NEWS | July 29, 2021

Sink or Swim: Bringing Water Survival to Cutlass Express 21

By Chief Mass Communication Specialist Justin Stumberg

From far away, a 30 ft. diving platform doesn’t look that intimidating. The rigid concrete tower extends at different heights over the deep end of the pool. It’s similar to what you see at the Olympics, except when you jump off these platforms, the reward doesn’t end with a medal, but you do gain the inner confidence of water survival.

“Nothing’s more important,” said Cdr. Phillip Emery, Cutlass Express 21 visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) support staff. “You can be great at being onboard a boat, but if you fall in the water, can’t get your equipment off, and sink to the bottom…the games over.”

Emery and his cadre of water survival trainers are helping facilitate the first water survival training evolution implemented during exercise Cutlass Express (CE) 21 at the Bandari Maritime Academy in Mombasa, Kenya. Although VBSS training has always been a hallmark of every Express series exercise, this is the first time VBSS participants practiced water survival skill techniques in the water.

“We’re teaching them how to jump off the side of a boat while protecting themselves from anyone else that might be jumping after them,” Emery said. “We’re benchmarking their comfortability in the water just in case someone goes over board during actual operations.”

From Emery’s perspective, getting in the water and experiencing realistic training conditions helps get VBSS teams in the right mindset for what they’ll experience while performing their duties at sea. For some, even the thought of getting into water, let alone jumping off a high dive and plummeting at almost 20 miles per hour, can be intimidating.

“For some of these individuals, this may be the first time they’ve ever been in a pool and when we go to do VBSS training, there is obviously room for error,” Emery said.

Given the dangerous nature of VBSS and the critical importance of water survival as part of maritime interdiction operations, exercise planners incorporated this valuable objective into the two-week exercise. It’s a wide mission set to include querying vessels, boarding vessels, and detaining personnel if needed, but almost always involves being around a body of water.

“VBSS is all about the water”, said Lt. Cmdr. Lori Emery, Cutlass Express 21 VBSS lead. “It’s one to jump off a ship, but’s it’s another to ensure safety and survival in the water.”

L. Emery saw the topic of water survival training consistently surface through feedback sessions from both participating partner nations and VBSS trainers during previous iterations of Cutlass Express. Some participants made mention of not knowing how to swim, which was a huge risk indicator to the exercise planners that they needed to help mitigate. 

“The Bandari Maritime Academy pool complex that has both varying diving platform heights and a lap pool where our special operator facilitators can replicate a U.S. Navy class two swim test,” L. Emery said. 

From L. Emery’s past experiences, there are several unpredictable variables when conducting at-sea VBSS operations. This includes changing sea states to differing abilities of small boat coxswains. The risk permeates all aspects of VBSS operations, so replicating accurate training environments, as well as building necessary skill sets, is crucial.

“We saw the need, saw the capability, saw the availability, and said let’s do it,” L. Emery said.

CE 21 is one of three African regional “Express” series exercises sponsored by U.S. Africa Command and facilitated by U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa (NAVEUR-NAVAF), U.S. Sixth Fleet (C6F) undertaken to provide African forces and international partners with collaborative opportunities on comprehensive maritime security concerns.

NAVEUR-NAVAF-C6F, headquartered in Naples, Italy, conducts the full spectrum of joint and naval operations, often in concert with allied and interagency partners in order to advance U.S. national interests and security and stability in Europe and Africa.