Formula H2O Racing – Round II – IVS doubles down!

And so it begins……back from our recent Andrea Doria mis-adventure, diver Mark Hughes hails once again from Flagstaff, Arizona to get another heapin’ helping of the IVS kool-aid. This time our mission is a mixed one…what started out as a simple technical trip to dive some deep wrecks off Key West has now morphed into all that and more. Turns out the the second Wreck Racing League sanctioned Formula H2O scooter race is planned for this very weekend also. What’s a dive team to do? Short IVS answer: All of it!!

IVS Team leader and Wreck Racing League board member Dave Valaika, just arriving back from his recent Lady Gaga concert experience, learned of the timing of the new event, and immediately contacted Mark and asked if he wanted to combine our planned tech trip with some competitive scooter racing and the reply was solid YES! OK, that sealed the deal, so no it was time to go to the strategy room and figure out how we can better our times in the first event, where Joyce Kichman and Dave finished 6th and 4th respectively. We had come into that event like babes in the proverbial woods, using stock scooters, wearing standard fins, wearing a BCD…we had no idea what to expect. Well we do now! So, hmmm….thinking, thinking…… you know, if we rafted the scooters together, streamlined the driver a bit more, and had a little more time for practice, we might be able to kick butt here! Our strategy is simple – do whatever it takes to end up in the winners circle!! OK, enough said, let’s get to work.

So out come the cocktail napkins and the pencils, sketches fly off the paper and before you know it, we have a design, to take two Hollis scooters, plus a small breathing tank, and build a frame that ties them nicely together in a tight, streamlined package. All we need to do is build it now, and for that, Mark arrives a day early in Harleysville.

Now let’s get this straight here….Mark is actually having dental work done this week in Fort Lauderdale, but he jumps on an airplane, flies to Philadelphia, and ends up in Harleysville, where, after all is said and done, we’ll depart from and drive to…you guess it…Fort Lauderdale. “Huh”, you ask? Crazy? Yes….Very much us? YES! So he flies in late Tuesday evening, and gets a good nights rest in the dorm to prepare for the build.

Wednesday a.m. dawns bright and blue in the center of the scuba diving universe, and we kick it off with a design meeting at the shop. Once we go over the plans, tweak the design a bit, verify dimensions and create a bill of material, Mark is off and running to Home Depot and a few other local supply houses to gather our parts and raw materials. He finally arrives back at shop with his shopping list completed, and here’s where it gets a little crazy (if you don’t think it is already). Mark walks in the front door and stops in his tracks when he spots Bob Szalburski, who is in getting some O2 fills for the upcoming St. Lawrence Seaway trip. Well hell’s bells, Bob & Mark both attended an advanced wreck training class taught by Richie Kohler at Conch Republic Divers in June. What an amazingly small world we live it, and it’s even smaller for the IVS diving community! Bob from Wilkes Barre, Mark from Flagstaff, re-uniting right here at IVS in Harleysville!

By the time he has gotten back the shop is abuzz with activity, with several customers being taken care of, and our Discover Scuba Diving team just returning from working with the troubled youth at New Life School, where we conduct several DSD’s each year to help promote positive activities and a way to channel a lot of energy in a productive direction for the young men who attend this alternative educational facility. Today’s team was led by IVS-instructor Carlie Adams, and included Felix Gryn, Bill Bobwicz, Kyle Rosenberger, Chris Rich, Steve Holak, and Joyce Kichman. It’s a great opportunity to give back to the community and hopefully help to turn the lives of these young men towards a good direction.

At the same time, the classroom has morphed into a surgical suite, with Beverly nearly on her back and foot up on the table where Brian is drawing on his professional training as a Physician’s Assistant while he studies a classic PBT injury – that’s Post-Bonaire Trip! Now we all know the Loggins’ like to put their personal signature on some of our trips with lower appendage trauma; anyone who saw the pictures from Butch’s lacerations on the Australia trip will concur. But today we are looking at a potential imbedded sea urchin spine in Bev’s heel, and Brian laments that he is lacking the tools to properly perform an exploratory procedure. Well gosh, who might be able to help here? Hmmm, how about we turn to IVS’s Emergency First Response Instructor Trainer himself, Dave? Fresh off conducting an instructor level class this past weekend, I whip out my, er, medical kit and lo and behold, there is a complete set of surgical knives there for Brian! Well with tools in hand, the procedure moves along smoothly, and before you know it, Bev is minus one urchin spine, the wound site has been drained and cleaned, she is bandaged and put back on the line, what a good soldier she is! Nice work Brian!

So Mark manages to carve out a small bit of real estate for the scooter project build, and starts to gather the tools needed – radiac chop saw, power drills, hammers, files, wrenches, t-squares, socket sets, saw horses and more. The service area suddenly takes on a different persona, more along the lines of “Orange County Chopper” meets “Jacques Cousteau”. Mark plays Paul Jr, the son, while Dave takes on the role of Paul Sr, making sure that Jr. understands what we’re building here today! Complete with colorful language, and the occasional thrown tool and slammed door, the set is perfect.

Eight long hours later, Mark announces the birth of little Hollis II, siamese DPV twins joined at the housings. They are beautiful, and we hope to have the birthing photos up on the gallery soon. Yes, we cleaned the mom up first – why do people put those sort of pictures there? Sorry, I digressed. In any case, they weighed 106 pounds at birth, and measured 29″ long, with a beautiful ebony finish – how’d that happen?? The lab results have not come back on the gender verification as it appears there are no outward indicators to guide our judgment. They were listed on the birth certificate as Baby H-1 and H-2 for now to avoid any psychological trauma later should our early parental intuition be mistaken. They are quickly taken from the parents, photographed, and loaded into the truck for safe transport to their first ocean visit.

Now time to start mixing some gas for our first planned dives, the USS Wilkes Barre, a former naval cruiser sunk in 240 ft, and either the USS Curb, a naval tug sitting at 180 ft, or the USAFS Vandenberg, on the bottom with a max depth of 145 ft. We plan to dive the Wilkes twice, back to back, with a minimal surface interval, so even with an aggressive deco schedule, the Curb might be pushing it for our O2 limits. So we opt for the Vandenberg. Gases will be Trimix for the first 2 dives, 18% O@ and 41% Helium, with 50% and 100% O2 for the deco gases. Dive three will be on nitrox, so we go with 27% to allow us to play safely all the way down the sand. So six sets of doubles and a dozen stage bottles are filled, and this is just for our first day of diving? What is it with Mark? Every single time I dive with him we end up looking like a major gas storage facility as we load up the truck.

OK, tank filling and gas blending done, it’s 11;00 p.m. now, so maybe it’s time for Dave to pack. I toss gear into a couple of bags until I hit the 40 pound mark, and that’s usually enough stuff to go diving. I am going to have to start taking this more seriously soon! Just kidding, we have everything we need so we jump in the shower (separately, thank you), rinse off and finally, at the bewitching hour of midnight, begin the 23 hour, 1,400 mile journey to our first stop in this weekend’s adventure, Key West. Our boat will be beckoning us first thing Friday morning, so there is no time to waste. We climb aboard, fire up the truckster, and motor on down the road. I take first shift, letting Mark unwind after his busy and productive day, and he curls up on the seat for a little shuteye. I get us nearly to Delaware but Mark is restless, so i true Tom Sawyer fashion, I “let” him drive (how’s that for reverse psychology?) and I start writing the blog. Cool.

