Keys, Keys Everywhere….which one(s) to choose??

And once again, we’re off! This time we are starting on a multi-faceted journey, but to keep things simple, we’ll blog ’em in parts. Part one starts our journey southward, heading from Harleysville to the Florida Keys for a week of excitement including doing some training in Key Largo, then on to Marathon to train some some divers on the Poseidon Mk VI rebreather, then finally ending up in Key West and conducting our final Wreck Racing League event of the 2010 season.

So of course it begins with waking up on “travel day” and figuring out what needs to get done before I can actually get on my flight. Today, that list is short but concise – review the modifications to the race scooter at the machine shop, get it crated and shipped, empty the rental truck we have loaded with items from the shop for storage, return said rental truck, pack my dive gear, pack my clothes, and get to the airport. In fact, the only thing I don’t have to address is packing the rebreather which John Glo has thankfully taken care of last night! OK, that certainly takes care of my morning!

So things progress amazingly well this morning, and my good friend Ray Graff comes over to the shop to help me get on my way and give me a ride to the airport. I have already picked up the modified scooter, met with Mike Petrochko who is building the shipping crates, handled few dozen emails, packed my scuba gear, fed the chickens, watered the ducks and walked the dogs….so just need to shower and pack! Ray offers to drive the truck over to Philadelphia Toboggan, where owner and IVS dive Tom Rebbie graciously has loaned us storage space, and unload it. I say go ahead, I’ll meet you over there! So Ray takes off and I finished getting ready. Well wouldn’t you know it, but by the time I get there Ray & Tom have just finished getting the last piece off the truck. Timing is everything!!

So we’ve got time, so Tom gives us a factory tour and history of his business, and then we start talking horses, and before you know it we are looking at his custom made horse trailer, and that leads to a sneak preview of his newest roller coaster car for an upcoming trade show. OK, we’re still good on time, I note. OK probably should head on out now, still need to fuel up the rental. So where can we get some diesel in this part of town? No where, that’s where, and we have to drive back up almost to the shop to fuel up the truck. OK, this is cutting into our time a little, so let’s get moving here! We pull out, and I find myself behind a series of cars that are two days late on getting out on the road, cause they ‘Sunday drivers’ for sure! Holy smokes, they must be reproducing, cause as soon we get around one, we find another! Man now the time is starting to look a little tight, and we still have not returned the truck. I briefly consider parking it and letting Ray take care of it later, but where’s the fun in that? We’re gonna make this happen!!

Finally we return the truck, and head down towards the airport. Lot’s of back roads, and more Sunday drivers out to slow us down. We are finally on the Blue Route, and I am checking the time, 28 minutes til baggage cut-off, and we are 19 miles up the road. Push it, push it…18 minutes till cut-off and we still have 9 miles of Blue Route plus 5 more up I-95 to cover. I call Delta,to check out my options. Yep there is one last flight that I could catch that would get me to Miami tonight, but I maintain the faith, and tell the agent to not change my ticket yet. We’re gonna make it, by golly!

OK, we hit I-95 with 9 minutes to go, with a one minute discrepancy between the van’s clock and my wristwatch. I’m going with the wristwatch here, and push it a little harder. We weave and bob our way up to the 291 exit, and cut off, passing another car or two as we have the airport in site! Dang..red light…gives me time to grab my ID though which may prove critical at check-in. OK, it’s green, and we blast into the airport. I point out the six speed bumps to Ray as we fly over them, and he is thankful for his potty break at the truck rental place. Three minutes now…..here is the Delta skycap, two rental car vans with Delta passengers are pulling up, so I gun it and swing in to cut off the vans, ensuring my first place in line. Throw it into park, and I jump out to grab the skycap’s attention. Quickly he types me in, and with 90 seconds to spare, my baggage claim checks are printing! Whew!!

