Whattaya’ Wanna’ Be….?!’: Pool week-The Discriminators

 

“You ever do crossovers or bobbing?” One of the men asked the Reserve Marine Recon man sitting across from him.  It was Sunday night in Key West Florida and we were finishing dinner and sipping a cold one.  

“Nope!” He said confidently.  We all just made silent eye contact around the table. He has no idea what is coming. No one says anything but we all know tomorrow is going to be a nightmare for him.   At the time pre-SCUBA was not a prerequisite for the Marines and SCUBA school was grossly underestimated by them.  

My class had just arrived from Ft. Bragg where we in-processed, cleared our physicals, took the mandatory PT test, and once we completed that we boarded a C-130 for Key West FL.  We were supposed to jump in but got weathered out.  We landed at Boca Chica NAS, boarded buses, and arrived at the CDQC school house Trumbo Pt of Key West.  We received our orientation, drew our equipment, and were explained what the next week plus would look like.  0430 wake up, PT at 0500 – 0600-ish, chow at 0700, the pool at 0800 to @ 1000, some classroom time, lunch, then surface swims in the open ocean and more classroom time. This is where the attrition happens, we lost all but one of the fourteen during pool week.   

It seemed that 0500 came earlier and earlier as each day passed.  Every day in the dark we’d form up, holler out our motto, do a right face and march out to the street and start jogging, we’d cross an inlet bridge and as we got to the other side the instructors would initiate warp speed – we’d sprint for two miles.  We were all fast but in formation, particularly at the back and in the middle there seemed to be no air. One of the mornings we did a 5:11 mile out while our instructor talked to us.  It was all I could do to keep up and not throw up.  We’d return and go through a 30-45 minute regiment of intense calisthenics, flutter kicks being the staple in that diet.  On your back, hands under your butt, legs extended straight, toes pointed, and you would alternatively kick each leg 60 to 90 degrees and back down to six inches off the ground.  It was a four-count exercise and we did thousands over the course of the next four weeks.  Then PT culminated in wind sprints between 30 and 75 yards depending on the instructor.  The last man did flutter kicks – don’t be the last man.  

There were two discriminators during pool week:  Crossovers and bobbing.  The standard for crossovers is survival.  I’ve never met a single person who said “I like crossovers, no problem there…”.   Bobbing you were required to do it for two minutes and no freaking out.  I don’t use those words lightly.  There were also “graded” areas you had to tie three knots underwater in the deep end in one breath:  a bowline, a round turn with an extra turn, and a square knot, and in the afternoon you had to pass surface swims of 500m, 1000m, 1500m, 2000m, and 3000m in buddy teams all based on time.  If the sea state was bad, meaning waves or a cross tide you could be in serious trouble.  

Nobody eats breakfast despite the fact that we are burning a huge amount of calories every day – no one wants to throw up in the pool.  Every day we get our equipment and move to the pool.  After unloading our tanks and equipment we get in the pool and get familiarized with our equipment, mask clearing, buddy breathing, fins on/off, emergency procedures, and various other instructional material.  On Monday our instructor tells my group to relax, nothing is going to happen until it’s magic time, we are amped up again because we know what’s coming.  

Each student retrieves his ropes and lines up in the seven lanes facing the deep end.  Individually we swim out to the instructor hanging on the side of the deep end of the pool.  We tread water wearing our masks, fins, and B/C.  He calls out a knot and you have thirty seconds to go subsurface in order to tie your knot. One each, then all three at once.  It’s all technique as ropes can be very uncooperative underwater.  

During knot tying is when you first hear the “seal barks” and perhaps engage in it yourself.   Seal barks are when your physiology is telling you that you REALLY need a breath of air and your mind tells you “bad plan bub, you are underwater…” resulting in what we called seal barks.   Comedic when you hear them and not so funny when you are emitting them.  And they are universal, happening to just about everybody I know who’s ever been through pre-SCUBA.  By the way, you can seal bark out of the water by just holding your breath but the consequences are just not the same.  As the saying goes “a breath of water is like no breath at all…”  

We exit the pool, take a short break and hear the NCO in charge of pool week bellow “get it on!” We scramble to get all our equipment on (as listed above) and are too slow.  We take it all off and do a bunch of flutter kicks.  It starts again, this time we make it.  The instructors check us to ensure our equipment is on right, if it’s not…flutter kicks or if you have your tanks on already you do push-ups (roughly 70lbs on your back depending on how full of air they are.  And yes air adds weight, who knew).  