So we get started and I decide to catch a little sleep before my driving shift comes up. I have such a hard time falling asleep in strange places – NOT – so I am zonked out completely in a heartbeat. My peaceful slumber continues as the miles click on by and I am enjoying sweet thoughts of wet and wonderfully wild things to come, when suddenly I am jolted awake by a very bright light in my face! Mark is rolling down his window, the truck is no longer moving, and there is a cacophony of flashing red and blue lights all around – not a good thing! I am stretched out, reclining in the front seat, I can barely see the eyes of Trooper ‘Napoleon’ standing alongside the truck and reaching up to get Mark’s paperwork. I lean up and say “what’s up” and he shoots me a very stern look – weird for sure!

He has Mark’s license now and he is pointing out, with great prejudice, how things are done differently here in Maryland than they might be done in Mark’s home state of Arizona. Not sure the relevance, but maybe his mom abandoned him early on and moved out there or something. In any case, I also think they don’t think they allow sphincters to dress in cop uniforms and run around in Arizona either. So I am listening to him, and I squirm around trying to get a better view. Now, have you ever wondered what might happen if Sergeant Carter from the Gomer Pyle Show were to marry Tammy Faye Baker, and they had a child – this would be him, standing alongside the truck right now.

He is accusing Mark of traveling at 84 mph in a 65 zone, and he somehow measured this as Mark approached his cruiser, which was also traveling southbound, from behind. Now, most of you don’t know Mark, but you do know Ray, so you know how an old guy drives. There is no way Mark does 85 anything, and I know from a few road trips already with him that this is pretty solid. So my BS meter is way up in the yellow as the diatribe continues from our little trooper. He finishes, at the same time the spit stops flying out of his mouth (yes, I know, gross) and goes back to his patrol car with our paperwork. Mark and I chat about the lunacy of the moment, but defer from greater action cause there is no way this is going to get any better with any input from us.

So after a bit, he returns, and starts reading off what he has ticketed Mark for, including driving with our fog lights on. At this I say “you’ve got to be kidding” and his head spins towards me, like Linda Blair in the Exorcist, and he shouts out “You will NOT interrupt me!”. I want to ask, if I did, would he lose his place and have to start over? But I deferred, as difficult as that was for me, I felt it the best way to avoid being fitted in a lovely new orange jumpsuit this evening. So he finishes, Mark ends up a few hundred dollars poorer for the experience, and both of us are in need of a hug. We shake our heads in disbelief, and I note that here’s a guy who, when he retires from the State Police, has a clear second career opportunity with the TSA. [Bet you thought they wouldn’t get mentioned here!].

I drift back asleep, somewhat scarred from the trauma, but manage to drift back into dreamland. Morning beckons and the sunlight is streaming in, as ‘wild man’ Mark announces it is time to change drivers. So we stop, fuel up, and switch positions, and as I drive us across the border into North Carolina I glance at the GPS and what does it say? 999 miles to go – well doesn’t that inspire a drinking & driving song about lots of Coors Light on the wall! Well I stop myself from singing, letting my buddy rest, as I quietly listen to some classic tunes such as 1966’s ‘Happy Happy Summer Days’ by Ronnie Dove, and ‘Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie’, the 1967 release from Jay & the Techniques, who just happen to hail from the Lehigh Valley – how cool is that?

899 miles to go now, and I look over at my buddy and he’s curled up and sleeping like a baby in the front seat. He must be dreaming little Officer Napoleon thoughts cause he’s smiling and kicking every now and then. It’s so cute, it’s too good to pass up, but the camera is behind me. So what to do? OK, I wake Mark up, have him retrieve the camera, and then send back to sleep, so I can finally balance the camera across the steering wheel and get the shot I want for the gallery. Mission accomplished!

800 miles to go now, and I look at the odometer, and it reads 66,666 miles – ruh roh, is that an ominous sign or what? I shiver, but it passes. Duly noted though! Finally, 700 miles to go, and thankfully Mark is up, cause it it time for the morning headbanging session as I crank up some Nickleback and Metallica loud enough to feel the soundwaves on your skin. Ah, a road trip with Dave! We enjoy some of the great sound that the 10 speakers put out, running through an array of my favorite rock acts (except Lady Gaga, Mark doesn’t like her stuff). As we approach Savannah we give IVS instructor Randy Rudd a call, but he is offshore today working for NOAA on the research vessel Nancy Foster, so no lunch date available. Sadly, we pass through Savannah with no stops!

So now Mark’s stomach is growling so he feels compelled to stop, and I give him carte blanch to pick his favorite – Dairy Queen! Like a little kid he skips to the counter and orders a triple mocha chocolate chip Blizzard with extra mocha – this boy’s gonna be a little jacked up for the rest of the day! I fish some pickled eggs out of the jar for the ride and we’re about to head out when some commotion catches our eyes – the whole time we have been there a young woman has been perusing the candy aisle, picking up various things and putting them in her purse. Not at all discretely, in fact pretty brazen, and I’m thinking they must have been out of shopping carts, and she’ll just pay for that stuff when she leaves. Well silly me…..this is a crime in the works, and right before our very eyes, she shoves the last of her sugar fix in her back, straightens up, and walks right out the door. Mark and I look at each other in utter amazement – the clerk starts screaming and shouting, other people start running, and we’re thinking it is probably a good time to get this show on the road! Gotta go….buh bye!

With only 500 miles to go now, Mark re-takes the pilot’s seat. Last chance for a power nap for me, and I take it. I awake, and have plenty of texting and email still to go, and sadly, in spite of that DQ caffeine fix, Mark comes up short on stamina in the driver’s seat. OK, I’ll take another shift, but I still have work to do! So Mark attempts to settle in for that last bit of sleep, but as he sees me setting my laptop on the console, tucking my phone into my pants leg, setting my eyeglasses on the dash…clearly yes I will be driving, but that is not the only task going on! Mark’s eyes start to look like a couple of pie plates, wondering how much of that focus is actually on the driving aspect, and his grip on the door handle tightens up. “Relax my friend, it’s all good”, I assure him. In between text messages the phone rings, and it’s Capt. Chris Norwood, the owner of Florida Straits Diving, our operator for tomorrow. ” Here’s the condition update”, he says, “2 to 3 knots of current inshore on the Vandenberg, all the mooring balls are under water”. “Well”, I ask, “what does that mean for the Wilkes Barre and Curb?” “Probably even more current, it will be a real challenge to get on the wreck and get down”, he says, and offers “if you want to cancel the charter for tomorrow it is OK”. I turn to Mark, and ask him his feelings on the conditions. He looks at me, and says “we’re here to dive”. That seals it, if we need our scooters to actually descend against the current, so be it – we’re diving tomorrow. Mark is certifiably crazy, and I am here to keep him out of trouble this weekend. More importantly, Mark will holding onto a $4,000 IVS scooter, and no way are we losing that puppy this weekend! So, plans settled, we motor on, finally arriving for dinner at the Paradise Pub at 9 o’clock pm, exactly 21 hours after we left Harleysville. Our favorite barmaid Antoinette is awaiting, all smiles and hugs for couple of her favorite friends (OK, hugs for me, and I introduce Mark!). Dave Hartman, the face of IVS-South, joins us for dinner, and after some good belly laughs, we retire to Casa Hartman for the night.

