Naval Academy Plebes Face 14 Hours of Obstacles at Sea Trials

This May 10, 2007 file photo shows the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. (Kathleen Lange, AP)
This May 10, 2007 file photo shows the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. (Kathleen Lange, AP)

As the huffing and puffing plebes turned the corner of the trail, their eyes lit up when they saw the finish line.

"Is that the 27th Company or the 29th?" asked an upperclassmen running the endurance course.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it was the 29th," her counterpart said.

It was the remaining members of the 27th company, but despite starting several minutes later, the first squad of the 29th Company sprinted to the finish line shortly after. The 29th Company finished the course with one of the fastest times.

"Drink some water," the 29th Company officer said to his plebes. "Mask your pain."

In the next couple of minutes, they'd have to run to the next station where they'd hit other plebes with pugil sticks.

For 14 hours, the plebes crawled, pulled, ran, dove and climbed their way through the Sea Trials on Tuesday -- an annual Naval Academy tradition where the freshmen compete in intense physical and mental obstacles. It's seen as a rite of passage for the fourth class midshipmen, an opportunity for them to prove to the upperclassmen and to themselves how far they've come since plebe summer.

While plebes can't fail Sea Trials, there are bragging rights involved. Many of the 30 obstacles are timed and the company that has the best overall time is given the Iron Company award. For the past the two years, the 29th Company was deemed the Iron Company and had a leg up at the Herndon Climb, a decades-old tradition that officially marks the end of plebe year.

While the plebes say Sea Trials are a time for company bonding, many said they wouldn't mind knocking the reigning company off the podium.

"Everyone hates the 29th Company," laughed plebe Kevin Murray. "It would be so great to beat them."

The plebes' day started at 3 a.m. and had very few breaks throughout the day. They're divided into companies, battalions and squads where they're tasked with activities like carrying logs while doing lunges, flipping tires, run 3 miles across the Naval Academy Bridge and swimming in pool relays. The mids wore their blue Navy working uniforms with a white shirt underneath, instead of blue, as a nod to what they wore during plebe summer.

The Sea Trials began in 1998 after former Superintendent Adm. Charles Larson asked for ways to intensify plebe year. Led by upperclassmen, Sea Trials are inspired by the Marine Corps' Crucible -- where recruits march 40 miles in 54 hours -- and the Navy's Battle Stations -- a 12-hour exercise that is aimed to push physical and mental limits. The companies practice the different courses and obstacles throughout the year but not much can be done to calm the day-of nerves.

"You gotta take a lot of Tums," said plebe Brennen Means.

For Karma Richards, a fourth class midshipmen in the 29th Company, she said she and the other plebes see the company's status as the back-to-back winner of the Sea Trials as a "motivator."

"We're trying to have fun, but I think a lot of us are thinking about it," Richards said.

While the upperclassmen ran Sea Trials, company officers and senior enlisted leaders supported their companies during the day. Some participated in drills, one leader brought Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets for his group. Capt. D.J. Green, 29th Company officer, completed the entire Sea Trials with his plebes.

Some groups carried their company's mascots or flags during the different obstacles Tuesday, a day that was considered by many to be close to the ideal weather. A couple mids wore GoPros to capture the punishing day, and it was rare to see a plebe with a clean uniform. The new Justin Bieber song and the most recent Kendrick Lamar album served as energizing music at several of the stations.

Chief Matthew LaRue, the 29th Company senior enlisted leader, said he felt himself getting choked up when he watched his mids fight their way through the 3-mile run along the Naval Academy Bridge in the heat. LaRue trained enlisted soldiers in boot camp and said Sea Trials was one of the more challenging tests he's seen during his career.

"They're bada**," he said. "But don't tell them I said that. ... I'd literally put them all in my pack for war right now."

Plebe Ilenia Armstrong said she knew the Sea Trials were going to be hard but didn't realize how difficult until she ran across the bridge, just the halfway point of the challenge. She admitted there was some pressure to do well, since the plebes heard so much about the company's win last year.

But, despite other companies gunning for the bragging rights, she believes her company will prevail.

"Part of me is 'I got to get it,'" she said. "But our mentality is 'It's good to be us' no matter what."

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