Frank, where are your fins? And more adventures from the Keys!

Heather & Sue with IVS Diver Extraordinaire, ‘Finless’ Frank Gabriel

Aaah, the Florida Keys…we can never get enough of them!  And the last week in July each year is even more special, as Team Indian Valley Scuba enjoys a full week of diving, fun, and food in America’s Caribbean!  This annual adventure is centered around the annual Florida lobster mini-season, a two-day event held each year on the last contiguous Wednesday and Thursday in July.  This is a special spiny lobster hunting season, open only to recreational sports divers and snorkelers, and it’s a great opportunity to catch some of the delicious crustaceans before the commercial season opens in another week or two.

Our “pre-adventure” actually begins on Saturday, when the first of our divers begin to converge on Key Largo.  Hosted by Dave Hartman, one of the faces of IVS-South, the first arrivals included last year’s reigning ‘Lobster Queen’, Bill Zyskowski, Scott Bruce and his dad, Steve Holak, Heather Hiester, ……..and  “Finless” Frank Gabriel (more on that later!).

The Lobster Queen Bill Z and trip leader Steve H

After an overnight stay at Casa Hartman, they headed out in the eye of an impending storm Sunday morning to dive the Spiegel Grove with Chrissie and the gang from Blue Water Divers.  Two great dives exploring this massive wreck from the inside out, and as they motored back to port, the clouds were closing in.  The weather radar was predicting some big storm activity was brewing, so with the afternoon boat cancelled, and the crew enjoyed a nice early dinner at Shipwreck’s Bar & Grille before heading the 110 miles south to Key West for the night.  As it turns out, the storms never materialized, but it made for a nice relaxing start to a marathon week of diving we had planned. Two and a half hours of beautifully scenic driving later, they arrived in Key West, where they were met with the rest of our advance group, quasi-locals Carlie & Leslie Adams, and representing the western side of the IVS family, Jesica Tyre and Berry Smith from Los Angeles.

Monday started off with the group meeting at Sea-Duction, the rebirth of the former SubTropic dive center, now owned by my friend Mike Ange.  Based in North Carolina, Mike has teaching tec classes in the Keys for years, and has experienced much of the same frustration as we have, with a general lack of support and very few dive centers that take technical diving seriously, or can provide the gasses, tank set-ups, and even rebreather support materials that we need to effectively conduct classes and execute tec dives there.  Til now, only Silent World in Key Largo could be counted on for supporting tec programs, and the owner, Chris Brown, is absolutely first class.

So the gang analyzes their nitrox fills and head out for the day, with the plan being two dips on the Vandenburg, and the third on the Cayman Salvor or Joe’s Tug.  Now on IVS trips we have a tradition, and that is, that the boats we use break down at some point.  Just about every trip photo gallery has a shot or two of a captain or mechanic on his knees, head buried somewhere down the engine hatch.  I’m not sure what this black cloud is that sometimes follows us, and it always makes for good stories, but it is, truly, a tradition.  And today was not going to be any different! 

Dave Hartman taking a turn at steering Seaduction’s boat to the Vandenberg

As Sea-Duction’s boat approached the mooring balls on the ‘Vandie’, the crew prepared the boat hook and their lines to tie in.  Approx 100 yards from teh wreck, the captain shouted out “Sh*t..we have a problem here!”  One of the mates jumped down and pulled the engine hatches off, and, true to tradition, buried his head in the engine compartment.  Seems that the steering failed, and the rudder is not responding to the helm.  Hmmmm……not a a good thing!  

So out come the tools, and now all three of them are in the hatch, and lots of colorful language is coming from the crew.  Our guys are enjoying it, and heck, there doesn;t appear to be a lot of surface current, so maybe we can jump in and swim to the wreck!  Well the crew finally figures it out, and via some big-ass wrenches, a lot of sweating, colorful metaphors, and shouting from the helm to the hatch, they are able to man-handle the rudder and guide the boat to the mooring ball.   The crew ties in, and the diving begins! 