Friday morning comes and Chris gives us the call from Key West – current still appears to be ripping but Mark is undeterred, and we prepare for the last 100 miles of our southern journey. We check on the ‘children’ who we left on the chargers for the night in the truck, and it appears that we may be victims of sad case of SIDS – one of our baby’s won’t wake up! Mark is next to her, talking, pleading, touching, nurturing, all to no avail. What could it be? Why us? They looked so good last night. Why is fate so cruel??? I sense his sorry and sadness, and ask him to compose himself and step aside, let daddy take a look here. I examine closely, checking for any sign of life or apparent cause for this sad situation, and as my fingers trace our baby’s wiring, it becomes apparent to me……Mark has hooked up the battery charger to the motor, not to the battery! You can hear me shaking my head and rolling my eyes here, can’t you? I correct the mis-wiring, the charger light shows “happy”, and our baby is back with us. Tragedy resolved. Note to self – when it comes to wiring, Mark is not the sharpest tool in our shed!

A tasty breakfast is enjoyed at one of our favorite local establishments, the Key Largo Conch House, and I’m starting to feel like a ‘kept’ man – Mark buys my breakfast for me! Shaking off those strange feelings, we start down U.S. 1 to Key West together. Wait….is that ominous or what? For the record Steve, Mark is my ‘dive’ partner, not like Bill Z’s partner, OK? Enough said…..the day is picture perfect, not a breeze in the air, the sky is blue, the sea is azure, how absolutely beautiful it is for our ride to Key West. Mark drives, Dave blogs, emails & texts…not a bad combo. Ten miles into our trip, the truck is silent except for the gentle rhythm of tapping figures on my keyboard, when “POW!!” the AC power inverter plugged into the dashboard explodes. The cabin is rapidly filling with smoke and we are ready for the oxygen masks to drop down. I am glad I am sitting in an emergency row and I’m ready to pop open the door and slide out like a disgruntled Jet Blue flight attendant. I manage to fight through the confusion and the screaming passengers – OK, knock it off Mark – and get the device unplugged. Whew! Emergency over…for now!

After that, the rest of the trip is almost anti-climatic, just beautiful views and no traffic at all. We arrive at the marina at 2:00 and as we are turning into the driveway, I spot something hidden down in the grass. Immediately, I am thinking, Bev so loves when I pick things up for her on trips, and so what have I found here? A nice spanking new shopping cart for her! She will love it for sure, and I can cross that bit of sensitivity off my ‘to-do’ list for the weekend – Bev has a gift! And, talk about an instantaneous return on investment – we put our new cart right to use humping our gear down the dock and onto the Lucky Dog, our vessel for this afternoon. Finally loaded, checked and ready to go, we head out at 2:30 p.m. for our first morning dive. Harbor traffic is light, and the views are pretty as we cruise along.

Making 30 knots across a dead calm sea, we arrive onto our first dive site in less than a half hour. The depth finder picks up the huge profile of the Wilkes Barre, rising nearly 100 ft up off the bottom at 240 ft. We drop the grapple, along with 300 ft of line and a 24″ dia. marker ball overt the side. Down, down it goes into the blue as we hopefully catch the wreck. But no, the current isn’t going to cooperate at all. It’s pushing us at over 2 knots already on the surface, and the grapple hook blows clear off the wreck, sailing across the uncharted bottom. Suddenly we see the marker ball drop under, and we know the hook has snagged something, and the strong current is now stretching the line out downstream. We motor over and pick up the ball and try to get the hook to come free. Nope, so it is snagged, so Capt Chris runs the engines forward, away from the direction of the snag, and the hook comes free, at least momentarily. So he begin moving forward, trying to keep the hook sailing above the bottom. All is going well until there’s a loud snap, the boat shudders, and the marker ball floats free to the surface, leaving our 300 ft of line and the grapple down with the fishes.

Well that sort puts the kibosh on the Wilkes dive, and with this current it would be dangerous to attempt to hot drop and find the wreck,in spite of its massive size. So on to Plan B, the Curb, at 180 ft. We head over, locate the wreck, and drop a sand anchor alongside, so Mark and I will scooter over to the wreck once we make it to the bottom. We drop in at 5:30 p.m. for our first morning dive…yeah, yeah…..and need to use our scooters on full power just to make it forward to the anchor line. Wow there is a bit of current here, and other than the anchor line there is no reference at all in the water. Down we go, nothing, nothing, nothing, here is the sand approaching…hmmm..no wreck yet. So I turn and wait for Mark..waiting, waiting….geeesh! Mark is having some difficulty managing his scooter, so not sailing as smoothly for him as hoped. He gets there eventually, and I signal that I am going to run a reel out to see if i can locate the wreck. Mark follows, and sure enough, I find the wreck about 100 ft away, just far enough in the slightly murky and dark water that it would be easy to miss. We tie off, making sure we have our ‘trail of breadcrumbs’ back to the anchor and our boat, and begin to explore the wreck. As we head towards the stern, we are greeted with a huge nurse shark, easily 10 ft in length, returning to the wreck after a busy day doing whatever sharks do all day. I spot a lionfish, but recognizing I am diving at 180 ft on trimix with two stage bottles and a scooter, I wisely decide it would not be cool to get nailed (again) so I pass on attempting to capture him. We turn and ascend slightly towards the deck level at 165 ft, and are immediately surrounded by 3 huge goliath groupers, and I mean huge..we’re talking 8 plus feet in length for the two larger ones, and junior is probably 6 feet long. They are interested enough in us, and clearly not intimidated, so they swim around us and keep circling, checking us out. They are completely surrounded by baitfish, so they are just like a huge cloud of biomass moving with grace through the water. It is truly surreal, and of course a little narcosis goes a long way towards helping achieve that sensation.

We find a nice hole in the side of the wreck and Mark feels the need for penetration, so he starts to poke around inside. I follow him in, get alongside, crank up the scooter, and motion him to follow me if he dares! So, here’s where the story gets complicated, and we’ll give it to you as seen by Mark, as well as Dave.

Mark’s version:
Looking at my gauge, and seeing 900 psi of back gas remaining, I am thinking maybe we should turn the dive here. Let me recall, we had 3,500 to start, Rule of Thirds, turn the dive at 2,300, one-third remaining…yep, that’s it! So ok, you say, I’m at 900 psi so I have kinda missed that 2,300 psi number, and a lot of other ones that followed! But I’m thinking, Dave is leading us in the general direction of home, of course penetration into a new wreck aside, it still was kinda towards home So, I’m in! It’s not a huge wreck, how far can this possibly go? In fact, I can actually see a little light streaming in ahead of Dave from above. So we’re in the engine room, and I realize that hole in the ceiling is waaaaay too small swim through. So I signal to Dave that it’s time (OK, way past time) to turn the dive, and I am outta here! I interpreted Dave’s look as acknowledging my signal, and turned and left the room through a very silted out door, into a even more silted out room after that. Remembering the portholes I spotted on my right as I entered this space, I instinctively moved to the left on exiting and sure enough found the portholes and the opening. Got out, turned around and looked for my buddy behind me, but alas, I was alone. Now I’m at 500 psi, at 180 feet, wonderingi what would be the most appropriate action at this time. I start back in to look for Dave, realize this is insane, remember Dave’s words “Self Rescue is Number One”, and act upon them – I hope he is proud of me! So I re-exit the ship, get up on the deck and start towards the line and see Dave squeezing out the hole, with a little less equipment than we went in with. Everyone is accounted for, it’s time to head towards the reel tie off and find the anchor.