We move to the side of the pool, enter the water from the deep end and move to our respective sides.  You do not want to be in the corner or on the ladder.  

Crossovers begin.  I cannot fully describe the anxiety (terror?) these brought on including insomnia.  Being exhausted and nevertheless waking up at 4 a.m. and thinking #@$#^%& I have to do crossovers in five hours!  Thus ruining your sleep.  I confirmed this with the majority of folks who experienced crossovers.  Imagine, if you will (channeling my inner Rod Sterling), doing wind sprints holding your breath, resting for 30 seconds, and doing it again, the oxygen deficit increases each time until you are out of breath right as you start the next iteration.  Your only option is to forcefully push past the fear and pain and focus.  

To “crossover” you have to swim the width of the pool subsurface with all your equipment on:  Fins, mask, 16lb weight belt, twin 80 cubic inch SCUBA tanks, a horse collar buoyancy compensator (full deflated), and a breathing regulator turned off and nicely tucked away in the front pocket of the buoyancy compensator.  

The standard technique described in my last post was to pull one’s heels up as close to the butt as possible, feet flat against the wall, and on the whistle take a deep breath and launch yourself using your legs away from the wall and get as much momentum as possible.  You remain subsurface until you touch the other wall.  There were “sharks” in the water to “help” you stay subsurface if you appeared you were coming up in the middle.  No one liked dealing with the sharks.  Once on the other side the instructors are in our faces yelling for us to pack it in, meaning we all face the deep end hanging on with one arm, using our legs as friction as well to hang on the wall.  Then we squished towards the deep end, your chest against another man’s tanks. There’s a 30-second interval from the time the first man surfaces. “Prepare to crossover….crossover!!!” Whistle.  This pattern seemingly in perpetuity.  

The first two or three are manageable.  Then the “magic” happens.  We do somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-12 crossovers, you enter into and stay in your own world at roughly number five.   You are in oxygen debt and the CO2 build-up burns your lungs as soon as you push off the wall.  The magic is you lose sense of everything except the next crossover. You are gasping for air, telling yourself “one more…, just one more”.  Everyone is facing their own mortality, only just barely going underwater before the lungs are on fire and seal barks abound.  Everyone is frantically surfacing when they reach the other side. It’s easy to get kicked in the face or come up into someone’s tanks dinging your head adding to the chaos.  Your senses deaden, you only acknowledge what is in front of you, your hearing is limited, occasionally you can hear someone around you gasping for air or an occasional guttural tone, maybe even a wail or sob but it’s outside yourself.

Surrealism takes over.  You have snapshots of men moving hand over hand to the shallow end – they are out.  I spoke to those that got dropped.  The instructors give you three chances shouting “get off the wall” three times while simultaneously counting with their fingers straight into your facemask.  If they get to three you are out.  Most I spoke with said they did not hear or see any of this. They just realized they are out when the regulator gets put into their mouth and are told to move hand over hand to the shallow end of the pool and exit the water. 

Wednesday center mass of crossovers the man to my front right stops kicking and sinks to the bottom.  Panic management goes from high to extreme as we all fin harder for the side.  His name is Mike, he’s from Ranger Battalion, and he’s suffered shallow water blackout – common in this school.  The sharks descend on him and pop his buoyancy compensator.  He rockets to the surface.  The instructors scream at us to not look at him.  We all are looking at Mike.  He is gray and his head is hanging off to the side.  They pull him out of the pool and the dive medics descend on him.  

Nothing stops, we continue.  “Prepare to crossover…crossover!” booms the instructor.  We all push off the wall against our better instincts.  

Finally, after a lifetime we hear the instructor blow the whistle twice and tell us to move to the shallow end.  Gratefully we all do so.  Every day after crossovers everyone looks to the equipment area to see who is packing their stuff.  