Conditions are perfect, and our group enjoys this fantastic 500+ ft. long wreck and all the penetration and exploration it has to offer.  While the plan was to make only twoi dives here, the challenge with the steering makes the decision to stay for a third an easy one, and everyone is happy with that.  Back to port, with the modified steering system in effect, and while the docking proved to be a bit of a challenge, finally all the lines were tied, and it was time to clean up and head down to Duval Street for an evening of good dinner, a variety of hydrating drinks, people watching and sightseeing.

Tuesday morning and time for a leisurely drive back up the Keys to Tavernier, where we have chartered Conch Republic’s boat for a couple of dives this afternoon.  Gary & Brenda, owners of Conch, are there to greet the group and they get off on time, with the first dive on the wreck of the Eagle.  After that our second visit is to Pickles Reef, a nice location that we rarely visit out of Key Largo due  to the distance.   Another good dive in the logbook, and back to the dock they head.  From there it’s a short hop another ten miles up the road to check in at Amoray Dive Resort, our base of operations for the next six days of this adventure! 

Cathy, Maribel, Reinel & Emanuel on the Amoray Diver

Joining the team there are more of the IVS gang, including Steve Zingale, Shaquanasia Morris, Paul, Quinton & Esther Gehman, Ray Graff, Nick Chiarolanza, Jeff Herber, plus joining us from the Tampa Bay area are Marabel Grajales, Reinel Correia, Cathy Levesque, and Emanuel Martinez, and finally the O’Donnell gang, Rob, Jen, Ryan, Alyson & Kristen .  A great team with one focus for tonight – get some rest and be ready to kick butt in the lobster hunting department tomorrow!

The 4 o’clock alarm comes early on Wednesday morning, and the crew slowly shuffles down to load the boat for the first lobster trip.  We’re shoving off at 5:00 a.m., to be in position and geared up to splash at 5:45, the legal start of mini-season in Monroe County. Another member of the team shows up for the boat, Craig Lloyd, who brought his family down for some vacation time while dad gets in some diving & hunting.  His lovely wife and two beautiful daughters are not divers…..yet…but we’ll work on that! 

The hunting starts off a little slow, and the morning boat only produces 13 keeper bugs over three hour-long dives.  Ruh-roh…might be a lot of salad and bread served up at Friday nights lobster dinner!  The team needs to improve on this for sure!!  We’ve got quite a few rookies on board, and a few ringers, like Lobster Queen Bill Z, but we’re missing some of our best, like Bill’s brother John.  And as part of our “rebuilding year”, we also traded a few of last years players down to the minors, but all in all, our team is having a great time!

Ray, Frank & Bill – lobster clearning crew!

After a short siesta it’s time to get serious and get back out on the hunt!  Tanks are loaded, and the 4 o’clock departure heads out, and with a little extra coaching and mentoring, the team more than doubles the morning take.  Way to go..dinner is looking better already!

Wednesday 4:00 a.m. and the activity begins dockside with some new faces showing up, including Sue Douglass, Judy Mullen, and yours truly.  It’s time to kick this lobster hunting into a higher gear!  Out we head for our morning trip and we put another 40 or so in the cooler…now we’re talking!  Back to the dock, and there’s no rest for the weary, as Steve Holak and I head over to Jules Undersea Lodge for a couple of Open Water checkout dives with newcomer Fred Shue, Nick C,Paul & Quinton G, and the O’Donnell tribe – Ryan, Alyson & Kristen.  Conditions are very nice there, and somewhat surreal as there is a whitish cloud hovering a couple of feet off the dark bottom; really makes for a cool visual effect!  Skills completed, the crew heads back to Amoray and we load up for another three-tank final trip out to secure the main course for Friday night’s dinner. By the end of the night the count is 101 bugs in the cooler, so we’re looking good for dinner with our triple-digit production!  After 14 dives over the past to days, the bed feels really good tonight for some reason!   Friday morning dawns as another absolutely beautiful day in Key Largo – blue skies, no wind, flat seas…this trip has truly been gifted as far as conditions go.  Let’s hope we get three more days of it!  John Reider has arrived during the night, so the team is finally complete.  We head out to the reefs for two shallow dives this morning, and our open water students complete all their required skills with flying colors!  I can’t say how proud it makes me to be part of this positive energy and karma that comes from motivated students and a great instructional staff – these guys really rock my world! 

