For around two decades, Clint Emerson secretly traveled the world on U.S. Navy SEAL business. He was a “violent nomad” who not only survived behind enemy lines but also thrived. Now that he is retired, though, he has a new mission: to pass on all of his survival skills – and much more besides – to the general public. And if you want to know how to prevent yourself from drowning, you’re in luck, as Emerson has revealed just how to do it.
Emerson’s earlier life, however, was a little less eventful than his adulthood, even if he did spend much of his childhood in Saudi Arabia. He was there because his father was an oil industry engineer, and it’s not an experience that he remembers fondly. “Westerners are not exactly treated the best in Saudi Arabia, and as a child I didn’t care much for the people or the culture,” he elaborated to Texas Monthly magazine in 2015.
Emerson was educated at Plano Senior High, in the city at Dallas’ northern perimeter. He ended up joining the U.S. Navy in 1994 after finishing high school, going on to become part of the elite SEALs. SEAL stands for sea, air and land, and the unit’s personnel are drilled to be able to thrive in all of those surroundings.
Yet joining the U.S. Navy SEALs is notoriously difficult. Indeed, recruits have to pass a punishing set of fitness tests just to be accepted onto the training program. They are required to swim 500 yards in 12 minutes and 30 seconds, for example, as well as to run 1.5 miles in ten minutes and 30 seconds. Furthermore, they should be able to do 50 push-ups, 50 sit-ups and ten pull-ups within two minutes for each set.
If an aspiring recruit is strong enough to pass the SEAL training test, though, then things start to get really tough. After a 16-week preparatory course, they’ll quickly move on to the 24-week Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. And even if they pass that with flying colors, there’s still a five-week parachuting course, followed by 26 grueling weeks of SEAL Qualification Training, to complete.
What’s more, this rigorous 71-week program includes the notorious Hell Week. Trainees are put through five days of stamina-sapping activity with just four hours of rest each night. Unsurprisingly, then, the dropout rate from training is very high. Only ten percent of trainees make it through some of the more advanced courses, in fact.
It’s worth taking a closer look at this thing called the Hell Week, a central part of the BUDS experience. BUDS is the acronym for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL School. One former Navy SEAL, Stew Smith, wrote about his own personal experience of Hell Week on the Miltary.com website. Smith went through Hell Week back in October 1991 and believes that it’s just as tough now as it was nearly 30 years ago.
Recalling his time on the BUDS course before he faced the ultimate challenge of Hell Week, Smith pointed out that his class started with 180 men. As Hell Week approached, that had already been whittled down to 90, a fall-out rate of 50 percent. Smith explained what was behind this high number of quitters.
The ex-SEAL wrote, “People left every day for a variety of reasons. Too cold, too much stress, too many push-ups, too much running, too much water skills – pretty much BUDS will give you TOO MUCH of everything.” And he described how he and his remaining buddies worked their very hardest so as to be ready for the dreaded week, partly by continually competing with each other.
Hell Week for Smith started on a Sunday evening with a vigorous 30-minute work-out on the grinder, a paved exercise area near the ocean at the Coronado Naval Amphibious Base in California. After that muscle-straining warm-up, the men then crawled the 600 feet or so to the ocean’s edge. Most of the distance was across hard concrete.
By the time Smith and his buddies had reached the shore, it was dark and now they spent several hours, arms interlocked, lying in the cold surf. They kept their spirits up with songs. It was cold in the sea, and already some SEAL candidates were quitting, just hours into Hell Week. Smith recalled that the trainees were never dry through the entire seven days.
Eventually, Smith and the other remaining would-be SEALs were allowed out of the water. Smith recalled that what kept the men going was the prospect of the next meal time. Those came round about once every six hours. Once out of the water, next up was log physical training. Working together, the trainees dragged heavy tree trunks across the beach.
Smith described how, once the log training was over around midnight, the men thought it would be time for their first meal. They were disappointed – chow time was not to be until 6:00 a.m. Instead of a welcome feed they now spent the time before breakfast heaving inflatable boats around. That was followed by another session of log P.T.
And after breakfast, guess what? You’ve got it – another six hours of log P.T. By Smith’s reckoning during this opening section of Hell Week, the men had already gone through some 12 hours of log work. But after the log P.T. there was some variety. Smith recalled, “The first day was spent doing four-mile timed runs as a boat crew (only fast as your slowest man) and more surf torture and low crawls.”
Then there were the whistle drills, which Smith described in detail. He wrote, “One whistle – DROP and prepare for incoming, two whistles – low crawl toward the instructor. This was a constant double whistle (tweet-tweet, tweet-tweet) and you kept low crawling until you could touch the instructor blowing the whistle.”
Smith added, “The whistle drills became instinct after hundreds of times.” Indeed he recalled that this grueling experience stayed with him, “In fact, after Hell Week for a few months, when my alarm on my watch would wake me up with the same (beep-beep, beep-beep) I woke up low crawling in my bed.”
Another factor that seared itself into Smith’s memory was the constant cold, “You were cold – long-term – and never stopped shaking.” And that meant that food became an absolutely essential fuel. As Smith noted, “You need all the calories you can get to stay warm when you are this cold and active. So it is highly recommended to eat everything on your plate and your buddy’s plate if he leaves anything for you. Stay full – stay warm.”
The ordeal continued, and lack of sleep began to have an impact, “After your third day of staying awake with no sleep, you start seeing weird things – yes, hallucinating.” Things became distinctly weird, “You can be talking to your buddy and he falls asleep standing up. It is funny when he wakes up talking gibberish.”
