SEASIDE - Some 50 feet from dry sand, a swim to shore should have been easy for Roger Marshall.

When the Astoria resident and his friends became stranded aboard a boat stuck in the surf, he dove into the water, battled the breakers and fought the current.

The first of two attempts, Marshall's arms and legs pumped with all his strength.

"I almost got ashore once," he said. "But the current kept dragging me out ... That was the first time I experienced a current like that."

They had been crabbing outside Eureka, Calif., and were pumping out crab traps when a hose became stuck in the propeller, dragging the ship into the breakers.

Jim Shore, John Hellberg, Justin Roger and Jeff Hedges wriggle into immersion or "Gumby" suits at Sunset Pool in Seaside.More than 36 years later, Marshall now fishes shrimp 19 to 30 miles off Cannon Beach for three to five days at a time.

"Roger's been like a cat with nine lives," said his wife, Mary Lou Marshall.

In the middle of the April to October shrimp season, the 67-year-old man, accustomed to salt in his gray hair, submerged himself in fresh water to practice safety techniques that would have helped him on the beach in 1966.

Marshall said he took a similar class 15 years ago. Until this year, he was able to renew his license every five years by simply reporting the number of days he spent at sea.

But new regulations require many men and women to earn a Standards for Training and Certification for Watchkeeping license by completing a safety course like the one offered at Clatsop Community College's Marine and Environmental Research and Training Station.

From Coos Bay to Long Beach, Wash., to Hood River, about 500 sailors have flocked to MERTS' Maritime Department in the last 12 months, said Bill Antilla, director of maritime science.

It's the only school certified by the U.S. Coast Guard's National Maritime Center to teach such courses in Oregon, Southern Washington and Idaho, said Chief Examiner Gary Butts of the Coast Guard Office of Marine Safety in Portland.

Most of the Maritime Department's enrollees are deep-draft crew members, but Coast Guard personnel and tug boat operators are among them, Antilla said.

The school runs one class a month, but before February organizers were running more than one class a week as people scrambled to renew their licenses. Students learned basic safety including safe work habits, terminology, first aid, communication, survival and firefighting.

"We had classes of 18 or more," instructor Dennis Degner said. "It was all we could do to keep up with them."

Gumby suits

As late July sunshine caked the wall of windows at Seaside's Sunset Pool, Degner preached water safety to five men in the five-day safety course.

As the men wriggled into immersion suits, they resembled red versions of a popular bendable doll, although some of them are not so flat around the midsection.

Already bundled in his immersion suit, John Hellberg helps Roger Marshall into his suit. As part of safety training through Clatsop Community College's Maritime and Environmental Research and Training Station, the men must struggle into their suits in eight-foot-deep water."You feel like Gumby?" Degner asked.

The pool's other attendees looked up from their back strokes and aerobics as the men squeezed their arms into the suits' three-fingered gloves. The hoods slung over their heads as Velcro affixed a face guard to protect them from the cold as if they were actually in the Columbia River or the Pacific Ocean.

"When you're in an emergency situation," Degner warned. "You want to stay as dry as possible."

The foamy suit material floated even the heftiest participant. It was a "one-size-fits-all" contraption (but one size fit some better than others).

Shivers and drills

The men were required to slip in and out of the suits in 60 seconds. The suits fit like a teddy bear's skin when dry and like a sea lion's pelt when wet, which made 60 seconds difficult. The faster men helped the slower men as Degner called out the time.

The men discussed their tactics only briefly before going into the blue. It's instinct to help the fellow classmates as if they were part of the crew.

"They're using really good teamwork," Degner said.

For another drill, Marshall floated on his back during one of the drills, Gumby suit around his waist - but it still held him above water. The men were required to put on the suit in 8-feet-deep water.

If the water had been cold, he would have been shivering already. His body would have been tightening as the immersion suit forced him flat on the surface of the waves.

A classmate, Lt. John Hellberg, 27, helped Marshall squeeze the red hood over his head before they tumbled into the life raft. Hellberg, a "cool head," is renewing his Coast Guard certifications.

"That's tough in a pool, let alone out in the middle of nowhere," said Hellberg, who works for the Marine Safety Office.

Radios are key

Marshall, the oldest of the group by more than 10 years, recognized the pleasures of training in Seaside's benign 70-degree, eight-foot-deep pool.

"If we were trying to do that in cold water, it would be a whole other story," he said.

Most of the material, including a cone-shaped lifeboat was donated from local maritime equipment supply stores. Most is not meant for use in emergencies. Some of the suits had holes and the life boats were tattered.

"We have the best of the latest in condemned equipment," Degner quipped.

JENNIFER COLLINS - The Daily Astorian

Justin Roger and Jeff Hedges pull Jim Shore into a lifeboat as part of safety training at the Sunset Pool in Seaside. "They're showing really good team work," instructor Dennis Degner says.

In a pool, the equipment served the men as they scrambled into the boat, flipped it and paddled it from the shallow to deep end.

The pool's blue hue was California sunshine for the men who had encountered brushes with a watery coffin in the six-foot trough of a wave.

The class took about 1 1/2 hours and half the lap pool in Seaside.

The college's Maritime Science department has used the pool for training drills for as long as Mary Blake, general manager of the Sunset Empire Parks and Recreation District, can remember.

"We try to look at our programming," Blake said. "We look to see when they need it and really try to accommodate a good quality experience for everybody."

Later in the week, participants learned about fighting shipboard fires, wearing life jackets and carrying transistor radios, but Marshall already knows the importance.

Stranded on an island of wood and metal in 1966, Marshall couldn't call for help. The boat's transistor radio had broken. The men were waiting for another, which was on back order because of a nationwide shortage during the Vietnam War.

But crab openers don't wait for radios.

It was only luck that caused a couple of U.S. Navy officers to see the boat.

"They came down to the beach, more out of curiosity," Marshall said.

But once they saw the crew, one officer risked his life in a motor lifeboat to retrieve Marshall and his crewmates. Never again would Marshall go fishing without a radio.

"Now I always carry a couple," he said.