Key West Wrecking & Tec’ing it again!

And so it begins, another jaunt southward to test the weather gods in Key West, as Roger Patton and I have a weekend of deep diving planned.  Our last visit here in March did not fare so well, so we are hoping that will not be the case this weekend.  Our goals are to dive the USAFS Vandenberg, USS Curb and USS Wilkes Barre wrecks, for a total of 9 dives, and complete Roger’s Advanced Nitrox & Deco Procedures coursework.

So after a frantic morning of packing, I realize I am most likely going to miss my flight.  So I call the airline, and lo and behold, my flight has been delayed, and I can indeed make it!  Woo hoo!  So I race to the Philadelphia airport, dodging traffic and construction all the way.  As I get near, I call Delta again to re-confirm my flight.  Well now it seems that the delay will cause me to miss my connection out of Atlanta, so instead of meeting Roger at the Miami airport, I’ll be 3 hours behind him now.  So much for that careful planning when setting up our original reservations!

Never the less, I soldier on, darting, weaving, cutting through, gonna make this flight, and I know it.  As I get to the end of the Blue Route, traffic is definitely slowing down, and my options are limited at best.  So, I call again, to check the status, and sure enough, fate is on my side, or so it appears, cause my flight has been delayed further!   Of course that will probably impact my connecting flight again, but that is a secondary issue for the moment.  Just need to get this travel started!   Now my phone rings, and it is my friends at Delta.  My flight is being delayed again, and I am getting a growing sense that this particular flight is doomed.  So, lets look at options.  One of the beauties of loyalty to one airline is the benefits they offer, and in my case, the three Pelican cases in the back of my truck, that weigh in at 68 or 69 pounds each, would cost a bundle if they were not part of my baggage allowance when I am upgraded.  But, here’s the glitch – if I am not upgraded, then the baggage allowance reverts to the standard one free bag and 50 pound weight limit, so my pack-rat nature would end up costing me a bundle!  The next flight to Atlanta has no confirmed first class available, neither does the next.  Wait a minute, are we still bailing the airlines out cause they are hurting for business????   Every single seat is sold all afternoon long – and they still need our tax dollars to survive?  Something is wrong here for sure…but that story is for another day!

So, what do we have available that we can confirm first class in and that will get me to Miami today?  Well gosh, here’s the obvious answer……let’s fly to Minneapolis, then head south to Atlanta.  Sure makes sense to me, fly me 1,100 miles west and then 1,200 miles south for a 1,000 mile trip.  I am beginning to see a correlation between passenger routing decisions and earning a profit here!  It’s OK, I feel like Don Quixote sometimes battling the windmills….breath deep, let it go Dave…..

So I curb check my 210 pounds worth of bags, and skip on in to security.  The lines are long (remember, air travel is down, please help the airlines out!) but I work my way through.  During my slow journey to the front of the line I have time to make some observations and it becomes crystal clear to me why the acronym TSA really stands for “Thousands Standing Around”.  The government really should have contacted someone like Disney for advice on how to move people along, cause the current methods really need help!

Finally I am at the front, and since I limited out on my baggage, I am hand carrying my video camera and housing in a smaller Pelican case.  Onto the belt goes my shoes, laptop in a tray, backpack,and the Pelican.  I pass through the magic doorway to the “other side” and walk up to await my packages as they exit the X-ray scanner.  Ruh-roh….it is obvious by the blank expression on the TSA agents face as she stares at the monitor that she is totally lost and has no idea of what she is looking at.  During WWII, every kid and housewife in America had a deck of cards and could identify enemy aircraft by their silhouette alone, yet todays TSA agents, after thousands of tax dollars worth of savings, still can’t recognize a freakin’ video camera.  America is doomed for sure.