Heather, Judy, Jen, “Finless” Frank, Berry, Jesica & Dave V hamming it up for the camera!

Esther & Paul Gehman on the Amoray Diver

Nick & Scott on the Amoray Diver

And now, with their official recognition as PADI Open Water Divers, our newly minted graduates enjoy their first deep / wreck / adventure dive on the wreck of the Spiegel Grove.  The conditions remain stellar, and it is a perfect way to launch thier next levels of training… there a strategy at work here?  Meanwhile, the rest of the crew enjoyed some great dives, and of course Dave Hartman led his signature tour  – “The Belly of the Beast” – through the lowest levels of this massive wreck.  Another great day under and on the sea!

This evening is another one of our celebrated annual events – Lobster Dinner at the Key Largo Conch House restaurant.  We have been doing this for five years now, and the owners of the Conch House spend all day preparing our tails, making various dishes of lobster fritters, lobster bisque, broiled tails, and more.  A great dinner with about forty attendees, including the Lloyd family girls, Michelle from Amoray, and a couple of our local Key Largo friends also.  Great night, great food, great company – Life is Good!

Hartman and Michelle at Conch House

Ray and his ladies at the Conch House, while the rest of us scramble to replace the batteries in our AED….just in case!! With Heather, Sue, Judy & Jesica

The O’Donnell family enjoying a great lobster dinner with Team IVS at the Conch House

Jesica & Judy sharing some ocean-inspired body art with us!

I know we’re sounding like a broken record, but again, we are greeted with perfect conditions on Saturday – truly a picture perfect day as we headed out to Molasses Reef for two nice shallow dives.  And what could make the morning even better?  How about Steve Holak celebrating his 500th dive with Indian Valley Scuba this morning!  OK, or even better?  How about Judy & Jesica modeling full body tatt’s for a boatload of admiring eyes!

The afternoon our plans are to re-visit the Spiegel Grove, then go on to the Benwood in preparation for tonight’s night dive.  The teams prepare and brief for their individual group goals and plans for the dive, and final equipment checks are conducted.  Stage bottles are checked, reels and lift bags verified, computers set.  Each team of divers approaches the bow of the Amoray Diver as a group, so they can enter the water one right after the other, and minimize descent and waiting time, (i.e. burning through precious gas reserves), while waiting for the entire team assemble.   Some groups with more experienced divers have planned some slightly more aggressive tours, while some of the others follow Sue D’s “Lame-Oh” tour agenda, staying outside the wreck and taking in the beauty without the risks of penetration.  Sooo, as the Hartman group heads up for a deep, dark tour, one by one they splash, Dave H going in first, followed by Bill Z, and then Frank G.  Funny, but Frank seems to drop a little deeper under the surface than the others on his entry, as if he had less drag to his body. Hmmmm….as he finally surfaces and begins to kick over to the line to join the others, he does not seem to be making much headway….perhaps because he has NO FINS ON!  Yikes…..perhaps he took that part of Dave’s briefing, about using your hands inside the wreck and not kicking with your fins to stir up silt, a little too literally!    Not to worry Frank, this little faux paus will be a secret just between us…and the entire internet!!  Yes, you know it when the group shouts out almost in unison, “That’ll make the blog!” 

After “Finless Frank’s” entry, the rest of the dive goes well, and everyone else enters the water with ALL their gear on.  Rob O’Donnell completes his ‘very’ Advanced Open Water training with stage bottle drills, running wreck reels and wreck penetration, and even helping Dave V nail a big lionfish.  A great dive, nearly an hour of bottom time with the big tanks most of us are wearing, and finally we head over to the Benwood.  Frank is checked closely by the crew prior to his giant stride, just in case, you know.  The dive here is absolutely magical, from a giant baitball of silverside minnows, to the hungry teams of groupers coordinating feeding attacks, to the huge snook hanging out there, to the cruising nurse sharks over the wreck, just absolutely magical.

