It’s Autumn, so the journey south begins!

South to Key Largo, that is! Time for the IVS snowbirds to visit our favorite underwater playground, the Florida Keys! Twenty-five of us are invading the quiet hamlet of Key Largo this weekend, just in time for Pirates Festival! Like this gang needs a festival or any other sort of excuse to party! We’re more like “party catalysts”; just add us to any setting and watch it morph into non-stop fun & laughter with a good bit of diving mixed in.

So most of the team was so eager to get started they took early, early flights today, heading out as early as 6 and 8 a.m. The “‘first in Florida” bunch included Bev Loggins, Lin Gusenko, the entire Swartley clan (Jim, Lynn, Jessica, DJ & Hannah), Brian LaSpino, Deanna Kuik, Ray Graff, John & Jody Alcott, Misty Pillegi, Robert Bruce and his dad, Robert Sr. I, on the other hand, am taking a more leisurely 2:00 p.m. flight down – you know I hate all that rushing and anxiety when I travel. So I am thinking this will be a quiet morning to get my desk cleared off before heading to the airport, with no interruptions at all. Or so I thought, until my phone jingled with my first text at 6:30 a.m…..”Dave, bring that pink knife down that you have on display” was the first text from Lynn Swartley. OK, I think, I can handle that, as quiet time resumes. Nope, there’s the phone again, this time it’s Brian LaSpino, texting me to say that Ray Graff has forgotten his drivers license so his son will be dropping it off at the shop for me to bring with me. OK, quiet time resumes….no, there’s Lynn again, wanting a response on the knife text…..geeez…”OK, it’s in the bag” I write…let me get some work done here. Now the phone rings again, and it’s Ray, telling me he forgot his license (is he not standing next to Brian???) and letting me know his son will be dropping it off. “Got it”, I tell him. more text from the gang “we’re boarding”…thank goodness, I think, and finally by 8:00 a.m. I can get some work done. No….the phone rings now, it’s Ray’s son, he has the license but does not have a car, so can I come pick it up? Holy smokes…..note to self….I should have taken an 8 o’clock flight too!

So finally I can get back to packing for the trip (yes I know, but I hate to pack too early!). So I grab one big ol’ Pelican case and start to pack….wow that filled quick, let me get another…..gosh these must have shrunk, cause this one is full too…hold on, phone is ringing, on line customer wants to modify his order…OK…..back to packing,….wait…..customer walks in for some rental gear….OK need to really move on this packing….shoot, phone again, another order….I need to pack! …. door opens, it’s Chris Whitpan here to finish the install of the audio-visual system in the classroom…back to packing….I grab another Pelican case…..yep the rebreather fits in here, but that is all, and what about those rental BC’s I got talked in hauling down….wow…OK phone is ringing again, this time I have a language barrier to overcome and a poor connection to boot…….another order, then he calls back to add more things……OK I am up to four cases now and I have no clothes packed yet! Open circuit gear, singles & double wings, pile of regulators, rebreather, oxygen and diluent cylinders, stuff for classes, CO2 absorbent for the ‘breather, full set of gear for my daughter, couple more BC’s for others……what was I thinking when I said “sure, I’ll bring ’em down”? How we doing on time? Hmmmm…..

Chris calls me out to the shop for a dog and pony show and wow am I impressed! Let’s see what it does and how it works, this will be so cool…if I didn’t have that pesky flight to catch! OK grab a pile of clothes, estimate count for clean undies, carry them over to the cases and start shoving them in where they will fit, no room in my budget to add a fifth case! Hold on, let me check the weight here….hmmm…OK move a few things around, feels better. Look at that time! I admit defeat and make the call….”hello Delta, Dave is gonna miss his 2:00 flight”…. OK I am on a 3:15 now, this should work, what could go wrong? So I am about done packing, and working with Chris, and only two or three more phone calls, and I need to get a newsletter out with the store hours! Shoot! Almost forgot that! So sit down, put on my creative hat, crank one out….done! Getting close, run over to dorm, shirt and shoes are off, getting ready to jump in shower, car pulls in, guy walks in shop….geeez….I run out, shirtless & shoeless, he is looking to rent some gear! I explain the airline’s general rules that they cannot always wait for Dave, and he understands, will come back later when we open. Back to dorm, in shower, no time to dry hair, grab a few more things to pack, back to shop, still jamming, door opens and it’s Amir Stark in to pick up his new camera system!