Dave’s version:
New guy that Mark is, he bites, and follows along – silly man! We make it in through multiple rooms and passageways, finally ending in the engine room, which has only one door in, and a very small hatch overhead that opens to the deck. I am in the room, and notice Mark is signaling frantically, so I turn, with a “what do you need now” look, and he signals that is time to turn the dive, in fact it is way past time to turn the dive. He has been so enthralled with the dive (and perhaps the narcosis) the he somehow failed to pay proper attention to his gas usage and it is high time to skedaddle on out of here. So he turns, perhaps a bit too quickly, and quicker than I just typed that he managed to create such a shit storm of silt that I could not even see the doorway out of the room. Nice, I am thinking, wondering about my buddy selection. OK, it’s supposed to be his learning experience, but how the tables have turned. Like Helen Keller on scuba, I find the doorway he has disappeared into, and as I poke through, the viz becomes even less, if that is possible. No sweat, there is a small hatchway to salvation, so while we all have one day when it will be our time to go, and it is not my day today. So I move to the hatch, and check the dimensions…..OK, time for a little Jenny Craig moment here, need to slim down a bit. Let me unhook my scooter, yep, that fits, pass it through the hole, Now my first stage bottle, now my second. Note to self – they are filled with 50% and 100% oxygen mixes, and putting them back on in the improper order would no doubt have catastrophic results. Almost can fit out now, check my gas supply now, still looking good, so I slip off my backplate, pass my double 100’s out the hatch, keeping a firm grip on my 7 ft hose, and now I think I can fit out the hole! Hands over my head, everything on my svelte form sucked in tight, I am able to squeeze on through the hatch and make it out to the deck – whew! I collect my gear, put my backplate back on and resume normal breathing, and drag the rest of it over to where I figure Mark will be coming out, yep there is a huge cloud of bubbles, looks like an over-breather there for sure! Yep, it is, and he’s in a bit of a hurry, but I ask him to verify that my stages are back on properly, and he does, quickly, as he passes by me in a bit of a hurry. Yep – I like to teach that ‘self rescue is number one’ and here is a perfect example. So I signal him it is time to go and save himself, and I lead him back over the side of the wreck and find the reel line tied off, which Mark had very nicely marked with a nice strobe on our way in.

Mark’s version of the last of the dive and the ascent:
So I get to the reel tie-off on the side of the wreck, check my gauges, 250 psi, this will work, start to untie the reel, then realize it is fouled with the fishing line, realize that my regulator is starting to breathe a tad hard, check my back gas again I am at 130 psi, take one last look at Dave and signal “that’s YOUR reel, and I am outta here!” So I boogey on over to the anchor, and being my ascent, monitoring my gasses all the way.

Dave’s version:
I laid the line, so protocol says that Mark should be responsible to untie the line and feed it to me as I reel it up. He starts, sees that the line is fouled with some monofilament, realizes his not-so-good gas situation, turns to me, signals that this is my problem, as his is bigger, and leaves me. So I untangle the line, make sure nothing else is left behind, and work my way back to the anchor, picking up the strobes and lift bags we have there, and start my ascent. Mark is gone, and I can only hope he is above me somewhere, but my first decompression obligation stop is at 90 feet so I can’t go up to find out. I being my ascent, with a 2 hour deco obligation showing, and figure we’ll talk about it on the surface. With required stops every ten feet it will be a while, but eventually I reconnect with my buddy at 20 feet, and now I know he is safe and sound, and hopefully a lot wiser with regards to his gas planning!

We finally make it back to the surface, and though the use of the oxygen-rich deco gas mixes, our total run time is only 85 minutes. Once on board Mark suggests that perhaps it is time to hydrate, so I take the hint, reach for the blue mountains, and we call off the rest of the dives for the day. Wise move, we’ll hit it again tomorrow!

We stop at the No Name Pub on our way home, only to find that the kitchen just closed. Holy smokes, help us out here! OK, the barmaid makes us up a couple of salads. Mark finds the dollar bill wallpaper interesting to say the least. We enjoy our light snacks and head on back to Key Largo for the night.

Saturday morning the alarm goes off at 5:00 a.m. – time to get ready to head north to Fort Lauderdale and the Formula H2O Wreck Racing League event. We arrive at the host operator, South Florida Diving Headquarters, at a timely 7:30 for our 8:00 a.m. departure – perfect! Truck is unloaded, gear is set up, waivers signed, and we’re off to sea. More fantastic conditions great us today as we are joined by an ever-expanding cast of who’s who in the scuba industry, including videographer David Ulloa and his lovely companion Dee McHenry, owners of Valeo Films and Undersea Expeditionary Video Services, ABC Sports director Dave Sirak, ‘Father of the Vandenberg’ Joe Weatherby, Sarah Monahan, who is currently producing her own scuba-based adventure series, ‘Going Down’ , Mike Stone from Key West, cave diving expert Mike Ange, and a few others. We’re also joined by Nathan Cruz, a wounded warrior diver who served on a Chinook aircrew in Iraq before being wounded, resulting in a number of injuries. He worked with IAHD-Americas pro Kurt Clifton from Chicago and was able to obtain his diving certification last year – way to go Nathan!

So we’re heading out, and as we pass through the harbor entrance, we enter the zone known as “small world”. There happens to be a group of scooter-racing free divers on board, lean, mean & fit, looking sharp in their skin-tight free diver suits. One of them, an attractive young lady, walks up to me and asks “Are you Dave Valaika?”. Well, it’s tough to dodge that question, and my mental Rolodex is spinning wildly trying to place her. She states the obvious, saying “You don’t remember me, do you?” The blank look in my eyes must be obvious, as she thrusts her hand out to shake mine, announcing “I’m Erin Magee!”. Well it turns out I was instrumental in some early career development for Ms Magee, recommending her to my friends at Florida Keys Dive Center, and then working with her there in booking our group trips. She has blossomed nicely since then, moving right through scuba training to instructing and then on to apnea (breath hold) diving, and currently is the U.S. National record holder in constant balance free diving, with a certified depth of 233 ft. Here’s a little video of her achievement. What a small freakin’ world we do live in!!

We get to our race location, the wreck of the Tracy, an artificial reef sinking right off Pompano Beach, sitting upright in 70 ft of water. The organizers give us a thorough briefing, and the divers splash, heading down with scooters and cameras of all sorts, to the wreck. We’ve got a start / finish set up, some chicane turns, and some great conditions to get some ‘canned’ shots to blend in with the actual race shots tomorrow. Mark seems to be dogging it with his scooter, I am lapping him on the wreck, wondering what he is doing….saving battery power?? Meanwhile, I work with Nathan Cruz, Elizabeth Weatherby, and her daughter Natalie, getting all three of them on scooters (and going faster than Mark!).

So we spend 45 minutes on the wreck and it’s time to head up. The girls signal they are going up, and I start to follow them up the line..there are little Polish voices in my head, telling me something is wrong….finally, I recognize the accent, it’s the Zyskowski brothers, trying to save me from an embarrassing moment – we are on the WRONG LINE!!!! I signal the girls, we MUST go back down, they look confused, I give them the “trust me” signal, and we head on back down to the wreck. Once there, I lead them to the right line, and for today, the mooring ball names will remain unchanged on the Tracy wreck – there will be NO ‘V’ ball.

