Everyone in the Ocean!

Swim Call on a U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier

During Operation Enduring Freedom, these sailors aboard USS Dwight D. Eisenhower took time from maritime security operations to drop into the north Arabian Sea. (US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan D. McLearnon)
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On a balmy day this past June, more than 2,000 sailors of the carrier USS John C. Stennis leaped from its aircraft elevator into the warm waters of the western Pacific Ocean during a U.S. Navy tradition known as swim call. Navy personnel specialist William Harbin called it one of the best experiences of his life. “Who else can say they swam next to an aircraft carrier with armed shark guards [as] your own private security?” said Harbin. During a swim call, sharpshooters stand on the ship’s deck or nearby in a rigid-hull inflatable boat, watching for sharks.

Depending on its aircraft load, a carrier’s flight deck may sit as high as 60 feet above the waterline. Its hangar bay elevators lower swimmers to 30 feet from the waves—the equivalent of an Olympic diving platform—so leaping sailors risk a broken bone if not using good form. The USS Eisenhower issued instructions to prevent injuries  by asking that the crew “practice to prevent injury from wrongful water entry.”

The tradition dates back at least to the 19th-century British Royal Navy and was once known as All Hands to Bathe, when it was more an order than an option and was meant to keep sailors clean. Since at least World War II the U.S. Navy has conducted swim call on vessels ranging from submarines to amphibious command ships, but the most dramatic may be floating alongside a 100,000-ton carrier holding 90 aircraft and 6,000 fellow crew.

Sailors aboard USS George Washington wait in the hangar bay for a turn to leap off the aircraft elevator into the Atlantic Ocean off Norfolk, Virginia. (US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brian Sloan)
The crew of USS Carl Vinson splashes into the warm water of the Arabian Sea. (US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. Evans)
Swim calls may be most dramatic on an aircraft carrier, but take place on nearly all Navy vessels, from submarines to amphibious command ships (LCC) such as USS Blue Ridge, seen anchored at an undisclosed area of the Indo-Asia-Pacific region as commanding officer, Capt. Matt Paradise, treads water. (US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Don Patton)
After a dip in the Pacific Ocean during a deployment in June 2016, sailors of USS John C. Stennis climb aboard using rope ladders and netting. (US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Bryan Niegel)
During a swim call the ship deploys a rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) carrying rescue swimmers, such as this crew from USS Dwight D. Eisenhower keeping its sailors from floating too far afield. A sharpshooter stationed in the RHIB or on deck keeps his or her finger on the trigger to pick off sharks. (US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Andrew Schneider)
On April 18, 1944, after a fierce battle to capture Roi Island in the Kwajalein Atoll, the crewmen of this unnamed carrier shed their stress in a warm Pacific lagoon of the Marshall Islands. (US Navy/National World War II Museum)
Sailors leap off battleship USS Rhode Island in 1913 to soak themselves clean after loading the ship’s stores with coal. For at least a century the U.K.’s Royal Navy called this kind of practical dunking “All Hands to Bathe,” and the tradition continued in the US Navy as a swim call, purely for relaxation and morale during the stress of a long deployment. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
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