Well we can see why Bev doesn’t let me near the cash register…..I fumble through the sale, finally get it right, process his credit card, manage to lock his receipt in the cash drawer with no idea of how to open it, tell him to stop back on Tuesday for that when Bev is back in. Whew! And of course he has some stories to share, but my dripping hair and half loaded van tell the story – I gotta git! Look at that time, I toss the rest of my bags into the van, bid farewell to Amir and Chris, leave them in charge, run a brush through my hair, and climb into the van. Only three stops before I get on the turnpike, two banks and Ray’s house for that drivers license. I pull into the drive-thru lane and realize the folks in front of me must get to the bank maybe once a month, and it is a social event for them. Yack, yack, yack, I can see the hands waving, and imagine the stories being shared, all while my departure time clock is ticking! I start to back out, only to find out I am jammed in now with a car behind me. OK, finally, they are done, and I pull up, only to find chatty Kathy has only begun to share her life with the customers she’ll see today. OK, be cool, keep it cordial, yep we’re the scuba place with the big inflatable diver in front, wow that’s great you like to bring the grandson over to see him, yes we had a a big event last month…….please just cash that check!!! Oooops she needs my license, after all this…OK..finally, cash in hand, it is off to bank #2 to make a deposit. I pull in, there is a car pulling out of the first spot, I stop, and they freeze like deer in the headlights, start to pull back into the spot….noooooo…just pull out I am waving to them…come on please! They look at me, I am still enforcing my cordial mode, please, I beckon, just pull the heck out of that spot so I can pull in. Finally, they get it, pull out, I am in, run to the bank, take care of business and run back out. Let me call Ray’s son to let him know I am coming down…..great, I get a message…..try again….no answer….I head down to Ray’s place. I pull in the first driveway of the development, realize I am not on Ray’s street, turn around, pull back out, into the next one..same story…..out, geeez where did he hide his house? OK, finally, third driveway, there it is, I jump out, knock, no answer, call, no answer……finally I look down and there is an envelope there….yep it’s Ray”s license. Good….back in the van, we might, just might, make this flight!

Down the turnpike I fly, in Nascar mode now, weaving, drafting, thinking three cars ahead, we might, just might do it…..tick tick tick…..through the construction, no accidents, tick tick….OK..finally, reality check……I am NOT going to make it. So I hit speed dial for Delta (doesn’t everyone have that on their phone?) and once again, “David is not going to make his 3:15 flight”. Well I am in luck as there is a 4:26 via Detroit, so OK, put me on it. I relax, finish my drive down to the airport, park in a remote lot, haul my four pelican cases to the shuttle, and head over to check in. I pull up and as the driver opens the door, it is suddenly break time for the two younger skycaps, leaving me with one that was probably loading bags when Wilbur & Orville were working the bugs out. Yes I’ll drag ’em over, and put them on the scale. Yikes, that one is 130 pounds! How did it get that heavy? OK, let me move a few things, around, and meanwhile the wheels of commerce are slowly turning in grandpa’s head there. While I recognize I will be hit for at least one extra bag, maybe too, you can imagine my jaw dropping when he announces “that will be $647 in excess bag fees”. The laughter of disbelief swells up inside me but I manage to contain it, and take on a Dr. Phil demeanor, recognizing firm counseling and financial intervention are in order here. “Let’s work through that”, I say, so I come around the counter, and we go through the computer system with my baggage info. “Oh look here”, I say, “that bag did not weigh that”, banking on him not wanting to drag them off the cart and back to the scale. One by one we work it through, and in the end it is $125 in excess fees, OK, I begrudgingly pay it, appreciating that discount we managed to work through! Done. Bags head down the conveyor, and I bop on up through to see some of my favorite folks, the TSA. Today we pass through without incident, in spite of me carrying a full set of gear for my daughter as carry-on (had to pull it out of the bags to show good effort on my part). To the gate, I get my boarding pass, and walk down the jetway. Let me see where they put me, I think, as I glance at my ticket. That must me a mistake I am seeing – my seat is 28E……way in the back of the bus and in the middle of a row! Like a salmon, I turn against the current of humans, and walk back up into the terminal, to plead my case to the gate agents. No go here, the flight is completely full, first class has checked in full, that is the only seat for me. OK..I head back down to the plane…I didn’t even know they had 28 rows in this plane – it was like a visit to a strange and foreign land, and I wasn’t sure if I was having fun. OK, I take my middle seat, hoping for Twiggy and her sister to be my seatmates, but no, here comes a big guy, and he plops down into the aisle seat. OK, I still have a chance, I look up at the folks coming down the aisle, mentally picking the ones I hope stop and get in our row, but they keep going past. Finally here comes one big man, and I am thinking “Noooooooo!” but to no avail, he stops, points, and I realize that i am done for. Let’s just say on Southwest he’d be a two-seater for sure, and he’s my seat mate for this ride to the Motor City. He slides in, oooozing humanity against the seat backs, and slides into his spot. I realize there is a seat space infraction here, and do my best to get small, but there are limits to that. We finally arrive in Detroit, and my right thigh is damp from my seatmates body heat and sweat…yuck!

