My Coast Guard
Commentary | March 1, 2022

Divers train in extreme conditions to master their craft

By Petty Officer 3rd Class Gregory Schell, Ninth Coast Guard District Public Affairs

When you think of diving, you often think of clear water, coral reefs, and warming yourself with the heat of the sun. That may be the case for a large majority of recreational diving and it isn’t an uncommon sight for Coast Guard divers. For Coast Guard divers, coral reefs would more aptly be replaced with the keel of a ship. Especially when 31 of the 66 active duty divers are stationed in San Diego or Honolulu. The remaining 35 divers are located at the less “tropical” duty stations of Panama City, Fla, Elizabeth City, N.C., and Portsmouth, Va. However, as Coast Guard divers soon find out, there is a whole other world to diving. And it is cold.

The diver rating is one of the newest established ratings in the Coast Guard’s 231 year history, officially becoming a designated rating in 2015. But the Coast Guard has used divers for a variety of missions since WWII. Before 2015, and in more recent years, diving was a collateral duty for members willing to take on the task.

Coast Guard divers were found on buoy tenders, polar ships, and some outlying duty stations. The member designated on the cutter might be a machinery technician, for example, who completed their morning engine checks, then dress out in their dive gear and perform their dive mission. However, 2006 was a decisive, and tragic, year for the Coast Guard Dive Program, and a turning point in the way our members are trained.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Steven Duque, a boatswains mate, and Lt. Jessica Hill, both assigned to Coast Guard Cutter Healy, lost their lives while attempting a training dive off the cutter’s bow on Aug. 17, 2006. The Healy and its crew were on patrol in the Arctic Ocean in support of its Arctic West Summer 2006 operation. Ice liberty was granted about 490 miles north of Barrow, Alaska. It was during this time where the two divers went into the water to receive cold – water familiarization training and the members lost their lives.

This incident highlighted and accelerated three adjustments deemed necessary by Dive Program leadership of what was the then Coast Guard Dive Program. 

  1. There needed to be formalized, standard training for all members to attend;
  2. Diving in and of itself is a job occupation, not just a collateral duty;
  3. The Coast Guard operates in cold environments and our training needs to reflect that.

The dive program today Coast Guard began in 2015. Students attend A-school at the U.S. Naval Dive and Salvage Training Center in Panama City. The course is extremely demanding, both physically and mentally. It is the culmination of achieving eligibility to advance to E5 within their legacy rating, successfully passing the annual Coast Guard Diver Candidate Screener held in Cape May, N.J., and earning a highly coveted seat at diver A-school, which is currently only held once a year at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center. Once a candidate graduates from A-school, that member will be a second class petty officer in the diver rating. 

In order to be eligible to advance to E6 as a diver, a member is required to complete the Cold Water Ice Diving [CWID]. The C-school course if  for divers to be eligible for deployments in support of Polar Class Icebreakers traveling to the Polar Regions. This requirement is the third aspect the program implemented in order to improve the program overall. 

The CWID course prepares military divers, not exclusively the Coast Guard, to dive in high- latitude, cold-water and ice environments. As can be assumed from the name and description of the course, the traditional sunny settings of diving does not provide the students with the appropriate environment.

Initially, the CWID course was held at two separate locations. Students attended the classroom and walkthrough dives Seattle. They would then travel to British Columbia, Canada, for the practical execution in the “cold-water and ice environments,” as stated in the course description.

This presented logistical problems including, renting hotels and vehicles at two locations and moving the students internationally. After managing these logistical problems and having the course run in this split environment for several years, COVID impacted the world cutting off the ease of entering Canada to complete the second half of the training.

This brings us to 2022, another pivotal year in the dive program. For the first time, the entire course is held at one location: Minnesota National Guard Base Camp Ripley. The base is equipped with the classrooms needed to complete the first portion of the course, a close dive tank to run the students through drills and, perhaps most importantly, the ice and cold weather.

Camp Ripley is a 53,000 acre National Guard base that used to serve as an artillery base. Today you will find air drills, tanks, weapons training, and a variety of other missions executed on the massive complex. The average February temperature is about 11 degrees Fahrenheit. Without many trees, expansive fields, wide lakes, and low buildings, the wind rips through Camp Ripley and the real feel temperatures are regularly double digits below zero.

In other words, a perfect setting for the course.

