If you aspire to be a member of the Special Operations community, you are going to face challenges at every turn. A special operator has to be comfortable in any environment, on the land, in the air, and in the water.
A former BUDS graduate told me once that for candidates going into Naval Special Warfare that, to them, going into the water was going home. “The water is our bread and butter,” he said. “That is what we see as home. The water is our safe place and if you aren’t comfortable in the water, you need to try something else.”
Today we’re going to look at the last of those realms, the water and why it is so important to be comfortable in an airless environment. Regardless of the unit in Special Operations, you will be doing operations in the water. If you choose to be a Naval Special Warfare Operator or a Navy SEAL, then you must be extremely calm in the water as that is the basis of everything that they do.
During the training, candidates while in their Dive Phase will be harassed by the cadre member and have their masks ripped off, their fins taken, and air their air hose tied in a knot to stop the air flow. Why the harassment? It all serves a distinct purpose. SEALs have to be able to adapt to anything that goes wrong in the water because things invariably will.
They have to be able to think things thru and not panic if something goes awry under the water. And the jostling and banging around the cadre do to the candidates is equated to coming ashore in a very rough surf.
Another tactic that the cadre uses to teach candidates not to panic in the water is referred to as “the Beehive”, where candidates are pushed into the deep end of the pool in an ever-tightening group. As it was explained to me, candidates are shoulder to shoulder trying to stay afloat and it takes just one of them to panic and grabs the guy next to him and try to use him for support and it sets off a chain reaction. In just a matter of seconds, it turns into what was described as “a fight for your life.”
Candidates will be pushed under the water and it was akin to being trapped under an ice floe as the candidates struggled to breathe. The lesson? Stick together, help each other and never panic. It is a complete mental exercise to vanquishing fear and panic.
So, what is the way that the Navy SEALs first teach their candidates to be comfortable in the water? They call it the Drownproofing Test, but it is popularly known as the “SEAL Water Challenge Test”.
The test is done by SEAL candidates in a 9-foot deep pool. With their hands tied behind their back and their feet bound, they have to completely pass all of the events in the test or they are considered a failure and removed from training. The test consists of the following tasks:
Bob Up and Down at the deep end 20 times: It isn’t easy, especially if the candidate is positively buoyant, and then the candidate will have to exhale as he descends and keeps his legs straight to reach the bottom. Then bend at the knees and kick to the surface.
Float on Your Back for 5 Minutes: The key here is to get a deep breath and arch your back to naturally bring your lungs to the surface. Most consider this not that difficult, but if you are in the minority (raises hand), that is negatively buoyant, it is much more difficult.
Swim to the Shallow End of the Pool, Turn Around and swim back without touching the bottom: Here the candidate has to do a dolphin kick which is easier to do on your side, where you can catch your breath at intervals.
Do a Forward and Backward Somersault: Most SEALs say that after the swim, the key is to do a few bottom bobs to catch your breath and then kick hard at the bottom and flip on over. Another bob is done to then do it in reverse.
Retrieve a Mask Off the Bottom with Your Teeth: This is the same as the bottom bob but once the candidate hits the bottom, he must bend his knees, flip over retrieve the mask with his teeth and the exercise is complete.
If at any time your ropes become undone, the candidate must start the entire exercise over again, if they come undone again, he fails. It is an extremely difficult test as it will force a candidate to either relax in the water or fail. It is also a tremendous endurance test as, by the time, the candidates get to the final task of retrieving a mask, their bodies are exhausted and they are having trouble getting enough air to complete the challenge.
A couple of caveats to trying this on your own for practice and to get that comfort level in the water. Number 1 and most importantly is to never attempt this alone. Have a training partner or two along with you….just in case.
Number 2, do not tie your hands and feet together during your training for the real thing. It is inherently dangerous and when the SEALs do this, they have cadre members and instructors right there just in case anything goes terribly wrong for a candidate. And even then, although very, rarely, things can go awry.
Get more comfortable in the water and learn to relax, it is like anything else candidates will have to learn while in Special Operations. Once you cross that threshold, everything else becomes a little bit easier to accomplish.
It isn’t easy for some, others are born comfortable in the water. But it isn’t anything thousand of special operators haven’t done in the past.
Photo: US Navy SEAL candidates conducting a drown proofing test.
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