Of course between my three cases I have exactly 210 pounds of “stuff”, but unfortunately it is not evenly distributed. “That will be $90 each for the two overweight bags”, he informs me. ” I don’t think so, my friend” I inform him, chock full of confidence now that the boarding passes have printed. So I throw each of the two offending bags onto the scale, pop the tops, get them down to 70’ish pounds, and toss the removed items into my third bag. Done – $180 still intact in my pocket.

I breeze through my favorite camera-washing station, Philadelphia’s TSA security, and have them give it a once over. “You missed a spot”, I joke, but my humor falls on the deaf ears of a Federal Agent. Oh well, we pass – again! – and I head on down where my flight is boarding – again, timing is everything!

So I take my seat and as I am setting my things down Kathleen, a health care consultant from Scottsdale, AZ, slides into the seat next to me. She seems harmless, or so it appears. The flight attendant asks what we would like to drink, and she asks for a Scotch, straight up, while I opt for my standard pre-flight hydration, a Miller Lite. My god, you would have thought I just backed over her kitten! “You are drinking light beer?”, she asks with a tone of disdain, like the words ‘light’ and ‘beer’ cannot be used in the same sentence! So I say, somewhat befuddled, “Why yes, yes I am”. “Why?”, she asks, “it has no flavor”. Is this Tom Brennan’s secret sister, I am thinking to myself, abusing me over my taste (or lack thereof) in brews. She then goes on to inform me that she and her own sister have started a log of all the micro-breweries they have visited across the world and which they prefer so they can plan travels around them. They have their own beer drama to deal with, as her sister Marianne prefers a wheat beer, while Kathleen is all about hops & ale. I can see we’ll have plenty of common things to talk about on this flight to Atlanta.

Thank goodness the Miller supply outlasted the flight time, and I survived the unending ribbing about my beverage of choice. I bid farewell to Ms Kathleen in Atlanta, and seek out the Delta Crown Room to settle my nerves (and enjoy another light beer, without the abuse!). Finally back on a plane and heading south to Miami, my airborne destination for the evening. This flight is nicer, and my seatmate is none other than Jerome Bettis, former star of that other football team from PA, the Steelers. Cool thing is he is a normal guy, and even better, drinks light beer! We bond immediately, almost like brothers (although he has a better tan)! No, I do not get an autograph, although about half a dozen other yahoo’s on the plane pushed their way in to get one. Tell me….what are you doing to do with that??

In Miami, touchdown is uneventful, and I stop for some hydration to give the baggage guys time to hump my stuff up to the Delta carousel, Good news is that if you leave it go around enough times, the good folks in baggage actually will gather it for me at the office and I can just pick it up there. Cool! My tissues properly hydrated, I head down, gather my bags, and shuttle it over to the car rental center to pick up my ride for the week. An hour later I am snuggling in my bed at IVS-South headquarters aka casa Hartman.

I awake Wednesday morning to put my rebreather together, and ask Dave Hartman where the new electronics module is that he was supposed to pick up for me yesterday. My old one, just back from a factory rebuild, had failed on start-up last week, and Poseidon Central in Houston, TX assured us they would make good on this and get me one to use this week. Well it seems that somewhere between Poseidon Central and the overnight shipping guru’s at UPS, that my package somehow did not arrive yesterday as promised. Not pointing fingers, but I’ve been shipping things for 30 years, and my stuff arrives when promised. Not sure who dropped the ball here, but I do know when I look at the ground, there lies the ball. Needless to say, this certainly fouls my ability to teach on the rebreather today as planned. So I shift gears, head down to Hall’s Diving Center, and meet my students. Since I am rebreather-less, I have the students go through some maintenance and care training, review academics, and then we head to the pool to work on trim and basic skills. Our ocean dives are deferred to Friday, when I would hope I have my parts here by then. Sooooo frustrating, not to mention embarrassing. We shall get past this, but so unnecessary.

