Underwater Scooter Racing on the Vandenberg – does it get any cooler than this?

This weekend marks the first running of Wreck Racing League’s underwater scooter competition, behind held above and below the water in Key West, FL.   This inaugural event is behind held to showcase one of the greatest success stories in artificial reefing, the sinking of the USAFS Vandenberg.  Held in conjunction with the Florida Keys Community College Swim Around Key West, and the annual Key West Pridefest Week, this weekend should prove to be a cornucopia of colorful delights for every interest!

Dave traveled south to represent IAHD-Americas, the official adaptive scuba sponsor of the event.  The schedule calls for all-day programs on Friday and Saturday to conduct Discover Adaptive Scuba programs, educate the public, and develop an even greater awareness and support of disabled diving programs everywhere.  I’ll be representing the IVS’s token Y chromosome on this adventure, being joined for the weekend by Stephanie Skelton from Ohio, Sue Douglass from California, and Joyce Kichman from Pennsylvania.

I headed down on Thursday afternoon, and landed in Ft. Lauderdale without incident, already an unusual start for me.  I waited patiently at the airport,  and then the text messages started.  Joyce is still on the ground in Philadelphia, then she is on the ground and delayed further in Orlando……and as I watch the clock move closer to the bewitching hour, I think about that 2 hour drive to Key Largo to pick up gear, followed by 3 more hours to Key West, the final destination for today.  OK, enough, time for action!  Joyce has a car rented at the airport, so I think I’ll go get that, and at least cut that delay out of the evening.  So I hump my 5 bags and 250-plus pounds of gear onto a shuttle bus, off the shuttle bus, to the rental counter, and wait.  There are three agents working, one looks like a managerial type, the second is a go-getter female who appears on top of her corporate game, and the third, well let’s just say he looks like a bit more prone to wheeling and dealing than the other two.  So I graciously allow 3 other folks to pass by me at the front of the line while I waited for my candidate of choice to be free.  He is clearly having a bit of a challenge with the two folks in front of him, and his frustration shows.  Good, this can work in my favor, I think.  Finally, they are gone, and he was free so I headed over.  I lead off with some sugar “man you really handled that well!  I know how frustrating it can be sometimes!”.  He warms immediately, thinking how refreshing it is to have a ‘regular’ customer like me there, little did he know I had not pulled my mask off over my head yet!!    I tell him that my associate has a car rented and I need to pick it up….he looks at me and says “is the rental in your name?”. “No”, I say, ” I had my associate set up the rental for me”.  “Are you listed on the contract?”  “No, but it will be alright”, I assure him.  “Am I going to get in trouble if I let you have this car?”, he asks.  “No, I’ve got you covered”, I tell him, in my best counselor tone of voice.  “Well I’m not sure, we’re not supposed to be doing this”, he drags on.  “Dude, trust me”, I lead with, “it’s all good.  Let’s get this going and let you get out of here at a decent hour tonight”.  Well gosh by golly, playing that ‘get-out-of-work’ card did the trick, and before you know it, my license and credit card were being swiped, I negotiated an even bigger set of wheels, and I was out of there with keys in hand.  Like KC and the Sunshine band say, “That’s the way uh-huh uh-huh we like it!”

