Manatee Madness – Crystal River, here we come!

And so it begins, the 2012 Indian Valley Scuba season of diving!!  We’re starting the year off in traditional fashion with a trip to wrestle, er, observe the manatees who are enjoying the warm waters of central Florida, along with visiting some of the rivers and springs there also.  These lovable critters congregate each winter in the warm-ish waters of the natural springs located in this area while waiting for the ocean to warm back up.  Come spring they head off to cruise the seas, returning once again late in the year, when the temperatures start to fall, to their winter homes in Florida.  Kinda like a lot of our more senior friends and neighbors, eh?

Our kick-off trip roster includes Tom Brennan, Mairead and JJ Twohig, John Jones, and the Beaver brothers, Keith and Craig.  Yours truly had the honor of leading this crew on a fun, laid back adventure offering a great variety of diving not typically seen on most IVS trips.  Our base of operations will be the Best Western Hotel and Resort in Crystal River, FL, conveniently located in the middle of all the cool diving we plan to enjoy!  Sitting right on the banks of the Crystal River, we are literally on top of some of the greatest concentrations of manatees to be found in the Sunshine State.

Now some factoids on the focal animal of our trip, the manatee:  Manatees (family Trichechidae, genus Trichechus) are large, fully aquatic, mostly herbivorous marine mammals sometimes known as sea cows. There are three accepted living species of Trichechidae, representing three of the four living species in the order Sirenia: the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis), the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), and the West African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis). They measure up to 13 feet long, weigh as much as 1,300 pounds,and have paddle-like flippers, complete with toe nails like th. The name manatí comes from the Taíno, a pre-Columbian people of the Caribbean, meaning “breast”.  Yes, your guess is as good as mine on that name origin, but who are we to argue with the facts?

But first, we need to get there, and this is usually where all the fun begins!  Mairead and her dad, enjoying a bit of spring break from her studies at Slippery Rock University, enjoyed a leisurely drive down, visiting all sorts of neat places along the way.  The Beavers also drove, as this is the starting point of their adventure, heading from here to Key West, then on to visit Amoray Dive Center in Key Largo, before heading back to reality and the colder temps of the north.  John flew into Tampa, and my plans were to catch a 6:30 a.m. flight out of Philadelphia and have now-Florida resident Tom Brennan pick me up at Orlando airport and head west to meet the others.  Seems everyone was on time with their travel plans, well, almost everyone, as I called Tom in the morning and said he could wait a little to pick me up, instead of 1:30 it’s gonna be 3:00 now.  “No problem”, he says, “I have plenty of work to do here at home today”.  Bad idea to share that info Tom!  So, as one might imagine, the next call from me to Tom is “Make it 4:30”, followed by the “Make it 6:15 – that’s my final answer and I’m sticking to it!” call.  So, finally, Tom gets a chance to get caught up on work, and I finally arrive in the Land of Mickey to begin our fun.

Arrival in uneventful, and cannot even comment on the state of security along my journey (cause I think they are watching me!).  But I arrive unscathed, un-probed, and not too manhandled, to find Tom awaiting me outside baggage claim.  Great start to this trip; let’s hope it keeps on coming!

The hotel is pretty darn nice, and the location is superb.  Check-in is good, everyone’s happy with their rooms, and the first night is a winner!  We agree to gather at breakfast at eight to head over to Adventure Dive Center for our first day of fun – a manatee swim in Three Sisters Spring, a dive in Kings Spring, and then an afternoon of drift diving down the scenic Rainbow River.  We checked into the dive center, completed all our necessary paperwork, and watched the mandatory Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission video on manatee interaction.  From there we walked across the street (almost as convenient as diving at Amoray!) to the boat and loaded our gear for the morning.

Now yes, we are in Florida, but you sure would not know it from the chilly 50 degree air this morning, accompanied by a pretty nice breeze.  Brrrrr!  Well it’s a short ride across the bay to Three Sisters, and there are a few boats there already this morning.  We slip into the 72 degree water silently, armed only with snorkels, as the state has recently decided scuba diving is a no-no around manatees.  The good news is that the spring is literally overflowing with manatees, of all sizes and flavors, lots of moms & babies, sleeping, cruising around, checking us out, doing all the fun things that manatees enjoy doing.  The spring’s average depth is about four feet, with a few holes that drop down to nearly 20 ft.  The water is amazingly clear, and the manatees are amazingly active this morning, swimming around, checking us out, rolling over for us to tickle their bellies, and clearly not intimidated by our presence.  One big one takes a strange sort of liking to me, and comes in for one tickling session after another.  At one point she (he?) swims up, wraps a flipper around my arm, pulls me close, and puts its big lovable head in the crook of my arm, just sitting there like a puppy, as I gently scratch its head…kinda like something out of a Jurassic Park love scene.  Yes, strange animal interaction, but it was good for me, and left me thinking afterwards ….why do I suddenly have this urge for a cigarette?

OK, ok…enough of those thoughts!!   Finally, after about an hour and a half with the animals, we swim back out to boat where Captain Ned awaits, and we climb back aboard.  The breeze has picked up and my oh my, it is nippy now!  Sitting there shivering in our wetsuits, we make a unanimous decision to pass on the scuba dive in Kings Spring, and head back to the dock to warm up.  Yes, I passed on a dive…..but trust me…when the total temperature of the air and water combined is less than 120 degrees, you can do the math…..we were cold!!

Back on shore, we got out of our wet things and enjoyed a nice lunch at ‘Taste of Philly’, the most authentic cheesesteak source in the south.  Owned by a couple of ex-Philadelphians, the place is properly decorated with all the correct sports team logos (Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, 76’ers) and the accent by the staff is genuine south Philly.  Good food, good people, and we’re properly warmed up for the afternoons activities as we pile back into the cars and drive north to Rainbow River.  There, we meet Dave Middlestadt, the other owner of Adventure Dive Center, and we launch the boat for a drift dive down this scenic river.

The Rainbow River is the flowpath for the waters eminating from Rainbow Springs, to the tune of approx 500 million gallons per day.  Yikes, that’s a lot of water!  As a result the river is consistently clear and 74 degrees year round.  We meet at K P Hole State Park, and get a chance to chat with the rangers as we get ready.  Dave launches the boat, we pile aboard, and motor up to the limit of the river, right where the springs begin.  Final gear checks complete, we slip in to enjoy a 90 minute drift dive back towards the launch area.  There’s quite a bit of life in this river, alligator gar, turtles, various species of fish, and plenty of undulating eel grass to cruise by, or in some cases, through!  Today is a chance for John to observe marker buoy handing procedures on a drift dive as he prepares to try his hand at this skill as part of completing his PADI Drift Diver specialty certification.  We enjoy a great dive, and finally it’s time to pull the boat and head home.  Rumor has it that the Beavers have discovered a local Irish pub that we must visit, so we pack the cars and head back to town.

Now I’m thinking that I have been at this place in the past, but once we realize where we’re heading you can throw that memory out the window.  Sure enough, it is a real Irish pub, chock full of real Irish brews, and all the color and pageantry you’d expect in a real Irish pub … located in Crystal River, FL!  But the staff are great, and even I find something I can drink there.  We enjoy sampling a few of the local flavors, and then walk down the street to the Fat Cat restaurant.  This place could have been called the Twilight Zone, in honor of our waitress Savannah, who clearly was overwhelmed with having to serve a table of seven..all by herself!  At first humorous, then not so funny, to finally annoying with nothing coming out in the order it was intended, we managed to have a good time in spite of it all.  With all of today’s activities we call it an early night and head back to our bunks to retire.

Saturday dawns bright and not quite as cool as yesterday, so that is a plus.  Today are plans are to head up to Silver Springs to drift dive down the Silver River, a protected scenic waterway that is untouched by development along it’s entire length.  Typical of a true wilderness area, it has all the stuff you might expect to see in the wild, including monkeys and alligators.  The good news for the divers is that the alligators don’t digest food well in the colder months, so we get to taunt them as we swim by, knowing they are just thinking “Come back in a few months, sucker!”  But first we need to meet the boat and the captain, both of which are supposed to be sitting here awaiting our arrival.  Hmmmm, I am thinking, wonder what’s up with that?  So I call the shop, and suddenly I hear the guitar rifts of Jimmy Page playing in the back of my head to the tune of Robert Plant singing Led Zeppelin’s ‘Communication Breakdown’ ….  it seems that somehow in yesterday afternoons planning session the deal was I was going to swing by the dive shop this morning for tanks and that would be the signal for the captain to drive the boat over to meet us in Silver Springs.  Yikes….talk about dropping the proverbial ball here!  The upside is that the park where we are is beautiful and it’s a ver nice day, so the rest of the gang gets to enjoy a little early morning leisure while Tom and I high-tail it back to the shop to load some tanks in his car!  

