"Swim call" on a Coast Guard ship signals a brief splash of liberty in an exotic aquatic setting few people on earth ever experience. But the 1MC announcement from the bridge came terse and flat, like a navigational briefing:
"Water depth is two thousand feet. Air temperature eighty-eight degrees. Water temperature eighty-seven degrees."
As an instructor on board the USCG Cutter Confidence, I was the only civilian and one of three women (inevitably referred to as "females") in a crew of some 80 men. I thought I was the oldest person aboard, probably the only Ph.D., and almost certainly the only Quaker. An employee of Vincennes University, not the Department of Defense, I felt like a participant-observer in some kind of cross-cultural, marine-based social study.
But despite my outsider status, I was treated like an honored guest. I had the luxury of a private stateroom in officer country, three (or four!) meals a day from the kitchen that had just been named "galley of the year," and travel wherever the ship's mission took it.
Before I left, a few friends asked me if I was nervous about what might happen. A terrorist attack? Shipwreck? Pirates? Wasn't I, they wondered, a little bit afraid?
"Of course not!" I said smugly. "If something goes wrong at sea, who do you call? The Coast Guard!" I knew that if the mission became dangerous or circumstances unsuitable for a civilian, I'd be whisked out of harm's way—maybe, excitingly, by helicopter. In the meantime, with no emergencies happening, I had everything I needed to teach and live aboard a ship.
What I didn't have, though, was the upper body strength to haul myself out of the water. One of the female officers, Jane, had confided that after her last swim call, she'd had trouble getting back on board. To leave the water, swimmers had to clamber up the hull on canvas rigging—a like a giant, camouflaged spider web — and Jane hadn't been quite strong enough. "One of the guys had to pull me up," she admitted.
Several of the Coasties (Coast Guard sailors) were in the "1000-pound club," meaning that they could bench press/dead lift/squat a combined weight of 1000 pounds in one workout. So maybe they wouldn't mind helping haul my 175 pounds of professorial deadweight from the water. I was prepared to offer bribes of good coffee or grade inflation.
Before the actual swim call came, our cutter stopped, and one of the small motorboats was lowered off the side. It would lay offside about 100 yards away. Up on the bridge were the usual helmsman, officer of the day, watch, and lookouts, plus a special shark guard armed with an M-16.
I was glad about the shark lookout, as I am shark-phobic. When I venture into saltwater I keep my swims brief and close to shore. I stay where there are surfers and where there are not seals. I stay closer to the beach than whoever I'm swimming with: that way, when the Great White comes looking for lunch, my buddy's legs will be closer than mine to its jaws. But in 2000-foot-deep water, some 15 miles from a Bahamian island, there was no beach to run to. And while I had confidence in the skills of the crew of CONFIDENCE, I wasn't sure that even the sharpest sniper could put down an attacking shark from forty feet above.
When swim call was called, I gazed down at the beautiful depths of blue beneath me. It was opaque, smooth, Mediterranean blue, marked with edges of white froth along the bow wave and wake.
The first swimmer leaped off the boat deck—about thirty feet above the waterline—with a bellow. He bobbed up, and I recognized Alejandro, my most energetic and boisterous student. Laughing and wiping the water from his thick black mustache, he yelled encouragement to the others waiting to plunge. One by one they came off the deck, cannonballing, belly-flopping and somersaulting to freedom.
These flying daredevils were hardly recognizable to me as the upright, well-trained Coasties who came to my classes and took care of the ship. The educational services officer, who had bushwhacked through the jungles of academic, financial, and governmental rules to make a path for on-board instruction, did a beautiful backwards double somersault, entering the water with barely a ripple.
Aboard the vessel, these men were American exemplars of honor, respect, and devotion to duty (the official Coast Guard values). Those hardworking, early rising Coasties addressed me as "Ma'am," "Professor," or "Doc." If we met going opposite ways in the narrow passageway, they flattened themselves against a bulkhead and looked discreetly away while I sidled past. But in the water, they transformed into boys, laughing, cheering, and goofing around.
Waiting to jump, they stood glistening on the deck in a cheerful throng. It was the first time I'd seen any of them not in their dark-blue uniforms; they were sporting non-uniform, rainbow-bright swim trunks, and their backs and legs showed nut-brown, or pale white or freckly red. With their skin and without rates and ranks, their personalities emerged too—no longer bound by the ship's rules, in the water they were exuberant and exultant.
I was suffering not only FOMO (fear of missing out) but actual missing out: watching the scene from above, dry and in my long pants and button-down shirt, I was dying to join in.
As I watched, however, even some very fit crew members were struggling with the rope ladder. In addition to the dreaded camo-canvas rigging, the deckhands had let down a bright orange Jacob's ladder with rigid plastic steps suspended between two ropes. But even on that, some of the guys with excellent upper body definition, with football-player shoulders, were swaying and shimmying sideways as they grappled up. Often, they fell backwards and had to start over.
Disappointed, I turned to my camera. As I bent over it, one of my students spoke to me.
I had been surprised to see Eric there, because I knew he had just had the worst possible news, a death in his family. He would be leaving the next morning to fly home. I had been writing him a sympathy note when the swim call came, but there he was, his hair plastered down and his skin shining in the sun, asking if I were going in.
When I answered that no, I wasn't going in because I knew I couldn't get out again, Eric shrugged, smiled, and said one word: "YOLO." The boy who had just lost a parent was reminding me: You Only Live Once. If he could be strong enough to try for some camaraderie despite his trauma, I could risk a little embarrassment. In my stateroom, I put on my suit.