As you might imagine, another agent is brought over, and he shares the same mindless stare at the monitor.  “Is this yours”, he asks.  I look around just to make sure I am alone, and suggest that yes, it might be.  “We’ll need to take a look at this” he informs me, so whatever, I grab my other things and walk over to the inspection table.  “Please stand here”, he says, as he points to a spot on the opposite side of the table.  “I’m OK over here”, I respond, wanting to keep my distance to avoid catching the same brain sucking disease that he obviously has.  He commands me to stand in his preferred spot again, so I ask “Is there a law or something that requires me to stand there?”.  “I can’t open your bag if you don’t watch”, he informs me.  “Help me understand here”, I ask, “what makes you different from all the baggage monkeys downstairs that are currently rooting through my other bags?”.  Well, perhaps my wording could have been more diplomatic, as he summons yet another blue shirt over to the inspection table.  “What’s in the case”, blue shirt #2 asks.  “What did it look like when you scanned it?”, I respond.  This is not a fun game at all. I suggest they pop it open and we’ll take a peek inside, and they make sure that I don’t have anything sharp inside.  Jiminy Crickets, this is painful.  They open the case and it’s like the two of them just awoke from a 50 year coma…..”what is that”, they ask.  “It’s a video camera, see the little ‘JVC’ on the side?”.  So I have to give them the whole story , about how water and electronics don’t mix, and that is why there is a plastic box in there, perhaps the words ‘Indian Valley Scuba’ stenciled across the outside of the case wasn’t enough of a hint.  Think they get it?  Not yet!  Blue shirt #3, obviously a supervisor, walks over and inquires about what the problem is, and they gesture towards the camera, and he says “that’s an underwater video”.  Shazam….we finally get it! So, America’s security assured, I am allowed to pass and head towards my plane.  We board, and two flights later, I am on the ground in Miami. It’s 11:40 p.m. now, and the rental car agency closes at midnight, so there’s no time to waste, hump my bags outside, grab the last shuttle, and get my car!  First stop, IVS South headquarters in Key Largo, where I load up my doubles and stage bottles for the weekend.  It’s a painfully long ride to Key West and I pull in at 4:00 a.m..  Time for a quick power nap and then get ready for a day of diving!  Yeah!!

Let’s just ignore those whistling sounds that are keeping me from falling asleep, as the wind howls through the rigging of the ships and sailboats moored outside the condo.  “It’ll die down”, I tell myself, “it’ll be OK.”  So the 6:45 alarm goes off and guess what……..the wind has not died down!  In fact the 7:00 NOAA weather update shows it is blowing in excess of 30 knots directly from the east, which means it has had the entire Atlantic Ocean to pick up steam and waves. Waves are in excess of 10 feet this morning and as you might imagine no boats are sailing.  What a suck way to start a trip off!  Even worse, this is expected to continue through the weekend, maybe slowing down a bit on Sunday.  Roger opts for a nap, and I sit down to share our story.  Thank goodness I brought a briefcase full of work with me.

Well if you need to have a second office, what better place than a waterfront location in Key West?  I break down, and open up the huge satchel of paperwork I have brought with me, and begin the triage process.   Make piles, sort, and toss out stuff that has passed or is duplicated.  A couple of hours later I am about 3 pounds of paper lighter, and I get to work.  Yeah, yeah, exciting dive trip talk… but at least there is something to keep me from balling up in the corner and crying!!  And, like most “clouds” this one has a silver lining – those thirty mile per hour winds are blowing directly in the face of the oil spill in the Gulf, causing it to turn and trap itself in an eddy current and not move eastward to wreak havoc on the Florida Keys and beyond.  So OK, us losing a day of diving for the sake of saving the Keys is OK.   There…that made me feel better about not diving ….NOT!

Roger and I enjoy dinner at the Hogfish Bar & Grille conveniently located next door, and we get to spend a lot of time discussing and solving most of the world’s problems.  The range of topics runs far and wide, and  what is most amazing is the perspective two engineers share.  By golly, that global issue could be fixed, so could that one….this is getting dangerous – we need to dive!  Weather report update shows the winds are expected to die down – ON TUESDAY!  That bit of news does us no good at all, so a little more hydration is in order to ease the pain.

