Saturday, Jan. 12, 2008 | Steve Macafferri is an aviation survival technician with the U.S. Coast Guard, more commonly known as a “rescue swimmer.” That means he dives out of helicopters to save people when they’re drowning out at sea. He’s spent the last few years training in all sorts of conditions from Alaska to Hawaii, preparing for the days when he will be flown out into hellish storms on board a helicopter to be dropped like a fishing float into 25-foot-plus deep ocean swells.

Macafferri is based at the U.S. Coast Guard site on North Harbor Drive. When he’s on duty, he eats and sleeps at the station, decked out in an olive-green jumpsuit, ready to spring into action and head out over the ocean at a moment’s notice.

We sat down with Macafferri during one of his quiet spells at the station and asked him about his work, his training, his rescues and his apparent fearlessness in the face of a dark stormy night at sea.

What training did you have to go through to become a rescue swimmer?

It’s a pretty rigorous training program that lasts about eight months. You do four months as airmen, where you go and you work and train with rescue swimmers and you learn the job. You learn the job and you see how the mechanics of a rescue work. The main goal there is you get ready for the main training program, which is in Elizabeth City, N.C.

In North Carolina, you get physically trained pretty extensively. You learn more about how we do the actual rescues. The retention rate’s a lot less there — I would say there’s a 60 percent attrition rate. There are scenarios out there to train you to your limit and beyond, because when we work in high seas conditions, it’s high stress. You’ve got to be able to think on your feet, keep your head straight and overcome the elements, because, as we all know, the ocean’s very unforgiving.

Can you give me an example of some of the training exercises you’ve had to do?

On any given day on the training program, you’re looking at probably five hours of straight physical training: Push-ups, a run, sit-ups, a lot of yelling and high-stress situations. You start the day early, at about 6 o’clock in the morning and you’re physical training ‘til about 9. Then you have a half-hour break and get in the water, into the pool. Then you swim laps, sprints, and you do that straight through ‘til lunch, then you come back and do technical training.

But with all that training too, no matter whether you’re tired, sick, sore, to end the day a lot of the time you have to do what they call “multi phases.” You’re up in a tower, overlooking a pool and there are a couple of instructors in the water giving you scenarios — like there’s someone unconscious in the water — and you basically jump in and they attack you. Then you have to subdue them and bring them to safety.

Have you had to do many rescues here in San Diego?

Well, we don’t get the big seas that, say, Alaska does or ocean conditions like in the Northwest. Occasionally, we will have a sinking boat, but a lot of the calls we’ll get are medical evacuations, for example, from a cruise liner.

But in the last two years I’ve been here, I’d say I’ve had maybe eight different rescues. I haven’t done any actual deployments actually into the water here, but I did have a deployment onto the back of a boat that was taking on water. We hoisted six family members off that boat.

What sort of things do people say to you after you rescue them?

We get a lot of thanks. People, when they’re put in a scary situation, they have one hope and that’s that someone’s going to come and get them. Well, when we go and get them and bring them back, we’re bringing them to safety, where everything’s controlled and they feel like they’re going to be ok.

When I got the family off the boat, they had just gone out for a normal fishing trip, and one of them told me that they never expected the fishing trip to include a helicopter ride.

So, of all the places you could be based around the country, is San Diego considered a pretty sweet assignment?

Yep. We have stations all up the way up the coast, and of all the ones I’ve seen, I’d say this is my favorite. A lot of people consider this “station vacation.”

What are the most dangerous conditions you’ve ever had to deploy into, either in training or in a real-life rescue?

Well, we have an advanced training school once you get over the initial training. It’s called the Advanced Helicopter Rescue School. That’s in Astoria, Ore., on Cape Disappointment, which is known for having the biggest surf in the country.

So we go to train there, in a pretty controlled environment, but you’ll be training in 20-25 feet swells, where you’ll have two different rescue swimmers jumping into high surf together and doing rescues on each other.

You also do cliff rescues in high surf, surf swims and cave dives too.

Cave dives?

Yeah, there’s this big cave. You swim up to it, if the conditions are right and they teach you about the hydraulics of caves, in case you ever need to do a cave rescue.

What’s it like when you first enter into that huge, boiling ocean from a helicopter?

It’s a pretty big adrenaline rush. There are days when you’re out there on a dark, stormy night — classic movie conditions — where you might have some fear, but you need to rely on your training, and to have confidence in yourself, your equipment and your air crew. Without an air crew, we’re nothing more than just buoys floating around in the water.

When you have those big waves coming at you and crashing, you just hold on for the ride.

In the course of your training, have you ever looked out of the helicopter at a situation and just said “No way, I’m not going out there?”

I haven’t. Everything I have had so far I’ve felt comfortable with. But that’s what it comes down to, that’s the last word. If you feel unsafe, well, we’re here to do a service, to help people, but you have to look after yourself first. Our safety and the air crew’s safety — that’s priority number one.

So, I take it you don’t have any fear of heights?

No, that’s never been a problem for me. I’m more of an adrenaline junkie.

— Interview by WILL CARLESS

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