Playing a duck is not as easy as it sounds -- not when a duck, in rescue swimmer lingo, is a practice victim, and the water, off the southern coast of Alaska, is too damned cold for anything without feathers. But here I am, dangling in a rescue basket 30 feet below the thundering hulk of a Coast Guard HH-60J Jayhawk helicopter with an elite squad of lifesaving commandos 20 feet underfoot. "Everything OK?" yells one after I'm dunked in the drink. "Hell yeah," I shout back. It's all I can muster between mouthfuls of 120-knot rotor blast.
Since its inception in 1984, the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer program has grown to include nearly 300 swimmers at 25 air stations throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. More often than not, they're the only intermediaries between life and death for shipwrecked mariners, and here in Sitka, Alaska, they take on the additional responsibilities of rescuing sick inhabitants from remote villages and plucking lost hunters from Alaska's vast southeastern archipelago. It's a daunting job, and proficiency training, such as the sea and cliff rescues that are on today's menu, ensures they keep their edge.
Before ever saving a life at sea, rescue swimmers must pass a grueling four-month course at the Aviation Technical Training Center in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Students simulate helo jumps, practice rescue techniques and learn to service and maintain everything from pyrotechnics to life rafts. Only 50 percent graduate, and those who do maintain their certification as aviation survival technicians (ASTs) through a monthly exam that includes 50 push-ups, 60 sit-ups, five pull-ups, five chin-ups, a 500-yard swim, four 25-yard underwater swims and a similar set of buddy tows. And in Alaska, they're also required to have EMT 2 certification, which means they can intubate patients and administer IVs -- handy skills at Air Station Sitka, where half of the 140 annual missions are bush medevacs in extreme weather with low ceilings, poor visibility, high winds and mountainous terrain.