So we make it back to the boat we started from, and I query Mark about his less than powerful performance with the scooter. Before I say more, there’s an old joke, where a slightly dim-witted fellow buys a chainsaw cause he heard it would help him cut trees down faster. A week later, he brings it back to the dealer, and tells them it is no faster than his old saw and ax. The dealer takes it back to the service area, and sharpens the chain, assuring the customer this will be much better. A week later, he is back, again complaining about the performance of his new chain saw, and again, they re-sharpen the chain and send him on his way. Finally, one week later, he is back, adamant about getting a refund because this chainsaw is no faster than his ax and handsaw, and the dealer says to wait here, we’re going to check it out right now! He calls the service tech up to the counter, and the manager explains that the chainsaw isn’t cutting any faster than the man’s ax and handsaw, and asks the service tech to check everything while the customer waits in the store. The tech takes it back to the service area, pulls the cord and fires up the chainsaw to test it, and suddenly the customer is right up at the counter, asking the manager ‘what’s that sound?”. Well, today’s post-dive debrief with Mark was a parallel to that story, cause when I asked him why he didn’t use high speed, he looked at me and said “there’s more than one speed?”. Again, shaking my head here, and I ask our readers to look back above, where I used the sharp tools and the shed analogy!

So we motor over to our second site, and our training goal for this dive is to get our racer familiar with ALL THREE speeds of his scooter! So we splash, and enjoy a great dive on the Copenhagen, a coal carrier from Philadelphia that sunk here in 1900. Mark shines, traveling in first, second AND third gear on this dive. There may be hope for us tomorrow yet! The dive is nice, nestled against the reef in 12 to 30 ft of water, lots of life, lots of wreckage. Good way to wrap up the day.

We head back in, offload, and travel down the road to the hotel, which is located right on the beach here. We gather around the pool for a good debrief of the days events, and finalize the plans for tomorrows actual race. There are 38 divers registered for the event so it should be a crowded field indeed. Plenty of ‘paint trading’ to look forward to! The rules have been tightened up, so we need to “enter the water” with at least 80 cubic feet of air, and emerge with a MINIMUM of 500 psi on our gauge. OK, our modified scooter system only holds one 40 CF bottle, so we strategize…we’ll sling a second 40 CF bottle, and drop it right at the starting line! Not only with that streamline us, but it will also help ensure that at least one of our tanks has 500 psi left in it – mission accomplished on both counts, and once again, in true IVS style, the ‘RULES’ are re-recognized as merely guidelines!!

And we have a bonus, the folks from the Discovery Channel are here filming our meeting and our pool demo’s for a program in the works. Very cool, adds a nice touch of Hollywood to our day. After all the festivities begin to wane, so does the crowd, and we call it an early night and retire to get ready for the big event!

Sunday now, and it’s Showtime! Mark has diligently assembled our dual-DPV sled, with our two Hollis machines bolted together along with his minimal gas supply. We keep the covers on it as we load the boat at 7:00 a.m., adding a bit of suspense to an already energized morning. Dean Vitale is here with his Pegasus thrusters, and he has raised the bar by strapping three of the machines to his tank! The free divers are here too, and they are planning to run the race as a relay, with new ‘drivers’ swimming down to take over the machines in tandem as they circle the wreck – pretty cool. And Mark, sensitive guy that he is, has brought out some chalk to write his girlfriends name on the side of his scooter, so he gets on his knees and writes, in big white letters, “DED”. “Ded”, I ask “isn’t your girlfriend named Deborah?” “Oh geeez”, Mark responds, as he begins to erase that last letter and change it to a ‘B’. Talk about confirming the ‘sharp tool – large shed’ observation above!!

As might be expected, there is plenty of ‘trash talking’ on board the racer boat, with “current champion” Dean Vitale milking his position for all its worth for the last few minutes of his reign (hopefully!). We’ll see how his three Thrusters work to save his title now! Meanwhile, the rules committee is looking closely our scooter and talking about a rule that would limit the amount of non-factory hardware allowed on a scooter. Hmmmmm. Looking at the Pegasus / Indian Valley Scuba competitive machines, Elizabeth Weatherby coins the phrase “Snap-On vs Strap-On”…..nice!

So we arrive on site, ready to go, but we have the Discovery Channel here with us, and in true Hollywood fashion, we have to wait. OK, and wait….and wait! The course is being re-set as the current has changed over night, and some new features have been added. And of course they want to get some good video footage before everyone gets in and trashes the visibility. So we wait…until finally it’s 10:00 and time to roll! So everyone suits up, point-of-view cams are turned on, scooters are lowered into the water, and the racers, photographers, officials and spectators all enter the water. Down to the wreck we head, and everyone takes their position. Going back to those rules/guidelines, one of the disqualifying factors would be if a racer surfaces with less than 500 psi remaining in their tank, so a few have taken to unscrupulous means to beat this. One fellow has his aluminum 80 pumped up to 4,400 psi! In in order for Team IVS to best avoid this, I have “air-hog” Mark enter the water last, and breath off my long hose until he is at the start line, where he switches over to his on-board gas supply. I take my position on the wreck, and the race timer begins the countdown, two minutes, one minute, Go! Go! Go! they are off in a blast of bubbles and silt.

Around and around they go, jostling for position through the curves, blasting down the straight-aways, nailing each other with propwash to slow the competition down, trading paint in the turns – whatever it takes! The recreational scooters are running three laps while the expedition and modified classes are running five. It is major traffic around the wreck as the pack stretches out, and it is obvious from the first lap that David Ollua is blowing everyone away with his Submerge scooter and side mounted 40’s. He is absolutely screaming! Mark is not looking too shabby later as he struggles a bit with his trip but when he gets it pointed right our machine really hums. And the Wreck Racing League has its first pile-up, as someone (name withheld to protect the innocent) passes Marissa and his octo hits one of her props, so she promptly spins and crashes right into the side of the wreck! No emergency personnel or rescue divers needed, she brushes it off, and resumes the race, eventually ending up with a second place finish. When all is said and done, there are a couple of very close finishes that will require video review to confirm.

Finally, it’s all over, and we head back up, exhausted but smiling, another great Wreck Racing League event under on belt! One quick stop for a second relaxing dive on another wreck and we motor back to the marina. A little gussie-up period and we meet for the awards ceremony, where all have gathered for one last celebration and the presentation of awards. Turns out Team IVS has moved up in the standings in a larger field to take 3rd place! Way to go team!

To celebrate, we decide to stop at a local Outback Steakhouse, which happens to be my personal favorite and counters Mark’s Dairy Queen choice earlier. We enjoy a nice dinner, and when the check comes, Keelan our server is asked by Mark to separate the bill, and to help facilitate this, Mark has noted next to each item on the bill #1 or #2, with one being him and two being me. Keelan looks at him a bit askew, says “this is kinda different”, looks at me shaking my head, and figures there’s no support here, they obviously must do things a bit differently in Arizona! We get it sorted out, settle up, and head back south to Key Largo for our last day of diving on a wreck to be determined early tomorrow a.m.

