Drinking the China Sea

In Adventures in Asia on May 11, 2008 at 12:25 pm


Drinking the China Sea

Learning water rescue in the Philippines

By Antonio Graceffo


The first day of swim rescue, the instructors had us practicing getting in and out of the swimming pool. Next, we learned to put our face underwater. To keep us organized and avoid accidents the 60 or so participants were divided into two groups, swimmers and non-swimmers.


Why someone who was classified as a non-swimmer would join a rescue course was beyond me. 


“You are doing the exercise wrong.” Shouted an instructor. I was shocked when I realized he was talking to me and not one of the people who was near drowning.


“What do you mean! You said put my face underwater ten times. So, I am putting my face underwater ten times. What more do you want from me?” I shouted. I was more than a little frustrated with the elementary nature of the course.


“No,” he corrected. “That was the beginners exercise. Now, we are doing the advanced exercise, put your face underwater and blow bubbles.”


I must have missed this slight nuance of instruction when I tuned the teachers out. I was ready to quit this silly child’s swim course, but I didn’t want them to think it was because I was incapable of making bubbles. 


“Don’t be scared.” He added. “It’s just water.”


This wasn’t really the Kevin Costner, “The Guardian,” training I was looking for. On day three we had an elimination test, swimming two miles in the pool, timed. Day four we had to tread water for forty five minutes, while supporting a dead body. Day six, we were required to swim nearly two miles in the open ocean. Talk about crawl before you walk, I had never seen a course, in any subject, which started so infantile and ended so advanced.


Thirty minutes into the water treading, I vomited chlorine through both my mouth and nose.


“Are you OK?” asked one of my classmates.

“More than OK, I am finally starting to enjoy myself.” I answered. Taking in so much water, my brain was running on only about 50% oxygen, and I started to hallucinate. The hallucinations were those half-real-half-dream kind of trip you get when you have a high fever or mix Benadryl with wine, so most of the hallucinations still reeked of chlorine. You can over analyze these things, but for a brief moment, I was Kevin Costner. The tabloids would have us believe that being rich, good-looking, and famous, is allegedly not everything. But I can tell you, from my short foray into nirvana, NOTHING sucked about being Kevin Costner.


Amazingly, this six days of fun, eight hours per day of grueling training, only cost 800 Pesos. This is the beauty of the Philippines. There are so many great courses here, things you have always wanted to learn, but never felt like spending the money for. Courses here are cheap, and they are mostly taught in English. The students frequently ask their questions in Filipino, but learning the language is just part of the experience. A lot of courses in the Philippines are not accredited elsewhere, so you would just be studying for yourself, for your own knowledge and for the incredible experience of getting to know the Filipino people on a personal level. The EMT (emergency medical technician) course I just finished at LSTI is accredited by Australia, so there are exceptions. The fee for the EMT course was 20,000 Pesos, which for a Filipino is a lot, but is not even a tenth of what the same course would have cost me back home.


The Basic Water Safety and Rescue course was sponsored by the Philippine Red Cross. The advantage of the Red Cross courses is that they are cheap even by Filipino standards, and they are internationally recognized. To qualify for this course you had to already have completed your Basic Life Saving (BLS) which is the CPR course, and a first aid course. All the courses were offered at Red Cross. I qualified because these courses were included in my EMT course. If you are an ex-pat or just want to make friends with locals, taking these kinds of classes is an excellent way of doing it. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but Red Cross classes are available in nearly every country, so no matter where you live or work overseas, this would be a good option to look into.


Sir Jun, the director of the program told me that life guarding in the Philippines is horribly behind the times. This is unfortunate in a country made up of more than 7,000 islands. A large percentage of Filipinos can’t swim, and if they get in trouble in the water, there generally isn’t a competent life guard around to save them. The Basic Water Rescue is the highest level course offered in the Republic, and most beaches either don’t have life guards or if they do, the life guards haven’t had any training at all.


