In a classroom at the Naval Special Warfare Center, Instructor Stoneclam stood next to a 13-foot long, black, rubber boat resting on the floor in front of my class.
“Today, I’m going to brief you on Surf Passage. This is the IBS. Some people call it the Itty-Bitty Ship, and you’ll probably have your own pet names to give it, but the Navy calls it the Inflatable Boat, Small. You will man it with six to eight men who are about the same height. These men will be your boat crew.”
He drew a primitive picture on the board of the beach, ocean, and stickmen scattered around the IBS. He pointed to the stickmen scattered in the ocean.
“This is you guys after a wave has just wiped you out.”
He drew a stickman on the beach.
“This is one of you after the ocean spit you out. And guess what? The next thing the ocean is going to spit out is the boat.”
Instructor Stoneclam used his eraser like a boat.
“But now the 170-pound IBS is full of water and weighs about as much as a small car. And it’s coming right at you here on the beach. What are you going to do? If you’re standing in the road, and a small car comes speeding at you, what are you going to do? Try to outrun it? Of course not. You’re going to get out of the road. Same thing when the boat comes speeding at you. You’re going to get out of the path it’s traveling. Run parallel to the beach.
“Some of you look sleepy. All of you drop and push ‘em out!”
Later, the sunshine dimmed as we stood by our boats facing the ocean. Bulky orange kapok life jackets covered our Battle Dress Uniforms (BDU’s). We tied our hats to the top button hole on our shirt collars with orange cord. Each of us held our paddles like rifles at the order-arms position, waiting for our boat leader to return from where the instructors briefed him and the other boat crew leaders. Our group was the “Smurf Crew”—the boat with the shortest men.
Our boat leader quickly returned and gave us orders. With boat handle in one hand and paddle in the other hand, we raced with our boat into the water. The other boat crews raced too.
“One’s in!” our boat leader called.
Our two front men jumped into the boat and started paddling. I ran in water almost up to my knees.
Martinez and I jumped in and started paddling.
The third pair jumped in and paddled, followed by our boat leader, who used his oar at the stern to steer.
I dug my paddle in deep and pulled back as hard as I could. I glanced over at another boat where the Egyptian officer, had a big smile on his face like he was on the Catalina cruise. His paddle leisurely slapped the top of the water.
In front of us, a seven-foot wave formed.
“Dig, dig, dig!”
Our boat climbed up the face of the wave. I saw one of the boats clear the tip. We weren’t so lucky. The wave picked us up and slammed us down, sandwiching us between our boat and the water. As the ocean swallowed us, I swallowed a mouthful of boots, paddles, and cold saltwater.
Eventually, the ocean spit us onto the beach along with most of the other boat crews. The instructors greeted us by dropping us. With our boots on the boats, hands in the sand, and gravity against us, we did pushups.
Then we gathered ourselves together and went at it again—with more motivation and better teamwork. This time, we cleared the breakers.
Back on shore, a boyish-faced trainee from another boat crew, picked his paddle up off the beach. As he turned around to face the ocean, a boat raced toward him sideways.
Instructor Stoneclam shouted in the megaphone,
“GET OUT OF THERE!”
Boy-Face ran away from the boat, just like the instructors told us not to. Fear has a way of turning Einsteins into amoebas.
“RUN PARALLEL TO THE BEACH! RUN PARALLEL TO THE BEACH!”
Boy-Face continued to try to outrun the speeding vehicle. The boat came out of the water and slid sideways like a hovercraft over the hard wet sand. When it ran out of hard wet sand, its momentum carried it over the soft dry sand until it hacked Boy-Face down. Instructor Stoneclam, other instructors, and the ambulance rushed to the wounded man.
Doc, one of the SEAL instructors, started first aid. I never heard Boy-Face call out in pain. The boat broke both his legs at the thigh bones.
When the day finished, we hit the hot showers, but Parsons, the punker with Billy Idol hair, grabbed his surfboard and headed back for more:
“Those waves are thrashin’!”
You can read the rest of my story in Navy SEAL Training Class 144: My BUD/S Journal.