But there did come a point when Smith found that he could just keep going, whatever the hardship. He remembered, “After you bust your butt for three days, you pretty much go into zombie mode and just get things done. There is a point where there is nothing the instructors can do to hurt you.”
Smith elaborated on how he got through this seven days of hell, “You really have to turn off the rational thinking part of your brain that tells you that you need to go to sleep, rest, recover after a long day’s work. You actually have to regress back to a caveman where there are no ‘creature comforts.’ But you learn to enjoy food like it is a wonderful gift, moments of sleep feels like it was hours, and jumping into a swimming pool feels like a bath.”
According to Smith, getting through that Hell Week “stands as the defining moment for a member of a SEAL team…as it shows the SEALs that you want to be there and you will not quit when needed by your team.” But not everyone makes it. Smith’s Hell Week started with 90 men; by the end of it only 50 were left.
Even after the rigors of Hell Week, things aren’t over yet for the would-be SEAL. Successful candidates undertake yet further training after being awarded the much-coveted U.S. Navy SEAL Trident. This includes at least three six-month blocks covering special reconnaissance, land warfare and air operations. Only then is a SEAL ready for action.
Emerson, meanwhile, had his own take on life as a SEAL. “Being a SEAL is nothing more than being a professional troublemaker,” he told Texas Monthly. “The biggest quality is being adaptable, being creative.”
What’s more, the veteran had an interesting philosophy on life whereby he divided the human population into three segments. Specifically, he called everyday civilians “sheep,” soldiers “sheepdogs” and opposing combatants “wolves.” Naturally, the sheepdogs protect the sheep from the wolves.
But sheepdogs aren’t at their best in water, and SEALs have to be as confident in the deep as their animal namesakes. As well as each clocking up a 500-yard swim in under 12 and a half minutes, for instance, they also have to be able to swim underwater for 50 meters. That’s the length of an Olympic swimming pool.
Yet SEALs will sometimes find themselves in situations where swimming alone won’t cut it. Emerson, however, has that covered. In his bestselling book 100 Deadly Skills, he explained the steps to take to avoid drowning, even if you end up in the water with both hands tied behind your back.
He advised, when you’re in shallow water, take the deepest of breaths and then exhale and sink to the bottom. Next, quickly crouch and then kick up, following that up with taking another breath when you hit the surface. To stay alive, keep repeating these steps.
As for floating with your hands bound, the trick is to bend your knees, allow your head to go underwater and exhale. Then kick out strongly, arch your back, thrust your head upwards and breathe. And repeat the movement.
These tips can only get you so far, however: to do anything more than merely survive, you’ll need to move more in the water. Bend your knees and breathe out. Now kick out hard, straighten your body and fill your lungs with air. Keep repeating these movements to make progress through the water.
Next, try turning over while struggling in the water. Remember: your hands are still tied behind your back. Start on your back, then, remembering to take a breath. Now flip over and exhale with your head underwater. Got it? Then you now know how to survive, hands tied, in water.
That said, it’s best that you don’t actually try any of this unless you are actually on a fully supervised special forces training course. After all, there’s a huge risk of death by drowning if doing this unsupervised.
Incidentally, if you met Emerson in a bar, you’d be unlikely to guess his history as a “violent nomad” – the term for highly proficient SEALs who secretly travel to trouble spots around the world. He’s not physically spectacular, dresses unassumingly and bears no resemblance to Rambo.
Despite his “gray man” persona, though, Emerson was among the first U.S. military personnel in action in both Afghanistan and Iraq. And while his activities out in the field will remain shrouded in mystery, he’s used his book to pass on some other essential SEAL survival skills.
For example, in addition to the anti-drowning tips, the guide described how to achieve “rectal concealment” using a cigar tube and how to fashion a bulletproof vest using books and duct tape. It also outlined a method by which to construct a serviceable cudgel with nothing more than newspaper, water and yet more duct tape.
Emerson also gave tips in his book on how to survive another potentially fatal scenario in the section titled “Survive Vehicular Impact.” Of course, dealing with an auto accident is hardly a deadly skill. But as Emerson points out, “In order to remain deadly, a Violent Nomad must remain safe.”
According to Emerson, “Surviving these accidents…is a matter of advance preparation and postural know-how.” One tip is not to have your steering hand right at the top of the wheel. That can mean when an airbag inflates after a collision it will jam your arm into your face. Which could leave you “with a forearm full of teeth.”
Emerson has plenty of recommendations for how to use everyday items as improvised deadly weapons. Ordinary fishing tackle, for example, can be transformed into a lethal tool. You need an eight-ounce fishing weight, which you combine with a bandana. Considered alone, neither component appears to have much attack potential.
However, Emerson explains how to transform these innocent items into something much more sinister. Simply “fold the weight into the bandana, then roll the bandana into a cylinder.” You’ll now have a club “powerful enough to crack a coconut and do equivalent damage to a human skull.” Emerson recommends targeting your opponent’s knee or head with the lethal bandana.
And Emerson has since continued his career as an author with another book, The Right Kind of Crazy: My Life as a Navy SEAL, Covert Operative, and Boy Scout from Hell, which was published in November 2019. The New York Journal of Books describes Emerson’s latest work as “A military memoir filled with dark humor, [which] builds a portrait of what it takes to work in special ops for two decades.”
Still, as ridiculous as some of the former SEAL’s advice may sound, many would argue that it’s undoubtedly worth taking on board. After all, it could end up saving your life someday. And at the very least, the book is an enjoyable read.