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… 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!