Thursday is Veterans Day, so it is a teaching holiday in Florida, and I am forced to spend the day working in my pseudo office at IVS_south headquarters. Lots gets done, and it ends up being a very productive day. The new parts get swapped in the rebreather, and we geta couple of successful start-ups, so I am excited about tomorrow! Dave & I end up having dinner at Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill, and boy the food is good here. Plus the NFL is on tonight, so we get to see the ASPCA’s new mascot Michael Vick’s old team the Atlanta Braves put a shellacking on the Baltimore Ravens. Nice way to relax with a good friend in a fun town. And it’s an early departure from the game as I head up to the Miami airport to pick up Sue Douglass who has flown in to participate in the weekend’s race activities in Key West. Her plane is early but the bags are late (tell me how that happens??) so it is almost 2 a.m. by the time we get back to our lodging for the night.

Friday morning and I am back at Hall’s with my students, Christina from San Francisco and Kyle from Broomall, PA – yes that Broomall, about 20 miles from Indian Valley Scuba! Yes it is an amazingly small world. We get the units re-assembled, go through our checklists, brief for today’s dives and skills, and load the gear up on the Lady Key Diver, and we head out to a nice deep reef location, with a max depth approx 60 ft deep. We review our briefing, gear up, conduct our on-board safety checks, and make a hot drop in for a nice drift dive down the reef line. My students look pretty good, and have decent weighting in the water. Christina takes a bit of work to get her neutral at depth, and Kyle looks good. We also have Mike in our group, a recent Hall’s rebreather graduate, so I have my hands full on this dive. We drift down the reef line, comforted by the occasional sound of the Lady Key Diver moving overhead to keep up with us by watching out buoy, as there are no bubble trails to follow with the closed circuit rebreathers! So at 45 minutes I signal for us to ascend, making it clear I want a three minute safety stop at 15 ft. before we hit the surface.

Well let’s just say this is where the fun began! At 60 ft I look them in the eyes and motion to “go up”, so I start up. I watch as I ascend, as they go about a series of adjustments, fin strokes, and other motions, never the less maintaining their depth at 60 ft. Hmmmm..I am thinking, was I not clear that this dive will actually end AT THE SURFACE? I am not sure so I drop back down, get their attention, and once again, suggest we head on up now. So once again I start up, and finally MIke is heading up, Kyle starts up, and then Christina, not wanting to be left behind, really starts up!!!!! I reach out and grab her, drag her back down, and get her to vent her BCD a bit. That stops her uncontrolled ascent, at least for now. So now we are heading up, with the goal being that magical depth of 15 ft. Suddenly there is a turtle below us, and the students start to motion to each other to look at it. Well, like a dog and a frisbee, there went our buoyancy control, as they spiraled downward to some depth between the desired and the maximum.

So I allow them plenty of time for self-correction, and finally I head back, let them know we are still in class, and we head back up. This time the BCD is not the issue for Christina, but her counter-lungs which are over-full, so again I grab her, stop her ascent, and get her to dump her lungs. Whew! We begin to head up to our safety stop (thank goodness we are on rebreathers and not open circuit or we’d be out of gas for sure by now). So we are there, Mike is hanging, Christina is too, and Kyle must be on a yo-yo, 35 to 10 feet of depth on his safety stop. Oh no…suddenly there is a nurse shark, and again the kids get excited, and there goes our buoyancy control. Yes these are one-task ponies for sure, and we’ll be going over that in our de-briefing!

OK, enough goofing off, I once again go down and use my firmest, most daddy-like “it is time to go up NOW” hand signals. We ascend, and again, Kyle is struggling to maintain his buoyancy again. Now Christina starts giving me hand motions, pointing at her watch and asking hwo long am I going to make them hang at this safety stop. Well, I am thinking, once we are ALL at our safety stop, we can start the clock, eh? I drop down to Kyle, lock eyes with him and using powers of mental coercion get him to stop screwing around and get up to 15 feet where we can start the safety stop clock. He gets it, we hang and ascend to be picked up by the boat. Whew!