I find the car and thankfully Joyce has landed, so I direct her to take the bus and come directly to the rental car garage.  In a flash we are loaded up and getting ready to start heading south.  There is one car in front of us at the exit gate, so we should be out of here in in minute….ok, maybe not this minute, but one soon…ok…what the heck can be going on?  Three people arguing in various versions of poor english, the two folks in the car and the gate girl, and I am wondering how freakin’ complicated it can be to show your license and the contract and get the magic gate to raise.  Wait a minute, I know them…..they are the couple that was in front of me at the counter……obviously the drama follows them everywhere we go!   I wait another respectful 5 minutes, figuring this has to end sometime, and I get 2 or 3 raised hands and shrugged shoulder looks from the attendant so I know progress, if any, is not coming easily.  I get out of my car, and walk slowly to the little shack where all this activity is taking place.  As I near I get a sense of how livid the customers are, arguing among themselves, and yelling at the attendant, who looks at me with those ‘please get me out of here’ eyes.  I approach the couple, ready to suggest that perhaps they can pull off to the side while they get this sorted out, and let the rest of the world get on with their business of showing licenses & contracts, and seeing that gate raise!  Well I don’t quite get that far, as my physical presence obviously tipped the drama scales a bit too far, and with that the woman literally explodes, storms away, nearly impaling herself as she stumbled on the tire shredder, and disappears into the darkness of the night.  The guy, meanwhile, is speechless, and quietly gets back in the car, the gate raises, and he leaves, driving in the complete opposite direction of where the woman had been walking.  Gosh, if I had known all I needed to do was get her to storm away I could have done that 10 minutes ago.  The gate attendant thanks me, I get back in my car, pull forward, ‘swing’ goes the gate, and we’re off.  Geeeeesh!

Two hours later I am pulling into IVS South, aka Dave Hartman’s house, and he has patiently been awaiting my arrival.  I load up the tanks and gear we keep in storage there, plus the two Hollis Expedition Scooters that we had shipped down, then it’s a quick handshake and goodbye, as I continue on down the pike.  Finally, at nearly 4 a.m., I locate the property that my good friend Mike Bullock has offered us for the weekend, gratis, as a token of his appreciation for us coming down to represent IAHD-Americas at the event.  Thank you Mike!  So we hump some gear up, figure out the bedding situation, grab a couple of beds, and enjoy a power nap before the morning dive.

It is amazing how Pavlovian we are, with hearing the buzz of the alarm and knowing it must be time to dive!   Brush the teeth, comb the hair, put on a bathing suit and a tee, and head down to the van.  Our gear is still packed and piled under the scooters and the tanks, so we head over to Subtropic Dive Center and get signed in on the boat.  Quickly dumping the entire contents of the van into the parking lot, we assemble some backplate systems, run through those pesky mental checklists (fins, boots, mask, BCD, regs, etc) and satisfied we are good to go, we board the boat.  Breakfast will have to wait cause it is time to head on out to the Vandenberg.

Dolphins follow us out to the site to start the morning off right.  We moor up, and it is amazing how many boats are here on this wreck, underlining what a true business success story this artificial reef program has been.  All this new diver business, all the hotels, diners, gear and more, completely made possible by the efforts of Joe Weatherby and the Artificial Reefs of the Keys organization.  The seas are flat for the first time in a long time, so we suit up and splash.  We’re moored on the #5 ball, two up from the stern, so we drop down near the stack, hit the deck at 95 feet, and then enjoy a nice 50 minute run, exploring the wreck up one side, to the bow, and then back down the other side.  So much to see, this wreck is utterly amazing, and the fish life it has attracted just blows you away.  As we head back, Joyce points out with excitement at something she sees, and I swim over, to spot a lionfish her eagle eyes picked up on. Well well, this can’t be, I think, as I assess the tools I have at hand to remove this invasive specie from our wreck.  OK, short list, I have nothing with me today, but I can’t leave this job undone, so I ‘man up’, and gently manuever the slippery bugger into a corner where his only choice for escape is up or down.  But to his surprise, one of my hands is above him, while the other blocks his exit below,  so he assumes his best ‘If I flair my poisonous fins out they’ll leave me alone’ posture, and he does it well.  Unfortunately, he is looking into the eyes of the Lionfish Whisperer, as my hands slowly but steadily close in on him, fingers interlocking into a homo sapien cage of death for our little fish-eating boy.  He wiggles one last time, trying to ensure that if he goes, he’s taking me with him, but to no avail, as my hands close tightly, ignoring his toxic spines as I give him one good solid squeezing until ‘pop!’ out shoots his guts……mission accomplished, I tuck the corpse into my pocket and we begin our slow ascent to the surface, stopping to offgas a bit on the way and satisfy a minor deco obligation.