One last night at casa Hartman and we awoke to another beautiful Keys morning. First order of the day is sneaking outside and through the woods to photograph a huge crocodile that is sleeping on the dock. Like Steve Irwin, I slowly creep up on the beast, snapping away with my camera, until my hand is on his tail, and, like the lionfish, I am wondering how fast he might be able to spin around and how likely it might be that as 600 pounds of thrashing crocodile changes position on this floating dock that I might find myself in the water with him…..wisely, I opt to remove my hand and leave the alligator wrestling for another day. And as I make that fateful decision, my phone rings loudly in my pocket, and the croc lifts his head to see what the ruckus is! Whoooops…..backing on up now, the dock is yours, Sir! It’s Antoinette on the phone, and for those of you who frequent the Paradise Pub with us, you’ll recognize her as our favorite beer-maid there. She has been asking me for some time to take her diving, and finally I broke down (yes, sensitive moment) and said I’d take her this weekend while we were there. So she calls and says she is ready, has her mask & fins and is waiting for us to pick her up for the day. So I gather Mark, we pile into the truck, head over to Ms A’s, and finally arrive at Amoray Dive Resort. Now I had taken the time yesterday to call Ms Amy Slate herself and find out what the boat plans were for this morning, and she told me it was a two tank reef dive. Well Mark is still hyped up over getting to dive some big wrecks, and we still have two sets of double 100’s with trimix in them, so I toss out an idea to Amoray – “hey, what do you say about doing a 3 location trip, starting at the Spiegel Grove and then on to a couple of reefs?”. Keep in mind it’s not for me but for Mark – again it’s that sensitive side, yes I’ll do another dive for my buddy. Amazingly, the folks at Amoray agree, and we load up the boat for our three dive excursion! Woo hoo!

We arrive at the Spiegel and from the site of the mooring balls being somewhat submerged I am sensing we have a bit of current to deal with. But, we’re here to dive, so dive we must! We begin to gear up, and as Mark removes his shorts to get into his wetsuit, Antoinette looks over, and turns to me and asks the obvious…..”Is that really a Speedo he’s wearing?” “Yep, that’s my buddy”, I reply. Mr. Sexy and I finish gearing up and we splash in. The current on the surface is bordering on horrendous, so I struggle up the line, hand over hand, until I reach the mooring ball, and realize I am at about 10 ft of depth now, the ball is pulled so far under! The conditions remain consistent all the way down to the wreck, but once there, we are able to hide behind the structure, drop down to deck level, and have a really enjoyable dive penetrating the wreck and touring all over the innards. We surface 50 minutes later, and begin the short journey over the Benwood.

I have given Antoinette the reader’s digest version of the DSD briefing on the way out, so now I quiz her a bit on key points, she assembles her own gear under my watchful eyes, and performs a great first-time pre-dive safety check. I am sensing a ‘natural’ here, and as we giant stride into the water I am thankful the half mile difference from the Spiegel made all the difference in the current – there is none here! So we slip under the clear blue water, and Ms A enjoys a great first dive experience. She ends up seeing stingrays, cleaner shrimp, eels, scorpionfish, lobsters, and the rest of the usual cast of characters. What a fantastic way to get introduced to the sport of scuba diving.

Dive #2 for Antoinette an #3 for the morning is at Christmas Tree Cave, where again the conditions are superb, and our newest diver wanna-be excels again. We turn a corner and she ends up face to face with a nice size Goliath Grouper, and that ices the cake. Back on board, she confesses – “I want to get certified!” Look for her sporting a shiny new IVS cert card in the near future!

Back in town, Mark & I clean up, pack the truck, and head north. Two a.m. and we drop him off in St. Mary, GA, where he is getting his Evo Rebreather certification from Richie Kohler, and I journey the final 1,000 miles to home. Gosh, I miss him already!

But, like crack cocaine, you can’t get enough of the IVS Kool Aid, and Mark calls me as I am driving on Tuesday and tells me to save him a spot as our scooter driver in the next Wreck Racing League event, scheduled for Oct 2 in Key Largo. And the scooters are already back in the machine shop, being modified just a bit more for our next race. Sweet!

Hurry, the gear is almost dry….it’s time to dive again, NC-style!

Coming off the past week pf perfect diving in the Keys, I wonder how, or even if, that can be topped..perhaps I should relax, take some time to kick back and dwell on those precious moments for a bit, take it all in, relish in the afterglow…….wait a cotton-picking minute…..where the heck are these strange voices in my head coming from? Get back in there, sit down and shut up, cause it’s time to dive again!!

And speaking of cotton picking, what better place to go than to visit the great wrecks and big animals found in the Graveyard of the Atlantic, the ocean off North Carolina. Our group of ten IVS divers for this trip includes Charles Hepler, Dennis Maguire, Bill Evans, Keith Beaver, his son Nathan and daughter Karen, Erik Lawther, Matt Tomaszewski, Matt Yaroch and of course yours truly.

Most of the group had planned to carpool down to the lovely city of Beaufort, NC, the home of Discovery Diving, today. Matt, bless his unsuspecting soul, had opted to ride down with me in the truckster, so we had talked earlier in the week about when we leave, what time we’d arrive, how we’d have time to check in and relax when we got there……..OK Matt, you can open your eyes now, and dash that fantasy…..remember who you are traveling with! And talk about me choosing my roomie carefully – Matt has already made us 8 sandwiches for the weekend, brought a cooler of Coors Light, and has a bag of snacks – sweet! While my ham is not “fluffed” like I prefer (and as Sandy Stelle does so well), I figure I’ll suffer through for the weekend.

I had worked most of the night on my never-ending pile of projects on my desk, and was really on a productive rolll when the sun came up this morning. So I called Matt and suggested that he can relax a bit, and instead of coming over at 10:00 a.m. maybe push it back til after lunch; we’d still have plenty of time to get there and get set up tonight. That would give me time to think about packing and getting my gear together too! So I plug away, and think hmmmm, we need six sets of doubles filled for this trip. OK, well we’ve got some leftover trimix fills from our deep diving a few weeks ago, so always one to try to maximize the educational possibilities for our divers, I am thinking we can turn this into a combination gas blending class and trimix diving class for Matt this weekend, starting when he gets here! Gosh, I love how I think of others sometimes!

So Matt shows up after lunch and I share the great news with him and he is thrilled with the opportunity presented to him. So now I have some more time to start packing cause he’ll be a while filling those tanks! Perfect! So step one is to hump the tanks to the fill station and analyze the contents…OK, 88% helium and 12% oxygen. Good start, maybe not great to breathe or dive “as is” but a good start. So we get out the really sharp pencil and the paper, and I walk Matt through how to salvage the contents (especially the expensive helium) to create the best mixes for our dives planned for this weekend. So we work backwards, figuring our planned dive depths, pushing the O2 partial pressure to the max, planning to utilize the helium content to reduce our nitrogen loading, reduce narcosis, and maximize our bottom time. So once the ciphering was done and the pencil stopped smoking, we figured we needed to add about 500 psi of pure oxygen to each of the eight 100 CF tanks. So now the lesson moves on to how our fill system works, gas booster operation 101, and the precautions necessary when working with a potentially dangerous gas like pure oxygen. That done, we move out to the gas storage area to open our oxygen supply. OK, that tank is empty, hmm, so is this one, should not be a problem, heck with 8 oxygen cylinders on-line we’ll find gas…OK, not in this tank…how about that one..nope..surely the next…nah…until we reach the end of the line, and I declare, Jiminy-freakin’-Crickets, how can we be out of oxygen???