Money is always a problem in the Philippines. I suspect that the reason why we had people labeled as non-swimmers in our course was because they just couldn’t or didn’t want to spend the money to first take a swimming course and then take a life guarding course. So, the two courses were compressed into one. But, the standards were maintained by making the exams and qualifiers so difficult. Well-over half my group failed. Amazingly, at least one of the ones who made it was originally listed as a non-swimmer. On Monday morning he didn’t know how to swim. On Saturday he completed a two mile ocean swim. You have to respect that kind of hard work and courage.


Having a background in swimming or diving is a huge advantage in this type of training, but it is no guarantee that you could pass. I swam competitively and did triathlons till I was about twenty-one, but in competitive swimming you only learn the four racing strokes, which are different from the four rescue strokes. Rescue strokes include: modified crawl (head out of the water), modified breast (head out of water), side stroke, and elementary back (your arms don’t come out of the water as you do in racing.) I have never liked back stroke because it just seems t force water up my nose like some type of interrogation torture. And sidestroke is one of the slowest most awkward strokes. Or at least, that’s what I thought before I tried swimming sidestroke carrying a victim.


You don’t know the meaning of the word slow till you are swimming an awkward stroke, that you hate, and towing a human being at the same time. I kept wishing the whole world would just learn to swim better, so there would be no chance they would need me to rescue them.


The course started out frustratingly easy. We had to practice getting in and out of the pool alone, then helping someone else up onto the side. Actually, I am getting ahead of myself. The first lesson we had was on a black board, where the instructor drew a map of the pool area.


“The bathroom is located here.” He said, pointing. Actually in Filipino-speak they call the bathroom the comfort room or CR. “If you want to go to the CR there are two entrances, here and here. But this one is locked, so you will need to go to this one.”


I could not believe how silly this was. I had never had someone explain the layout of a pool to me. I usually just figured it out when I got there. But, just like lessons in getting in and out of the pool and making bubbles, these instructions were important for people who had never been in a swimming pool before. Being American you just take it for granted that schools have pools and people know how to swim. But here in the Philippines only people with a lot of money have access to a pool. So, we were starting from the very basics.


Amazingly, three days into the course we already had our first test. They kept calling it a mile swim, but actually, it was 3,200 meters, which is two miles. I came in fourth. It would be the last event in the course where I would push for time. I only pushed because they told us if we didn’t come in under a certain time we would be cut from the program. Actually only six people passed, but somehow the others weren’t cut. All of the other events were about completion or completing with your partner, so I didn’t push to be first.


The following day we had to tread water. Which the instructors pronounced “thread.” Originally I thought it was a sewing test, like if we were going to learn to repair our swim suits or something. This was the big test, where they actually did cut people out of the program. We were in a deep-well pool and had to complete various tasks while treading.  If we touched the bottom or the walls, even once, we were disqualified. One thing that made it more difficult was that there were so many bodies piled in on top of each other. You were constantly getting kicked and bumped into by other students. I was particularly wary of having someone panic and grab onto me or even just trying to support their body weight on me. It was hard enough keeping myself afloat. I didn’t need any passengers weighing me down.


We had hardly begun when Sir June, standing at the side of the pool, shouted “Tums up.”


I thought, he was saying, “times up.” This is too easy, I thought. I can’t believe they made such a big deal about this. We were only treading for like five minutes. How could this be the big elimination exercise? But then I noticed that no one made any effort to get out of the pool. And they were all holding up their thumbs.


Dugh! Not, times up! THUMBS up. It was one more Tagolish moment that added to the difficulty of being a native speaker in a group of semi-native speakers.


Thumbs up is really hard for me. First of all, it is a biological and historical fact that I don’t float. That is to say, I can’t float on my back, but I find it very comfortable to do turtle float, face down, just a few inches below the surface of the water. Also, I have a good, strong kick for Muay Thai and for swimming, but not for treading. I need to rely on my arms to stay afloat. Any time Sir June called “Tums up,” I sank into the water, barely able to gasp air, while I held my arms aloft and counted the painfully slow seconds.


As I sank helplessly below the water level, I pushed out my lips like a snorkel, to gain precious centimeters.


Each time he called for us to float, I would just about get into a comfortable floating posture, until I bumped into another swimmer, or someone kicked me. It broke the delicate, spell-like balance, and I would have to start swimming. Slowly, I would return to floating on my back, at which point, someone hit me and it all started over again.


