Mariners take plunge for raft training

By Terrance BellJuly 31, 2020

Pfc. Juan CintronGonzalez attempts to flip over a life raft during 88L Watercraft Engineer Course training July 24 at the Fort Eustis Aquatics Center. Watercraft engineer students undergo the training to prepare for emergencies at sea.
Pfc. Juan CintronGonzalez attempts to flip over a life raft during 88L Watercraft Engineer Course training July 24 at the Fort Eustis Aquatics Center. Watercraft engineer students undergo the training to prepare for emergencies at sea. (Photo Credit: Terrance Bell) VIEW ORIGINAL

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS (Aug. 1, 2020) -- – During the opening days of the 88L Watercraft Engineer Course at the Transportation School’s Maritime and Intermodal Training Department, mariner students are introduced to vessel survival skills that could save their lives or that of their crewmates.

The lessons, designed to be instructional as well as revealing, sets the stage for the remainder of the 10-week course; providing Soldiers a glimpse of conditions they may face on Army watercraft, said Master Sgt. Randy Rodriguez, MITD’s outgoing noncommissioned officer in charge.

“The first week is critical because, if they didn’t know they were claustrophobic, they will find out by going into a confined space. If they’re weak swimmers, they’ll learn how to get after it and get better,” he said. “They also learn medical skills and firefighting skills. There are just a lot of technical skills in the first week they will be challenged with, so even though they come here with the warrior spirit that they can take over the world, they can find themselves with deficiencies we can help them overcome.”

Watercraft engineers are primarily responsible for supervising and performing maintenance on Army watercraft and related equipment. Along with 88Ks (watercraft operators), they mostly comprise the crews of Army vessels charged with performing logistical missions at sea or along inland waterways.

Learning how to deploy and operate an inflatable life raft on the water is among the crucial first-week lessons for students.

“In the event something happens or there is a catastrophe, these service members need to know how to engage the raft and get it into the water,” said Rodriguez of the equipment that activates for inflation when it hits the water. “If it happens to not open the right way and is upside down, they have to be able to get themselves in the raft because you don’t know when you’re going to be rescued.”

During instruction at the JBLE’s Aquatics Center, Soldiers took turns attempting to right upside-down rafts – a worst case scenario – then get themselves and battle buddies onboard.

“They have to use their bodies to pull themselves up on the raft and flip it over,” Rodriguez said. “(Once that is accomplished), they have to get out from under it because (loose material) can wrap around their legs. It’s crucial they learn how to do these procedures quickly and with confidence. Then, once it’s flipped over, they have to get the rest of their crew into the raft.”

The exercise is easier described than actually performed. At least one student showed difficulty in righting the raft, heaving the righting lines several times to no avail.

“The weight and height of the person matters,” said Pfc. Juan CintronGonzalez, who mightily tried but failed to flip the raft. “I’m a short and light person, and trying to get the momentum to flip it over takes time and weight. Of course, you can use all your strength trying to get it back right. Our instructors also told us to use as many people as possible, which makes a lot of sense.”

Cintron’s classmate also had problems righting the raft.

“I’m 5’11 and 172 pounds, and it was still pretty difficult for me to flip it over until I learned the proper technique,” said Pvt. Gamaliel AponteCastro. “It’s not easy, but if you learn the proper technique you can do it.”

The day prior, the students underwent drown-proofing – a method of water survival that includes a methodical procedure of capturing air in uniforms to stay afloat.

In the coming weeks, students will begin to focus on learning a wide assortment of skills required to maintain a vessel, said Rodriquez.

“They will learn how to fix circuit boards, how to weld, how to cut widgets, how to use power tools and how to use a hammer – some of these students have never used a hammer or saw,” he said. “They learn the bare basics of welding, metalworking, electrical and wiring, hydraulics and firefighting,” he said. “When you lay it all out, it’s really a lot.”

Once the 88L students graduate, various certification opportunities are available to further develop their skill sets.

“They can earn 30 different certifications so that when they leave or retire, they can go straight into the workforce and get a good-paying job,” Rodriguez confirmed.

Watercraft engineers on active duty go on to be stationed at JBLE, Hawaii or Kuwait, Rodriguez further noted. Reserve component Soldiers are stationed at various locations.