Now doesn’t this put a bit of a pickle into our plans and our timing for today’s journey! Oh well, saddle up Matt, here is another aspect of your gas blending program, that is actually getting the gas! We load the empties into the truck, and he heads out to our supplier to get a fresh supply of medical grade oxygen for us. At least I have time to pack now! So three hours of Friday afternoon rush hour traffic later Matt returns, and we get about to completing our fills, ending up with 30% oxygen and 35% helium in our tanks – perfect! Matt has graduated from his gas blender internship with flying colors! A brief commencement ceremony, high fives all around, I finally finish packing, we load the truck, and get ready to head south for our nine hour ride. Well it’s 7:00 p.m. now, and we have a 6:00 a.m. boat to catch, so there will be no stopping for sit down dinners on this rush down the highway! My adrenalin glands are tickled….they thought they would see no action today at all!

OK, as Elwood said, “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses. Hit it!” And so we do, pointing the truck south and seeing the Indian Valley Scuba dive center slowly fade in the rear view mirror. 560 miles to go, 11 hours to catch the boat….we’re in good shape! Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ down the highway, like a tag team we alternate driving and power napping, working our way through the pack in Nascar style, working to ensure we’ll have a few minutes to fall asleep parked in front of the docks before we have to load the boat.

We arrive in Beaufort, SC at the crack of 4 a.m., and Matt & I grab 120 minutes or so of power napping in the truck. Soon there is a lot of activity around us, as, in the words of Cat Stevens, “morning has broken, like the first morning….catbird has spoken……”. Anyhow, it’s time to get up! So we do, and begin the process of humping the gear down to our boat for the day, the Outrageous V. It’s a typical Louisiana crew boat, 65 ft long, 14 ft wide, and, as we are about to find out, nicely powered! It’s a wee bit crowded on the dive deck, with 15 passengers total, and 45 plus tanks to tie in. Never the less, we get it done, and soon we are off for our two hour ride to our first site, the U-352. This is a historical wreck, basically a testimonial to the ‘battle of the incompetents’, where a German submarine fired on a US warship in broad daylight, while sitting in only 110 ft of crystal clear ocean. Nothing like pressure, better make that first shot count! Well as fate would have it, the torpedo exploded prematurely, waking the entire crew of the US Coast Guard Cutter Icarus, who promptly began a depth charge pattern over the sub (which of course you could clearly see, as the sub drew 40 ft of water and the depth was only 110 ft, so the sub was basically about 60 ft under). Well the abundance of US munitions ultimately prevailed, and the sub surfaced, engaged in a brief but deadly firefight, then the crew, realizing at this point that their contract with the F├╝hrer was probably over, surrendered to the US forces. Net result was 15 fewer Germans and 33 new prisoners of war.

So today we are diving this little piece of history, and it turns out to be a phenomenal dive with near perfect conditions, huge balls of baitfish, a little penetration for Dave, and lots of good photos. Nice dive, and Matt and I enjoy 25 minutes at 110 feet with our trimix blends, and we are good to go. The key with helium in the mix is slow ascents to safely let the gas out of our systems, so we enjoy a leisurely 15 minute ascent. Good way to start it off!

Location #2 is the Aeolus, a former naval vessel sunk in 1986 as part of the artificial reef program. A botched sinking, then a few hurricanes in the area, and the wreck now sits as four pieces and other scattered wreckage, in a line but somewhat askew, at a depth of about 115 ft. Lots of critters, some big toadfish, hungry amberjacks cruising through, and more. Some decent penetration through the broken rubble and finally my 30 minutes is up. My partner has sat this one out; in true Yaroch fashion, between the sleep deprivation and the slightly roll of the seas, he is a designated fish feeder for this dive, so I do the solo thing. Nice dive, almost another hour of bottom time at 115 ft, gotta love the combination of trimix and Cochran.

The crew asks if we want to stay offshore for our third location since the conditions are so great, and what do you think we said? Exactly! So we motor over to the Spar, another artificial reef, and descend, passing through huge bait balls of smaller fish. Finally we make it to the deck, and I signal Matt to ask if he is OK with some penetration, and he acknowledges, so in we go! OK, well we start, enjoying a few open areas, then when I pass into a narrow bulkhead, taking my stage bottle off to pass, Matt thinks OK, maybe I’ll wait for him on the other side! Smart move Matt, cause when you have to take your gear “off” to get into a tight spot, then find out it is a dead end, that is usually not a good position to find yourself in. It’s OK, it all ends well, and here I am blogging away, so it had a happy ending after all! Once we’re done the interior stuff, we head topsides, and by now everyone else has left the wreck, so who comes out to play with us? Huge, and I mean huge, sand tiger sharks, none less than 8 ft long, more like 10. So Matt heads to the anchor line and I take a position in the middle of a bait ball, with the huge sharks swirling around and around. Very surreal, they are shopping for dinner, i am not (hopefully) on the menu, and so many of the baitfish are now my best buddies…go figure! I spend a good 15 minutes there, fixated, one big toothy shark after another buzzing me, coming close and veering off. Very cool! After that I begin to head forward to the mooring only to find myself in another ball of baitfish, but this time the sharks are younger, leaner, faster and hungrier. Even cooler!

Finally it is time to surface, another hour long dive at 112 ft, so nice, so calm and comfortable. We head back in, enjoying some good laughs and a few drinks on the two hour ride home. Once there, we prep for tomorrow, and head over to Clawson’s Restaurant for dinner. The group is not overly cohesive so we don’t have dinner reservation for all of us. On top of that who is here but John Glodowski and Chris Perry, who evidently had North Carolina on their mind but somehow forgot we were there this weekend! What a surprise indeed, indeed. Dinner is great and Matt and I are taken very good care of by Ms Jen McCarthy (the original, or so she claims!). None the less, she is great, dinner is good, and its time to hit the sack early for tomorrow’s diving.

Sunday and we awake to another perfect day, calm, clear and soon to be sunny. It’s another 6 a.m. load so the team hauls the gear onto the boat, and preps for the day of diving. Our crew, Captain Terry and First Mate Steve, welcome us back on board and help us get things in place. I have to compliment Debby Boyce, the owner of Discovery Diving, on her operation – it is nothing less than first class, from the staff, to the shop, to the boat. Everyone is extremely helpful and upbeat, there is a true sense of ‘teamwork’ among the staff, and they operate like a well-oiled machine. Talk about making a positive first impression, IVS will definitely be back again and again!

We head out and get comfortable for the 2 1/2 ride out to our first site, the Papoose, a WWII victim of a U-boat attack, taking three torpedoes and sinking within 3 minutes, losing a quarter of it’s crew in the tragedy. It lays twisted and upside down, with evidence of the violence present in the mangled mess of the hull. Good dive, 45 minutes at 121 feet, no current, decent viz, lots of life here. As we head up the ascent line, Matt realizes that both his computers are still showing significant deco obligations. Seems they are not helium enabled, so they have not been able to take advantage of the trimix gas we are using on these dives. We finish our final stop at 15 ft, and I signal to head up , but Matt shows me his Zeagle Intuition and his back-up computer, and Oceanic Prodigy. They are showing 16 and 17 minutes of deco obligation respectively. I show him my Cochran, which has cleared and then some, so we figure we need to do something here. We have two choices basically – Matt can ascend with his computers and have them both lock out for the rest of the weekend, or, we can let them enjoy the dive a little longer while we work on our tans on board. We opt for the second option, and clip his computers off to the descent line, so they can finish their hang time. The crew recovers them as we pull up the rigging to move to our second location, and by now they have cleared – mission accomplished!