We return and find the crew and the boat all set and ready for us, so finally, we load and get this show on the road!   We head about 4 miles upstream, drop in, and enjoy another very nice drift dive.  John takes the lead with the marker buoy, and quickly comes to grips with the realization that you cannot swim under a downed tree while dragging a surface marker.  He’s a quick study on that concept, and leads us down the river, taking in some very pretty sights along the way.  Finally he and Tom are chilled, so he passes the buoy off to me, cause Mairead still has about 1,500 psi left in her tank and figures we still have some diving to do.  Another walking talking pony bottle in the IVS family; she’ll be a popular choice as a dive buddy on some of our Spiegel Grove adventures!  In fact, as we drift along, I am wondering how long can she possibly last, cause my breaths are becoming increasingly difficult to draw.  Not to worry, we’re in five to ten feet of water, so a rescue scenario is not likely.  Finally, I signal to her, with a slashing sign across my throat, that she has won the longetivity contest!  I check and she still has nearly 1,000 psi to my zero….thank goodness no one will know about this…whooops!  It’s in the blog!  Another great day followed by another great gathering for dinner as Dave & Carl from Adventure Diving join us at Cody’s Roadhouse for some great laughter and good grub too.

Sunday now and it’s time to visit some caverns, so we load up some tanks (not forgetting them a second time!) and drive up to Blue Grotto.  We check in and start to set up on the benches near the cavern entrance.  It’s pretty obvious who the locals are and who’s from the north, as we’re walking around in t-shirts and diving wet, while most of the folks are huddled around campfires, bundled up in boat coats, and diving in drysuits.  Some thin blood in these here parts, I am thinking.  We watch the obligatory video, sign the waivers, and I give everyone the nickel tour of the cavern entrance area.  Suits on, we walk on down to the waters edge and step into the refreshing 73 degree pool.  First matter at hand is a weight check on the platforms, and once everyone is looking pretty good on their buoyancy, we head down into the edge of the cavern area.  In spite of the big buildup in the video presentation, it is a very short dive.  We visit the suspended breathing bell on our way out, and finally surface again near the dock.  With plenty of air left in our tanks, we head back in for the longer tour. past “Peace Rock” and get to venture on the limits of the light zone.  Couple of nice, although short, dives, and we’re ready to head to our next destination, Devils Den.

Conveniently located nearly across the street, Devils Den is a completely different set up, with a friendly laid back staff, nice picnic area, and subterranean cavern entrance.  There is no accessible surface water here, as the diving is within a collapsed dome that lies about 40 feet below the ground.  There’s a hole in the ceiling to allow ambient light to enter, so it is not considered a cave environment.  We unload our gear from the cars and Mairead’s dad JJ rolls into action as our personal valet parker, moving the cars from the loading zone ot the parking area.  Nice!  

It’s about this moment when we feel that we’re not too far from our local quarry, Dutch Springs.  We observe a fellow half-wearing a drysuit having words with the manager, and then she walks over towards us.  You can see by the look in her eyes that there is a “situation” that needs to be addressed.  It seems that the table that we are sitting at, one of fourteen identical tables in the picnic grove, has been ‘reserved’ by a dive shop from North Carolina, and they are upset that we got there before them (yes, at the crack of noon) and started setting up on that particular table.  Truthfully, we are having a hard time containing our laughter over the incident, and we select another table, moving our gear all of about ten feet from the first table.  Friggin’ amazing, but that is part of what makes this sport so colorful….. people like this!

The dives (we do two) at Devils Den are pretty neat, and it is an experience you are not likely to get elsewhere.  We finally wrap it up, and head back, enjoying our final dinner at Crackers Restaurant next to the hotel, with the NFL playoff games on the big screens.  Another wonderful trip in the memory books, with great friends, good diving, and an excellent time for all!  We’ll be back for sure!

Advertisements

Lauren ‘O’ in the land of the Manatees

Indian Valley Scuba & IAHD-Americas – perfect together!

2011 starts off with a very, very special trip south to visit the manatees and explore the freshwater springs of North Central Florida.  Why so special, you ask?  We come here every year to play with the second largest mammals found in the ocean and root around in the underground caverns and caves that cover this region.  I’ll tell you why this years trip is one of the most special ever – because we are celebrating Lauren Ostrowski’s checkout dives this weekend.

Hmmmm, you are thinking……it seems IVS is doing that just about every weekend of the year someplace!  True, true, we do so love to dive and introduce others to this wonderful sport, but our student this weekend is extra special, and I think you’ll feel the same way as I share her story with our readers.

Lauren Ostrowski and her family have been part of our latest International Association of Handicapped Divers (IAHD-Americas) project here at IVS for the past 16 months.  Lauren is 28 years old, and has spastic, quadriplegic cerebral palsy, a condition that affects the way her brain sends signals to control her muscles.  It affects how she moves her entire body and all of her muscles are tight, making her body stiff and her limbs nearly set in position.  Her effective movement is limited to her right hand, and her left for some typing, as well as her neck & head, qualifying her for the title quadriplegic, or quad for short, the term used for those with limited or no usage of all four appendages.  She uses a motorized wheelchair for mobility and there’s a lot more to her than what you see at first glance.  She has a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.  Edinboro is a school located outside of Erie, PA, with about 9,000 students in attendance.  What makes this school differ from others, though, is that Edinboro receives state funding to provide personal care to those students that need help with activities of daily living, such as getting dressed, eating and more.  There are usually about 60 students enrolled that are in need of some kind of help.  Edinboro also provides people to assist with meals and writing answers to exams.  Lauren says Edinboro was really a springboard for a lot of what she does now and plans to do in the future.  Lauren has a full-time job as an outpatient psychotherapist, is a National Certified Counselor, and is working on becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor.

Her life has not been an easy one.  The effects of this birth defect, which approx 10,000 babies are born with annually in the United States alone, are varied and the symptons range from mild to severe, often accompanied with some form of mental retardation.  While Lauren suffers from the physical attributes of this disorder, her mind is as sharp as a tack and her mental process clear and bright, as evidenced by her attainment of her masters degree noted above.  From the physical side though, life has been a challenge, with major spinal surgery at age 14 to correct severe scoliosis, which her twisting her in a twisted position towards her left side.  Failure to address this would eventually lead to grave difficulty in breathing as her lungs compressed against her other organs.  In the surgical process, which included the insertion of a pair of rods and a pound or two of stainless wire into her spine, she ended up growing 4 inches in height, and on a side note, can now carry firearms without detection through any TSA location!  She attended Lower Pottsgrove Elementary, enrolled in regular education since third grade, in spite of her need to be fed and assisted by others. She is  truly a trooper, and graduated from Pottsgrove High in 2000, and  was accepted in Edinboro with classes starting in the fall.   Any one of these challenges might be more than the average person could deal with, but does any of this keep Lauren down?  Not a chance!!

Outside of diving, Lauren enjoys parasailing, gliding  (or soaring) with Freedom’s Wings (that is her on the front page with her mom and a glider pilot) and playing power soccer.  Lauren also would like to try adaptive skiing and floor hockey, but hasn’t quite gotten around to those……..yet!

Lauren’s interest in diving was actually spawned more than 10 years ago when she was attending a summer camp session at the Variety Club.  There, she got to try scuba equipment for about five minutes in the pool, but it was enough to get her hooked.  In the summer of 2009, she did a Discover Dive while on vacation with a friend and the wonderful instructor, leading to a renewed interest and desire to do much more diving.  During the 2009 Dive-in Festival at IVS, Lauren met Butch Loggins and after hearing about her interest in diving, he answered with “Let me go get the boss…” and the rest is history in the making now!

Once Lauren committed to learn to dive, the IAHD-Americas professionals at Indian Valley Scuba wasted no time getting the plans in motion.  Dave Valaika stepped up to be the lead instructor in the process, and his support team included Joyce Kichman, Katie Chin, and Linda Gusenko.  A training program was mapped out, and once Lauren’s abilities were assessed, we determined that she would qualify as a Level 3 IAHD-Americas certified diver.  For those unfamiliar with adaptive scuba certification levels, IAHD-Americas ranks them under three broad categories, Levels 1, 2, & 3.  The deciding factor in all cases is how easily the adaptive diver can affect a self-rescue, or assist another diver in a rescue, while underwater AND on the surface.  In Lauren’s case, she would not only be unable to assist in a rescue, but in fact, if abandoned underwater, could not bring herself safely to the surface.  Thus, a minimum of three support divers are required, with the mindset that in the event one of the divers required assistance, a second diver could render such assistance, and still one diver would be available to focus 100% on Lauren, leading her to the surface safely and stabilizing her in a positively buoyant state on the surface.

