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I had just closed my eyes and opened them when it registered that one of my two roommates had left the light on. I was just about to give them some serious what for and tell them to shut off the damn light. Then I noticed one of them was donning his PT clothes. I seemingly blinked and five hours were gone; it was time to get up. I was in the middle of the Combat Diver Qualification Course (CDQC) week three.
Monday through Friday 0500 was first call, followed by a 0530 formation for Physical Training. Every day, as we groggily went about getting our PT clothes on, our self-appointed morale team would slide their boombox (remember those?) into the hallway and hit play. Canned Heat “Going Up Country” would blare down the hall and within a few seconds we’d all be dancing (it wasn’t pretty) and singing along. Without fail in unison we’d all belt out the second stanza:
I’m going, I’m going
Where the water tastes like wine
Where the water tastes like wine
So we can jump in the water
Stay drunk all the time
As described in my previous post, PT was hard but since we passed pool week it was noticeably easier. These instructors thought it was hard but they had clearly not cross-pollinated with the instructors from pool week. And we sure weren’t going to tell them (ixnay on the ecretsay).
We’d gather outside and collectively decide on our class motto for that day. Early on we determined that our class motto was substandard and then ingeniously decided we’d change it every day after that. See mottos are a thing in the military, particularly in military schools. You holler them out every time you get called to attention. And they speak to the class attitude and morale – ours was high. So at 0530 hours every morning, we got called to attention with the instructors looking on wondering what we would say today. I think they actually enjoyed it but never showed it because, you know, instructors. Today’s was “what, what, what? McHale!” paying homage to Legendary McHale’s Navy show. No kidding. Amusingly if we were loud enough during PT i.e. singing our cadence while running, counting our reps, and just making noise there would be complaints from across the bay from NAS Key West and the school lived for this. We waited every day for the word from the instructors on whether they got “the call.” If so we’d roar claiming our victory!
We’d finish up PT, shower, and head for chow. Now that pool week was over we started eating breakfast again. We were eating at the Brasserie de Minay Nayvay otherwise known as the Coast Guard Dining Facility and astoundingly they only had enough food to serve each man one standard meal at each meal. And much to our chagrin the Coast Guard appeared to be strictly adhering to FDA-published guidelines on serving size and food groups. “No you can’t have grits and potatoes, that’s two starches Sarge..” Picture the 25 lean and mean students operating at a very high physical level gleefully receiving their FDA-sized servings. We were hungry and visibly not happy campers. The Coast Guard mistakenly left the bread pallet out one morning. We descended as locusts and ate 12 loaves before they could blink. Well, that didn’t happen again and we heard about it later in the day to the tune of 100 flutter kicks (totally worth it) however I believe much to the school’s amusement. Suffice it to say we established and maintained a real love fest throughout the course with them.
By 0800 we are in the classroom. It was upstairs in a standard WWII barracks with the standard gray military tables set up in rows on each side of the long axis of the room with an aisle in the middle. The end was a slightly raised platform with a desk, a chalkboard (not even a whiteboard back then) and a screen for an overhead projector; there was dive paraphernalia all over the walls. Every instructor who would enter would yell out “Whatta’ ya’ wanna’ be?!?!?” We’d shout back “Combat Diver!!!” For most instructors being here was a passion and it was refreshing. They loved being a “Combat Diver” which in turn bled into the morale of all of us – you could feel their fervor and commitment.
Over the course we ingested a full menu of diving know-how on everything imaginable including dangerous marine life, tides and currents (do not affect the Combat Diver), CPR, diving injuries and diving physiology, inspection and maintenance of diving gear, oxygen tolerance and chamber pressure test, diving physics, regulator repair, and use of diving tables for determining air supply and decompression. This week, beyond the above, has been closed-circuit week learning how to assemble, inspect, dawn, operate, disassemble and clean the Draeger LAR V closed-circuit diving apparatus. The closed-circuit diving equipment consists of a compact, lightweight rebreather that sits on your front. The Draeger scrubs exhaled gases from a diver’s exhalations and recycles the unused oxygen back to the diver with additional pure oxygen as needed. There are usually no bubbles, so the system is undetectable from the surface. Besides concealment since the rebreather recycles oxygen you can swim them up to five hours. I never tested this “only” swimming an hour and 45 minutes in Puget Sound in a horrendous current, good times.
We finished up the classroom instruction for the morning. Got some lunch at the Brasserie de Minay Nayvay and again left hungray. Then we prepared our Draeger’s following the step-by-step assembly process checking and rechecking our steps. If water gets in due to lackadaisical assembly, usually cross-threading a valve (generally not found during dive inspection before the dive) you get what is known as a “caustic cocktail.” The water travels through the system and into the Sodasorb aka the CO2 scrubber, it’s the chemical that takes the CO2 out of your exhale and allows the oxygen to continue. Once water is in the Sodasorb turns to liquid and ends up coming through the regulator into your mouth. The pH is 10.3 so you can imagine that culinary delight and what it does to the inside of your mouth. My buddy mis-threaded his Draeger, fortunately we were in the pool practicing buddy breathing on day one of this week. He got the dose, rocketed to the surface, and saved me from burning my mouth too.
On a side note after diving Draeger’s for years and filling our canisters with Sodasorb that, once assembled, go inside the Draeger our dive locker came out one day and said “you all need to wear masks when filling your canisters. It’s been determined that Sodasorb dust is carcinogenic…” Really? So I can dive them once a month breathing through it for 60+ minutes at a time but filling my canisters is going to give me the black lung…?
