SURF - Train Today to Survive Tomorrow: Lessons From A Navy Rescue Swimmer & Voice For First Responders

“I'm afraid of heights. I'm afraid of water. I'm afraid of sharks… There I was. I got a phone call from one of my pilots, ‘Yo Jake, you guys gotta call. You gotta get out to the bird (helicopter) right now!’ Description: Middle aged man on a big shrimping boat. He woke up vomiting blood. Weather is bad… I asked my swimmer, ‘You mind if I be the swimmer today?’”

“We get there and it was a mess. There's a huge shrimping boat with all these huge nets and outriggers. And there's a huge storm on the fly out.”

On arrival, “I get to the door [of the helicopter]. I take off my helmet. Get ready to jump. My crew chief looks at me, looks at the water, pulls me back inside and says, ‘No! There are sharks out there!’ I look down and there are 15-20 sharks circling this big shrimping boat.”

“I hook up and get set down on top of the pilot house. The weather's bad. It was raining. The helicopter builds up so much static electricity from the rotor blades that when I got to the pilot house I was knocked to my knees by the electricity built up. I yelled. I unhooked. Climbed down the pilot house still dazed from being electrocuted.”

“I get to the guy. He told me everything that was wrong and he looked at me and said, ‘Are you it? Where is everyone?’ I said, ‘Im it!’. I took him up to the pilot house. They dropped the litter to pick him up. As soon as I touched the litter I got electrocuted again! I got him in the litter. Called for the hook. As the hook came down it swung from the storm, hit me in the chest, and electrocuted me again! I hooked it up to the litter and yelled to pull him up. They sent the hook back down and pulled me up.”

Afterwards, “I got home. Exhausted. That was probably the most intense thing I've done in the Navy.”

Coastal Athlete Program (CAP) Podcast Episode 009: Jake Sonnier, Crew Chief, US Navy Aviation Rescue Swimmer, Florida Keys

For most, when faced with a life threatening event, especially on the scale of a natural disaster or massive storms out at sea, the intuitive response is to travel as far away from it as possible. A select few, like Jake Sonnier, make the conscious decision to overcome fear, face the danger head on, and help those who are unable or unwilling to evacuate. This is one of the many incredible and, at times cinematic, stories George “Schepp” Scheppler brings to his listeners through The Coastal Athlete Program (CAP) Podcast.

Schep shares the stories of first responders, often in the Open Water Rescue Swimmer community, in hope to bring awareness to the individuals and organizations that risk their lives during life threatening events, but also ties in fitness, lifestyle, and environmental conservation because, at the end of the day, each exists within the other.

As an honorably discharged Navy Search & Rescue Swimmer and a Tactical Strength & Conditioning Facilitator (TSAC-F), Schepp is dedicating his life to both increasing the survivability of his athletes through the Coastal Athlete Program and providing a voice for the often overlooked heroes in our first responder community via the Coastal Athlete Program Podcast.

At age 25 Schepp woke up one day, walked away from his job, moved back home to Napa, CA, built a 16’ boat from scratch with his father, and left for basic training in the Navy for Search & Rescue Swimmer School (SAR). He was surprised to find, upon arrival, he had been denied clearance and could not enter SAR. Fortunately, he was given an opportunity to enter SAR, but had to work from the bottom up. Ultimately, he landed on a warship called a frigate in Hawaii where he spent 45-days in training to prepare him to enter SARs school.

Upon completion of his training and immediately into beginning SARs school, Schepp herniated his discs in his low back. Not wanting to lose his opportunity, he made it 14-days in training before being hospitalized after his right leg completely gave out during a run. He managed to push through the nauseating pain and complete SARs School becoming the primary SARs swimmer during his deployment throughout the Pacific.

While deployed, Schepp did his best to ignore the constant pain in his back, but was eventually sent for emergency surgery. He was told he’d be lucky to walk in a week and would never be deployed again. Schepp walked that day and redeployed 6.5-months later, and 18-months later raced in the Waikiki Rough Water Swim.

It was at that moment Schepp decided it was time for a change in pace. He enrolled in California State at Monterey Bay and studied Kinesiology. After experiencing his injuries, Schepp became interested in understanding why his body broke down the way it had and how he could have prevented it. To satisfy his taste for adventure and love for the ocean, he also became interested in endurance swimming. In 2017 he founded the Coastal Athlete Program followed by the Coastal Athlete Program Podcast in 2018.

The Coastal Athlete Program aka CAP began as a fitness education company and podcast. Its core mission statement, is to increase the survivability of our athletes and listeners. Secondarily, Schepp and his partner Joe Jackson encourage people to participate in amphibious activities and natural resources (state parks, national parks, oceans, rivers, etc.).

CAP began as a class primarily geared to active military personnel entering Naval Postgraduate School looking for experience in extreme water survival training. Soon, local lifeguards became interested in the training, and now the program includes all interested both military, safety personnel, and civilians alike.