And so it began, with Lauren’s dad and brother (Guy and Kyle) making the decision to take the entire scuba diving course with Lauren.  We began our program in January, 2010, and the three of them worked together on the academics.  For the confined water work though, Dave and his team of support divers worked solely with Lauren, while Kyle & Guy trained alongside in a regular class.  This allowed them to observe what Lauren was learning, without compromising their scuba education experience.  Once the Ostrowski men  completed their academics & confined water activities, they were able to join Team IVS and get their checkout dives completed at Dutch Springs last summer.  This was an important prerequisite to becoming qualified to be adaptive scuba support divers for Lauren.  With their intimate knowledge of Lauren’s condition, no one is more qualified to be part her dive plan anywhere!  Gail, Lauren & Kyle’s mom, is an avid snorkeler, and is IVS’s next challenge to get her into diving and through the certification process.  She might prove to be a tougher nut to crack than Lauren, but we all know I don’t give up easy!  Even as a snorkeler though, on this trip, with it’s excellent shallow, clear water locations, mom will be in on all the fun and adventure we’re about to enjoy!

Lauren’s classes continued all year, as her family’s schedule allowed.  Each session allowed us to work on the continuing evolution of Lauren’s equipment requirements and considerations as to what would work best for her.  First and foremost, we knew after the very first session that Lauren would need some environmental protection to keep her from turning blue and shivering!  With her limbs as they were, slipping into a traditional wetsuit was out of consideration.  So Beverly worked with Lauren and our wetsuit suppliers, and we found a suit combination that fit her dimensions, then installed full length zippers from neck to wrists on both arms, allowing us to slip it around her and then zip her into place without placing undue stress on her joints.  First problem solved!

Now onto the next – with her inability to recover and replace a lost regulator, this caused an awful lot of stress as we would submerge and swim underwater, as even a partial slippage of the mouthpiece would allow some water to flow into her mouth, and only by watching her eyes widen would be know that perhaps something was amiss, and surface to sort it out.  To address this, we switched to full face masks, which completely covered her face, enclosing eyes, nose and mouth in one space.  This let her breath any way she wanted, and the masks clear so easily, any intrusion of water could be seen by her support divers and easily dealt with.  Additionally, this allowed us to add a communications system, so Lauren could talk underwater to her co-divers. With her limited ability to affect movement, communications were indeed a challenge.  Lauren could not initiate an OK or “not OK” signal underwater, so it was imperative that one of her support divers maintained continuous eye contact with Lauren at all times.  We managed this by having her primary support diver swim inverted underneath Lauren, ‘reading’ her eyes, while one of the other support divers served to steer the team and avoid obstacles underwater.  A second support diver was needed to provide stability as Lauren’s body has a distinct tendency to “turn turtle” and roll her around, tank down, face up.

Once we had the lost regulator issue resolved with the full face masks, it was time to work on the stability in the water.  There are many ways to deal with this, and some in the adaptive scuba field promote slinging weights below the diver, in a pendulum fashion.  While this provides a significant improvement in the diver’s stability while horizontal and under the water, it proves to be potentially dangerous when the diver is turned in an upright position, and the pendulum-mounted weights swing down to their legs, or even their chest, and influence the ability to maintain a comfortable, face-up position on the surface.  Our approach differs from this convention, as we seek to incorporate stability into the diver as a “package”, by trimming the weights and strategically addressing the factors that influence why they are instable in the water, such as a large scuba cylinder and it’s center of gravity mounted behind and on top of the diver.

Part of the issue here is that Lauren’s muscles have stiffened in a “seated” position, and it is difficult to stretch her legs out.  Secondly, she has a bit of a J-Lo build, and that extra ‘junk in the trunk’ makes her tend to float ‘butt high’.  So we spent quite a bit of time working to achieve balance for her both under the water and on the surface.  Some of the techniques we used included mounting twin 30 CF cylinders on her back, which lowered and widened the CG (center of gravity) across her frame.  We switched to a backplate system from a jacket-style BC, and this allowed us to gain an additional six pounds of weighting from the stainless steel backplate evenly distributed across her back.  Conversely, the back-mounted inflation also removed any positive buoyancy from the front of her body when we were on the surface, so this technique is a double-edged sword, so to speak.   To address the excess positive buoyancy in her pelvic area, we added custom weight pockets to the hips of her wetsuit, allowing us to target the weighting exactly where it was needed, without adding a cumbersome weight belt.  We had tried ankle weights, but found they simply lowered her feet and in fact exacerbated the butt high position, so we knew they were not the answer.

We finally settled on a 40 CF single cylinder, which was lighter to manage than the twin 30’s, and provided ample air for Lauren to dive with.  We made custom tank bands to mount this on the backplate system, and installed it with the valve opening facing away from the diver, a reverse from the conventional method.  This allowed us to use a DIN regulator and remove the bulk of the regulator or yoke from the area behind Lauren’s head, improving her comfort substantially.

With everything tested and proven, it was time to actually plan a trip to a location that lent itself to the conditions and style of diving that would be most appropriate for Lauren for her check out dives.  Hence the decision to go with the Manatee trip, which afforded us some shore entries, and a platform boat with no adverse sea conditions to deal with.  Our dive operator of choice for this mission would be  Adventure Dive Center in Crystal River, FL, operated by our good friends Carl & Dave, so we made the arrangements and prepared for our trip.

Finally it was show time, and we all flew out of Philadelphia this morning to Orlando.  Dave traveled on his signature carrier Delta, while the Ostrowski’s flew on Southwest for the convenience of a non-stop travel experience.  It’s not easy for a quad to travel, but thankfully Southwest’s team was ready to accommodate and make the trip as painless as possible.  Lauren drives her chair down the jetway, and thanks to her slight frame, Guy simply picks her up and carries her aboard.  The chair is then stored under the plane, which in itself is no small task, as Lauren’s little Cadillac weighs approx 250 pounds without anyone sitting in it.  Once they arrived in Orlando, they allowed the rest of the plane to disembark, and the ground crew brought her chair up to the jetway. Guy then carried her off the plane, and once back in her chair, Lauren demonstrated why her email address starts off with “Speedie” !

Off to the rental van company, and they scored a full size Ford van with a hydraulic lift ramp in the rear.  Not quite as nice as the modified Toyota Sienna they have at home, where Lauren can easily load herself and then enjoys a front passenger seat position for a great view, but it’s wheels none the less. Once they have loaded in the van, they call and rescue me from the grips of the Delta Crown Room, and I head down, find my bags at the baggage office, and we load up and roll.  It’s a short 90 mile ride from the Orlando airport to the Holiday Inn Express in Crystal River, our base of operations for this weekends adventure.  We check in, grab our rooms, and get ready to crash for the night.  But first we need some grub, and we head to Quiznos, located a 1/4 mile down the road from the hotel.  We get our sandwiches ordered, and as I check out, I am reminded we are not in Kansas anymore, Toto.  The young lady at the register swipes my credit card, and then asks, “is this a gift card?”.  “No”, I reply, “why on earth would you ask that?”  “Cause it only rang up part of your bill”, she says, showing me the receipt which is about six dollars short of the total.  Clearly we are not dealing with a rocket scientist here, and I shrug my shoulders, as she scratches her head and tries to figure out what to do.  “Can you call someone”, I query.  “Oh yes”, she says, and picks up the phone to dial.  Well a blind guy could see from the look on her face that this was going nowhere positive and we were beyond her realm of reasoning.  So, tired as I was, I pulled out a business card, and said to her “have your boss call me in the morning to settle this up”.  With that, we left, headed back to the hotel, and crashed for the night.

Well sure enough Friday morning my phone rings, and it’s Michael Kazemfar, the owner of Quiznos.  He apologoizes for the events the night before, and I tell him we’ll swing by on our way out to take care of things.  We load up after enjoying our free breakfast at the Holiday Inn, and make our first stop at the sub shop.  I walk in and ask for Mike, and who comes rolling up to me but Michael himself, in his chair.  I introduce myself, we both laugh over his employee selection process, we settle the balance of my bill, and get into a conversation about what he’s doing in a wheelchair at Quiznos.  Well it turns out he missed his polio vaccination when he was young, and at age two, was misdiagnosed, allowing his polio to affect a substantial part of his lower limbs before finally stopping.  “How about that”, I say, “have you ever considered scuba diving?”  I then tell him about Lauren and why we are here, and then he shocks by saying he’s a certified diver, and also enjoys snorkeling, kayaking and a myriad of other water activities.  He introduces his assistant, who happens to be his daughter and dive buddy, and we all get a great bonding moment to start off the day.

