Tec diving, Key West style!

Indian Valley Scuba doesn’t just pride itself on offering great training opportunities year round, it also provides the places to go and dive the sort of dives you’ve been training for!  Case in point, our Extended Range, Trimx and Advanced Trimix programs – we need wrecks in the 200 ft depth range, and we need them year round!  What better place to find some of them than off the waters of Key West?

Kris & Michele Gosling joined Dave for a long weekend of technical diving in one of our favorite locations, Key West.  I flew down while the Gosling’s drove, and boy, while I think I pack a lot for a dive trip, these guys have me beat hands down! Good to know if I need to make any on-site repairs, Kris has at least one, if not two, of whatever I need on hand!  Once again, this darn weather thing has got to get better, as the marine forecasts are hinting at one lousy weekend on the ocean!

We really try to give our business to the little guy, but shop we used to supply us with gas mixes and rental tanks in January has not returned our calls or emails for the past two weeks.  Such is life with some businesses in the Keys…is it any surprise the failure rate is so high?  So, rather than making this a technical snorkeling trip for myself, I stop at IVS-Key Largo, and pick up the tanks we keep in storage there.  Downside is that the double 100’s have been filled for some shallower diving on the Speigel Grove, so my ppO2 will be a tad high on our dives tomorrow on the Vandenberg.  Well, the living DAN medical research experiment continues, so I’ll just make sure my affairs are in order before the morning drop!

Friday morning came and we got our 7:00 a.m. report from Capt. Chris Norwood, of Florida Straits Diving.  Wind is blowing at 25 knots plus from the southwest, and seas are 8 ft outside the reef.  Hmmmm….not the sort of conditions that the 26 ft Lucky Dog handles well on that ocean.  So, we turn our sights a bit, and Chris finds the Southpoint Divers boat is heading out this morning for a double dip on the Vandenberg.  Perfect! Or so it seems…

So we head over to the shop, and get squared away with Eric the manager.  Quick Quiz – what is Rule #1 of scuba diving?   Fill out the waivers, of course!   So we take care of the necessary paperwork, and drive the truck over to the Hyatt where the boat is docked.  As we pull into the lot, there are four Key West roosters (real roosters, not any other kind, thank you!) strutting across the lot. I know what they are thinking as they watch me drive up…”he’ll slow down”…he’ll turn to avoid us”….”he sees us”…….’holy smokes, he’s gonna hit us!!”…and with that last thought the feathers explode as the roosters careen out of the path of the truck, with the leader flying up against the drivers door and letting me know, in rooster terms, just what they thought of my sense of humor!   Gotta love me!

So rooster incident over, we unload the truck into the carts, haul them through the Hyatt’s pool area, and as we load our extensive pile of gear, are thankful we are on a 46 ft Newton cause we sure had a lot of stuff! Doubles, multiple stage bottles, pelican boxes, camera cases, even a few milk crates thrown in to give it that Northeast US dive boat look!  Our able crew today included Capt. Tim, first mate Henry, aka Cuban Henrik for his uncanny ability to fall off the dive boat, and the girls, Amber Whinery and Lucja Jakubowska.  Amazingly small world that we live in, Henry formerly lived in the Lehigh Valley, and Lucja used to volunteer with O’Donnell Diving working with disabled divers at the Variety Club in Worcester, about five miles from Indian Valley Scuba.  Amazing! OK, I digress……..so, we headed on out and this fast boat had us on the site within about 40 minutes.  The mooring balls were visible, but not by much, indicating some significant current at least at the surface.  But the good news was that the water was clear and blue as far down as we could see.

So we briefed, geared up, and splashed in, making sure we had a good grip on the granny line to avoid a stressful surface swim with all our gear on.  We opted to leave the cameras on board until we figured out how bad this current was.  Smart move!  As soon as we splashed it was a serious hang on the granny, as we went hand over hand, pulling ourselves forward, trying to avoid getting our breathing going too hard, as this would come into play with our gas management plans later.  Finally, we are there on the mooring line and we start to descend to the wreck.  Whoa!  What happened to the blue water?  What a tease, that layer was only about 10 ft deep, and now we are in some serious soup.  It only gets thicker as we descend, to the point where I am straining to see the wreck, and finally I am within 10 feet of the mooring tie off, and I cannot see anything past the metal structure that the line is tied to.  Wow…this is gonna suck!