Saturday morning dawns and the same weather is out there.  The most frustrating part is that we are located on the dock in a big commercial harbor, sheltered from the wind  – it’s no small coincidence why they put the harbor right here!  So sitting outside the condo, there is nary a cloud in the sky and barely a breeze, so the frustration on not diving just compounds.  I tell Roger he is free to depart early, but he opts to stay, enjoying the benefits of unlimited downloads of movies and classic TV from his Netflix account.  I wile away my time with some more paperwork, photographing the wild chickens running around, and hydrating.  My friend Mike shows up with some tools and material, so woo hoo, a therapy project!!  We spend the better part of the afternoon building a fish cleaning station for the dock and yacking away.  Man, I need to go diving!!

Our buddy and aspiring film maker Seth Greenspan arrived today to spend a few days in the condo with us as he does some local interviews for his documentary on the decline of hard corals and fish population around the world.  His sidekick Oliver is with him, and we spend  a few hours talking about , and debating, global warming, ocean acidity, causes of coral decline, bleaching, etc.  You can imagine one impassioned film maker and two engineers having it here…good stuff.

One last weather update before bed and it shows the winds may actually start to die before Tuesday, so we cross our fingers, and say our prayers to the weather Gods.  We awake Sunday morning, I dial up the latest NOAA marine forecast update, and guess what?  The winds are down to 15 knots!   Call up the shop ..”Yes we’re heading out”…grab the gear and let’s go diving!!!  I call up my good friend Joe Weatherby and he decides to join us for the day.  Life is suddenly good again!

We check in at Subtropic and set up the gear for our dives this morning – two planned deco dives doing some interior touring of the Vandenberg.  Roger gets a set of double low pressure steel 105’s, and in true Florida tradition, they are overfilled so he has about 280 CF of back gas, enough to satisfy some of our favorite air hogs (no names mentioned to protect the innocent).  Weatherby is sporting 119’s, also overfilled.  I only have steel double 100’s, so I hope I can keep up!  The bad news is my tanks were filled already and have a 32% mix in them, so I’ll be alert for the jitters during the deeper portion of our dives this morning.

We head out and the sea is gorgeous with a beautiful sky overhead – tough to imagine that just 24 hours ago you could not find a boat captain brave enough (or foolish enough) to sail out.  The Vandenberg is about 40 minutes so, and there are moorings available when we arrive so we quickly tie up and brief our plan.  We’re going to check on some work that was supposed to be done when the ship was prepared for sinking, where a cut out in the front anchor locker should allow passage from there into the forward fuel tank and then into the #1 cargo hold.  We splash, and you can see the wreck from the surface, with visibility well in excess of 100 ft.  The ship is absolutely covered with bait fish, and the jacks and groupers are having a field day darting in and out of the schools, grabbing a snack or just terrorizing their targets.  One must wonder, if you put any credence in the Hindu belief of reincarnation, just how bad you need to be in this life to come back as a bait fish.  You don’t even get an official species name…just “bait fish”.  Sorta clears up your mission in life, eh? But I digress…….

OK, back to the dive at hand!  We swim along the deck, enjoy close to zero current and the great viz, and reach the anchor locker hatch.  It is tight, but we manage to slip in, single file, through the deck hatch, around the ladder, through a second hatch, squeeze around some structure, tight, tight…..like three peas in the proverbial pod, we are mask to fins in this tight passage.  And what is that?  Joe is flashing his light back between his legs..”back up..back up”.  So we extricate ourselves, one by one, from the confines, and once back on the deck it is obvious – the cut out we were looking for did not get installed.  OK, we move to the #1 cargo hatch, and drop into the black abyss.  This is one of the smaller hatches, just wide enough for you to flare out and free fall down the shaftway, sorta like skydiving in an elevator shaft.  Well we’re committed now, and as we hit 140 feet my Cochran is screaming at me – ppO2 is 1.8!  Relax Dave, breath slowly, minimize effort……no convulsing is on the schedule for today!  I swim slowly, Zen-like, alert for any tremors or other signs, and we finally work out way back up a staircase or two and as the depth shallows a bit, my ppO2 drops to 1.7, 1.6, finally, 1.5…whew!  My living DAN medical research gets another page in the book today!