Back on board, everyone wants to get a closer look at my catch, and the amazement, especially among the crew, that you can actually catch a poisonous fish with your hands and survive, is pretty cool to see.  We hang out for a token surface interval, and at the 11th minute I tell Joyce it’s time to gear up and get back in if we are going to get another 50 minutes of run time and be back on the boat when the recreational divers surface.  So we splash at 15, and this time we are heading deeper down (what was that reverse profile thing-y again?) and check out the rudder, where some massive Goliath Groupers have taken up residence.  We’re not disappointed, as two of the behemoths greet us under the ship’s stern.  We spend some time with them, and then, since we are already doing our second dive deeper than the first, I suggest we take in some of the machinery spaces.  Slipping inside the wreck, we are in the rear shaftway, and from there we work our way out and back in to the boiler room, passing below the ductwork that just a few weeks ago Joe Weatherby and I had explored by entering at the smokestacks.  Another great 100 ft dive, and a good 50 minutes of run time with minimal deco, thanks to good gas selection (EAN32) and algorithms by Cochran.

We head back in, knowing we have a busy afternoon of getting the scooters set up and charged, and meeting with the race officials.  But first we need some substance so I ask for a local recommendation and the folks at Subtropic suggest I walk down the road to a new floating Thai restaurant on the water in the marina. Knowing that Thai food is clearly within my culinary comfort zone (NOT!) I toss caution to the wind and we head over.  Four pages of menu and not a single item there not crammed with ‘objectionables’ for me.  Thank goodness the Coors is cold, so slowly I figure out what I might manage, and Joyce and I order. For anyone who remembers the restaurant scene from ‘When Harry met Sally’ you can picture me ordering and modifying some Thai favorites on the menu.  Amazingly, the chef is cooperative, and I actually enjoy my meal, although a purist would probably say that it was not really Thai food after all my modifications.  Whatever!

Anyway, we finish and it’s back to the condo to get the scooters ready.  We uncrate the Hollis units and I am immediately impressed with their solid construction and design.  And the colors go with any DIR outfit – they are flat black! We charge ’em up, and with perfect timing, Sue & Stephanie call from the Key West airport, ready to be picked up.  It’s a short ride over, and in a short bit we are back at the condo, getting everyone squared away.  We head into town and head out for a dinner meeting with Joe Weatherby of ARK, Dave Sirak, the head of ABC sports and a huge backer of the artificial reef program, and some locals who i am getting to know better and better as Key West moves up our list of popular locations to visit.  Dinner is great, and the heads of Formula H2O announce they held a meeting that afternoon to elect a new board member, and that new member turns out to be, well, moi!  How cool!  They also announced that IAHD-Americas will be the exclusive adaptive scuba agency associated with Formula H2O events and the Wreck Racing League, helping to further solidify our growing program in the southeast.  Following the dinner meeting Team IVS heads over to the Conch Farm to celebrate my new position with some toasts and snacks, before heading back to retire for the evening.

But you can’t retire from downtown Key West without a ride up Duval Street, and we head right there.  The crowd is always colorful, but tonight we are in for a special treat, with the Gay Pridefest celebration this week, we’re not at all surprised as we pull up to 801 Bourbon Street and there stretched out across a cross, hands & feet bound spread-eagled, is a bare-assed young man, being flogged for all he’s worth, to our delight and that of the crowd too!   Different strokes for different folks for sure!  I’m not really sure, he could have been kinky, or he could have been just getting into tec diving, with all the straps and clips and rings attached to him!  Our speechless amazement was suddenly interrupted as this 6′ 4′ red haired well endowed beauty with one huge adam’s apple walked up and invited us to see more.  We’ll pass, we agreed, and continued up the street for some homemade ice cream to bring ourselves down from all that excitement we just experienced!

Saturday morning dawned, wait…..let’s make this clear, according to the wild roosters running all over Key West, dawn starts anytime after 2 a.m. and is a continual celebration until the sun actually does come up! None the less, we get up, and the girls head out to Denny’s for breakfast while I get some emails sent, some blogging done, and packed up for the day.  They come back and we head over the the marina, where it’s scooter demo morning.  Problem is the scooters are pretty fast and the water is pretty murky, so it’s tough to really open them up with the fear of crashing right into a piling the whole time!  But fun is had, and some good media coverage starts the event off.