OK, so it is hand over hand down the structure as I strain to see any sort of deck or other parts of this ship…I know there is a 540 ft long ship here, and my hand is on it, but boy I cannot see it!  Finally I touch a flat surface, and shimmy to my right, to the edge, and realize I am on a deck on the superstructure.  So Kris and I drop down another level, to the next flat surface, and start to make our way forward, with the plan being a “hole in the wall” tour to show this ship off to it’s newest diver.  As I started forward, I finally ran into a wall, so I figured we might be at the back of the ship’s bridge, maybe.  So a little to the right, and whoops, I fall over the edge again, so we weren’t on the deck!  OK, now I slide to the right, and there is the gunnel and some railing, so I know I am on the edge of the ship’d deck now!  Kris and I move forward, keeping four sharp eyes out for the gaping 20 ft x 20 ft hole that would be our entrance to the innards of this wreck.  Well, four sharp eyes evidently were not quite enough, as we keep looking to our left while keeping the gunnel and railing to our right, and guess what we found?  The bow of the ship!  How we knew this, you ask?  Cause our starboard gunnel just ran into the port side gunnel and the deck got kinda pointy, that’s how!

Well that would mean one thing….we have missed the cargo hold entrance!  So now we turn around, and head straight down the centerline of the ship, go over the huge anchor windlasses, over the #1 cargo hatch entrance, and finally, there it is, the #2 entrance. How did we miss this on the way past the first time?  Tells you something about the visibility for sure!

So a little communication at the top, Kris is ready, and we drop, straight down the shaft, until we hit 130 feet.  There we have an entrance towards that heads toward the stern and should serve as our jump off point for our Hole in the Wall tour.  So I start in, being careful with my buoyancy.  I am waiting for the viz to clear, figuring the messy water outside would not have filled the inside of this wreck too,  Wrong!  I penetrate about 50 to 60 feet into the ship, and cover my light, only to discover that not only is there any visible light ahead, but there is equally none from the direction we just came.  We are essentially totally silted out with the low visibility right in the middle of the day!  OK,,,survival thinking mode kicks in here, this has all the makings of being my final dive, so I do the prudent thing and turn the dive.  I have enough room to spin around, and do so carefully to keep track of the definition of “around”, meaning I am pointed back in the direction we came from.  Viz was that bad!  So we kick on back, and eventually the area around us opens up, and I “think” we are in the shaft.  I cover my light, and look sraight up, and I can just make out a light glow of daylight through the murk, still with 60 feet of shaftway above us, and a total of 130 feet of water,  Man, did I say this viz sucks?

Well heck, we’re here, and we’re training, so let’s do some reel work!  Kris unclips his reel, and as he does, his carabineer pops off, and slowly drops into the murky abyss.  Instinctively I start towards, it, and then realize how bad the viz is further down the shaft (like I somehow forgot that!) and I give the ‘throat slashing’ signal to Kris, letting him know that Indian Valley Scuba has a fine array of carabineers for him to choose from when we get back to Pennsylvania!  Yes it would take some serious narcosis for me to miss a sales opportunity on a dive, even at depth! 

So we tie off, and I have Kris lead, and we head inside on the 110 feet level.  Past piles of jumbled file cabinets, desks, bookcases, all sorts of junk left over from the ships cleanup.  We get into a hallway, drop back a bit, make a 90 degree turn, then straighten back out, heading towards the stern.  Viz is a steady <10 ft throughout.  Finally Kris has had enough, and we turn, actually we back up, cause we are in a narrow hallway and there is no real chance to actually turn around.  So we back it up, never losing contact with the line, and finally I am able to turn, as does Kris, and we make our way back to our entry point, reeling up the line as we go.  Still lots of denizens of the deep for us to see, shrimp running around on the walls, qull clams, juvenile fish, and many flavors of silt and particulate!  We get back to our tie off point, and Kris has had enough, so we turn in the direction that appears to be up, and make our way back up the shaft to the deck level.  From there we navigate back to the mooring point, and begin our ascent to the surface.  Thirty minutes of bottom time at 130 ft, and only a 13 minute ascent, so overall not a bad run.  Lots of practical experience gained and Kris has shown great buoyancy control skills, good reel handling (except for that carabineer incident, but we’ll discuss that at the cash register next week!), and he also demonstrated why he is wearing double 130’s on his back – this boy can breath!!  We’ll work on that too!