So with that behind us, we head out to meet with Carl & Dave at Adventure Scuba Diving, and get ready for a fun day with them. First it’s the mandatory educational video presentation from the US Fish & Wildlife Agency, where we are informed of the proper (and improper) way to hug and interact with the manatees.  We get some tanks, and head over to Hunter Spring, a nice easy shore entry for Lauren’s first open water dive experience.

Hunter Springs is a pretty little state park, with a beach, bath house, and nice set of concrete stairs down into the water.  We gear up, and get ready for our first drop. Everyone suits up, we get Lauren dressed, and we enter the water, which is only a couple feet deep at the bottom of the stairs.   The key to a great diver experience is ensuring that we have Lauren’s mask properly positioned on her face, sealing tightly but not too tight, and with the internal nose blocks adjusted and set to allow her to clear with assistance at depth.  Once she gives the the virtual thumbs up (with her eyes) the rest of us gear up and we head under.  As you might suspect we have kicked up a bit of silt with all standing, but as soon as we near the springs the water clears up to perfect visibility and hundreds of fish watch us as the we enjoy our underwater exploration.  The flow is pretty good here from two major holes in the bottom, plus a number of smaller sand boils where the force of the incoming water causes the sandy bottom to dance continuously.  We get a good 25 minutes of bottom time here, with a max depth of about 13 feet, and consider this our first dive a complete success!

From there we head back to Adventure Scuba to top off our tanks, and then grab lunch at a local restaurant.  From there, we drive a half hour up through Dunellon to the K. P. Hole county park located on the Rainbow River.  Dave meets us there with one of Adventures pontoon boats that he has trailered up, and we load up and head up river.  The sun has abandoned us, and there is a distinct chill in the air, but we soldier on, cause their is some great diving to be had!  We approach the headwaters and Dave pulls the boat to the bank and we tie off to a tree so we can get everyone set and in the water to being this fun drift dive.  Everything checks out OK, and Guy, Kyle, Lauren and I slip beneath the surface, and enjoy the almost surreal serenity of this underwater wonderland.  Visibility is in excess of 100 feet, there are fish everywhere, and the bottom varies from flowing grasses to rubble to rock ledges, with some sunken trees added for extra color.  As we sail along the depth varies from 5 to 25 feet, and Lauren is having a bit of a struggle clearing her right ear on the deeper parts, as she worked it a tad too hard on the airplane ride down on Thursday.  Not a problem, we just watch our depths, and enjoy the ride, kicking only as much as we need to maintain steerage with the current doing most of the work for us.  Hiding in the grasses were all sorts of painted turtles, Florida Shad, bass, and other critters, forcing us to keep our heads on a spindle, looking right, left and ahead to not miss a thing.  Hey, what’s that up there, as we see something in the grass……hmmm…looks like a dead bird…..we get closer…..and guess what? ..it’s not a dead bird, it’s a hunting bird, working on nailing something to eat in the grass!   Well we certainly fouled it’s dinner plans, and it swam past us, and I know in my soul that that if it had fingers, it would showing us a certain one to show his appreciation for our interference!  Oooops…sorry!

We continue on, and finally Kyle is getting chilled and also having some ear clearing issues, so we surface, and he climbs back aboard.  Captain Dave says “are you guys getting on?” and we look at Lauren, who screams though her mask “more please!”.  Enough said, we get back to our diving, just the three of us.  Another mile or so downstream we’re cruising along, and I spot the mother of all turtles just on the other side of a hump in front of us.  With that, i grab Lauren buy the chin to make sure her eyes are pointing in the right direction, and we sail right over that first hump and enjoy a great view of the turtle as he takes in his visitors and then slowly swims off to the side.  Well we couldn’t stop looking so all three of us were watching off to the side, and guess what was in front of us?  Another big friggin’ hump in the river bottom, against which I was able to firmly slam Lauren into, face first!  For a moment, my heart skipped a beat, but when I looked and her eyes open and that she was breathing normally, I began to laugh out loud uncontrollably in my full face mask.  So loud in fact that Lauren’s mom Gail heard it up on the boat and asked Captain Dave if he thought everything was OK.  Meanwhile, we’re just sailing along, and yep, there go the buoys marking the swim area where we boarded the boat, and then some more, and I am thinking, I don’t remember this part of the river, but what the heck, we’re having fun!   So we kept on going, and going, and going……..until that telltale sound of the banging on the ladder told us it was time to finally end this dive.  We popped up, and sure enough, there was Dave and the boat waiting for us.  Turned out that they had already tied up at the dock, figuring we were going to stop, and Kyle had gone up to bring the van down, when they realized the S.S> Lauren was still steaming south down the river!  So untie the boat, fire up the engines, and catch up with the divers!  It’s all good and nobody lost an eye – just another great day of fun and adventure on the water!

We headed back to hotel and everyone gussied up for dinner.  Tonight we headed down to Cody’s Steakhouse, a local favorite dining place and watering hole.  There was a bit of a wait, so we went to the hostess station and asked how long.  Well, I have often wondered where the airlines send their pilots to learn how to gracefully lie to the passengers about how long a delay will be.  Tonight, I found that place!  Only ten minutes, the young ladies said, so we waited.  Thirty minutes later, we went back up, and with that same great smile, they said “only about 10 minutes”.  Time has truly stood still for us here, but how much longer ( or how many more “10 minutes” can it be?).  Finally, we’re seated, and our server saunters up to our table, whips out a crown, and as she scrawls her name across the white tablecloth, announces she is Faye, and will be taking care of us tonight.  Talk about setting the right kind of tone for this group!  You can tell from that moment that dinner was a non-stop hoot, from Kyle’s massive 40 ounce margarita to Guy telling Faye he can’t decide what to order, so just surprise him!  We were laughing so much it almost hurt and the food was fantastic too!  What a fun night!

Saturday and we had already decided to take the day off from diving so Lauren’s muscles could recover from Friday’s abuse (not to mention unintended crash into the river bottom!)  Guy and Gail took in a game of golf nearby, and then the Ostrowski family headed down to the Homossassa Wildlife Preserve to watch a few hundred manatees up close and personal in the water.  For dinner we headed out to another local steakhouse, the Boathouse, where our server Wanda was almost as much fun as Faye last night!  What a blast we are having at dinner on this trip!  From there we headed back, updated the blog, and called it an early night.

For Sundays dive we are heading up to Ginnie Springs, to enjoy some more crystal clear water and explore some of the sights there, including there famous cavern, the Ballroom.  We stopped at Adventure Dive Center, picked up our tanks, and made the hour and a half ride up to High Springs.  Check in, grab some lunch at the deli there, and then we headed over to the Little Devil system.  There were quite a few cave divers out today, in spite of the brisk mid 50’s temperature, and they were smiling when they saw Lauren get geared up and head in to dive with us.  A few of them approached Gail with questions, and they were amazed to see her daughter enjoying herself in this sport – very cool!  We spent a good 25 minutes dropping into the fissure there, then Devile’s Eye and Devil’s Ear, before spending a little time enjoying the Santa Fe River.  We worked out back to the entry point, and poor Lauren was shaking like a leaf in the chilly air, but when I asked her if she wanted to call the second dive, she responded with a resounding “No!”.

OK, fair enough, we jumped back in the van, warmed up a bit, then drove around to the ballroom area, and got back in the water.  Her eyes really opened when she saw the entrance to the cavern, and the communication was clear to her dad – let’s go inside!!  And so we did, getting another 25 minutes of bottom time here in the 73 degree water, shooting lots of pictures, and just having a blast.  Lauren was still struggling with her ear clearing a bit, so she stayed in the upper portion, but Guy and Kyle both toured with me down to the spring inlet at 51 ft in the cavern, and both of them were surprisingly comfortable following me and squeezing through some minor restrictions inside.  They are great divers and perfect buddies for Lauren, and truly a success story for what IAHD-Americas is all about – bringing the sport to those far less likely to ever being able to enjoy it.

After our second dive, we headed back, enjoying the thrill of the Green Bay Packers kicking Bear butt in the playoffs while we drove.  We cleaned up and went out for one last celebration dinner, and the only disappointment of the weekend was the  failure of the NY Jets to show up for their game against the Steelers.  Oh well, there must be a limit on miracles this weekend!