Once prepared, we load our gear, get on the trucks and move to the pier. Once at the pier, we don our gear under a watchful eye and if we do it wrong…flutter kicks. Now the Draeger sits on your torso and now you wear your fins and mask and “knock ‘em out.” This registers low on the fun meter particularly after lunch and makes you pay attention. Once you are inspected you move to the boats by team number.
We do two swims a day all week with distances of 500, 750, 1000, and 1500 meters with Monday being pool familiarization. Last week was the same with Open Circuit dive gear – think regular scuba tanks. Today’s fare consists of two 1000m swims one day, and one night.
We move to the 1000m mark offshore. Looking back I think this was a Kentucky windage as GPS was not a thing back then (there’s a marker buoy out here somewhere….). Once there the instructors call out “prepare to enter the water!” Each dive team sits on the gunnel of the boat with their backs facing the water then throws their small, inflatable buoys into the water and looks over each shoulder ensuring we are not landing on something behind us. Reaching up with one hand to our face applying pressure ensuring our mask stays on and our regulator in and with the other holding our the lower strap on our Draeger does come up and pop you in the mush as you contact the water. “Enter the water!” We all roll backwards into the drink taking in the initial splash and bubbles as you go in.
We surface and give the “OK” hand signal to the instructor in the boat. The swim buddy’s job is to ensure we are snapped together on the buddy line and get the buoy situated so we don’t get tangled in it. It’s a red “diver down” buoy attached to a rope that is attached to him. This is for safety and allows the cadre to know where you are in the water. I am the compass swimmer this time. I take a compass bearing to a 3-foot by 5-foot diver down sign on the beach that is rough 6 feet off the ground. We make eye contact and I give him the OK signal and the thumbs down to go subsurface.
We swim to the bottom (roughly 18 feet) and I have my compass on my right arm, extended, and bent at the elbow at 90 degree perpendicular to my body, so my wrist with the compass is right under my face. My left hand braces my right hand and has the depth gauge and watch on it. We then start finning, hard. It takes about 20+ minutes to swim 500m. I cannot remember the time standards but you cannot go faster than 15 minutes for 500m for safety reasons so I am estimating 20 minutes per 500m thus making the swim 40 minutes plus a little leeway for waves, tides, and currents (that do not affect the Combat Diver) and I will go with 50 minutes. The safety reason is that although some are able to go faster you can “over swim” your rig. It’s pure oxygen and bad things happen if you get an “O2 hit” AKA Oxygen Toxicity. At the high end, you can have convulsions…underwater. I’ll give you a minute to ingest that nightmare.
As the compass man, I don’t see anything. I am on my compass the entire time only looking away to make eye contact with my buddy every few minutes for safety. His job is to watch out for everything else, debris on the bottom, reef, rocks, etc. There’s a bit of dangerous sea life consisting of jellyfish and barracudas. We only occasionally see a jellyfish but the muscles with teeth are everywhere. If you drift north / right towards the channel, they get bigger to the tune of 36 inches plus bigger. And once you see a big one you know you are off track. On the off chance we see a shark the standing operating procedure is to stab your buddy, cut the line, and swim away.
We swim until you cannot anymore, meaning standing up in chest-deep water will get you a failed swim. Once up you yell your team number. The instructor on shore annotates your time and how far left or right of the target you are. There is a matrix and if you are too far left or right or too slow you fail. You can fail one swim then you are out.
I am roughly 50m right of the sign and made decent time. I am comfortable that I am within tolerance. The instructors wait until all are in. We move back to the compound, wash all our gear, and head back to the classroom for more classes. At this point in the day, it’s an endurance event. The instructors know we are tired and are constantly asking “Whatta’ ya’ wanna’ be?!?!?” We shout back almost robotically “Combat Diver!!!”
At 1700 it’s back to the Brasserie and then free time. Most of us study for upcoming tests focusing on dive physics and dive laws. It would be a crime to fail academically after the physical trial of this school, not to mention the reputation crusher something like that would be (“that’s the guy who failed dive school.” “Crossovers?” “Nope, academics…what a putz!”).
At 1900 we prepare our Draeger’s, gather our gear, and move for the pier. After inspection, we load the boats and move again to the 1000m mark. It is @ 2030 now (8:30p.m. for those of you trying to do the math…) and dusk is ending and it’s dark. We enter the water, my buddy gets his bearings and off we go. Nighttime is a skosh harder for the non-compass man as you have to watch what is going on around you but it’s dark. This swim I see barracudas, their silhouettes, statue-still, float facing you and magically pivot as you swim by. Then they flick their tail and are gone, nowhere to be seen. I look behind me to see if we are being followed, as if I’d know.
We arrive undamaged, all the teams surfacing near each other in the dark emerging like a whole gaggle of creatures from the Black Lagoon. This time left of the sign but again within tolerance for time and distance.
After everyone is accounted for, we load the trucks and we move back to the compound. We unload, clean and reset our Draeger’s for tomorrow, clean all our gear and rinse off personally. At the end of the day, it’s close to midnight.
It occurs to me that our lives revolve around water. We are roughly 60% water, we shower, we cook, we drink, we wash, and while here we swim at least twice a day. I go to bed and literally have dreams in which my entire life is occurring underwater (wake up, swim to the bathroom…).
Tomorrow it all starts again.
Whattaya’ Wanna’ Be?Published in