We spend 35 minutes of bottom time, exploring, sneaking in and out of the wreckage, enjoying the millions of fish that have taken up residence on this artificial reef structure.  A nice slow 15 minutes of ascent and deco gets up back on board smiling and laughing about the chain locker faux pas.  There are recreational divers on board this mornings charter so out of consideration for them we cut our surface interval short to just 20 minutes, and splash again.  Oh the beauty of computer diving!  This time we head towards the stern, and drop down under the rudder where a huge black grouper is lurking.  The rudder is, as you might imagine, massive, and we swim alongside it, just taking in the view – this is awesome!  Into the engine room area we head, and we dink around there for a bit, until Roger signals that his computer is showing 17 minutes of deco obligation!  OK buddy, time for you to go!  We exit the hull, and Joe & Roger start up the ascent line.  I am still looking good, gas supplies are ample, deco obligation is minimal, so time to continue the exploration.  I drop back inside, and just immerse myself in the joy of having such a wonderful dive opportunity here in our relative backyard, thanks in no small part to the efforts of my friend Joe Weatherby and so many others.  Finally, after another 35 minute run time, I start up the line, and join the other two as they are off-gassing.  We clear at around the same time, so back to the surface, re-board, and let’s see what kind of trouble we can get ourselves into this afternoon!

It’s great having the local connections so Joe gets his Blackberry out and begins the process of calling around and seeing who is running this afternoon back to the wreck.  We connect with Lost Reef Adventures, and they agree to hold the boat until we get there – great guys!  Back at the dock we disembark, top off the tanks with a more conservative blend of 26% and boogie on over to Lost Reef.  Nick, the owner, gets us squared away in short order and they valet our gear over to the boat.  The crew is less than thrilled with having to hump the three sets of doubles but hey, gotta love us!  Gear on board, introductions made, standard Coast Guard safety briefing, and we set off, back to the Vandenberg!

Our mission for this afternoon’s dives will be to complete some skill work for Roger.  We brief on the way out, and he is OK doing a combined line and lost line drill inside the wreck.  We review tie-offs, line protocols, and how we are going to organize the drill.  Into the drink we head, and we descend to the wreck, picking an entranceway that leads to a twisting and curvy interior hall – perfect for reality-based training.  Roger ties off outside the wreck, communicates with us, and then enters.  Second tie off is right at the bottom of the stairs, within sight of the visible light streaming in from the doorway.  From there it is twist, wiggle, and slowly kick yourself down the hall, past some other cutouts, through a turn or two.  The plan is to have him run the line for five minutes, and he does.  We are maybe 150 feet inside the wreck at this point, and 100 feet below the surface.  Roger finds an area that allows us to re-arrange, and he turns, letting me get in the second spot to observe and assist if necessary, and Joe will bring up the rear, actually reeling up the line after we have made it out.  This was supposed to be a simulated silt out / loss of visibility drill, but I can assure you, with the movement and shuffling inside, there is no need to simulate anything.  Viz is maybe 2 ft max now – thank goodness we ran a line!!!  Roger locates the line, forming an ‘OK’ sign with his fingers around it, checks gas supplies one last time, takes off his mask, and begins to lead us out of the wreck, sightless, in true near-zero viz.  Amazing how five minutes of running line in can become 15 plus minutes of exiting as you follow the line, maintain buoyancy, try to avoid bumping your head into anything, wonder about your gas supply, and maybe even think about the others on your team behind you!  Lots of multi-tasking, major stress levels, but very real, and Rogers passes with flying colors!  We exit the wreck, Joe follows with the reel, and we are good to go.  We spend another 15 minutes sight-seeing, and then, another 35 minutes of bottom time under our belts, we head up for a nice slow ascent a few minutes of deco obligation.