Monday morning we packed up, I got dropped off at the airport, and the Ostrowski’s headed to Disney for part II of their adventure in the Happiest Place on Earth!  Mission accomplished in a big way!!

Watch out Vegas, here comes IVS & IAHD-Americas!

It’s that magical time of the year again, and we’re not talking Christmas here but the DEMA show! It’s the Diving Equipment and Manufacturers Association’s annual trade show, and it’s the biggest show in the world dedicated solely to scuba diving. I have been personally attending this show since 2000 and each year come away wiser, better trained, and enriched with even greater product knowledge and dive destination knowledge than I thought possible. This is good stuff!

This year I am wearing two hats at the show. First and foremost we are here representing the world’s oldest and largest adaptive scuba training organization, IAHD – the International Association for Handicapped Divers, and it’s American counterpart, IAHD-Americas. The DEMA show brings together under one roof thousands of instructors, dive center owners, and resort operators and is wonderful platform to spread the IAHD message to the masses. We’ve got a great booth location and hope to add a number of new instructors and dive centers to the growing IAHD family over the next four days. My second role here is to ‘press the flesh’, Indian Valley Scuba style. So many of our vendors and industry associates are here it is a social lovefest, reconnecting with old friends, making new ones, and putting faces to the emails that we have grown to live with daily.

So in addition to me splitting my time between IAHD and IVS roles, the rest of Indian Valley Scuba’s presence this year includes Jim Cormier, Brian LaSpino, Mike Petrochko, Dave Hartman and Sue Douglass. We’ve got people to see, places to go, training to conduct, deals to make, all sorts of activities to make for a very busy week. Brian & Mike flew in Monday in order to spend all day Tuesday in training seminars from Oceanic & OMS. Dave H arrived then too. Meanwhile Jim C has spent the last three days driving across America in the IVS truck & demo trailer, getting us 2,500 miles of roadside advertising exposure and making a few new friends along the way. I flew in to meet up with Jim and relieved him for the last 4 hours of driving – yes, what a saint I am!

Jim & I arrived in Vegas, checked in, and parked the truck and trailer for the night in a well-lit portion of the hotel parking lot, once again choosing a position that gave us maximum impact on the visual of all those great graphics we have. Now keep in mind we parked alongside trucks and trailers from all sorts of manufacturers and a few other local dive centers, so we were just “part of the scenery”. And boy did the rig look good there under the lights!

Well we all know that IVS has made a huge effort over the years to establish brand identity and be known as a dynamic dive center with plenty to offer. And to many, that is good news, as our diving family has grown in leaps and bounds, more and more divers flock to us and join us on trips, for training and for gear purchases, all under one great red roof in the center of the scuba diving universe, Harleysville, PA. All these are things that make folks smile, well at least most of the folks! While we believe in running and growing our business on positive energy and karma, never speaking of others in a negative term, it appears that not everyone is of the same philosophy. I suppose there will always be “haters” out there no matter what you do or how you do it. Some of you remember when we enjoyed a nice “keying” incident last year thanks to a local diver who wasn’t crazy about us (but of course wasn’t smart enough to check out the security camera that caught it all on film!). Last night though, we saw that sort of hate crime ramped up just a bit. This morning we were greeted with two nice bullet holes through the windows of the truck – friggin’ amazing, but true. No other vehicle around us was involved, and there was no break in, just a wild west sort of message that said someone loves Indian Valley Scuba, in a ‘Deliverance’ sort of way! I am taking that as a sort of compliment about how well we have marketed ourselves, to know we have stirred such passion, negative as it is, in a nameless, faceless competitor.

So first thing Wednesday a.m. we pull the bullet-riddled truck up to the convention center to unload our display. First I need to work my way through the registration and get my posse signed in early to help set up the booth. But of course, there are rules that must be followed and you know how I am with that! The gatekeeper nazi’s are adamant about not allowing my guys in, so I switch to Plan B. Checking my resources, I have a bag of caramel taffies in my backpack, so I amble my way over to the registration counter, make some small talk with the ladies there who are already being hassled by some belligerent vendors, and in my most sensitive way, let them know I feel their pain and agree via eye contact and gestures that some of these guys are jerks. OK, ice is broken, I pull out my bag of taffies, get them all a little sugar rush, we laugh, and I tell them “I’m not sure what happened but our badges were not mailed to us”. Of course I had my fingers crossed as I said that, but it worked! “What are their names”, my taffy-chewing new friend asks, and before you know it, I have early admission badges in hand and get my team in the gate. Meanwhile, the jerk is still up there arguing……

But we’re not quite done. We pull the truck up to the designated location, and as I reach for to unlock the trailer, I am immediately approached by a representative from Teamsters Local 530, who asks the obvious “what are you doing?”. Of course, I can’t just let that one pass, it’s too easy! So some sarcastic banter back & forth, another teamster or two gather around, and I sense that I will need to make some sort of concession here in order to accomplish the mission. So I switch gears, change tone of voice, put on my best puppy dog non-profit face, and share what the IAHD is all about, helping others, making smiles, we don’t make any money here at the show, we’re not like the manufacturers, blah, blah, blah. One of the senior guys leans over and says “How about $63 for us to unload one cartload of stuff for you?”. “What if it doesn’t fit on one cart”, I ask. With a knowing wink he says “I think we’ll make it work”. Done! Minutes later four teamsters are unloading our stuff, piled it on a couple of carts, carried our banners in hand, and our booth is set up! Well spent $63 and now I have some new friends in low places.

Oh well, incident and union involvement aside, we move on and the show gets off to a great start. So much to see and so many appointments, the hours whiz by. Quite a few dive centers are looking to come on board as IAHD training centers to accommodate this growing adaptive scuba market, and we are starting to fill up our training calendar for the first part of 2011. Very cool to see! Meanwhile Brian, Jim & Mike have been going from one training seminar to the next, bringing more technical knowledge and skills to IVS to further enhance our service department’s resources. IVS diver and WRL racer Mark Hughes joined our team for the day, and IAHD’s Klaas Brower and Fred Seibert flew in from the Netherlands to help staff the booth and coordinate our activities on both sides of the Atlantic.

The day done, it’s time to start on the all-important social circuit, and our first stop is the DAN booth where they have a live band, Greg from ScubaRadio is the emcee, mermaids are there, and the free food is out! From there it’s the NAUI party, where I tease them with what it would be like if IVS was a NAUI center – that’s good enough for unlimited food and drinks for the team! After that Joe Weatherby and I have a dinner meeting with representative of the island of Barbados who wish to bring both the IAHD and the Wreck Racing League to their beautiful country. It’s a very positive and productive session all around and a lot of progress is made on both items. And while we are there, Joe gets an email from the French dive magazine Plongeur, who wants to sponsor a WRL event in France in 2011. How very cool eh?

Thursday kicks off well, with more training seminars and meetings to attend, vendors to visit and interested parties to share the IAHD message with. The men are still busy with their seminars so I am lonely in the booth, but I manage to suffer on. More good connections and Brian is talking to even more manufacturers and bringing in more lines to IVS. The afternoon wraps up on a special note, with Jim Cormier being honored and award his Platinum Pro 5,000 Award from SSI, recognizing his 5,000+ dives and his contribution to the dive industry with his training, continuing education, and activities such as the annual clean-up dives he organizes each year on the Campbellford River. After that teary-eyed moment, we head over to the Poseidon party and mingle with the silent ones, our friends from Sweden, and we get to meet some other shop owners who carry the Poseidon line.

Of course our visit to the affair is not without controversy, as it is the position of Poseidon, backed by several training agencies, that instructors should offer students the opportunity to learn to dive on a rebreather right from the start. Well let me think about that for a split second….Not a chance at IVS!! Holy smokes, how much task loading and difficulty do we want to add to someone who is just learning how to defog a mask and at the same time learning to monitor the partial pressure of oxygen in the loop? Not in my lifetime, I tell them, and of course that goes over like a lead balloon! Can you imagine when this newly certified diver goes on a trip someone and does not have their machine, and a friend says “hey look at that beautiful reef, let’s get a dive in”, to which the rebreather diver must respond “I’m sorry, but I don’t know how to dive open circuit”. Geeeshh……shaking my head here! Baby steps, baby steps……

Now on a local note, I need to ship some items I picked up at the show for Ms Bev, so I head out to the local UPS store. I get to talking to Dave, the owner, and turns our he’s a diver, so we talk about the local diving. He relates how one of the coolest dives in Lake Mead is an old B-29 bomber. Back when this was first re-discovered in 1999 (the Navy knew it was there since it sunk in 1944), it was a technical dive at 180 feet to the very top of the tail section, and the cockpit was sitting at 260 ft. Now, due to the 10 year drought, the lake level is down about 125 feet and the B-29’s tail sits at a nice recreational depth of 55 feet! So much for selling tech diving in Lake Mead!! These guys are in sad need of global warming and the polar caps melting to re-fill the lake!

