Five Days of Cold, Wet, Grueling Training on Less Than Four Hours’ Sleep

Hell Week nights are definitely the most memorable part of the week, at least they were for me – and they were certainly the most challenging. I don’t know the exact statistics, but I suspect they would correlate with what happened in my class – most trainees quit at night. Sunday and Monday nights captured the majority of the men who decided the SEAL profession wasn’t for them. By Wednesday night, our class had shrunk to 18 (17 enlisted men and one officer – yours truly). Although, I surely didn’t feel like much of a leader by Wednesday night – I was shocked and saddened by how many of my classmates had dropped out.

Down to Six Weary Souls

Internally, I couldn’t help but take it personally as I would think about what had happened to “my” class in just six weeks. We had 122 men attempt the class-up test, and 64 had qualified. By the start of Hell Week – 30 training days later – we were down 34 candidates, spread across five boat crews. And now, with three full days of Hell Week behind us, all of Class 181 fit in just three inflatable boats of six weary souls each.

If Hell Week Nights Had Names

If Hell Week nights had one-word names, I would call Tuesday “Pain,” Wednesday “Relief,” and Thursday “Weird.” Thursday night was one big expedition, a 14 mile “around the world” paddle. The course starts deep in the San Diego bay and ends just north of the Tijuana border on Pacific side. We were looking forward to this paddle – any time on the water meant time away from the harassment of the instructors. Like everything else in SEAL training, this would be a race – there would be a winner, and the losers would suffer.

Staying Dry Was Our Main Goal

Our at-sea adventure not only represented some solitude from the instructors, but the six hours of paddling gave us our first opportunity to dry out. We had become hydrophobic (fear of the water) – we didn’t want to touch the water. We held our paddles just a little higher so our hands wouldn’t get wet. We sat “side-saddle” in our little crafts so we wouldn’t have to dangle the outside leg in the water. We even jockeyed for placing our feet on the inflatable cross members of our boat so we could avoid getting our feet wet from the water that collected in the leaky bottom. Winning wasn’t our main concern, staying dry was.

Paddling 14 Miles on 3 Hours’ Sleep

Paddling 14 miles on roughly 3 hours sleep is harder than you might think. Everything is harder – not only because you’re exhausted, but more importantly because your brain is staging a revolt on you. And it presents its protests in bizarre ways – your senses are numb, your movements are slow and you see things that you know aren’t true….or are they? At first, you try to blink a couple of extra times when you see something that isn’t quite right. When that doesn’t work, you shake your head violently as if that will knock some processing gears back into place and make things right. But when all three men are convinced of one thing and the other three have the opposite conviction, no amount of head shaking will help.

The Seasoned Ones Had Quit Three Days Earlier

I heard Boat Crew Two’s coxswain (captain) before we saw them. He was our class’s most senior enlisted man – a petty officer third class who had received his promotions while going through radio school. In other words, we had no experienced senior enlisted men. All the truly seasoned ones had quit three days before – two top-notch first class petty officers both with over 10 years each of fleet experience. I missed them. To make matters worse, the class leader (me) didn’t have much more experience.

A Classic Case of the Blind Leading the Blind

We were a classic case of the “blind leading the blind” and boat crew #2 proved it. When we rowed up to them, we couldn’t believe what was happening in their boat – it was a full-fledged mutiny of sorts. Three men were facing the bow (front) on the starboard side, while the opposing three were facing the stern (back) – they were literally going in circles. The more they argued, the harder they paddled; and the harder they paddled, the faster they went around and around. This cycle just made both sides madder at each other, resulting in a shouting match on the Pacific Ocean.

Not Paddling in the Same Direction

As obvious as it might sound, it took me a good minute to figure out why they weren’t making progress. After a few more minutes, with my boat crew’s help, we rationalized with them that they will make more headway paddling in the same direction. Though I don’t recall what finally convinced three of them to turn around – one side finally acquiesced and they begrudgingly got back on a course for the border of Mexico.

That Would Never Happen To Us

We had a couple of chuckles at their expense. I remember our laughing about how funny it was watching them go in circles and saying, “that would never happen in boat crew #1!” What seemed like an hour later, but which was probably much less, my swim buddy stood up and started attacking the water violently with his paddle – spraying us with water.  I yelled his first name “Scott (not his real name) – what the hell are you doing?!” He said with fear in his voice, “Sir, this shark has been following me for hours and I’m sick of it – I going to kill him with my paddle before he bites me!”

Pink Elephants

Just then, the hallucinations started coming fast and furious as another boat crew member said incredulously, “Ah sir, I know you’re not going to believe this, but there are pink elephants eating peanuts on the beach.”