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Basic Enlisted Submarine School (BESS)

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BESS

Escape training can be a harrowing experience, especially for those who are claustrophobic. Five students are loaded into a small escape trunk with an instructor.

Official Navy Photo
Packed like sardines into a room just larger than the average American’s living room, the 17 Sailors, in full battle dress, were receiving their latest in a series of damage control training classes, a walk-through of a replicated submarine space known as the “wet trainer.”

In mere minutes, these same Sailors would be locked in that same space, fighting leaks from pipes and flanges, along with a rapidly rising water level, in a frantic effort to “save the boat.”

But, in that task, they would not be alone…

Just a quick turn down a winding road from the wet trainer, another group of Sailors prepared themselves to save the ship as well. Only, their potential danger would not be water; these eager Sailors would face a dark room full of smoke and scorching, blistering fire.

Soon both sets of students would be struggling to accomplish two completely different tasks. There may be nothing as out-and-out diverse as fire and water, but in completing their independent tasks, the Sailors are working toward one common goal–attempting to move on.

As students at the Navy’s Basic Enlisted Submarine School (BESS), students have long been faced with the stress and strain of this final week of training. The trainers serve as the final obstacle for the wannabe submariners before BESS graduation, capping off a month-long learning process.

The day’s importance is not lost on the students, either. “It’s definitely a nervous day for all of us,” said Seaman Brandon Nims, as he awaited fire extinguisher training. “It really has some guys losing sleep. I know I was very nervous, just knowing that this is the end of it for BESS. It’s more than just training for us.”

Adding to the stress of the event is the jam-packed aspect of the week’s training schedule. Prior to the groups’ final scenario, they spend two days training and performing in the wet trainer.

The relatively quick pace of the hands-on training proved to be another barrier for the students to cross.

“I thought everything was going to be a bit slower,” Electronics Technician Seaman Recruit Joseph Drawns said after wrapping up his time in the wet trainer. “You had to really be on your toes. (The instructors) had to fit a lot of information into a short period of time, so they just kept cramming stuff into our heads. When it came time to perform, sometimes it was difficult to remember everything right away.”

The pace of the final week seemed to mirror the prior three, in which Sailors–most straight out of boot camp–began to lay the groundwork of becoming a submariner.

The path starts just before classing up for BESS, when potential students are made to endure the submarine escape trainer. The trainer, which simulates the general arrangement of a 637-class submarine escape trunk, allows students to apply the egress training they learn in a basic classroom environment.

This involves the Sailors forcing themselves, four at a time, into a cramped escape hatch that soon fills about neck-high with water. Then they each don a “Steinke hood,” an inflatable mask of sorts that allows the prospective submariners to breathe while ducking underwater to escape the tank from a watertight hatch that opens to a swimming pool. Once there, the Sailors assemble in a tight huddle pattern before making a final swim across the pool. One thing is for sure–if anyone in the class is claustrophobic, it won’t take long to find out.

“That’s the last thing you want on a submarine,” said Information Systems Technician 2nd Class (DV) Curt Ramsey, one of the escape trainer instructors. “This ought to identify those who may have a problem with it. Between having the hood close over your face and the tight environment of the tank, no one should be able to fool us.” Despite the gripping fear caused by claustrophobia, Ramsey said most people who panic in the conditions are able to “rally up and finish the training.

The escape portion of the school was a surprise to many of the students. “I had no idea it was even possible to escape a sub,” Drawns said. “I figured it was pretty much over for you if your boat went down. I was really paying attention in that class.”

And that classroom instruction kicked in for most students in the pool, Seaman Recruit Joshua Henderson said. “The escape was pretty intense, but it was explained to us very well before in the classroom. So we knew what to do when we got in there.”

Students closed a successful day at the escape trainer by performing a two-man escape that culminated in learning to use a single-man raft. “Everyone was pretty fired up after we were done,” Henderson said. “We were all happy to get it over with.”

The sense of accomplishment is not allowed to last long, however. The following week, the escape trainer students class up for their official BESS kickoff.

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