OK, let’s see if we can turn this trip around now! I decide to hydrate a bit in the Delta airport club, and now things seem to be a bit better! Even better when they tell me I am #1 on the upgrade list for first class! A little blogging, and finally I head down to the gate, and lo and behold, there is my new seat assignment there….yes, there is an airline god! Only one glitch here now… eldest daughter Kristen Valaika has flown in from college on Southwest to Fort Lauderdale, and I am heading to Miami. So, I fire off a few texts to her to see if she can take a shuttle to Miami and save me those extra two hours of driving tonight, so she’ll be checking that out when she arrives in FLL. We take off on time, and the flight is uneventful as we finally arrive in Miami at 11:00. My ever resourceful daughter Kristen Valaika has indeed manage to shuttle herself down and meets me in baggage claim in Miami…what a chip off the old block she is!

Meanwhile, while I’ve been enjoying this relaxing day of travel and communication with the airline ticket agents, a bunch of the guys managed to get a night dive in at Amoray to kick off the weekend. Heading out into the darkness were John & Jody, Brian & Deanna, and Jim & DJ were treated to absolutely perfect conditions and some nice critter sightings. And while they were out playing, instructor Ray has spent the entire afternoon and evening in the pool with Jessi Matz, Lynn’s niece from the Tampa area, as we are checking her out this weekend with a marathon confined water session and dives tomorrow!

Our west coast contingement has also checked in, after a long day of flying, and this group included Sue Douglass, her sister Sandy Stelle, and Sue’s student Laura Callihan who is also her to complete her open water certification this weekend. And Tom Brennan drove down from Winter Garden to spend the weekend with some of his favorite peeps too!

One of the things we have come to expect and appreciate is how well Amoray maintains their boat for us, helping to ensure a great experience with every visit. On the downside, it seems that when they are setting up their maintenance schedule, they look up to see when IVS is coming to town, as we are getting to know their mechanics on a first name basis! Today we’ll be installing some new rods in the port engine, so that’s gonna delay the departure until 9:30 or so. That’s going to cut into our blender drink time at Hartman’s house this evening for sure!

So while the gang waited on the boat repairs, some of us headed over to Jules Undersea Lodge for a morning set of dives. The party included Sue, Laura, Sandy, Misty, Jessi, and myself, so we could knock out open water dives 1 & 2 for Jessi & Laura, along with a refresher for Sandy & Misty. We got in a couple of nice dives in 80 degree water with decent viz and more lobsters walking around than you could shake a tickle stick at! Very cool to see that. The rest of the gang finally got out and headed south and dove Snappers Ledge and Davis Reef, sites we rarely head down to, so that was pretty special.

After lunch we all went out on the Amoray Diver and headed out to the elbow, where we enjoyed some great visibilty, lots of turtles, and a couple of really nice dives. The evening wrapped up with a birthday barbecue to celebrate Jess Swartley’s 18th birthday and everyone crashed early after a long day in the sun. Our final straggler Cindy Eisenhauer finally showed up, so our troop is complete for the weekend.

Saturday morning we awoke to one hellacious rainstorm and a bit of wind. It finally died down somewhat before 8, and the decision was made to go….4 to 6 ft seas, windy, rainy and overcast today – sounds like we’re diving in New Jersey! Oh well, we head out in spite of the reports, and pass through another teeming rainstorm, then like magic, the sky clears, a rainbow appears, the seas lay down, and we enjoy two great dives in near perfect conditions. Sadly, half our group actually believed the weather report and opted to stay behind. I sense a conspiracy here, I think the local boat captains and crews call in exaggerated weather reports just to get the day off! There were only about 5 other boats out today, on what should be a busy Saturday, and there was no reason to NOT be on the ocean!