“This is like a shipwreck.” Explained Sir June. “You may not be alone in an empty sea. You have to swim with all the other survivors.”


Next, Sir June yelled. “Plane crash.” He told us a plane had crashed nearby, and we needed to save the pilot. One of the fat instructors became the pilot and we had to pass him over our heads, from person to person, around the circle, while we treaded water. Each time I saw the pilot coming back around, I would scream “PILOT” to alert the person after me to be ready to take him from me. Then I would take a deep breath, put my hands over my head, sink beneath the water and inch the pilot over me to the next person.


After the pilot had made several trips around the circle, Sir June shouted again. “Here comes the stewardess. Now we had two victims, one male and one female. Although the girl weighed less, she was actually more difficult to handle.


This being a Catholic country I had to be careful not to touch her in an inappropriate manner. This is also funny since much of my job as an EMT consists of cutting off a stranger’s clothes and blowing in their mouth.


“Here is the black box.” Said June, adding a ten pound weight to the list of items we had to hand off. Earlier in the day, we had been diving to recover the black box, swimming the length of the pool underwater, carrying it. Now we had to hand it off to the next rescuer.


One by one, people quit. There was some cheating as well, some students found a place where the bottom was within bobbing distance and they could take a rest. Others skipped their turn passing victims and boxes. With so many people in the water I think it was hard for the instructors to keep complete control.


On all of the “lean back and float” commands I could feel water being forced up my nose and ears. The next morning I woke with a wicked cold. On one of the longer, thumbs up exercises I swallowed a ton of water and began hacking so much I was retching. It reminded me of the story of the seven Chinese brothers who each had a special skill. One of them could swallow the sea. I was off to a good start at swallowing all the water in the pool, but I still had a long way to go. I actually vomited a little, and my throat burned for the rest of the day. You wouldn’t want to do that during CPR.


The hardest moment came when Sir June yelled, “Thumbs up! Now, sing the national anthem.” While the other students were singing “Mabuhay,” I considered it would be fair for me to sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” but since the American national anthem is hard enough to sing on dry land, let alone while drowning, I decided it would be more politically correct to just listen.


After the song had finished we passed the pilot, stewardess, and box several times. At some point, they stopped coming around. Sir June was staring at his stop watch. “TIME!” He yelled. “Congratulations. You have all passed.”

With no preplanning at all, the entire class began shouting “Guardians!!!”


After lunch, we lined up by twos. Two instructors played drowning victims in the deep end. We had to dive off the wall, swim out, and rescue them. The instructors weren’t making it easy, however. They were flailing about and extremely combative. Simulating an extremely panicked victim, if you got anywhere near them they would grab your head and pull you under.


In rescue swimming there are three basic approaches, front approach, rear approach, and underwater approach. Since all rescue carry positions require the victim to be laying on his back, supported by the rescuer, approaching from the front or underwater requires you to rotate the victim around, so you can get him in a good carry position. Approaching from the front has the added disadvantage that the victim, in his panic, can grab you and drown you by accident. So, the easiest approach is the rear approach. This way, you are safer. You just have to grab the guy, support his chin with one hand, shoot the other hand over his shoulder and grab him in a cross chest carry. Then you swim side stroke and transport him to safety.


When it came my turn, I swam out to Sir Jun. he was flailing like a banshee (assuming that banshees flail). I gave him a huge birth as I swam around behind him. I supported his chin, then shot my arm over his shoulder and began to swim. He immediately turned violent in my grip, rolled over and pulled me underwater. The lessons I was to learn, was: one; hold the victim very tightly so he feels secure and so he doesn’t attack you, and two; never let water go in the victim’s face or mouth or he will panic because you are restraining him, and he will feel like he is drowning.


Jun wrapped both arms around me and instantly, my military, combat swimming training kicked in. In combat swimming you are taught that the normal reaction, when someone tries to push you underwater is to resist. This is a bad reaction. First of all, it is futile, you can’t resist the combined weight of yourself and your opponent, which are both driving you under. Second, you will get even more fatigued by resisting. So, the proper technique when someone tries to pull you under, use your legs to do a fast, powerful scissors kick, while at the same time raising up your arms, shooting yourself even faster below the water.