That complete, it’s time to gussy up and head over to the Key West Bacchanalia at the Hyatt, an all day affair celebrating wine, spirits, the rums of Puerto Rico and the home of the first annual Burger Wars, a competition between the local eateries with the crowd judging the best burgers in Key West.  Formula H2O has a booth there, and IAHD-Americas does as well, as we work to spread the message to the masses.  It is burning hot under the sun, so we break down and send the team out to the local Home Depot to buy a pop-up canopy for us.  Much better, it’s a great of meeting & greeting, passing out info, and generally good times, all while surrounded by some great drinks being mixed up and some fantastic burgers being passed out!

Evening comes and it’s a pre-race mandatory meeting for the racers, the captains, the organizers and members of the media.  The meeting is held at Pat Croce’s restaurant, and for some of us it was like a trip home!  Pat Croce was the former owner of the 76’ers and a fixture in the Philadelphia sports scene, so his restaurant clearly has a Philly flavor to it.  Once the details of the race are gone over, the maps passed out, positioning and timing, then it’s on to trash-talking, the question of whether ‘trading paint’ Nascar-style is against the rules, whether full body contact is permitted, and a few other similar queries show how serious this crowd is taking the quest for the trophy tomorrow.  OK, virtual trophy, but never the less this is one colorful and animated crowd, and as the meeting goes on, you can imagine it getting more colorful and more animated!   Lot’s of fun, and a huge lightning storm provides some great impromptu fireworks to wrap up the evening.  Tomorrow will be a blast!

Sunday morning we got our first chance to run some time trials with the scooters, and also for Sue to get her very first dives in on the wreck.  And it’s another perfect day, with flat seas, clear skies, dolphins chasing us, 100 ft of viz, and zero current.  What a great introduction to the wreck!  We get a couple good dives in, then head back to port for a quick turn-around and the race!  Back at dock, the crowd is waiting, and there is Zach representing team Subtropic with two old Torpedo scooters duct-taped together, Team Pink from Scubanation.com with single Pegasus thrusters, Weatherby with an old ScubaDawg, a couple of SeaDoo’s, and our Hollis Expeditions.  Plus we’ve got a boatload of local newspaper and media types there to cover the event.  We head out and meeting up with four other boats on the wreck, and we moor in a big daisy chain.  And there’s a last minute entry, as the U.S. Army Special Forces boat pulls up, and they slip a diver into the race too!  On the Salty Dog there’s Chris Norwood with another Pegasus, and Dean Vitale, president of the Pegasus Thrusters, with dual units custom-mounted on his tanks.

As we begin to gear up for the race I notice I am not the only one who brought a special race rig to wear – bare backplate and 40 cf tank, no gauges, just a single second stage, and nothing else to create any drag on my sleek form in the water.  There’s a guy wearing an old horsecollar and a bailout bottle, a coupe more 30’s and 40’s – gotta love this!   We head down, and I am breathing off my double 100’s as I have my 40 cf set up clippe don, as well as my scooter.  My teammate Joyce is wearing a conventional single tank, and Sue is there to join the cheering crowd and egg us on to (hopefully) victory!

We gather on top of the wheelhouse, and the racers line up at the rail.  Natalie Weatherby, Joe’s niece, positions herself in front of us, like Olivia Newton John in Grease, but instead of waving her hankerfchief, she swings a 5 pound sledge hammer down onto the railing and kicks off the race with a resounding ‘bang!’ And the racers explode off the line, jockeying for position as we head past the dish antenna and near the first turn.  Yes, there’s more than incidental contact, but we push off and manager to swing through the first turn, then the second, heading back towards the wheelhouse for lap #1.  Two more turns there, the line is spreading our a bit, and we head back towards the stern for the final two turns.  My speed is down a bit due to the drag of the video cam strapped to the top of my scooter, but that careful and strategic placement of the IVS decal just across the bottom of the camera’s field of vision made the sting of being further back in the pack that much easier to take!