The evening  found us back at the site of the Benwood for a true night dive.  The sun had set, and the sea was black; no “twilight” dive for this crew!  Into the ocean we splashed, and down the line we went.  Magical moment #1 – a turtle swims over to us at the bottom of the line and checks us out…you just know this is going to be a great dive!  The best part is that ten year old Kristen O’Donnell is leading us, with no fear or apprehension at all!  And the turtle visits us again during the dive, just cruising with us and allowing the divers to gently touch and stroke its shell, making no attempt to avoid or move away….really cool cooperative animal interaction!

Most of the troops head over to the one of our favorite haunts, the Paradise Pub, for some Cheeseburgers in Paradise, a few pitchers of beer, and a boatload of laughter and story telling that is part of every great IVS trip. Including, of course, the tale of Finless Frank!  And of course, the thing that warms my heart the most……folks planning their next IVS dive trip!!  The stamina and energy of our divers never ceases to amaze me, and half the group stays and closes the bar.  And….they all make it out on the morning boat!

Our last full day of diving is Sunday, and we are not disappointed with the conditions.  More blue skies, more flat seas, and two great reef dives to kick off the morning.  We head back in, grab a bit of lunch, and head out for our ‘graduation dives’, a visit to the Duane and a final tour of the Spiegel Grove.  As we motor south to the site of the Duane, we pass the balls marking her sister ship, the USS Bibb, which is laying on it’s side about 1/4 mile from the Duane.  The balls are absolutely lifeless in the water, with no indication of current at all.  We can’t pass on the chance to dive this wreck, as we rarely get conditions like this when we vsiit it. So, scratch the Duane…. we’re diving the Bibb today!   Of course, no good change in plans goes without some whining, but I step up and help everyone who just listened intently to Dave Hartman’s Duane briefing…. “take everything you just heard, and turn it sideways!”  OK.. briefing done..let’s dive!   

Soooo, I am diving solo on this one, as is Bill Z, as both of us are carrying Lionfish spears and looking to score.  So let’s just set the stage here…this is a 300 ft long wreck, intact, laying on it’s side.  It’s a former Coast Guard cutter, so it has (1) pointy end (the bow), and (1) not-so-pointy end, with a couple of huge 20 ft diameter propellers and rudders (the stern).  It has exactly two mooring balls on it, one at each end of the wreck.  Just saying…..more on this in a few minutes!  So, as we  drop down to the wreck, the visibility is forever, and I tap Bill and point out how cool the props and rudders look as we approach them.  He sees them, or at least I think he does, and we continue down, hit the side of the wreck and separate to hunt for our quarry.  Nice dive, cool wreck to see and for those of us who have dove the  Duane numerous times, it is very interesting to see the difference between the two identical wrecks in terms of growth, marine life, fish populations, especially that the two are just a little over 1,000 ft from each other.  So….fast forward…..I nail another lionfish, and actually show it to Bill as we pass each other, and finally my 35 minutes at 130 ft max is up….time to ascend and rid the body of a little excess nitrogen.  I’m alone now, so I swim over the props, and grab the morning line, and as I turn towards the surface, I can enjoy the view of all our other divers on the line doing nice deep stops and safety stops.  Well OK, most of our other divers. 

Capt. Rob & Mate Alysa getting ready to toss the coin and figure out which one is going to swim the rescue float out to wayward Bill Z

It seems that when Bill decided to come up, he also headed to the mooring line, and began his ascent.  He was diving with a larger tank than most of the others, so his first clue something was amiss was the fact that no one was already on the line, as he expected to find.  Hmmmm.. well at this point he was committed, too far away from the “proper” end of this wreck , so he completed his ascent, and surfaced 300 ft behind the Amoray Diver…about exactly the length of the Bibb!  So, much to Bill’s chagrine, Capt Rob and the crew unroll the 300 ft. rescue line on the boat and they swim it out to Bill.  You know what is going on inside his head……”Darn it…this is going to make the blog!”  And here it is, proving him right.  It should be noted, that Bill gave it a lot of thought, and has an official story – and he’s sticking to it!  It seems that he set a personal goal of having a mooring ball named in his honor on every wreck that IVS visits!  Move over “Z-Ball” (named after Bill and his brother John on the Spiegel), and the “C-Ball”, named in honor of Csaba Lorinczy on another two-ball wreck on the St. Lawrence Seaway.   