More great show time followed, more folks interested in getting on board the IAHD train, and Brian wheeling & dealing with our vendors like there’s no tomorrow! “Mini Me” sure makes me proud! More time spent with my European friends working to bring the ISO standards to IAHD and work towards a 10 year plan of growth on our way to being the dominant adaptive scuba training agency globally. Big goals, but we support them, and time will tell how well that all pans out, but boy are they pumped about it! We end the day with a nice dinner at the steakhouse, head over to the Venetian for some live music, and call it a day.

Saturday now and the last day of the show. Still so many to see, so the sneakers are tied tight cause they’re gonna get a few miles on them today for sure! Like a man possessed I cover aisle after aisle, all 38 of them. The show floor is over a 1/4 mile from end to end and each aisle has about 40 booths so it is quite the task to cover them all. But there is flesh to press, and deals still to be made, so I have at it, and thankfully come out quite successful by the end of the day. We book a Galapagos trip, start the process for an Africa trip, swing some sweet deals on our Bonaire trip, firm up some IAHD training, and spend a bunch of money on new products. What a day!

Finally the magic hour comes and it’s time to break the booth down and load out. Unlike the load in, we’ll complete this without the help of any organized labor, so team IVS gets it in motion and less than 20 minutes later the entire booth is on two carts and heading towards the elevator. Meanwhile the Australians have been busy breaking their booth down, and loading everything we store for them in the truck. Once outside and loaded, we head over to the shooting range, er, I mean the other parking lot, hook up the trailer and load everything for the long ride home. So while Jim & I are looking at the long ride home, Brian and Mike still have a few hours to kill before they catch the red-eye flight home at 1:00 a.m. so what better way to spend your time than with some indoor skydiving? Jim & I figure it is better to pass and get on our way home, so we bid farewell for now and fire up the truckster.

So, as Jake & Elwood would say, it’s 2,380 miles to home (that’s 4,028 kilometers for our Canadian readers, Jim reminds me), we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses….hit it! And we’re off and running. Thirty-four hours of non-stop driving ahead of us, except for three special hours tomorrow evening when we stop someplace with cold beer and a big screen TV to cheer the Eagles on to victory over the Giants. Our ride home will take us past some great sights, the first being the Hoover Dam, but in the dark, it is not quite as dramatic. Ditto for the Grand Canyon, so let’s just focus on our driving. The elevation rises as we travel, and before you know it we are passing through the Arizona Divide at 7,300 ft of elevation. We stop for the first of many loads of fuel, and what an eye opener it is, as I step out of the truck in my thin Hawaiian shirt, perfect for Vegas, only to find it’s a tad more nippley here in the 34 degree air!! Smart move, packing all my clothes and my sweatshirt in the trailer….duh! It’s OK, I suffer through, we are fueled, and I finish my first four hour shift before turning the wheel over to Jim and lean back for a little power nap.

We hit a bit of rain during the night but overall it is thankfully an uneventful first night of travel. When morning comes we are three states and 10 hours closer to home …only 25 hours to go…woo hoo! Off the list..Nevada, Arizona, now New Mexico, so we’re in Texas, and you can’t pass through Texas without getting your kicks on Route 66, and what better way than a stop at the famous Cadillac Ranch! Pretty odd, ten old Cadillacs buried nose down in a cow pasture, complete with cows. Oh well, good photo op, and a chance to stretch our legs. OK, that’s off the Bucket List, so back on the road!!

Rolling, rolling…..the miles click by, so the cows, rest areas, and beautiful views of America. We’ve noticed a small problem with the trailer, seems that the screws that our sign guy pulled out for the lettering are all backing out. We’ve lost almost two dozen so far, so it’s time to stop at the Tulsa Home Depot and get some screws, double sided tape and thread adhesive. Like a well-oiled NASCAR pit crew, Jim & I rework the sheetmetal and get Team IVS back in the race east. We make it to Miami where it’s time for a mandatory NFL stop – the Eagles are coming on! That’s Miami, Oklahoma, in case you were wondering about our routing. Slowed down by traffic and an accident (involving others, not us) we are short on our goal of making it to Joplin, Missouri for the game, but Miami will do in a pinch. First we have to exit the turnpike, which had paid a $9.75 toll for earlier. We show our receipt at the Miami toll booth, and they refund $1.75 to us since we did not finish our ride down the ‘pike’. Strange but true. We ask the attendant where we can catch the game and he recommends a casino aobut five miles down the road, so in that direction we head.

We pull into the High Winds Casino and they’ve got six wide screen TV’s in the lounge and every one has the game on – we like this place! …..OK, now as Paul Harvey would say….the rest of the story……

Jim and I order a beer and some appetizers while the game gets underway. Now mind you there are approx. 30 seats at the bar with about 5 occupied, and a dozen tables, with a group of 4 at one, and Jim & I at the other. So you get a sense that the place is dead. I ask the bartender if it is OK if I use my computer and she says “of course”. So I pull it out of my backpack, she plugs it into an outlet for me, and I start to update the blog. Meanwhile Jim takes a picture of me hard at work, we chuckle, and get on with our game watching, beer drinking, appetizer munching and blogging. We’re there for over an hour, from the kickoff until the 10 minute mark of the second quarter, when a blue shirted security guy walks up and says “Sir, there are no computers allowed in the casino”. I said “we’re in the bar, and all I am doing is blogging and reading email”. He says “they’re concerned about folks hacking into the casino security so no computers are allowed.” “OK,” I say with a laugh, “I must look like a real threat here!” Never the less, I close the laptop, shut it down, he says thanks, and we get back to enjoying our drinks and the game. Lo and behold, five minutes later he returns, this time he says “sir, you have to put the camera away.” Now the camera has been sitting here the entire hour, untouched, except for that photo Jim took of me an hour ago, but I say “Sure, no problem, but why?” He says they are concerned with people taking pictures in the casino, and I inquire about the cell phone cameras that, let’s say, every single person here has tonite?? He misses the point, Jim puts the camera back into the backpack, and again we return to our quiet evening. I chuckle to Jim and ask if they have nothing better to do than watch the two guys in the bar, and with that, I slowly, discretely, raise a single digit flagpole salute in the middle of our table, never raising my arm above my head, just a quiet symbol of defiance between Jim & I. And back to our game…..but no, there will be no peace tonight, as now there are two blue shirts at the table, and I am informed in an official sounding voice “Sir, since you flipped the bird at the security camera we will have ask you to to leave the casino immediately.” I just about fall out of my chair laughing, but no, they are not kidding. Jim chuckles, they bring our tab, we settle up and head out of this joint, wiser, partially fed, and clearly amused. Security risk abated, the blue shirts return to their rounds.