We rounded the last turn and made a bee line back to where Natalie was waving the checkered flag.  I finished 4th overall, and Joyce 6th, out of quite a field of racers.  The adrenalin rush was great, not only from the whole racing aspect, but also from the fact that I had no gauge on my bottle, so every breath could have been that last one!  And for those who know what an adrenalin-holic I am, it made the race that much more of a rush!!!  Thankfully the cylinder outlasted the race, so for the next one I am thinking of going down to a 30 or 23 CF size!

Post-race we enjoyed the wreck and got in another less-manic second dive before heading back for the post-race dinner meeting and awards ceremony. Held at one of our local favorites, the Hogfish Bar & Grille, we gathered for telecast interviews, photo op’s, back-slapping and all sorts of fun and laughter.  Pictures were downloaded and shared, and everyone went home with new friends and great memories.

Monday morning and it was time to head out, so Steph caught the first cab at 5:30, Joyce and I got on the road at 6:00, and Sue enjoyed a leisurely morning, not needing to catch her Key West flight until 10.  Good planning on her part.  So as I drove up to Key Largo to drop off gear & ship scooters home, I notice a tire warning light on the dash.  Well yes, you know it, in what is rapidly becoming a Kichman tradition we had a flat tire!   So I pull into the lot of the Hampton Inn in Islamorada, and I found myself, just like in the Verizon commercials, smack dab in the middle of the “Dead Zone”.  Zero bars on both my and Joyce’s phones.  I need this like a hole in the head!  Thankfully the desk clerk is more than cooperative and the rental agency dispatches a service truck to come and change the tire.  An hour and a half later, we are on the road, and we make our stops and even make our flights with time to spare, as I found myself still trying to recover from my PTS Syndrome  – that’s that’s Post Tire Stress Syndrome!   That aside, it was a great weekend, and as I board my plane, I get a text message from Joe – our videos are all over CNN and ABC news and they already have requests from Key Largo and Fort Lauderdale for us to come and run races there!   Very cool!!

So, you’re wondering, other than that rental car fiasco in the beginning and then the Kichman-ized tire, where’s the drama that usually accompanies Dave on his travels?   Well, seems we saved the best for last.  After my text from Joe, we power down the electronic devices, pass our drink cups to the flight attendants, and taxi on out to the runway.  We move up slowly in line until we are number two in the queue, and then the pilot makes an announcement – we have to head back to the gate because they forgot to put an unaccompanied minor on board that was connecting to an international flight!   Holy smokes batman….how can you lose an unaccompanied minor?    Who was in charge of this kid?  Did they just forget her sitting at the gate back there, and didn’t notice that giant orange “Unaccompanied Minor” sticker stapled to her shirt?  I gotta believe someone needs to find themselves suddenly unemployed over this, but the crew takes it with a grain of salt, and we start to pull out of line.  Whooops….wait a minute, the pilot comes back on the intercom….false alarm..she didn’t miss our flight, she missed another one!  Whew..that makes it all better!  Let’s go home!


5 Responses

  1. I want your life . . . *sigh*

  2. +1 for what Steve said….

    Now, how did you do in the race? Did you even come close to winning?

  3. Dave Valaika third place and Joyce Kichman in fifth place! Way to go team IVS!

  4. 1.) Another reminder: don’t get in a Plan, Train, or Automobile with Dave.

    2.) F . . . . udge! “Burger wars?” My core compentancy. Why wasn’t *that* on the IVS calendar?

    3.) Do I see some IVS /IAHD promotion for scooter races at Dutch in the near future? It could have a navigation / orienteering element: start from a platform, and collect flags at the bus, helo, etc . . .

    • Dear God, Steve, I can just picture Dave strapping me to a scooter during my open water dives at Dutch and reminding me “as long as you have air, everything else will be fine — just get the flag.” 🙂

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