Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Training

This is one of the toughest training programs in the U.S. military

NEW YORK - MAY 27: In this handout image provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer hangs from a HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, from Air Station Cape Cod, while performing a search and rescue demonstration for people enjoying Fleet Week festivities at the Intrepid Air and Space Museum May 27, 2006 in New York City. The week-long event offers parades, military demonstrations, and public tours of the participating vessels.
••• Matthew Belson / U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images

The Coast Guard's rescue swimmer training school has one of the highest student attrition rates of any special operations school in the military. Roughly 75 to 100 students go through 24 weeks of Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer school in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and just over half of them complete the course successfully.

Some years, the dropout rate for this program has been as high as 80 percent.

And this is from a pool of candidates of Coast Guard personnel who are conditioned to be able to swim well. It's definitely not a job for the faint of heart. 

Requirements for Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers

Rescue swimmers must have flexibility, strength, endurance, and be able to function for 30 minutes in heavy seas. This is obviously far and above the normal lifeguard course; you're not just treading water, you're expected to be able to hold your breath, and perform challenging tasks. 

Rescue swimmers need to be able to provide basic life support for whoever they may be rescuing, of course, and their training will include an emergency medical training (EMT) course. But it's not the standard EMT training; it's for rescues to be conducted in the open seas under extreme conditions. 

Standards for Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers

The required monthly physical training fitness regimen includes a 12-minute crawl swim of 500 yards or longer, a 25-yard underwater swim and a 200-yard buddy tow.

Those are in addition to performing push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, chin-ups, just like other military fitness tests.

Here are the minimum fitness requirements for each category: 

ExerciseMinimum Standard


500-yard swimCompleted within 12 minutes
25-yard underwater swimRepeat 4 Times
Buddy Tow200 yards


Lessons for Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers

The 137-page operations manual includes lessons in eight different water deployment procedures; 11 ways to approach, carry and release a survivor; seven ways to release equipment for Navy and Air Force flyers; and ways to detangle the services' different parachutes and backpacks.

Rescue swimmers also must have the skills to provide basic pre-hospital life support for rescued individuals. And as part of their training, candidates must complete a four-week emergency medical training course at the Coast Guard EMT school in Petaluma, California

Training Regimen for Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers

Adding even more pressure during training, instructors treat candidates with a drill sergeant style. But this is perhaps the most crucial part of the training; if these candidates can't endure extreme conditions, it's going to be hard to rescue someone in distress.

Candidates selected for the school must first go through what is called the airmen training course. The four-month-long course, which, despite its name, has nothing to do with the Air Force, helps prepare candidates for the grueling rescue swimmer course.

The first six weeks of the four-month course is loaded with rescue swimmer training.

While they are going through the swimming and classroom phase of their training, candidates also must attend classes to learn about the aircraft they will serve on. Finally, before graduating, candidates are required to pass a test involving multiple rescue scenarios.