In rescue swimming they also use this technique. The next step is to slip out, under the victim’s arms and swim away. Or, to attempt to slip out, then push the victim in the center of the chest, with a stiff arm, and then swim away and try again. In combat swimming you can use this escape technique or you can grab the opponent and keep descending, pulling him down with you. Either way, the first part of the technique was the same, and I did it instantly. When I tried to escape, Jun had a hold of me really tightly, so I used my foot, rather than a stiff arm, to push off of him. Luckily, I didn’t go completely into combat mode. Remembering it was a rescue mission, I was careful not to injure him.


I escaped, returned to the surface, got a good breath of air and did another rear approach. I secured Jun’s chin, then did my cross arm carry. Again, he went wild, and we wound up doing battle below the water.


After several more abortive attempts, and when I thought I was too exhausted to continue, I finally got Jun to the nearest wall. It wasn’t till the next day that instructors explained to me to keep a tighter hold next time. I never forgot the lesson, and in later exercises when the instructors tried to roll out of a save, I nearly crushed their ribs with my cross chest grip.


We had to line up and each do one more save, which was pretty similar to the first one. I my second save I wound up using one of the Judo type moves they had taught us. When a victim grabs your arm, rather than trying to pull away, you can use his grip to spin him around and grab him from behind. I couldn’t believe how quickly and instinctively the technique came. The rescuing came pretty easily for me I think because it was so similar to wrestling in mixed martial arts (MMA). In MMA, We are always trying to spin the opponent around, get behind him, lift up the chin, and choke him. As long as I substituted a save for a choke I would be fine.


When we finished the second save, Sir Jun called out a list of names, including mine and said, “You have passed your rescue test.”


Rescue test? I was still pretty hypoxic from treading water. I didn’t realize this had been our test. I thought it was just an exercise. In the end, it was probably better off this way, because I wasn’t nervous. When I was fifteen I had tried to pass this course, but had failed it. I was swimming competitively at that time and I was so competitive and arrogant, that I was in capable of putting anyone else before myself. A rescuer is not there to make himself look good. He is there so that some stranger will get another day with his family.


The war in Burma taught me that lesson. Sadly it has taken me forty years and a brush with genocide to understand the importance of saving lives. But thank God, now I know the lesson. And in addition to learning life saving in a pool, I was ready to begin my work as an EMT, working on an ambulance, which would be starting in a few days.


The next day was the easiest of the whole program. We checked into the pool in the morning and had to swim 4,000 meters, 1,000 of each stroke. The event wasn’t timed, it was just additional practice and confidence building to prepare us for the ocean swim the next day.


After the swim, we had lunch and a shower. Then we drove to the beach at Batangas for our final exam.


Driving anywhere in Manila is pretty hit or miss. With traffic it could literally take an hour and a half to travel five kilometers. As a result locals don’t even measure distances in time or kilometers. They measure in rides. “It takes three rides to get there,” means you have to change buses twice. Going to Bantangas we were driving, but of course, no one in Philippines does preventative maintenance so, less than an hour into the trip we got a flat tire. The spare was flat too, so the driver had to go to a gas station and get it fixed. This all set us back by about two hours.


The lesson I learned about survival in the Philippines is, you have to just not care. I had no where to go. I was with my friends. I didn’t know anything about Batangas and had no special plans for when I got there. I had to just not care that it was taking an extra two hours to get there. I took my backpack out of the truck, using it as a pillow, I lay down on the blacktop and took a nap.


It was late when we finally arrived at the beach. No arrangements had been made for our lodgings, so, after interminable speeches and explanations about the swim the next morning, we all just scoped out a comfortable place on a pick-nick table and slept in our clothes.


No one really slept the night before the swim. The pick-nick tables weren’t as comfortable as they looked, and people were a bit loud. I think nervousness kept them joking around till about two in the morning.