Topside, the wind is picking up, and one by one the others on the boat are turning green and scratching dive #2, so it is now or never for Kris and I.  Twenty minutes of surface interval works, so we shift gears and plan to dive our computers for this second drop.  I am using my Cochran EMC20-H, and Kris is sporting a VR-3 and has a Suunto Cobra as a backup, so we have two good dive computers here, and one excellent snorkeling computer!  We gear up, move to the rear of the boat, and are disappointed to see that the blue water we had on the surface for the first dive has now disappeared.  Oh well, in we go, dragging ourselves back up the granny line, locate the mooring line, quick bubble check, all good, and we head down.  Upon reaching the wreck, we waste no time in dropping down on the port side, away from the current.  We tour along the deck a little, passing under one of the huge satellite dishes, this one being the one that broke off during the sinking, so it is held in place by some heavy cables to the superstructure.  Once past that, it’s time to do some drills, so Kris does his gas shutdown procedure, drops and replaces his stage bottles, and scores well on both.  Now for the tour…..we head around to the stern, and wow, there is a Goliath grouper in six to eight foot length watching us approach.  Very cool!  From there, we swing forward, enter the hatch down to the laundry shoot, Kris ties off again, and we drop, parachute style, straight down this tight chute,  There are no exits once you commit to dropping until you get to the bottom, so the adrenalin rush is good!  We hit the bottom at 130 feet, and I show Kris the laundry area, where the viz is much better than what we have seen so far on the wreck.  From there I drop down a hatch into shaft alley, where the main propeller shafts are located.  We check that area out at 140 ft, and watch as our deco obligation starts to accumulate.  We turn the dive, and head back up from where we came, not daring to attempt an alternative passage, with the viz as bad as it is.  The penetration line serves as our version of Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, leading us back to the relative safety of the exterior of the wreck.  Once back up on the deck, we made our way forward to the mooring point, and started our ascent.   Thirty minutes of bottom time at 140 ft, and we had a twenty minute deco obligation to satisfy before we could see the sunlight again.  As we hang, the Cochran clears, then the VR-3 gives us the OK to surface.   The Suunto?  It is “bent” beyond belief, and will need a couple of days in the divers time out chair before it is ready to submerge again.  Did I mention it makes an excellent snorkeling computer?

So back to the dock, and at least it is a beautiful day topside, although a bit breezy. We unload the boat, and head out to get gas….of course no one is there, so we shift to plan B, and take our tanks over to our friends at Sub Tropic Dive Center.  We get back to the condo, expecting to find Michele there to greet us with cold drinks in hand.  But no, she is not, and we call and there is no answer on her cell phone either!  Well, as it turns out, Michele is a bit, shall we say technically challenged?  Seems she took Kris’s new Nissan Maxima out this morning when we were leaving, and Kris started it up for her and had it running when she got in.  Well Michele stopped to do some shopping downtown, and made the mistake of shutting the car off!  Well when it was time to leave,  she could not figure out the Japanese version of how to fire this chariot back up!Seems you need to have the electronic key placed just so, press the ‘start; button, and make sure you have the gas pedal depressed at the right time.  So she spent some time searching for a place to insert the manual key, and finally went back to the last street vendor she had bought things from, and he came and figured out that tricky ignition.   I promised Michele we’d keep that secret just between us friends, so please friends, don’t tell anyone else!!  With that in mind, I won’t even begin to share her GPS story!

So finally it’s time to turn in, and during the night I awaken to what for a moment I thought were jets from the Naval Base flying by….and by…and by.  And just before I was fully awake, I could swear that was Dorothy tapping on my window, with Toto in her arms, seeking refuge from the storm! Nope, it turns out that is the wind, it is absolutely howling here, trees are shaking, rigging on the boats in the harbor is whistling, and that tapping?  Well it turns out it was only a tree branch outside my door whipping around in the wind…..oh well.   

Saturday morning comes and as you might imagine from the night, it isn’t much better.  Chris Norwood calls, his boat is scratched for the day, and so are most of the others.  The Sea Eagle from Captains Corner did head out to the Vandenberg, could not find the mooring balls as they were completely under with the current, and spent a half hour trying to tie in.  That failed, so they headed to the Cayman Salvor, and still could not hook in, so they headed about 12 miles west to try to find some quiet water on the far reefs.  So here it was, 11 o’clock in the morning and as I am talking to Leslie who runs the operation, she tells me the folks on board have still not gotten in the water for their first dive of the morning….man there must be some green faces on that boat, and we’re not talking a St Patty’s day event!  Needless to say there will be no diving today, so the Goslings head out to tour the town, and I stay in, to type this blog!

Saturday night in Key West would not be right without a party, and we have to look no further than next door to find one.  Turns out one of our local friends is celebrating his 50th, and the owners of the Hogfish Bar have shut the place down in order to throw a huge private party for him.  Well gosh, it is good to know people, we Michele, Kris and I are ushered into the party, and wow what a neat affair!  All you can eat buffet, all you can drink, all you can dance…..this place is jamming!  The band is fantastic, and the guest list reads like a Who’s Who in Key West.  Of course Joe Weatherby is in attendance, as is Chris Norwood, and some of the other captains and crews I have come to know here, plus George, the former mayoral candidate, Bobby, owner of the Hogfish, Dave Sirek from ABC news, and many more.  And even better, the owners of both Sea Tow and Tow Boat USA are there, and those who know me recognize how valuable these friends might be!  All in all, lots of fun, lots of laughter, great time had by all!   

So now it is Sunday, and the wind is still kicking, so most of the boats are headed west to the reefs.  The water is still too rough for Florida Strait’s boat, so Chris calls around to find us someone bold enough to take us south to the Vandenberg.  As the day progresses, most afternoon boats cancel due to the conditions.  OK, one boat available, $300 is the ransom for the ride in the washing machine…..no thanks!  Looks like we’ll be wrapping up this training in May!  Time to check the airline for earlier flight options home.   

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