Travelmag Banner

Drinking the China Sea

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 dude!” 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.

Checkout Antonio’s website

Get Antonio’s books at
The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines
Asia Pacific