So we are missing our game, and that is not a good thing. We drive back up the road and figure there has to be a sports bar in this little hamlet of Miami, so up the main drag we go. And back down the main drag we come, nary a bar of any sort in site. We decide to check out another casino, which seems to be the main source of employment and entertainment in this town. This time it’s the Little Miami indian reservation casino, and we park in the tiny lot, barely squeezing the truck and trailer in. Enter the casino, and it is more of a bingo hall with slot machines, and lots of scary looking local ladies checking out the “new meat” that just walked in. Jim’s a little nervous, but I reassure him that it’ll be OK, I am here to protect his virtues, and we march through, right up to the girl who is dutifully pulling the balls for the bingo. “Where’s the bar”, I ask, and she says “we don’t have one”. I probably should have picked up on that when we walked past the self-serve soda fountain right in the middle of the slot machines. “OK, where can we get a beer and watch the game”, I ask. She rattles off another two or three casinos and I have to ask her if there are any bars with TV’s in town, that are NOT casino’s. “Oh yeah”, she says, “Boomers is a bar”. We ask where it is, she says right at the light, we ask for more detail since we just drove through that light and surely did not see any neon beer signs. “It’s right at the Best Western”, she tells us, and a guy sitting at a slot machine pipes in and confirms that yes it’s right there at the Best Western. OK, sounds simple enough, and we head out, fire up the truck and go back to the light. There’s a Hampton Inn, Microtel, Budget Inn, another local place or two, but no Best Western at all. We pull into the Love’s gas station and Jim jumps out and asks the clerk. “Boomers is right back at the light, turn at the ‘Snack Attack’ and you can’t miss it”. Yeah right, we go back out, once down, and once back, utterly amazed that we cannot locate a bar that everyone is telling us is right here. We stop once more, at the Microtel, and the clerk confirms the Snack Attack location. Shaking our heads, we go at it once more, and sure enough, under the HUGE gas sign, behind the BIG lottery sign, is a tiny, unlit sign that says ‘Snak Attack’. We pull in and there is NO Best Western sign, and NO lights in the bar or name over the door, in fact is shut down. Great local info for sure! We decide to try one more casino, this time the Buffalo Run casino, so we see the sign, roll the window down to confirm with a local, it’s just a half mile down this dark road. One and a half miles later we see the inflatable teepee-like building on the right housing the casino, and we head on in. First we need to park, and there in front of the parking lot is a metal structure with a pipe hanging to make sure we are not too high. Wait a minute, the parking lot is a big open field. So the height limit would be something like the sky?? Whatever, but we don’t fit, so we drive 10 feet to the right and around the height checker and park the truck in the big open field. Geeesh. Into the casino we go, yes they have a bar, yes they have TV’s with the game on, so far so good. OK, I’ll roll the dice here and ask I ask April our bartender if it is OK if I work on my laptop and she says “sure, why not?”. Whoa, I am thinking, but Jim, ever the tactful one, says “we were just thrown out another casino for that!”. Thanks Jim, I am thinking. April says “wait a minute, let me check.” So sure enough, here comes a red coated security supervisor, and he says “what’s up?”. I re-state the question, asking if it is OK if I use my laptop here, and he says “Sure, I don’t see a problem with that, but you can’t do it at the bar. You need to move to a table”, and he points to a table that is about, oh, 7 feet away from the bar. I acknowledge the code speak, April carries our drinks to the “table”, and we are good to go. So here I sit, blogging away! Amazing stories of Oklahoma casino experiences, but true!

Finally the game comes to a conclusion, with the Eagles playing with our hearts and souls but finally emerging with a ‘W’ for the night. We settle our tab for $9.00 (yes, one dollar per pint of beer, a little more cost effective than it was in Vegas). We head back out to continue our road adventure, and Jim takes over at the helm. Once again we drive around the height limiting gate, get back onto the highway, re-pay our $1.75 that we were refunded, and see the last bit of Oklahoma before passing into Missouri. 13 hours to go, almost like a Key Largo road trip now!

Thirty five hours into our trip, and sometime during the night we get a bad load of diesel and suddenly our mileage drops to 6 1/2 MPG, with the truck slowing to 40 mph up the hills, and pouring smoke like we’re running on coal….definately injector fouling taking place here! I stop at a truck stop, walk in with my best 18-wheeler swagger, grab some injector cleaner off the shelf, bitch about bad fuel with some of my new buds there, and beat it back outside before they figure out I’m about 10 wheels short of a real trucker here! I slip the truckster a healthy dose, and within 75 miles we are as good as new! Whew! All sorts of bad visions going through my head there, but all good now.

Driver swapping continues, and I’m half-asleep (not behind the wheel this time) when I feel the rumble strips under the tires. I jolt awake, look at Jim, and he is fading. Like an NFL trainer, I know what to do, and reach into the console, grab a double-shot of 5 Hour Energy Boost, pop the top, and feed it to Jim like Gatorade! He perks right up and gets back in the game, and I ask what happened….turns out he was trying to do a Canadian conversion on his last dose, and didn’t realize that 5 did not convert to 6.4 hours. Math problem solved, I slip back into my slumber, knowing I’m in good and alert hands now. I also set my alarm for 4 1/2 hours to make sure I am up to administer his next dose!! During the night we pass through Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio.

While I was shopping at the truck stop, I picked up something else for us, and I present Jim his gift as the sun starts to come up and the cab begins to warm a bit. We’ve been traveling about 40 hours now, after spending all of Saturday in the trade show, and our shirts and body parts are starting to reek a bit. So I had bought a couple of air fresheners, and Jim’s wearing his around his neck (Canadian Pine scent) while I have mine on (citrus, so you can tell us apart). We look like a couple of rap stars with our bling on, but at least we can start breathing through our noses again, as we roll through upper Virginia and finally, we’re in Pennsylvania and home!

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!

Lehigh Valley Sportsfest Discovers Scuba!

 

This weekend, for the first time in the twelve year history of the Lehigh Valley Sportsfest, participants had the opportunity to discover the magic of scuba diving.  This event, held each year in the Allentown area since 1997, has steadily grown in size and scope, with nearly 10,000 competitors and 100,000 spectators gathering this year at the festival.

This annual festival of sports and games, started with 16 events as the Allentown Sportsfest, and has grown now to over 100 different events, changing it’s name to the Lehigh Valley Sportsfest to more accurately reflect the regional involvmenet.  Indian Valley Scuba, and the International Association for Handicapped Divers, was asked by the Sportsfest founders to bring a Discover Scuba program to this years event.  We set up the IVS rolling DSD show at Cedar Beach Park, a massive pool/park/nature area, right near the center of the city of Allentown. 

On Saturday, they were lined up and waiting as we pulled the truck & trailer into the pool area.  By the end of the afternoon, over 45 divers had been briefed, geared up, and taken on tours, culminating in some basic skills training, paving the way for our next wave of certified divers!  Channel 69 News was there sharing the event with their viewers, and IVS-staffers Mike Gusenko, Ray Graff, Brad Creveling,  Barb White and Dave Valaika had their hands full, running non-stop without a break until finally closing the pool down at 7:00.  After that it was back to the shop, filling tanks, and getting ready for tomorrow!

Sunday was as beautiful a day as Saturday, with even larger crowds, more fun and another 55 divers getting wet and blowing bubbles for the very first time.  Lin Gusenko, Leslie & Carlie Adams, Butch Loggins, and Katie Chin joined the crew today, making it an even more fun event – what a great bunch of folks we had on both sides of the Discover Scuba program today.  By the end of the weekend we had taken over 110 divers in, went through nearly 90 tanks of air, and planted more than our fair share of smiles across the Lehigh Valley.

Look for us to be back next year! 

IAHD-Americas training in Bonaire!

This week has been a busy one for IAHD-Americas Intructor Trainer Dave Valaika.  A month ago, we were contacted by Diane Defeo, a young lady in Rye, NY who learned about IAHD-Americas at the Beneath the Sea show.  Diane suffers from Myotonic Dystrophy, a hereditary chromosonal disorder that affects the body and spirit in many ways.  First and foremast is the muscular degeneration and skeletal issues common to Muscular Dystrophy, but it is accompanied by a host of other challenges to those affected by it.  You can learn more about this at www.myotonicdystrophy.org

Diane’s husband, Albert, is an avid diver of many years, and his stories of what he would see and experience while diving just fueled Diane’s desire to be able to share this special sport with him.  But the onset of the disease at the age of 38 seemed to slam the door shut on the chances of this ever becoming a reality.  When they learned about IAHD-Americas and what we are doing to help share the magic of the undersea world with the disabled, they immediately called us up to see if there was anything we could do.  Dave learned all he could from Diane about what her abilities were and her restrictions, and decided that she was a candidate for diver training through the IAHD program.  The excitement was even greater as they had booked a vacation to the island of Bonaire, with expectations of Albert diving and Diane watching from shore – now that setting might be about to change!

Step one was to locate an IAHD-certified training facility in the Rye area that could work with Diane, but in spite of the IAHD-Americas appeal to dive centers to get on board, no one in the Rye area had yet stepped up.  So rather than let the program die on the vine there, Dave opted to come and train Diane himself, and contacted the Rye YMCA to gain access to an accessible pool.  Laura Tiedge, the Aquatic Director there, could not have been more helpful, giving us multiple time slots in her fully accessible pool.  Diane was sent her PADI book and training materials and given her homework assignments to complete in anticipation of Dave’s visit.

Dave traveled the 2.5 hour trip on Wednesday, stopping at the YMCA to meet the key persons and inspect the layout.  Then he headed to meet with Diane and Albert at their apartment and get started on the academics.  One long 4 hour session later, we had covered more than half the material, and we arranged to meet the next day at the pool. 