Another long 20 minutes of surface interval to help keep our diving somewhat in line with the rec divers on board, and we head back down.  Skills to be completed on this dive include dropping and picking up two stage bottles, while swimming, with minimal impact on buoyancy and position in the water column.  We’ll also do a 50 ft out of air swim and accept a gas supply offered by another diver.  So we set up on the deck, I mark out the bottle drop locations and position myself 150 ft away to be the air donor. Roger starts, makes the first drop OK, then the second, regulator out, blowing bubbles, he comes to me and I deploy the long hose for him.  He catches his breath, we swim partially back sharing, then he switches back to his own gas.  He picks up the first bottle and struggles a bit trying to locate his hip-mounted D-ring which is hidden behind his pockets…hmmm..thought for a potential re-configuration here!  He finally gets it, never missing a stroke swimming, and repeats it for the second bottle.  High fives all around, and time for a little tour.  We check out a few other areas, and Roget now has a 17 minute deco obligation and growing, so we send him up the line.   Joe and I swim to the smokestack, where the plan was to see how far down the stack we can manage to get.  The stack starts at 50 feet, and is actually divided into two sides, one for each boiler.  Joe drops in the starboard side, and I choose the port.  It is slightly wider than the diver, and no one has been in here since the ship sank, which is evident from the bright orange rust balls lining the interior of the stack.  We drop in feet first, and as we descend the viz quickly goes to zero as the rust explodes off the walls of the stack, completely obliterating any viz we might have had.  There is no turning or moving, this is a like a water slide tube at the amusement park, but we are not sure there is an opening and a big pool to splash into at the end.  As we pass the 80 ft depth we have turned and are now angled forward, wrapped in a solid orange/brown cocoon of rust with zero viz.  Talk about a cardiac stress test!  I can hear Joe sliding alongside me in the other stack, but we are separated by a 3/8″ thick wall of steel and could not offer assistance to each other should any be required.  90 ft, 95 , finally my fins hit something solid at 101 feet…the iron grate at the top of the boiler!  Mission accomplished, well at least the first half – we know where the stacks end up, we know there is no exit, and we know how long they are!  Now, it is time to wiggle back on up, over 100 feet of relatively tight ductwork in absolutely zero visibility, accompanied only by the sounds of your own heavy breathing and your dive buddy clanging and banging in his own narrow shaft alongside you. Finally we emerge, in an explosion of red dust,  with smiles as wide as can be!  What a rush!!  Definitely not recommended for the weak of heart but a very cool bit of exploration!!  Well time is about up, so we head up and join Roger on the line, and 60 minutes after entering the sea, we emerge.  What a fantastic day of diving!

The evening is capped with a visit to Alonzo’s Lobster House for hydration, oysters and snacks with Joe Weatherby and Capt Chris Norwood.  Properly lubricated, we then saunter over to the Conch Farm, where Seth and Oliver join us.  Our bartenders, Ryan and Ogie, bedazzle us with tricks of the trade they have learned from years behind the bar.  And the jokes start, and political correctness is thrown right out the window, as we howl and chuckle passing jokes around and on-upping each other on every imaginable topic.  Great fun, great evening, great ending to a trip that started out looking like a real bust.

Monday morning it’s hugs all around as the group scatters.  We’ll be back soon for sure!  I look forward to my meeting with the Miami TSA later this afternoon…stay posted!

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2 Responses

  1. Dave, your travel stories stress me *out*!!!

  2. Steve might be stressed by your stories, they make me want to DIVE! Thanks Dave, I always enjoy your blogs!

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