After the laughter finally dies down, we motor over to the Spiegel for one last fantastic tour through the wreck.  Berry Smith wants a little adrenalin rush, so he joins me and we drop right down five decks through hatchways, and spend nearly 30 minutes on a long penetration with nary a bit of outside light (or escape path) until we finally emerge near the stern of the wreck.  Everyone else comes up smiling too, enjoying the fantastic conditions on our favorite underwater funhouse.  Very cool way to wrap up a great week of diving!  Time to rinse gear, get one last night of rest, and head for home to get ready for our next IVS trip!

The end…..for now…we’ll be back!!

A Special Wreck Trek Starts Off Lobster Week

Part II in our Six Part Blog Series is by David Hartman of Key Largo, Florida

Indian Valley SCUBA arrived early in South Florida to take in the sites and some serious wrecks prior to Lobster Mini-Season arrives on Wednesday and Thurday.  David Valaika headed to the Dry Tortugas for an adventure excursion on a private boat to dive some deep wrecks.  Sue Douglass, Bev and Butch Loggins, Brian LaSpino, Jesica Tyre headed to South Beach for some R&R. Bill and John Zyskowski arrived in Key Largo Saturday night to get a head start on the Indian Valley SCUBA Wreck Trek-Lobster Week by taking a private all day wreck charter with IVS South’s David Hartman. The Z-Brothers Wreck Trek included three dives on the Spiegel with lunch and a gorgeous dive on the Duane to end the all day affair. Excellent conditions on both wrecks plus sunny skies made for a fantastic dive day.  The highlights of the Spiegel dives included the “Belly of the Beast Tour” of the Pump Room and Aft Engine Room, The Ulimate Tour with the “Chute” Snoopy, Galley, Mess Halls and Machine Shop and pressing some shirts in the ship’s Laundry Room.  A special thanks to the Captain Pete Lacombe (The Mustard King), Divemaster Justin and Keys Diver II for taking good care the Z-Brothers team.

The Z Brothers on the USS Speigel Grove

The Z Brothers on the USS Speigel Grove

Read More on the IVS Wreck Trek in Part III of the Blog Series……..

Warming up for the Keys Invasion – Dry Tortugas Tech Diving

This is Part I of a Six Part Series on “Team  IVS Invades the Keys”

The IVS Truck Loaded for Our Extended Trip to the Florida Keys

The IVS Truck Loaded for Our Extended Trip to the Florida Keys

Well it’s late July, and we all know what that means – time for Team Indian Valley Scuba to invade the Florida Keys for our annual lobster mini-season event and lobster festival dinner!  This year we’ve made the trip even better, by growing it to include three days of nothing but wrecks before we hunt, and then a Wreck Racing League event after the festival.  Heck, we’ve even thrown in a day of cave diving to round out the nearly two weeks of Florida diving we have planned

But before we get into all of that – let’s not forget how weather and traffic teamed up in perfect harmony to destroy my chance to dive the Andrea Doria last week.  I am still hurting inside from that “non-trip”, and this is made worse by the fact that I have to walk around the huge pile of scuba cylinders custom blended and tagged with Trimix in the garage, that we had prepared for that trip.  Where and when will I ever use all this great gas, I think to myself each day as I gaze with teary eyes at the pile of tanks.

Fate is a funny thing, sometimes our friend, sometimes our foe. So, sensitive soul that I am, consider how I felt when the phone rang and it was my good friend Joe Weatherby calling from Key West, to let me know that a private tech charter there had just gotten a cancellation from one of the members, and they asked Joe if he could recommend anyone and thankfully he thought of me. But of course, before he could commit, he needed to see if I was available.