We are instantly lined up in each lane for bobbing.  No one wants to be first, still recovering from crossovers.  

Bobbing.  Your equipment remains the same.  With fins on you literally “bob” to the deep end.  Once there you make eye contact with the instructor when (if) he sees you are not about to freak out / reasonably relaxed He points at you with the standard military knife-hand and yells “take your fins off.”  The clock starts now.

You sink to the bottom of the nine-and-a-half-foot pool and pull your fins off.  Easy enough except when they suction to your feet.  Anyone who dives knows this conundrum.  At this point, you have two options:  Bob up and get a breath of air or fight your fin off risking being behind at the start with the ever-present panic waiting in the wings. 

Once your fins are off you put them on your hands.  You hang the fin off your wrists blade pointing down.  Then with your fingers, you grasp the holes midway up the fin.  This allows you to use them with your arms.  Why do you need to do that?  Well, let me tell you.  You squat on the bottom of the pool and when ready put your hands overhead back to back arms extended.  You then push with your legs keeping your hands back to back tightly.  Once the top of the fins reaches the surface you pull your arms down to your sides allowing you to break the surface and take a breath.  This is optimal.  Sometimes you lose your momentum and have to pull earlier hoping you can break the surface. Then you go back down to the bottom and come up again when you need a breath.  If you don’t keep the fins tight together then they STOP you from reaching the surface and panic is just around the corner.  With all your gear you are too heavy to stay on the surface and you don’t have enough air to go back down and try again.  Prepare to panic…panic. 

I did this in eleven feet of water in pre-SCUBA and on a slanted, slick surface (I found out pool tiles come in two different types:  walking/rough and slippery).  I panicked a lot in practice and finally found my rhythm.  In Key West, in nine and a half feet of water and a flat bottom, I was in heaven.  I swear I’d break the surface and come out of the water to my chest.  I’d create a vacuum around my head I’d suck in so much air.  Others weren’t so fortunate.  It’s easy to have one bad bob and then you are headed (panic swimming) for the shallow end or better yet fight to stay on the surface to get another breath actually making yourself more tired and oxygen-depleted resulting in a spiral effect.  At the end of the two minutes, you’d be told to “move to the shallow end, wait for your buddy, and exit the pool.”  Music to one’s ears.  

Epilogue. 

Both Marines in my class were gone by Wednesday.  I say this without judgment or disparagement.  It would take a special man to come into this cold and make it.  They instituted pre-SCUBA after that and their attrition significantly declined.     

All the pool exercises described are done every day with Thursday being the day.  I think we did crossovers for 20 minutes that day.  Once you made it past Thursday Friday was traditionally an “easy” day (seven crossovers and stop) and the vast majority of the attrition was over.  

Mike was revived and put back in the pool after we all had finished bobbing.  He successfully completed his bobbing while we literally cheered him on and came out the pool to us applauding and whooping it up.  He later joined Special Forces and I worked with him for at least a decade.  Shallow Water Blackout was a problem at this school.  If you did it twice you were gone, dropped from the school.  We had a guy in our class who had to return after being dropped a year prior for two SWB’s.  He’s a YouTube sensation now – look up Pat McNamara.  He was our morale NCO and pure entertainment.  

I saw superhuman responses to the fear this course caused.  The instructors were trained on how to deal with a drowning student because due to adrenalin we were HARD to control.  I saw one guy pull himself out of the pool in the deep end right onto his feet with all his equipment on – he was done.  

The CDQC officially stopped doing crossovers in 1992 after a 1st Special Forces Group soldier (Dvorak) died.  For the record I never saw any forcing people to continue, you wanted to stop, you stopped and were out.

The method to the madness was I rarely (never?) panicked in the water or out.

More CDQC adventures to follow.

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  1. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Great post. I tried to complete my first mile swim off Catalina Island. There was no shallow end, but I had a boat following me. I failed that first attempt. I was a 12 year-old Boy Scout. I completed later multiple open water mile swims when I became a stronger swimmer. I also received lifeguard training as a Boy Scout. You entered deep water in long pants. You took those pants off after treading water, and tied knots in each pant leg and then learned how to raise the pants out of the water to trap air in each pant leg.