Back at the dock we load up for this afternoon’s visit to the Spiegel Grove and the Benwood wrecks, and we are looking forward to a continuation of this great weather. We sail out under sunny skies but rolling seas, intent on our mission to dive. As we hit the open ocean the rolling part becomes very real, and we are headed directly into the waves. A 48 ft Corinthian catamaran does NOT take bow waves well at all, and we enjoy 30-plus minutes of wave after wave crashing over the bow and down the deck of the boat, soaking everyone and re-arranging gear across the deck.

Now speaking from my sensitive side, Lynn Swartley has been patiently waiting and praying for someone to do something that would get more mileage than her dropping her weights on the Spiegel Grove and then drifting away, only to end up on someone else’s boat. Well today was her day! As we are blasting through the waves and wind, someone tosses their daughter’s wetsuit from the front seat of the boat, only to watch the wind carry it, first smacking our first mate John across the head, then sailing off into the ocean. Capt. Jacob quicky spins the boat around, and alternate Capt. Dan manages to retrieve the lost article from the wind-whipped seas. Whew…miracle save, and now Lynn is off the hook…except… was Lynn who tossed the wetsuit in the first place! So she’s back as our poster girl of things NOT to do on an IVS trip! Nice job Lynn!

Our first location this afternoon is the Speigel so we tie up to one of the bow balls and everyone gears up and gets down. Each team executes their dive plans perfectly, and returns to the boat with smiles and great stories to share. In fact, nearly every group returns to OUR boat with those smiles and stories, except for one little team who managed to end up on Rainbow Reef’s boat. Now you’re thinking “oh my gosh, was this Lynn again?” Like Paul Harvey says, I’ll be back with the rest of this story in a few!

Let us just say, we have a new ball designation on the Spiegel Grove, what used to be known as Ball 6 is now the “G ball”. Yes, our very own Ray Graff led his team of Swartleys, Jess & DJ, not only up the wrong ball, but onto the wrong boat, from where Captain Jacob called over and instructed the other boat’s captain to throw our divers into the water as there will be no rescues today! Oh the shame!! So yes, while Lynn is off the hook for our story telling, the Swartley’s managed to keep it alive as a team! Nice job Jess & DJ! In Ray’s defense, during his debriefing he referred to the experience as more of “an opportunity to expand the sphere of knowledge of young divers to other dive operators and procedures, rather than “the wrong ball”. Nice twist on the event, Ray!

While all that fun was going on at Ball 6, we had some other great things happening too! Dave Hartman led Deanna Kuik on her first major wreck tour & penetration, accompanied by Cindy Eisenhauer and Brian LaSpino. And Sue Douglass led an all-chicks tour with Bev Loggins, Sandy Stelle, and Lin Gusenko, who was visiting her first wreck, and penetrating it, since her incident two years ago in North Carolina. A very special day for Lin and we are thrilled to have her diving with us!

From that momentous location we motored over to the Benwood and enjoyed some more turtle encounters and other critter interactions. All in all, a great day of diving, wrapped up with dinner at the Paradise Pub, where we got to see the Phillies go down in flames to the Giants. How sad!

Sunday morning came and the skies were radiant with sunshine as we headed out for some morning reef dives. Viz was a bit off, OK, sucked, mostly as a result of the wind for the past two days. BUt the dives were done none the less, and we are honored to welcome Laura Callihan and Jessi Matz into the family of IVS-certified divers – way to go ladies! Back at the dock we talked about the wind direction and determined that perhaps two dives on the Spiegel would be better than having to motor from the Duane to the Spiegel, so that’s what we did. Great dives all around, many if our divers enjoyed swimming through the props at 140 ft, some training as Jim Swartley and Robert Bruce finished their Wreck Diver Specialty and Robert also wrapped up his Advanced Open Water certification – way to go men! They also got to experience some real silt out conditions in the laundry room and both went home with a good visual of what a penetration dive should NOT look like! Great real world training for sure! Finally most of us wrapped up the day with dinner at the Key Largo Conch House who stayed open for us this evening – these folks are great!

Monday came and we headed back to whence we started from, full of great new memories, stories to share, and some more great dives in the logbooks. See you all again soon!