“Three days on a private 43 ft Bertram yacht diving and spearing fish on some of the most famous technical wrecks in the Dry Tortugas, and the spot was mine if I could make it  down.  “OK, OK, when is this scheduled”, I asked, and Joe replied “next weekend, July 21-24 – can you make it?” Wait a minute, I am thinking, that is the four days before our upcoming Wreck Trek in Key West….so just to make sure, I ask Joe to repeat himself.   Yep, those are the dates, but he has to know if I can make it, and if I have time to blend gas for it!  “Let me look at my schedule for a micro-second”, I say, and then “Count me in!”

I ask you, what are the odds that a diving opportunity will come up like this, with dates that dovetail into our already arranged trip perfectly, and to wrecks that require the exact same gas that I have blended in the garage.  Is there something I am missing here?  I pinch myself a few times, and immediately begin making the necessary adjustments to my travel plans! This will work, just need to move a few things around, get packed, and head down a bit earlier, with an expected departure at noon on Wednesday.  That will allow me to have plenty of time to enjoy a relaxing drive south – so unlike me!!  Well keep reading to see how well this part of the plan / fantasy worked out.

The crew that is putting this adventure together includes Zach Harshbarger, a USAir pilot that owns a yacht in Key West, Steve Moore, spearfisherman supreme and owner of Keys Mobile Diving, Kenny Rad from the Great Lakes, John Herrera from Boca Rotan, and Laura Pettry from Lake Worth.  Joining me and this select group will be Michele Highley, who was already on board to drive down with me for the Wreck Trek.

The plan is to motor out to the Dry Tortugas for four days of technical diving and spearfishing, visiting such great wrecks as the Araby Maid, the Rhein, and the former WWII German U-Boat S-2513.

We’ll have two boats, Zach’s 13 meter (43 ft) Bertram Trojan as our mother ship, with it’s roomy 17 ft beam and spacious galley and cockpit, along with Steve’s 23 ft Glacier Bay catamaran will be alongside to serve as an alternate dive platform and chase boat for the spear-o’s.  In order to conserve the smaller boats fuel, the plan is to tow it out behind the Trojan for the nearly 100 mile run out to the Dry Tortugas.

Well plans are one thing, execution is another.  For starters, what was I thinking when I said we’d leave at noon?  I’m finishing up mixing a few bottles of gas in the morning, then starting to get my gear together, when I remember I need to get an IVS newsletter out!  Yikes!  So to the computer I go, shift gears, put my “creative helmet” on tight, and type away, sharing Amir Stark’s fantastic Bonaire movie, Randy Rudd’s NOAA award, Rob Tenilla’s ride to cure cancer, and a few more tidbits of timely news.  If you don’t get the newsletter, you can subscribe to it by clicking here!

So finally that is out, and now I need to help Ray with a few Nitrox fills for a customer. Then Bev has something I need to look at, Brian has a few questions, the contractor who is painting the house needs some time with me…you get the picture!  I am thinking I should make it a practice to just sneak out quietly during the night!

Eventually the truck is loaded to the hilt, 38 tanks of various gasses on board, tech gear, sidemount gear, lobster gear, more gear…for some reason I can hear the voice of Captain Quint from Jaws, saying, “We’re gonna need a bigger truck!”  And look at the clock on the wall – it’s 7:00 pm!  That’s almost noon-ish, and using the same math as America’s major airlines, I consider it an on-time departure!  Only 22 hours to go, and we’ll be in Key West!

Well the trip is uneventful, and we make good time, finally arriving in Stock Island, just outside of Key West, for a pre-departure dinner with the group at the Hogfish Bar & Grille.  This great little restaurant is right in the marina where our condo is and coincidently where the Fish Happens and Keys Mobile Diver are docked.

We enjoy some fresh grouper that Steve had shot earlier in the day, and start to load the boat.  We put most of the tanks and gear on the Trojan, to keep the Mobile Diver as light as possible for towing.  Let’s just say, that when we are done loading that we have one impressive pile of tanks on board!  Personal gear is brought down, we draw straws for the bedroom assignments, and start to settle in and prepare to begin our journey.  This is perfect – what could go wrong now?

