, after all.
3. The class officer takes down a fellow student — with jujitsu
BUD/S training sees its fair share of hazing — both “sanctioned,” in the form of what the instructors do to you throughout training, as well as unsanctioned, when a fellow trainee evokes the ire of his fellow students. In one particular case, while we were at San Clemente, a certain enlisted man disliked the class leader, and decided to take advantage of the wild west atmosphere there at the Island to enact some midnight hazing.
Unfortunately for the enlisted trainee, he did not realize that the class officer, comparably slight as he might have been, was a jujitsu expert. Needless to say, when the enlisted man in question tried to apply a rigger’s tape straightjacket on the officer while the latter slept, it did not end well for the enlisted man. Also needless to say, our class kept that little episode secret from the instructor staff.
4. Students raid the chow how for snacks and a phone call
It is a poorly kept secret on San Clemente Island that the chow hall is never locked, and leftover food is kept on the counters in the event that instructors (or students) get hungry in the middle of the night. Neither was it a secret that there was a phone in the chow hall that allowed outside calls back home.
Now, it was never explicitly stated that students would be punished harshly for being caught in the chow hall munching leftovers and chatting with wives and girlfriends. However, nor did we ever undertake that secret operation without a healthy dose of covert movements. If you knew what was good for you, you snuck in, stuffed your face, placed a quick call, and got the hell out of there before an instructor made his way in and busted you. Midnight torture was not uncommon.
5. Students are tear gassed on the O-course
The obstacle course at San Clemente was in many ways harder than the one back at the BUD/S compound in Coronado. For one thing, you did it in all your combat loadout gear, instead of in just boots and pants. For another, at one point, you have to complete the obstacle course amidst the haze of a tear gas (CS) cloud. While going through the course holding your breath is impossible, it would not have mattered anyway, because the CS pellets adhered to your body when you low crawled through parts of the course. Brutal.
6. The class takes a night swim in the kelp beds….with the sharks
One of the first things you do at San Clemente Island is sit down in a classroom, after night fall, for what the instructors called “movie night.” Never trust any BUD/S evolution that sounds like it might be even remotely fun. As it turned out, the instructors sat us down, turned off the lights, and fired up “Jaws.” We watched for about 5 minutes, saw some humans get devoured by a shark, were told that San Clemente was the home of a seal hatchery, and were further informed that great white sharks liked to feed on baby seals around the Island.
Then, we were merrily marched down to the beach and sent on a night swim around part of the Island, near the seal hatchery. To make matters worse, we swam through kelp beds that made it seem like creatures were grabbing at our feet for the duration of the swim. Good times.
7. Students are forced into kamikaze foot races
I will never forget being on the pistol range, which backed up against a steep hill, when a huddle of instructors pulled myself and fellow trainee Adam Brown over to them because we had both made some mistake on the range. After conferring for a minute, the instructors told us to race down the hill, touch some obstacle at the bottom, and come back. The race was about 200 meters of combined down and up-hill, and of course, it would “pay to be a winner” (as it always does in BUD/S).
Adam and I took off, and as we made our way back up hill, in a dead heat, we started to try to tackle and trip each other. We looked like a couple of idiots running and fighting and you would have thought it was the funniest thing the instructors had ever seen. They laughed. They pointed. They called other instructors over to watch. And, of course, they made us do it over and over and over again. Kill me now.
8. You must PT to eat
When in BUD/S, you never get to have any rest or comfort without working for it first. The same goes for eating. At the compound in Coronado, you run a mile each way to and from meals. At San Clemente, you have to do physical training (PT) evolutions to eat. Whether they be pull-ups in full gear, foot races up and down steep hills, or any other torturous PT evolution, you never ate for free. That tradition is ratcheted up at San Clemente, and I cannot even remember all the painful and humiliating actions I undertook just to eat some institutional Navy food.
9. The Island is a ship-to-shore live firing range
As if being tortured by SEAL instructors on the desolate privacy of the Island was not enough, San Clemente also serves as a place for U.S. Navy vessels to send hellfire down in the form of naval gunfire, on a regular basis. That is a comforting thought, is it not? You always hoped those rounds would not fall in the wrong spot.
10. You blow shit up underwater, WWII-style
Not to be outdone by the Haze Gray Navy, BUD/S students get to detonate their own ordinance on the Island, too. Harkening back to their World War II “frogman” days, SEAL trainees learn to become experts in underwater demolition while on San Clemente Island. That means you swim explosive devices out through the surf zone, hold your breath, swim them underwater, and rig them up onto submerged obstacles like the ones seen during the D-Day invasion. If you were not busy trying to tie demolition knots underwater while not passing out, you might be worried that you would do something wrong and blow yourself to tiny pieces.
San Clemente Island is a truly batshit crazy place. I, for one, am glad I survived it, with (most of) my sanity intact.