At 4:00 AM we were called to form up on the beach. Swimmers were divided into four teams. In each team buddy teams were assigned; one weak and one strong. I was elected leader of my group. At one point both my EMT class and my swimming class asked me to be class leader. Both times I refused for two reasons, one I really believed it was better to have someone who spoke Filipino and two, they didn’t need one more white man telling them what to do. Letting them elect their own leader gave some Filipino a chance to learn about people management.


Elmer was chosen as our class leader and he flourished. I never saw someone change so positively overnight. I was so glad that I deferred to him. I know I can lead. Give someone else a chance. When they asked me to lead my swim group, however, I accepted. This swim would hold a certain element of danger, particularly since it was still dark and the boats wouldn’t be able to see swimmers in trouble.


I told my people. “Rule number one, stay with your buddy no matter what. Rule number two, the group stays together. If you have a problem or need a rest, tell your buddy and tell me. I will call a halt.”


The swim started out well. The eight of us, four buddy teams stayed together. They kept telling me to get in the front because I was leader. But I explained that I needed to stay in the back so I could watch everyone and see who needed help. For the most part, the week of intensive preparation had readied these guys for the swim, but there were still a few who got upset when water went in their mouth or when their goggles came off. Some of them didn’t feel comfortable treading water and adjusting or cleaning their goggles at the same time. My partner was a fat, smoking, drinking, martial arts instructor, named James, who I had no relationship with other than the fact that he was my partner. I didn’t know him, and I have trouble liking martial arts instructors who don’t live the life. But I looked at this as part of the challenge. It is easy to care for someone you like. But caring for James was a test, like donating a kidney to someone you find annoying.


I kept my team together pretty well till a panic swept them. In our interminable briefings about the swim we were told that there was a current which emerged from the right side of the harbor and would push us back out to sea. We were told that when we reached this current we needed to cut left, swim parallel to shore till we got passed it, then cut for the beach again. Suddenly, my team decided they had hit this current and started barking orders, “cut right, change to side stroke or crawl, the current, the current…” I mean they were really going nuts screaming and scrambling.


I felt a very minor current of probably less than one knot and I figured all we needed to do was continue to swim dead ahead. Also it was dark and our target was a white light on the beach which I didn’t want to lose sight of till the sun came up. James was so much slower than the other guys, that by this time, my guys had given up on staying with us and were pretty far ahead of us. By the time we arrived, the guys had abandoned us, disappearing into the darkness to the right.


I stayed with James. He asked me several times in a panicked voice, “You won’t leave me will you.”

“Of course not.” I said. A mile swim is absolutely nothing and in the ocean, with the added buoyancy, just floated face down, occasionally kicking or sculling my arms to keep up with James.


“Antonio, you are my sensei.” He said repeatedly. “I need to hear your voice.


No worries, I rolled over on my side, swam side stroke and sang military cadences to keep James going.


“See one thirty rolling down the strip, airborne ranger on a one way trip, mission top secret destination unknown, the SPDC in Shanland had better go home. …”


James kept apologizing for being so slow, and I kept telling him it was fine. Once again, I thought about Andy. I was in a military course once, where the top guy, the one who won every competition was not even nominated for an award. Instead, the sergeants nominated the worst guy, the one who nearly failed every event. Why? Because he never quit. He learned something. The strong guy, the one who aced every evaluation, didn’t learn a thing. He had always been good before and he was good now. I just knew Andy wasn’t learning. As for me, I am forty, I am beyond learning. My goal in the course was to learn the techniques for rescue, and I had, so I was happy. I didn’t need a second place in a one mile swim to make me feel good about myself. I was fine. James…hopefully James was learning something. He certainly was struggling.


I wasn’t wearing a watch, so it is impossible to say how long we had been swimming. But as the sun began to rise, I saw that we were even with a hotel on the right side of the harbor. When the sun was full up, we were still parallel to the hotel. I began to worry a bit. When I swam free of James, I passed easily through the current. But as soon as I stopped to wait for him, it carried me right back to where he was. The first few times this happened I thought he had caught up. But then I realized he was swimming at exactly the same speed as the current. Like running on a treadmill, he was never going to move any further forward.


“James, we need to cut left because of the current.” I said.

“No, it is ok, we are moving forward. Look.” He said, pointing vaguely at the same hotel we had been swimming in front of for the last few hours.