Back on board we do a little de-briefing, and go over all the good and not-so-good things we saw underwater. As one might imagine, the critiques don’t go very well, but once we get past the defensiveness, it turns out to be a great discussion and everyone is excited about getting in for our next dive and a chance to really work on our skills and the ability to manage more than one task at a time. This time the dive is on a shallower reef, and we anchor, drop in, and enjoy a nice dive. As suggested, the students cruise along just inches off the sand bottom, maintaining their buoyancy within inches during the entire dive. I smile inside, knowing how good they are feeling getting in control of their machines, not the other way around. Kyle has to exit early, as he has huffed through his gas, but he manages his stop well, and Christina, Mike and I finish out the dive together. We ascend and they execute flawless safety stops, communicating with the team, maintaining buoyancy, watching gauges, and even seeing some wildlife! What a difference between dive one and two! We surface, re-board the boat, and it is high fives all around. It is so amazing when “it clicks” for a diver, and I am honored to be here with them to experience it!

We head back in, conduct our post-dive maintenance on the machines, and finish with a great de-briefing for the past couple of days. I wish them the best, complete their paperwork, and head out. I pick up Sue and we roll down to Key West, where Part II of this adventure is just beginning!

It’s 6:30 when we roll in the Ibis Bay Hotel, host facility for the Wreck Racing League’s last event of their inaugural season, the Quest for Atocha Gold! This is our fourth race of the season, and like the previous three, it is designed to highlight the local scene as well as the concept of competitive underwater scooter racing. Indian Valley Scuba has been a sponsor of the Wreck Racing League from it’s inception, and our co-sponsors for this weekend’s event include Mel Fisher Treasures, the Florida Keys Community College, Key West Hidden Treasure resort, and the M/V Spree.

The event starts with a pre-race meeting for racers, spectators, and the media at the Ibis Bay Hotel. The folks from Mel Fisher have come out with a million dollars worth of actual treasure, it is is impressive to say the least! The theme for this event is the treasure from the lost Spanish Fleet, highlighted by the ship Atocha. The fleet suffered heavily at the hands of a hurricane in 1622, laden with official and unofficial, i.e. smuggled, treasure from South America and other locations. It struck the reef and sunk in 30 feet of water. A week later a search crew came up from Havana to find five survivors clinging to the mast which stuck out of the water. Once they rescued the hardy survivors, salvage divers attempted to go down for the cargo, only to find that the ship had been properly battened down during the storm and could not be accessed without heavy equipment. They left for Havana to get the gear and by the time they returned another storm had passed through, dragging the sunken wreck into deeper water and breaking it apart, scattering the treasure across the seabed. So much for the salvage operation, although the Spaniards continued to return and search for the wreck for over 250 years.

Enter Mel Fisher and the rest of the story is history now, with hundreds of millions of dollars in treasure salvaged to date, and well over that amount again still hiding and under the bottom of the sea. But back to our racing, one of the programs at Florida Keys Community College is marine archaeology, which certainly includes old sunken ships. Once the Atocha was discovered, the Mel Fisher group working in conjunction with FKCC’s archaeology department, and documented the wreck site. Recognizing the historic significance, and the opportunity for others to learn from it, they decided to relocate the actual timbers that formed the hull of the wreck into the lagoon at the college, re-creating the actual wreck site for generations to study and explore within the safe confines of the protected lagoon. That is where we’re planning to conduct this final race for 2010, the ‘Quest for Atocha Gold’.

And to add to the growing popularity of the Wreck Racing League, this weekend’s event is being filed by Adrenalina TV, a major actions sports adventure program on the Dish Network and selected cable markets. Pablo Lanatta, the show’s host, has brought his entire production team up for the weekend to capture the adventure from beginning to end. They filmed the presentations on Friday night by race organizer Joe Weatherby, Atocha expert Joe Rice from FKCC, Mel Fisher VP Shawn Cowles, and yours truly, speaking on the growing interest in adaptive scuba programs and how IAHD-Americas is rising to meet the challenge for more instructors and professionals.

