Late in the morning, the group of plebes waded into the Severn River. The water was murky, but the Maryland morning was sunny and clear, so as the plebes splashed around, fully clothed, it seemed pretty chill, a fun little Tuesday.
Then the plebes made their way toward the beach. They positioned themselves hip to hip, on all fours, with butts in the air. And one by one, they crawled through the human tunnel fashioned on the river bank. Perhaps a little less fun.
These are the Sea Trials, a team challenge for fourth class midshipmen, also known as freshmen (for nonmilitary readers) or plebes (in Navy terms), at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. The grueling event, which begins before dawn, is filled with obstacle courses, draining physical tests and other challenges.
“We’re all tired and we’re all sore and it’s hard to keep going,” said Mackenzie Baer, 19, an aerospace engineering major from McLean, Va. “But the way you keep going is to look at the people to your left and right, remember who you’re doing it for, and that you’re doing it for them.”
“It’s been fun,” said James Cutler, 18. The mechanical engineering major from Oxford, Miss., said plebes relished training with their “closest friends all day.”
“This is a milestone for us,” said Christian Eitel, 19, a quantitative economics major from Spartanburg, S.C.
Sea Trials, a “capstone” exercise for fourth class midshipmen, is modeled after other military training exercises, including the Marine Corps’ Crucible. The U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs said it puts first-year cadets through a similar exercise called Recognition. But a spokesman for the U.S. Military Academy said there is no comparable obstacle-course-packed exercise when cadets finish their first year at West Point.
The annual challenge at Annapolis began in spring 1998, with the Class of 2001. The trials, which ran Tuesday from 3 a.m. to 5 p.m., included more than 800 participants. Throughout the day, plebes rotate among activity stations focused on teamwork, endurance and bonds formed at the academy. There are relay races, fighting competitions and other physical drills.
At one stop, plebes (in safety gear) pummel each other with padded pugil sticks. At an obstacle course, plebes flip and shimmy over logs and poles. In another drill, plebes snake through a trench, keeping low in the muck to avoid barbed wire strung across the top.
“That was a lot of fun, actually,” said Andrew Shumway, 19, a mechanical engineering major from Des Moines. “Got really dirty. That was a good time. It’s one of the better stations, I would say.”
By midmorning, Lani Davis’s white T-shirt was already smudged with dirt. The 17-year-old, with a double major in computer science and information technology, spoke after participating in grappling, in which plebes twist and wrestle one another on the ground.
“I’m exhausted. None of this is easy, at all,” said Davis, of Huntsville, Ala. “My legs are shaking, but I’m kind of just running on the adrenaline and I’ve got the support, like everyone else is getting. When you’re in that ring and everybody’s shouting at you, they’re all trying to help you out, even if you have no energy, you just feed off that energy.”
Eitel said he watched online videos of past events and got “pumped up.” He was looking forward to the bridge run, in which plebes trot across a bridge that spans the Severn.
“That’s all anyone talks about,” Eitel said. “People think it’s tough. We’ve done it a few times as a company, but we should be ready for it.”
Although it is only a few miles, the bridge run can be demanding. Plebes have been going since the early morning. It’s an exhausting day. And at that point, it is only halfway done.
“It’s not a great distance and they’re not running at a record pace,” said Cdr. Adam Fleming, the officer in charge of Sea Trials. “It’s the mental factor. It’s the fact that you don’t have a specific task or mission to focus on. You’ve got the person in front of you, the shirt in front of you to focus on. And now you’ve got your thoughts. And now you’re thinking about, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve still got half the day left.’ ”
Sea Trials are not the only event to mark the end of the first year at the academy. There is also the Herndon Monument Climb, when plebes form a human pyramid to scale a greased 21-foot obelisk.
“But this, this event, Sea Trials, is really where that comes together,” Fleming said. “They’re learning the value of teamwork within small units, within small groups. And learning the fact that they can’t get through this without each other. You don’t do this alone. You don’t graduate from the Naval Academy, you don’t serve in military, you don’t operate as a fighting unit on your own. It’s a group effort.”