Thursday we met at the YMCA and got Diane fitted with gear for her first confined water session.  Albert geared up also to assist and work towards his IAHD Dive Partner certification.  Slowly but steadily we progressed through gearing up, getting in, getting under and finally really starting to look like a diver.  Trimming was key as Diane’s body seemed to have a mind of it’s own as to how it wanted to go in the water.  Lot’s of experimentation with placement of trim weights to help achieve not only good trim in the water, but good positioning on the surface too!  Overall it was a great session, and Diane and Albert were thrilled with the upcoming possibilities.   Friday we met again, with another five hour round trip for Dave to get through New York City, but the session went well, and we all felt good about Diane & Albert heading to Bonaire. 

The next step was to locate an IAHD Instructor in Bonaire.  The island is part of the Netherlands Antilles, and is the only group of islands in the Caribbean that does not fall into the IAHD-Americas region.  It was determined that there was currently no IAHD representation on the island, and Klaas Brower, IAHD President, gave us the green light to continue Diane’s training there.  So we set up our training at the Divi Flamingo Resort, which is a fully accessible facility and is currently HSA trained for working with disabled divers.  Serge, the dive operations manager there, could not bave been more helpful in helping us make all the necessary arrangements.

We flew down on Saturday, and started our training Sunday afternoon in the balmy waters of western shore of Bonaire.  We modified our weighting and trimming to get Diane right in the salt water with her exposure suit, and enjoyed our first two open water dives.  Monday we further refined the process, getting in two more dives, and finally, on Tuesday, we enjoyed our longest and deepest dives so far, spending 30+ minutes enjoying the reef in 30 feet of water. 

We celebrated with a few more hugs and a graduation ceremony dockside.  Diane is now officially certified as an IAHD Sport Diver!  While Dave packed up and headed home, Diane and Albert plan to relax for the next few days in Bonaire.  They plan to be joining us at Dutch Springs to continue their diving this summer.  Look for some great video footage of Diane in her biggest adventure ever on the IAHD-Americas site soon!  

So, let’s sum up this experience –

                                 3 five hour round trips to Rye, NY            $300

                                 Airfare to Bonaire                                     $810

                                Hotel & Meals                                            $574

                               The smile on Diane’s face after 6 dives   PRICELESS!

 

Tripping the light fantastic at the Boat Show in Duesseldorf with IAHD

 

In January each year for the last 40 years the city of Duesseldorf, Germany hosts the world’s largest consumer boating and watersports recreation show, known as the Boot Show.  This global event, running 10 days, and covering 15 halls at the Duesseldorf Convention Center, dwarfs any other event in the industry.  Hundreds of thousands of visitors come from lands near and far to take in this show.  For an idea of size, picture one hall full of nothing but superyachts in the 100 to 140 foot range!  Then multiply by fifteen!

The scuba industry is huge here in Europe, and it is truly eye-opening to see the many different products and other offerings they have here, versus what we typically see in the U.S.  For the last 5 years the International Association for Handicapped Diving (IAHD) has staffed a booth and shared the news about their handicapped diver programs with the public.  This year IAHD’s top dog in America, our own Dave Valaika, traveled east to join his comrades in spreading the good word.  He headed over Thursday, enduring a near-Australian flying day of 16 hours overall, arriving in Germany at 7:30 Friday morning.  A quick cup of “coffee in a can” (diet Coke) and he was ready to have at it for the day.  Dirk Wondred, his counterpart in IAHD-Germany, picked him up and they headed to the show.

Once inside the massive event, it was non-stop meetings and introductions as Dirk showed Dave the inner-workings of the tremendous support network the IAHD has developed over the years in Europe.  From equipment manufacturers to dive centers to indoor diving facilities to destinations, the IAHD program is significantly more mature on the European continent than what we have in the U.S. right now.  Lots of great information shared, ideas to implement here, and new friends, even some guys wearing traditional Liederhosen as the dress of the day (No, not Dave!).

After the long day, more meetings, and finally the long drive home to Dirk’s house, Dave was running on an empty tank for sure.  Falling asleep at the dinner table, he opted to head to bed for the night.  Up two flights of railing-less concrete stairs (oh those German building codes!) to the third floor and we found Dave’s room, Daniel’s room, and two identical doors, one leading to the bathroom and the other back down the stairs.

Dave crashed into bed, exhausted, and began to recharge his batteries for the next day.  Getting up once during the night to visit the facilities, our blearry-eyed leader headed into the hallway, opened the door, and stepped into…….yes, the open staircase to downstairs!  Head over heels he tumbled down one flight, then, as if that was not enough, rolled over the edge of the landing and headed down the second flight of stairs, finally coming to a rest in a bloody heap on the first floor foyer.

Dirk and the rest of the gang jumped up at the noise but not quick enough to slow Diver Dave’s descent, and they arrived on the scene to assess the situation.  The good news is that Dirk’s day job is a fireman / paramedic for the city, so he was right into action making sure the vital signs were intact and then address the injuries.  Once Dirk determined that Dave was alive and could move most if not all of his appendages, they lifted Dave up and of course he refused a trip to the hospital, preferring to have a little time to self-assess the damage.  So an hour or so of cleaning up the various wounds on Dave’s body, and hosing down the staircase, they put him to bed and decided to let him sleep for the night. For an added measure of safety they opted to lock the staircase door for the night – nothing like closing the barn door after the cows are out! Monitoring Dave’s vital signs were not too much of a challenge, as the moaning all night ensured that he was still breathing, and also that no one else could get any sleep in the house!

Finally Saturday morning dawned and the severity and variety of pain helped Dave know he needed to visit the local Krankenhaus, as the German hospitals are called.  So, the troops hauled him downstairs, folded him (with great protest) into Daniel’s Volkswagen, and off they headed to the hospital.  Of course, Daniel is Dutch, and so Dirk’s wonderful wife Angie jumped in too so she could help smooth the way at the clinic.

They arrived at the hospital, peeled Dave out of the car, and walked him into the emergency room.  There, the three young frauleins on staff were quited surprised with their first american visitor, so knowing Dave, you can imagine the laughter starting and fun beginning, inspite of the reason for the visit.  Right off the get-go, they speak no Dutch, and Angie speaks no English, and Dave, neither, so every bit of discussion, including the jokes, sarcasm, and punchlines, went from German thru Angie to Dutch thru Daniel to Dave, then back to Dutch, and back to German.  What a laugh fest for all involved.Of course the translations made the visual aspect of facial expressions and hand signs greatly delayed, so you can imagine the scene. 

We started off with the girls being completely out of admittance forms, and so they ended up searching every single cabinet and desk in the area to no avail.  So out came a pad of paper, and they started taking notes, and through Angie’s interpretation, typing the information into the computer.  Of course they had never seen an American insurance card like mine, but they dutifully copied it and stapled it to the paperwork.  A ten Euro co-pay and we were finally off to see the doctor.  So I go to the waiting area, then the examination room door opens, and who are my nurses?  The same girls from admissions!  So the laughing and giggling continues and of course I need my posse there to continue to interpret, but it turns out that Daniel gets real queasy over blood and anything medical, so he is not holding up so well in the exam room.  What a team!

The junior doctor who is on duty that night takes it all in, and decides that some x-rays might be appropriate, so I am taken up to the Radiation Department, where a note on the glass tells us, in German of course, that the attendent is out making rounds and will be back in a while.  So we wait, and she returns, and the interpretation continues, and we head in for pictures.  Of course, small world, the X-ray technician lived in Houston as an au pair for a year, so she has tons of questions to ask and stories to tell, each one translated twice.  We finish and head back down to the ER, X-rays in hand, and the ER has now gotten quite busy, but we have connections, and the girls bring Dave back into an exam room.  Dave and the doctor study the X-rays, and see the broken ribs along the spine, but it appears that most of the rest of the structure is intact, so let’s get out of this hospital!  OK, you’ll need medication, he says, so one of the girls heads out and comes back with a handful of various packets of pills, in plain white wrappers, no text or warning labels or legal documents, just drugs.  Here he says, take this one three times each day, this one twice, this one at night, and Dave borrows a pen to write this on the plain white envelopes.  We are clearly NOT in America anymore!

So, back into the VW, a bouncy journey back up the highway, and back to bed, preferring to pass on today’s show attendence.  A good day and nights rest and rehabilitation, encouraged by good German chemistry, and we are ready for the next day.  Although operating in seriously slow, painful mode, we enjoy the next three days making plans and developing programs to implement for the IAHD-Americas, and to come back to dive the indoor dive centers in the region.  Overall it is a fantastic week here with our new IAHD friends and family, and we share a special bond together.  Finally, it is time to head back home, and it’s only a short flight to Paris, followed by 10 hours across the Atlantic, and one more flight into Philadelphia, and we’re back home, ready to start planning for next year’s Boot show visit, sans the krankenhaus!