An alternate to the “leave the computers diving” method would be the “MIB” approach. Remember Will Smith’s surprise when Tommy Lee Jones held up his magic penlight and wiped the memory of the of the folks who had witness the alien events in the movie Men in Black? Well that would have been what we could do with the computers – pull the batteries, short the terminals, and suddenly they have no memory of ever diving! Either method gets the job done, and we’re good for another dive!

Back on board, quiet little Nate Beaver has come out of his shell, and is talking serious smack with Loretta, an autopsy technician from Maryland, who is diving with her buddy Rich Savage for the weekend. The two of them going back and forth is outright entertaining, and who’d of thunk Keith Beaver’s prodigy had this side to him? It’s all in good fun, and everyone on board is having a great time. Bill Evans has been gathering some shark teeth, and noticed I had brought up a particularly nice specimen, so he offers to trade a few of his smaller teeth for it. “No deal”, I tell him, “anyone can find those little teeth!” He ups the offer to three teeth, then starts to sweeten it, throwing in a six pack of Coors Light. Hmmmm….we may end up doing business here! Rick Savage, Loretta’s counter-part, has also managed to shoot a few spadefish on this wreck.

Our second dive is on the USS Schurz, an interesting historical wreck that started as Geier, a 254 ft long German ‘unprotected cruiser’ launched in 1894. In 1916 it was doing war duty in the Pacific, and after it had captured a British freighter, it found it self hiding from a few Japanese warships by docking in Honolulu (before we called it Pearl Harbor) and at that time it was considered a ‘neutral port’ – remember Hawaii was not a state yet. Well when the US entered the war in 1917 it decided to intern the Geier, rename it the USS Schurz, and put it work in the Great War. It was doing patrol duty on the Eastern seaboard in 1918 when, on a foggy night, it was rammed by another U.S. flagged vessel, the Florida. It sunk off the coast of North Carolina in 107 feet of water with the loss of only one life out of a crew 219. Today it lies somewhat broken up but mainly intact on the bottom, covered in fish life of all sorts. We were circling the bow, taking in the silent barrels of the 5-inch guns, and rooting through the gravel for teeth, when suddenly we found ourselves living the Discovery Channel as first a huge barracuda blasted right next to us nailing a smaller fish, and then in the confusion, two large amberjacks came right in, taking out two more from the crowd! Boy it sucks to be small in nature. We had a great 50 minutes of bottom time at 107 ft to take it all in and finally returned to our boat, (leaving Matt’s computers hanging to finish their dive again) only to find the trash talking ratcheted up a notch. Watching Nate and Loretta go at was great! Our group also shot a grouper and a few more spadefish on this dive so the cooler is starting to fill up.

And of course I got more teeth, so now Bill ups the offer, four of his small teeth, plus TWO 6-packs, for my big one. I tell him no, I need to see at least a 30-pack on the table! He mumbles something, Charlie tells him the tooth is worth it, and Dennis concurs….sounds like some blue mountains of hydration are heading my way!

Dive #3 is back on the Spar, and my buddy Matt is moving a little slower as he gears up. Normally I might be b tad upset as bottom time is being wasted, but with our NC crew, there is no rush, no schedule, just great diving. So as we head down the line to the wreck we are passing a few who are already coming up having completed their dive. Thinking we’ll be lonely down there on the wreck? Hardly…..as the crowd thins, the guests of honor come out to play – the sandtiger sharks! Matt and I are treated to a private show for 45 minutes with the sharks buzzing us as close as three to four feet; their massive 10 to 12 foot long bodies slowly passing by so close we can touch them. Friggin’ amazingly cool, we are mesmerized, taking photos, watching all around us, as the curious sharks continue to check us out, comfortable to approach now that there are only two of us here. There are also a whole school of southern stingrays buzzing us along the bottom. All of nature came out to play for us today! We are speechless when we board, and everyone is all smiles after this spell-binding experience that only nature can provide.

It’s dinner at a local tavern called Raps for us, located conveniently next to the ‘other NC guys’ dive lodge, Olympus. Dinner is great and there is even an impromptu floor show by a somewhat inebriated local cutie that just iced a great day all around. Dennis, Bill & Charlie agree – you can’t get it like this at home! We head back to our dorm, and Matt T and Erik are already in bed, so it’s an early night for all. I retire, making sure Matt has the lights off, cause the psychedelic moon and stars scene of the material above my bunk would surely inspire nightmares in a weaker man. Where the dorm designers came up with this stuff I do not know, but I do know it is scary.

Monday and we rise for the last time in our bunks, ready for one more great day of diving. Since it is only a 2-tanker today, we get an hour respite in the morning, not loading until 7 a.m. There are thunder clouds and storm activity on the ocean, but Capt. Terry sails clear of the disturbance, and we enjoy a fantastic double rainbow on our way offshore. Today’s first destination is the Caribsea, a 261 ft long freighter that was transporting a load of manganese ore from Cuba to Norfolk, VA when it was struck by two German torpedoes, sinking in minutes with the loss of 7 men of her crew of 28. The survivors held on for 10 hours in the water before finally being rescue by the freighter Norlindo. Coincidently the Norlindo was sunk two months later off the Dry Tortugas by another German U-boat. Our group enjoys a good 50 minute dive on this shallow (90 ft) wreck, before we move on to our final location.

It’s quieter on board today, as both the Beaver family and Loretta have not joined us. Karen needs to get back to college (today was actually her first day, so no perfect attendance award for her this year) so Keith and Nathan headed back to get her there. The rest of us soldier on, making a few new friends on board, and joined by a couple of other northeast divers who came from a far less friendly and outgoing camp than ours. Oh well!

Last drop is the wreck of the Portland, another WWII casualty whose fate is a mystery, other than the end result of finding her on the bottom. It was reported that this Panamanian freighter, 289 feet long, sank after running aground, but she sits in 60 ft of water so if it did hit the shoals it certainly drifted a few miles before coming to rest on the bottom. Due to the shallow water visibility is often ‘iffy’, and today it was more of a Jersey wreck than a NC one, with viz in the under 20 ft range. Covered with life, including a lot of hard coral, it is home to huge toadfish and triggerfish, while lots of flounder can be found in the sand all around the wreck. We enjoyed 55 minutes on this final dive, with Matt showing prowess with the reel for navigation to get us home. Good work Matt!

Back at the dock, it’s hugs and handshakes all around as we all pack up and head our separate ways. Most of us have to work tomorrow, but Charlie, Bill and Dennis are leading a life of leisure, taking two days to get home. Nice! Matt and I pack up the truck, grab a few cold drinks and plug in ‘home’ on the GPS. The trip is long but uneventful, and we finally arrive home at 2:00 a.m., a little worse for the wear but still thrilled over what a wonderful weekend it was. We’ll be back in a month to visit our friends at Discovery Diving again!