    I’ve watched people at the beach who have no real swimming skills:

    – Six inches of water will reach the bottom of most passenger cars, causing loss of control and potential stalling.- A foot of water will float many vehicles.- Two feet of rushing water will carry away most vehicles, including SUVs and pickups.

    If you think about it wading waist, or chest deep into the surf a person runs the risk of being knocked off their feet. Or they can get caught in a riptide. They try to swim against that river of water heading back out to sea, exhaust themselves, and then drown. If they swim in the direction that the water moves, and swim at an angle they will exit that riptide and be able to swim back to the beach.

    Panic is a killer in water, it impairs decision making. 

     

    • #1
  2. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    dajoho: Everyday in the dark we’d form up, holler out our motto, do a right face and march out to the street and start jogging, we’d cross an inlet bridge and as we got to the other side the instructors would initiate warp speed – we’d sprint for two miles.  We were all fast but in formation, particularly at the back and in the middle there seemed to be no air. One of the mornings we did a 5:11 mile out while our instructor talked to us. 

    5:11 mile in formation and singing cadence.

    dajoho: you had to tie three knots underwater in the deep end in one breath:  a bowline, a round turn with an extra turn, and a square knot

    Yes, and I think they had the guys at Lawrence Livermore Labs use an electron microscope to figure out the least amount of rope they could issue you and still have enough rope that it was physically possible–if you’d been an Eagle Scout and had a PhD in knots–to tie the knots.

    dajoho: If you don’t keep the fins tight together then they STOP you from reaching the surface and panic is just around the corner.

    Yeh.  I commented on that earlier.  I don’t want to go back to that dark place.

    • #2
  3. dajoho Member
    dajoho
    @dajoho

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    Great post. I tried to complete my first mile swim off Catalina Island. There was no shallow end, but I had a boat following me. I failed that first attempt. I was a 12 year-old Boy Scout. I completed later multiple open water mile swims when I became a stronger swimmer. I also received lifeguard training as a Boy Scout. You entered deep water in long pants. You took those pants off after treading water, and tied knots in each pant leg and then learned how to raise the pants out of the water to trap air in each pant leg.

    I’ve watched people at the beach who have no real swimming skills:

    – Six inches of water will reach the bottom of most passenger cars, causing loss of control and potential stalling.- A foot of water will float many vehicles.- Two feet of rushing water will carry away most vehicles, including SUVs and pickups.

    If you think about it wading waist, or chest deep into the surf a person runs the risk of being knocked off their feet. Or they can get caught in a riptide. They try to swim against that river of water heading back out to sea, exhaust themselves, and then drown. If they swim in the direction that the water moves, and swim at an angle they will exit that riptide and be able to swim back to the beach.

    Panic is a killer in water, it impairs decision making.

     

    Thanks Doug you swimmin’ fool.  12 years old?  Wow.  And the Hawaiian’s have a saying “never turn your back on the ocean.”  Absolutely true – you better give water respect or you will pay.  

     

    • #3
  4. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    Damn.  Again, it’s one part awe, one part questioning your sanity.   Imagine a surgeon who does a solo operation on himself with no pain meds, equipped with a pocket knife and multitool.  I guess if you have done crossovers, charging a machine gun naked and unarmed does not so sound bad.   

    I’m not a doctor, but it sounds like you are reprogramming your brain as well as training your body.

    • #4
  5. dajoho Member
    dajoho
    @dajoho

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    Damn. Again, it’s one part awe, one part questioning your sanity. Imagine a surgeon who does a solo operation on himself with no pain meds, equipped with a pocket knife and multitool. I guess if you have done crossovers, charging a machine gun naked and unarmed does not so sound bad.

    I’m not a doctor, but it sounds like you are reprogramming your brain as well as training your body.

    Absolutely OP the ol’ where the mind goes the body follows. 

    • #5
  6. navyjag Coolidge
    navyjag
    @navyjag

    Da, as much as I liked to swim as a kid and loved the summer NRTOC diving exercises, you just reminded me why I went in the JAG Corps. 

    • #6