“It’s exciting for me to share my passion for the ocean and also empower people who might be a little afraid of pushing their limits” - George “Schepp” Scheppler

As you might imagine, Schepp is big on fin training. If you don’t know, Search & Rescue Swimmers love their fins and Schepp can literally go on for hours discussing pros & cons for all types of fins. He believes the feedback you get from wearing fins not only improves your leg strength and power, but also coordination and body awareness. In strength & conditioning jargon, fins strengthen your posterior chain and improve proprioception across the lower limbs.

CAP class is on demand. If you have 5 people - Schep says he'll make it happen! Below is an idea of what a typical CAP training session may look like:

Warm-up on Beach: Sometimes martial arts influenced, sometimes more traditional field-style sprints, or calisthenic movements.

Water Training: This is largely dependent on the conditions. If it’s really flat, it may be an underwater grappling day aka Subsurface Fight Club. Similar to a martial art, we begin with explaining the seriousness of the risks and the importance of respecting one another. Not all athletes choose to participate in this. We go out to either waist deep or overhead and the goal is to tap-out your opponent. For lifeguards and firefighters, this creates an extreme environment where the athlete is forced to manage both their energy and breathing, which they soon learn are linked.

On big wave days, we mix it up. An example is Surf Torture, where athletes are challenged to manage their breathing in the transitional section of the surf zone. They may enter the surf while linked at the arms, or perform push-ups or walking lunges into the surf.

What I find most interesting about Schep and the Coastal Athlete Program is the integration between the outdoors, fitness, and rescue. I think all outdoor athletes can agree, in purposefully placing ourselves in such extreme environments we develop an intimate relationship with nature, ourselves, and the community that supports us. In understanding this, the outdoor athlete, by necessity, also develops a deep appreciation for the safety of that community, which includes our brothers and sisters who join in the risks. Having a program developed by a Navy Search & Rescue Swimmer with the first-hand knowledge and experience that comes with the specific mental and physical skills developed in open water training at an elite level is invaluable.

In choosing to engage with nature in often extreme activities we learn to appreciate and respect a power that can neither be tamed nor conquered, but when understood and channeled can bring the greatest joy, modesty, and peace. With this in mind, it’s important to remember, every moment we engage in with nature is a gift that should be received with gratitude. In Schepp’s words, “Train today to survive tomorrow.”

I would consider two additional goals of the CAP Podcast are to both educate the public on practical ways we can provide assistance to various first responders and enlighten the public on the various groups involved with such events. This includes both local and national government organizations, and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs). NGOs often consist of volunteers with emergency specializations and experience who dedicate their time and lives on a part-time basis to assist in natural disasters and emergency response events. One such group was interviewed by Schepp after Hurricane Michael 2018:


“Ever since I was little I've always wanted to help people. My first job was in ocean rescue for 4 years. I started at the bottom as a rookie and worked my way up to Lieutenant.”

“Hurricane Michael came up and hit the west coast [of Florida]. Where I'm located now is Yankeetown, FL. We had the possibility of it coming up here. My brother and I volunteer for the Fire Department and worked for the Sheriff's Department because Yankeetown got some severe flooding. Once we realized it wasn't that bad here… I started making plans to go the next day and head up with some friends of mine in a group, we're called Salty Water Rescue, founded by a buddy of mine, Scott Prevost. He formulated a group to be a response team for natural disasters like this.

“We got in real late on Thursday night because there was absolutely no power going up the thruway, which is insane, we waited three hours in line to get gas. A lot of the roads coming from Tallahassee were so laden with trees and debris. A lot of the travel was down to a single lane.

“We finally made it into the Panama City area and I can't describe to you the level of devastation. I've never seen anything like that in my life.

“This hurricane was predicted to be a Category 2 on Wednesday night. They woke up the next morning to a Category 4 at their doorstep. So a lot of people stayed and the amount of devastation and destruction were not predicted. 150-mph sustained winds with gusts well into the 170-mph range.

“With these kinds of natural disasters it's so true the more hands you have the better it is. The guys who started this organization, their thought process is, we're all EMTs, some are firefighters, I come from an ocean rescue background. Some of them are military. A lot of them are medics. Some have dive certs. Some can fly helicopters. You put all these guys/girls in a group, you throw them into a situation where we all have these different experiences and we're able to help out on a very broad basis.

“We’re completely working off a GoFundMe right now... All of us have separate jobs... I work for an engineering company. When we have a natural disaster we all try to request time off, whoever can go can go. We’ll head up to these places. Throw a GoFundMe up for fuel, food, things like that. People have been very generous with helping us out and responding. If we don’t get the level of funding we think we need… we’ll just go out of pocket. Just go up to help and volunteer. All of us have that desire, that drive to want to help people out and the more hands the better.”

Zac James, Member of the NGO Salty Water Rescue Crew, EMT with Specialization in Water Rescue and Remote Emergency Medicine

Although it certainly takes a special breed to fill the fins of a rescue swimmer, we can all relate to the connection with nature, most notably the ocean, the desire to help others, and the search for adventure!