Saturday morning we started at the college, where we spent the morning conducting a PADI Diver Propulsion Vehicle certification class for 26 new DPV divers, as well as an in water demonstration of DPV’s from a dozen different manufacturers. What an exciting morning it was with diver after diver getting in the water and testing scooter after scooter, learning the skills and techniques necessary to safely operate the vehicles underwater. After the classroom and pool session, we headed into the lagoon and spent the afternoon racing from end to end in the murky waters of the FKCC lagoon. In fact, the water was so murky near the Atocha wreck timbers that the WRL executive committee convened for an emergency meeting, and decided we would switch to Plan B – let’s take the actual race out to the ocean. So who steps up to the plate other than Frank & Melanie Wasser, owners of the M/V Spree, a 100 ft liveaboard based on Stock Island, less than a mile from Key West. They donate their boat, and their crew donate the labor, to make it possible for us to return to the Vandenberg for our race! Ver cool indeed!

So once the DPV class ends, and we’ve wrapped up our meeting with Frank, it’s time to head over to Mel Fisher Treasures, the headquarters of the Mel Fisher professional salvage group. Shawn Cowles has arranged a very special behind the scenes VIP tour for the race participants, and we eagerly get cleaned up and head over to the museum. The presentation is nothing less than phenomenal, with millions and millions of dollars of treasure on display in the vault room for us to touch and see. Let me just say it is spellbinding to hold a chalice or chain or gold bar in your hands that was manufactured over 400 years ago, and which spent the last 375 years resting on the bottom of the sea. The combination of the beauty of the products, coupled with the reality of the tragedy and loss of life that was part of the process of that treasure being here with us today, really stirs something deep inside you.

We wrap up our tour as the alarms as set at the museum. Without giving any secrets away, let it suffice to say that there has never been a successful break-in at the facility which holds far more in assets than nearly any bank or museum – this place is Fort Knox in flip-flops. Once outside, it’s time to eat, so we stroll down to Alonzo’s Oyster Bar for some light snacks and libations. From there we head over to take in some of the sights and sounds of Duval Street and end up enjoying some great live music at the Hog’s Breath Bar. Perfect Key West night!

Sunday comes all too early as it’s an 8:00 show up at the Spree. Gear and scooters are loaded, tanks are topped off, race techniques and secrets are shared, and the excitement builds, We have 24 racers on board today, plus that many more in spectators, safety divers, and media personnel. This is our biggest event yet and we are pumped about it! Capt. Frank gives us a thorough safety briefing, and his lovely wife Melanie follows with the diving rules of the boat. After that the microphone is handed to Joe Weatherby and he, along with Natalie Oriente, go over the layout of the race course, the procedures, safety considerations, and how the event is going to be conducted. Our race site is the USAFS Vandenberg, a wonderful place to conduct such a cool activity. We fire up the big Detroit diesels and head out under perfectly sunny skies to the wreck as final preparations are being made on the dive deck.

Once on site, it is obvious that the current is not cooperating with us today, in fact it is ripping! We tie into the already submerged stern mooring ball, and drop our hang lines overboard. Now these hang lines have 40 pound lead blocks at the bottom of each, yet they are still swinging out at 45 degree angles with the strength of the current. This is not going to be pretty! But we are here to race, and race we must!

Joe Weatherby and the setup team get in the water with the course markers, finish line, judges camera, and the flags, and they are down nearly an hour struggling with the condtions getting things set up. Finally they come back on board, and Joe calls a meeting to make sure that everyone is aware of the conditions and can use their own judgment whether they wish to dive or race or stay on board. Amazingly, nearly everyone opts to stay the course and go race! Very cool to see the determination of the divers and how everyone is so pumped for the event. While it will be challenging, it won’t be dangerous, and that is the key. Of course with the current running lengthwise down the race course, we are expecting some record times on half the laps and some seriously slow times on the return legs!

So into the drink we go, scooters tied off to trail lines behind the boat, camera systems being managed by the crew, and the divers who are not racing with scooters kicking like mad against the very strong current. I fire up our double Hollis race sled and easily cruise down to the wreck. We’ve tweaked the machine since the last event, reducing some of the weight of the stainless steel frame with a plasma cutter, and switching out our twin 40 cu. ft. aluminum cylinders with new 4,400 psi composite cylinders from Interspiro. These are manifolded together so we only need one regulator on board, even better for streamlining! The machine really is much easier to manage than it was in the last event, and I give our improvements a big two thumbs up!