The follows the crawl-walk-run method of instruction. During the two weeks of instruction, students from the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Army start in the classroom to learn the basics of diving in ice environments. Following the day in the classroom, students are issued cold-weather gear, if they did not come with it, and prepare to dive in the dive tank.

The second day the students head to the Minnesota School of Diving in Brainerd, Minn., to run through simulated emergency procedures in the dive tank. The dive tank is 12-feet deep and there is one safety diver under the water to observe the training.

Two students run the simulated procedures at the bottom of the dive tank and two divers remain topside to act as tenders. In addition to the three people in the water, the three tenders on deck, their dive supervisor, another Coast Guard instructor who times the dives and monitors general safety, on deck is a communications tender, who marks the dive logs and maintains communications with the divers in the water.

The third training day, students put on the boots, jackets, float coats, gloves, hats- whatever they need to keep warm- because it is a day on the ice.

Students and instructors head to Ferrell Lake, one of the lakes located within the gates of Camp Ripley, to set up the dive site with dive tents. The instructors demonstrate and execute every aspect of preparing the site – and there is a lot.

Students test ice safety with the probe team, they cut the dive hole in the ice, form a wagon wheel – a circular path with arrows on the surface to direct divers in the water back to the dive hole in limited visibility – and positioning the three dive tents. It is a long day on the ice from initial safety brief to storing excess gear at the end of the day, and it concludes the “crawl” phase of the course.

The following day the students start “walking” and actually get some under-the-ice dives in. For many, if not all, it is their first time diving in these particular conditions.

“It’s definitely more of an adventure,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Samuel Wilson, a student in the CWID course and stationed in San Diego. “There is a lot more equipment that we are using but the way the training program is going right now is flowing really well and we feel confident with our equipment and these harsher ice conditions.”

Under the close supervision of the instructors, students are outfitted into their gear in tent two, transit with the help of a classmate to the dive hole in tent one, and put on their dive tanks and conduct safety checks. Safety is at the core of any Coast Guard operation whether it is training or a mission, especially in environments with limited visibility, a slew of unfamiliar equipment, and subzero temperatures. For these very reasons, all of the dive instructors fall under the umbrella of Coast Guard Special Missions Training Center.

It is with that in mind that the tenders conduct checks of the divers before they enter the water. All divers run communication checks with the topside keeper in addition to their fellow divers sub surface. Before submerging, the students enter the water and check each-other’s dry suits to ensure there are no leaks, tears, or obstructions that could put the diver in danger. After all the checks are vocalized, message traffic clearly passed with terms like, “Check Green Diver, Check Red Diver, Check Safety, Check Standby,” the divers leave surface and descend into the water.

To the students surprise, the dive clothes keep them warm, maybe more so than the observers! The air that is trapped between their body and the exterior dry suit keeps them warm as they explore the lake with the help of the descending light.

“You know everything is going well and it feels good to hear the divers under the water say things like ‘this is actually pretty cool,’” said U.S. Coast Guard Master Chief Petty Officer Michael Perrault, dive instructor and rating knowledge manager for the diver rating. “All of their worries on the surface go away and it’s rewarding as an instructor.”

After the 30-minute dive, the divers resurface and are extracted from the six feet by eight feet dive hole with the help of their tenders. Again, once immediately on the ice, the divers physically signal “OK” and vocalizes to the dive supervisor, “Diver on deck, diver OK.” They are escorted back from tent one to tent two where tenders assist them in removing their dry suit and undergarments and begin to bring their body temperature back up with the help of space heaters and insulated tents.

This concludes the first week of the dive training. It takes two days to have all the students enter the water as the role of divers and the role of tenders on surface. The following Monday, students start the “running” phase of instruction. Students move to another lake on Camp Ripley where they are responsible in setting up the dive site and run through a series of dives where they receive underwater tasks to accomplish. The instructors are always keeping a watchful eye, but the goal is to have the students complete these tasks unassisted so they can execute this same scenario in the fleet.

The course is a rewarding experience, both for instructors and students, and is an applicable mission for the Coast Guard fleet. We often work in cold weather and ice environments both domestically, off the coast of Maine to the Great Lakes, and internationally, including our regular Arctic and Antarctic missions. That is why the Coast Guard leads this critical course to our joint service partners, leveraging our particular expertise and experience operating in the high-latitude settings, and we will continue to adapt the diver rating, as our efforts continue and diversify in the Polar Regions. Semper Paratus! Stay Warm.