Watching James exhaust himself and get nowhere gave me time to think about my own command abilities. I think I did do a good job of keeping everyone together. These guys had never been in the army and knew nothing of discipline. If this were the military, when I arrived on shore I would punish them horribly and make sure they understood the importance of staying together. We would do the exercise again and again until the whole team functioned like a single man.


Several rescue boats came and asked if James needed a pick up. I had been optimistic and encouraging, but now my own strength was starting to give out. Secretly I hoped James would give up and I could just swim in alone. I could see the shore and knew it would only take about ten minutes.


But James kept saying, “As long as my sensei is here, I can make it.”


Great! I had to be the sensei. I couldn’t just be an asshole and leave him.


We kept on. James was going so slow I wasn’t 100% certain we had got around the current yet. So, I swam a few fast strokes ahead, and once again, I was moving well, but I had to stop and wait for him. This time, I stood still and he eventually reached me.


Sir Jun pulled up in a boat. “Are we passed the current?” I asked.

“Yes.” He said. He also said something else, which I would later find out was, “you can leave your partner and go eat breakfast.” But I was screaming too loudly with joy and missed all that.


A few minutes later, Elmer appeared, he had swum out on a rescue can.


I was so glad to see my friend. We talked a mile a minute. I suddenly realized how lonely I had been, watching James swim slowly. Elmer and I laughed and joked. He told me about Andy.


“Andy was the leader of his group, but as soon as they got in the water he abandoned them. He was the first one to complete the swim.” Explained Elmer.


This was what I had expected from Andy, but you would never believe that someone would do something so awful.


“How did his group do?”


“He lost six people.” Said Elmer.


Eventually, Andy swam up on a surf board. “Hey dud!” he shouted all happy. He held out his hand for me to give him a hi-five. “I won, I was first.”


“And what happened to your team?” I asked. “Were they also first?”


He saw in my eyes that he had done wrong. Trying to make up for it he said.


“You can go have breakfast. We will take care of your partner.”


“Like you took care of your team?” I asked.


“Ouch!” said Elmer, feeling the sting.


“I’ll take care of him. Right, James?”

“That’s right,” he gulped between breaths, “Antonio is my sensei.”

“You see that?” I asked Andy. “I am James’s sensei. Are you someone’s sensei?”


Elmer and I continued to chat and gossip, ignoring Andy.


When we finally arrived on the shore I was completely shot. Because of all the motivational speaking and singing I had done for James, the inside of my mouth felt like a pretzel factory. Not only was I completely dehydrated, but the taste was something I wouldn’t wish on an enemy. It was like drinking urine, and not even from a diabetic.


It turned out the swim was actually two miles. Alone, I could have done it in about one and a half hours. Instead, it had taken nearly four. I had never swam that long in my life, without touching the ground or the walls of a swimming pool.


The instructors all knew what had happened, and without making awkward speeches, they let me know that I had done the right thing. I stumbled to the kitchen to get some food and drink, while I gorged myself a student and several instructors came to me and said, “For six years it has been James’s dream to complete this swim. And, now, because of you, he has finally done it.”


I felt really good. At the same time, I felt even more guilty for my fleeting wish of James quitting while we were stuck in the current. The swim had meant nothing to me, finishing an hour earlier I wouldn’t have won an award, but for James, this swim was the completion of a six year dream.


All told, only twenty-five people, including James, had completed the swim, and successfully passed the course. The rest of the swimmers had had a few hours to eat and relax. I got ten minutes, and then the next classes started, down on the beach.


“I will go get drunk now.” Announced James. “Are you coming?”

“No, I have class.” I said. If it had been a movie, James would have been my friend and we would have blown of class and got drunk and it would have been funny. But I didn’t see anything funny about it. The reason this guy and 55 other people didn’t complete this swim was because of alcohol and cigarettes. Had James learned anything? Had I helped him? Now he would get his rescue certificate but be incapable of rescuing anyone.


Maybe I had violated the Prime Directive, like on Star Trek.