In fact, the machine performs so well I am down on the wreck and waiting at the start line a full five minutes before another racer even shows up. Thank goodness the rules committee mandated larger tanks for the racers cause sitting at 50 ft in this smoking current is causing some heavy breathing. Finally the other racers show up, and the camera team, and everyone gets situated. Joe gives the final safety check to everyone, it’s all “OK’s” from the racers, and Natalie drops the green flag! We are off, and the first leg has the current at our back, so what a quick start we had! Racing down the deck, the leg is almost 300 ft long, with a very tight pair of 90 degree turns in front of the smoke stack to negotiate to get on the back leg home. I swing wide then roll onto my side, and the scooter slips right through the markers, perfect, with no loss of velocity! I turn into the current and wham!….it is like hitting a wall! I hunker down, get as streamlined as I can , and drop down to find some quiet water that is getting some protection from the current. I am nearly on the deck at 100 ft but am able to move much more quickly down here than higher up in the water column. As I approach the start/finish line for turns 3 & 4, I realize that I need to ascend 40 ft, then swing hard, over the handrail, and down onto the roof of the pilothouse to pass in front of the judges camera. So I swing wide again, then roll onto my side as I prepare to pass over the rail and down to the deck, but when I roll I am sideways to the current, with my entire body and sled directly exposed. I am slipping downstream in the current, and as pass over the rail and roll the machine back to horizontal, my left propeller shroud catches on an antenna mast and as quick as I can type this, I am swinging a 360 degree donut around the mast! I wrestle the scooter off the mast but when I do I am now pointed vertically upward, with both throttles locked on in high speed. I pull one hand off the sled as I continue to spiral, with my tether lines started to wrap around my regulator hose and making my heavy breathing a tad more difficult now! But I need that hand to reach up and pull one, then the other, throttle locks off, and finally I come to a stop……whew!!! I must have spun around 6 or 8 times during this and now I need to quickly unclip my tethers, unwrap them from my hose, re-clip and get back in this race!!!!

I point the sled down, fire up, and pass through that darn camera, then it is up and around for lap #2. Turns 1 & 2 are flawless, and as I approach turn #3 again I give it just a little more berth, don’t roll quite as much into the current, and viola! it’s turn, pass over railing, drop to camera, then pop back up over second railing and I am onto the final lap! Nice! One more time around and it’s the checkered flag! Unfortunately while I was struggling with that earlier mishap Marissa Wiganowske had slipped past me, sporting two Pegasus thrusters on her back. She passes through the finish line with me close on her heels, but to no avail, and I finish one position out of the money! Dang!!

Finally the rest of our racers come in, and after a few more play laps, we break the course down, grab all our markers, and head back up to the Spree. Back on board it is all smiles, high fives and stories as everyone is thrilled with how much fun they had on this run! We break out the champagne and soft drinks, and gather on the sun deck for the awards ceremony. Second and third place finishers are announced, and then the big hardware is given out to the winners for each class, and they include Lisa Mongy in the recreational class, Marissa in the modified, Jennifer Jacoby in the Expedition A, and our Adrenala host Pablo Lanatta in the Expedition B class – way to go racers!!!! Afterwards we retire to the Hogfish Bar for dinner and drinks and final farewells before everyone heads on their respective ways home, smiling, tired and tanned.

Monday morning and it’s time to fly to the left coast and meet up with the face of IVS-North, Jim Cormier, who has driven the truck and trailer across America to join me at the DEMA show in Las Vegas! Not sure we want to blog anything for the next five days now – you know what they say….what goes on in Vegas……..probably ends up on Dave’s blog!!!

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One Response

  1. Re-affirms the two Dave Constants: Travel Drama, and drinking p***water beer . . .

    😉

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