Plebes pay price for advancement

Passage: Before Naval Academy freshmen become sophomores, they must endure a 12-hour ordeal known as Sea Trials.

May 16, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

The mud was everywhere - on their faces, in their hair, turning their white military-issue shirts a deep, solid brown.

Over a 12-hour period yesterday, freshmen at the Naval Academy threw themselves at one another with the ferocity of battle in a 3-foot-deep pit of thick, chocolate-colored water. They ran for miles in combat gear, hurled themselves over obstacle courses and crawled under barbed wire against the force of a fire hose while dragging a classmate who was bound hand to foot.

They did this, enduring all that the upperclassmen demanded of them in this part-crucible, part-amusement-park event called Sea Trials, so that they would no longer be considered freshmen, or "plebes," otherwise known to upperclassmen as the scum of the earth.

"They take away from this a real sense of satisfaction, that, `Wow, we did this,'" said Capt. Chris Wode, the officer in charge of the annual Sea Trials. "They have to work together and use teamwork. It is an accomplishment that culminates a year of hard work."

But the test was not all physical. In one of the most intense events of the day, one that the Naval Academy closed to the media and public, the freshmen were sent out in the woods to hide in the bushes until they were discovered and taken as "prisoners of war."

Led back to the "POW camp," they were bound hand and foot, and bags were placed over their heads. Inside a dark wooden compound, midshipmen said they had to learn codes to talk to their fellow prisoners, and they were "manhandled" into wooden cages or large metal boxes.

For those who endured the POW camp early, it seemed a game. For those who went in late in the afternoon - dehydrated, exhausted and wet - it was something more. But none complained or chose to cut short their participation.

Majorie Ribeiro, a sophomore who was helping to supervise a nearby event, looked past the fence that set off the POW camp at the freshmen, heads in potato sacks, kneeling at the feet of the upperclassmen."[The upperclassmen] take it so seriously, you feel like, `Oh, my God, I have to do this or they will hurt me,'" she said of the POW experience. "You get put in that state of mind. But that's the whole point - to go through all the emotions of plebe year, and you come together here at the end of the year, and you get each other through it."

Sea Trials is a relatively new tradition at the academy, having started four years ago.

School officials wanted to give the freshmen one final challenge to mark the end of their year before the more festive annual climb of the Herndon Monument, which will take place Monday.

Seniors design course

Each year, the seniors design the course, which takes place in at least three locations around the campus and the Annapolis Naval Station next to the academy. This is the first year those designing the course had experienced it as freshmen.

"Revenge is sweet," said John Mullen, a junior, who will help design next year's course as a senior.

Mullen positioned himself along the Severn River at Hospital Point for the next group of freshmen attempting to make a "beach landing" from inflatable boats while being attacked by paint balls.

"Every upperclassman wants to be part of this station," he said.

His classmate, Dave Thomas, stood at the edge of the beach as a group of freshmen in boats attempted to avoid the paintball barrage by slipping through on the far right.

"They don't really notice that we're sitting here with guns until they get right ... here," he said unleashing the paintballs as the freshmen jumped out of their boat, trying to hide beneath it as they dragged it to shore.

Each year about 50 midshipmen are injured in the event. Most injuries involve sprained ankles and wrists.

By noon yesterday, medics had treated a broken bone and a back injury that was expected to put the freshman out of commission for 10 weeks.

So many midshipmen were injured in the Bear Pit, a wrestling match in three feet of muddy water, that organizers changed the challenge at midday to a throw-the-opponent-off-a-log event.

"There is always the possibility that someone is going to get hurt," said Wode, stressing that with the exception of the back injury, this year's injuries were mostly minor and numbered fewer than 50, slightly less than last year. "We do a risk assessment for each event. We're here to make it challenging, not to hurt people.

"This is a widely popular event," he said, pausing. "Maybe not always for the plebes, but for the upperclassmen."

Dropping scholastic drills

Senior Tiko Crofoot, who was in charge of designing and organizing the event, said the seniors eliminated the more scholastic activities, such as navigational drills, that made up a third of the course last year.

"We thought a year of academics was enough for these guys," Crofoot said. "They get yelled at and pushed around a little. ... But I think that people come here because they want to be aggressive and competitive. It's a chance for them to get physical and get dirty."

Freshman Thatcher Carr was enjoying every minute of it.

"I love the mud and everything we've done," Carr said after emerging from a dark, muddied makeshift combat tunnel. "We're constantly moving, so we're not tired yet, but I guarantee the minute we sit down and eat something, every single one of us is going to crash."

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