The whole world doesn’t have to live like me. But, why do they have to drink so much and why the cigarettes and the drugs. Even if I came in fourth or sixth in the timed exercises, the guys I beat were in their twenties. What will they be like when they are in their forties? James was nearly ten years younger than me.


I made my way to the beach on unsteady feet. The first lessons were scuba familiarization. Once again, in the west, most people have used mask, snorkel, and fins at some point in their life. Here, it had to be taught.


“Are you swimming?” the instructor asked.

“I will have to sit out the first bit because I have no equipment.”

“It’s OK, just follow with your goggles.”


It was an effort to stand, let alone get back in the water, but this day of training turned out to be some of the best training of the whole course.


We trained in using the rescue can, this is that red flotation device that Pamela Anderson carries when she runs down the beach to save me, in my dreams. We all tried running with it, but our breasts didn’t flop like hers. The rescue can was so versatile. You could sue it to support yourself or your victim. You could throw it to someone or hand it to someone to avoid making physical contact with the victim. After you secured a victim, in your usual cross chest carry position, you could use the can to support him and tow him back to shore.


“Why don’t we do more training with the can?” Asked Jun.


He looked a little sheepish. “We only have three of them.” He answered. “We had one that someone had donated from Australia. Then a student saw it and thought he could make them in his factory. He made two more for us.” Jun shook his head. “This is the Philippines. We have no money to buy anything.”


Daryl, the professional surfer from Australia was opening a surf academy in Manila. He will also be teaching surf rescue. When I talked to him about starting a part two, an advanced level to the lifeguard training, he said. “The problem is advanced life guarding means learning to use the toys. But in the Philippines, they don’t have the toys. So, the training is useless.”


By toys, Daryl was referring to such equipment as jet skis. If someone is drowning a hundred meters or more off shore there is a chance that the rescuer couldn’t get there in time or would be too tired to rescue and swim back.


One of the drills we did was saving a scuba diver. We had to free dive under the water and pick up an unconscious person, surface and swim to shore with him. The cold I had been nursing for several days was in full swim. My head was completely stopped up and my ears wouldn’t clear. I pushed it a bit hard and wound up with some blood coming out of my nose the next day.


Other than difficulty clearing my ears, rescuing someone off the bottom wasn’t that hard. I reached down, grabbed his T-shirt, lifted him up, slipped my arms under his and surfaced, already in a good position to go for a carry. In real life, I think the difficulty would be finding the unconscious person under the waves. And, as an EMT, I know that from the time he sinks beneath the surface, we only have four minutes to rescue him. That four minutes is a best case scenario, assuming he doesn’t involuntarily start breathing and take in water.


In EMT school Aidan had told us that in the old days, lifeguards had a barrel on the beach.  They lay the drowning victim, belly-down on the barrel and rolled him to make water come out of his lungs. This method was just as effective as it sounds. If the victim survived it was simply because there was no water in his lungs.


In reality, the way you get water out of the patient’s lungs is by using positive pressure ventilation. But I might have been the only person on the beach who knew this. At the end of the day, it didn’t really help anyone that I knew this, because in the Philippines the equipment was unavailable.


The crazy part of our training was the medical. We learned how to rescue someone with a spinal injury and immobilize them in the water. You can even give them rescue breathing while you tread and wait for help to arrive with a spine-board. It is good training, but I believe if you dive in the ocean and get a spinal injury there is no way the lifeguards can save you without damaging your spinal cord. I think they can save your life but you will be paralyzed.


The tolerance inside the spinal column is only a few millimeters. If you are supporting an injured swimmer on your chest, holding his arms up beside his head to immobilize his spine, and breathing in his mouth, all while treading water, the probability is that you will move more than a couple of centimeters.


Just when it was getting interesting, the instructors blew a whistle, signaling that course was finished. Wow! Was all I could say. I hadn’t been pushed so hard, physically in years. It was great. I just wanted to do it again. Most of the classmates became close and exchanged phone numbers. I hope I will see them again.


Pinoy paramedic, EMT and rescue swimmer, it’s all about saving the lives. And remember, the lives you save might be Filipino.


Antonio Graceffo is a qualified Emergency Medical Technician, as well as an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries:

Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him

see his website

Antonio is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.


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