I Was Waterboarded

Share on Nextdoor

I thought I knew what waterboarding was before I arrived at the small strip of grass on the side of Dale Mabry Highway (adjacent to the Mons Venus, no less). Just yesterday, I thought waterboarding was dunking someone’s head in a tub of water until they almost passed out, then pulling their head up for a few moments and plunking them in the water again.

This is not the case.

The media frequently describes waterboarding as “simulated drowning.” But I learned waterboarding is not simulated drowning. It is drowning. Just in a slow, controlled fashion.

So if I am going to write about waterboarding, I should know all there is about it, right? Including how it feels.

waterboarding2Ruppert, 5’11” and weighing 205 pounds, goes first. The Tampa resident has undergone waterboarding several times, he says.

After three nurse practitioners show up — one of them John Russell, who ran for Congress in 2006 — a Bleepin’ Truth crew member leads a hooded Ruppert to a decline weight bench covered with an army camouflage blanket. He lies on the bench, knees up and head back, while Scott MacWherter, a public access personality and former Marine, stuffs a rag in his mouth and places a dish towel over his face. waterboardmaskThen, MacWherter slowly pours water from a two-gallon bucket over Ruppert’s nose and mouth while screaming at him to “give up the information!” (Krimitsos said he wanted the demonstration to resemble a detainee situation as closely as possible.)

For over a minute, Ruppert has a gallon of water poured over his face. He struggles slightly, but seems calm considering. Suddenly he shoots up and jumps off the bench, gagging and spitting. He takes a few moments to catch his breath before the TV cameras descend.waterboardend

(At this point, I’m starting to question my decision.)

After his 15 minutes in front of reporters and the Bleepin’ Truth crew, I take Ruppert aside and ask him if I should endure the experience.

“Have you ever drowned?” he responds, face still a little red.

I shake my head.

“Then you have no idea what it’s like.”

Ruppert explains as the water is poured on the subject, it saturates the towel and rag and begins to pour down the person’s nasal cavity. Suddenly, the person can’t breathe, their gag reflex may kick in and the fear of drowning becomes very real. Because of the declined position of the head, it’s harder for water to enter the lungs, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

“One tablespoon of water in your lungs and you’re dead,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

But I’m determined.

As a throng of strippers looks on, I’m led to the bench and lie down. I’m not restrained, like Ruppert, though my anxiety has frozen me a bit. My heart is beating wildly and I’m already short of breath.

MacWherter crams a rag in my mouth and places a towel over my head. I take a deep breath. The first few cold drops of water hit my upper lip. Then it’s like my face is under a faucet. For what seems like 15 seconds, water covers my face and fills my nasal cavity. Then I feel a particularly cold blast shoot up my nose into my throat. Holding my breath doesn't work. Panic sets in and I shoot up, gasping for air. I look back and MacWherter is laughing.

“You only used a tenth of the bucket,” he says.

Looking back on it, I think I only lasted five seconds (I haven’t seen the video yet). I might have the record for shortest waterboarding ever. But I definitely understand the technique better. Even in this controlled environment, when I’m allowed to tap out at any time, the possibility of drowning still flashed through my mind. I now have a glimpse into how a detainee, who may not know what is being done to him, would react — but I imagine that's why waterboarding has been called an "effective technique" by some.

Not two minutes after I recover, reporters ask me what I thought of waterboarding and if it should be allowed. I tell them I’ll ponder it for the next few days. I’m sure I’ll have some answers in my next Urban Explorer column on March 5.


Dennis Ruppert, a personal trainer and former anti-terrorism specialist, undergoes a mock interogation — including waterboarding — on Dale Mabry Highway.


Last night, two people were waterboarded in Tampa. One of them was 44-year-old Dennis Ruppert, a personal trainer and a former anti-terrorism specialist. The other was, well, me.

Organized by The Bleepin’ Truth, a local cable access and online debate program, Ruppert and I volunteered to undergo this form of interrogation (or torture, depending on your view) on camera. Chris Krimitsos, host of the show, said he wanted to give viewers an idea of what waterboarding really is.

“We did a debate on waterboarding a while back and most of our crew didn’t know what it was,” he said. “They know the word, but they don’t know exactly what it is.”

He’s right, which is why I agreed to endure it.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.