I'd packed only my oldest and ugliest swimsuit, too big and too ruffly and too pink. I pulled some blue running shorts on top, did not consult the mirror, and trotted back out on deck.
Barefoot, I stood on the sharp, unpleasant "non-skid": an irregular, unearthly surface, like crumbled cement coated in lead. Designed to prevent slippage, non-skid is hell on the soles of boots, let alone bare feet. I wanted to get off it quickly, and I needed to jump in before I lost my nerve.
I stepped up to the edge and then off it. As I dropped, I heard a fantastic Coast Guard cheer — for me! I fell deep and far and free into that warm water, and it was pure blue ecstasy.
When I zoomed back up, I lay back and kicked up a fountain of white spray. I side-stroked away from the ship, looking out at the unmarked expanses: if I faced east, water was all I could see.
The water was as clear as air; it had just seemed opaque from above because it was 2000 feet deep. Patrick, wearing bright orange trunks, demonstrated its transparency by submerging himself straight down, windmilling his arms upward to stay down. Even when he was fifteen feet below, I could clearly see his toes.
The water was crystalline, so my shark-phobia diminished. But still, plenty of bull sharks, tiger sharks, and hammerheads do live in Bahamian waters and do occasionally attack humans, especially the ones stupid enough to feed them or spearfish in their waters. We of course were not chumming, and there were no seals or seal-like surfers to attract them. Sharks, I reminded myself, do not roam the world's oceans searching for people to eat. The water was clean, very salty, and apparently free of predators.
Someone threw the swimmers a star-spangled football, instigating an impossible challenge to throw the red-white-and-blue pigskin vertically up to the bridge. The spinning oval symbol of the USA sprayed water down on us, bouncing off the side of the ship and into the water, over and over.
One of the women had tossed in her enormous inflatable raft, a round seat in the shape of a pony with rainbow mane and tail and a cheerful constant smile. This toy, meant to support a small child in a swimming pool, was being fought over by linebackers and lumberjacks. Three guys were balancing on the pony's back and a fourth was hanging on by the tail. Someone slung an orange lifesaver around the pony's head — but too late to keep her from capsizing. Amid great shouting and last-ditch efforts at stabilization, the float turned belly-up, dunking the screaming men. The pony seemed ultimately unassailable, but I kept rooting for my shipmates.
Amid splashing and laughing, cheers went up every few minutes. It was an hour of exultation caused not by any brewed intoxicants or smuggled contraband, but by freedom from rule and order; in joyous, wet anarchy, we bounced in the gentle swells, glowing with exertion and liberation for which no one had prepared and everyone was ready.
While floating around thinking about freedom and sharks and fun, I drifted some distance from the ship. I was a little proud of myself until Patrick swam up to me and mentioned the current taking us out. Politely, he suggested we go in a little.
Low key and smiling, he was exemplifying the Coast Guard motto: "Semper Paratus" — literally "Always ready," and colloquially, "Be prepared." If I'd been in trouble, he would have saved me. Meekly, I put my head down and we swam in.
Wanting another jump, I swam to the Jacob's ladder, put my arms up and clasped the rope above the bottom rung, which was at the waterline. Waves slapped the metal hull, I was bobbing up and down, and the boat was listing, first away from then back towards me, and rocking aft to stern. The collective motions made me dizzy and disoriented. From below, the ship seemed gargantuan, and I hadn't reckoned on the angle of approach: this ladder was not straight up and down but bowed, so that a person climbing it had to lean slightly backwards.
Patrick and my student Alejandro bobbed up near me, offering help. "How about if we both hold it down for her?" Alejandro suggested, and the two of them hung off the canvas netting, giving me a few inches of clearance in which a more agile person could put hands and feet and work her way up. I did get my feet into the rigging, but after a few seconds I couldn't get any higher and my arms were giving out. I let go with what I hoped was a merry laugh, falling safe but embarrassed into the blue.
When I came up, the XO called me, pointing to the motorboat and saying it would pick me up. I swam the few hundred yards to the boat, breast-stroking the last bit so I could make eye contact.
There were three men on the small boat, none of whom I recognized. All three were in sunglasses and hats and one had a black bandana tied across his face. I knew that this was to protect him from wind and sun, but still, I was about to request assistance from someone who looked like a bank robber.
Drawing close, I said, "I understand you're the US Coast Guard," and the masked guy seemed to smile, maybe, under his cover.
When I got to the leeward side, the heaviest and oldest of the boat crew addressed me. "We're going to lift you in," he said. "He's going to take your left arm, I'll get this one. We'll do one, two, three. We'll dip you on three and then bring you on up to here." He patted the side of the boat.
From my perspective, treading water several feet below the boat, it seemed an excellent plan, but I was concerned about the ergonomics for them. Leaning over the side of a boat, thighs braced against the edge, to lift a substantial and flailing person could not be good for their spinal cords. However, the only alternative was for me to swim to the Bahamas, so I kept my reservations to myself.
The maneuver went exactly as planned: one, two, three, dip and heave, and then I was floundering on the side of the boat, surprised, breathing hard, and relieved.
Embarrassed but not humiliated, I was wet and sunburnt, high on salty excitement. I felt grateful to the crew of Confidence and especially to the bright-faced seaman who had just lost someone he loved, for reminding me: You Only Live Once. I was glad I'd jumped in.
Gillian Kendall is the author of Mr Ding's Chicken Feet, which the New York Times Review of Books considered one of the "notable" travel books of 2006. She also edited the anthology Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The Sun, Glamour, Curve, Girlfriends, and many other magazines, and she's won a number of obscure awards.
All photos by the author. Names have been changed in this article to protect military identities.
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