Oooops!  Starboard engine fires up, but Port engine does not want to crank for nothing!  Not cool, considering we are planning to spend the next four days alone on the ocean with no support in sight.  So as is so typical on an IVS trip, the engine hatches are opened, tool boxes brought out, and the crew assumes the characteristic “head down, butt high” position of men on a mission!  It appears that perhaps the problem is as simple as a dead battery, but it’s a little late at night – it’s 1:00 am now – to get any parts, even in Key West.  So we call it a night, and bed down dockside to await the morning and the opening of the local ships chandelary.

The sun wakes us up and we re-check the nights work – yup, it still won’t start.  OK, with that confirmed, we get some breakfast and Zach heads over to West Marine and picks up a new battery.  Installation is not too big a job and even Michele is in the engine hatch helping get the job done!   Finally we test our work and shazam! We have two working engines!

We’re pretty sure we’re ready now, so we throw off the lines, and slowly motor out the channel.  Once outside, we rig up a tow line from the Trojan to the Mobile Diver.  Now I hardly consider myself a sailor (as anyone salutes my personal navigation marker in Key Largo), but I did sleep at a Holiday Inn Express one night, and I am sensing the tow line is a little light for the job.  Reassured by the crew that it’ll do the job, we head out, and sure enough, at 7 knots, it is doing well.  But as soon as we begin to open the throttle up a bit, ‘Zing!’ there goes the line flying by, putting an end to that tow rig configuration.  We leave Steve on his boat to put another rig together and we crank up the big Detroit Diesels and start making good time on our trip.  The plan is for Steve to catch up to us along the way and we’ll re-visit the towing concept there.

The sea is as flat as you can ask for, the sky clear blue, and the sun just shining down on our boat as we motor past schools of playful dolphins on the way …ah the life of a sailor indeed!  Of course, without all the deck swabbing & plank walking parts!  Our plans are to make way directly to the Araby Maid where we will tie up for the night.  Steve has caught back up to us, so now, at towing speed, that equates to about 12 hours to make the 94 mile run from Key West. With our delayed departure due to the battery problem, that puts us on the wreck at about 9:30 this evening, a little late and a little dark to think about that being our first dive of the trip!  Usually better to get the bugs out on something less than 200 ft deep, night dive on a natural wreck covered with nets and fishing lines.  So, what to do!  Wait, John remembers he heard of a wreck called the Night Lady, a wooden fishing boat lost in a storm many years ago, that happens to fall almost directly in our path. Well, as Gomer Pyle would say, “shazam, shazam”, we have a plan.  We’ll stop on the wreck, get the gear wet, and be in good shape for our technical night dive later!

We locate the wreck 64 miles out from Key West, sitting in 110 ft of water.  It hardly shows up on the depth finder so we are not expecting to see much left of the wreck.  But dive we must, and we head in, to practically unlimited visibility and 86 degree water.  As we descend, we hit a thermocline at about 80 ft, and a “vis-o-cline” too, with very cloudy water the rest of the way down.  I get a few pictures in the less-than-ideal conditions, and kill two lionfish, but am unsuccessful in feeding either of them to the four huge Goliath groupers that are following me around.  Oh well, this is all I have to offer them today, so they can find their own dinner!  Meanwhile spearfishers John & Laura nail four Mango Snappers and a grouper, so we have dinner for tonight!  We get in a good 20 minutes of bottom time and a nice easy ascent back up to re-board and get on our way, to the Araby Maid for the night.  Good way to start it off!

We fire back up, tie the Keys Diver in for the rest of the ride, and continue our journey.  John & Laura go about prepping our dinner, with a whole plethora of fresh fish offerings, including ceviche, sashimi, and grilled fish – this is living large!  The grille is fired up, and dinner is served enroute.  We are loving this!  We enjoy some cocktails as we work our way towards our tie-in tonight, with an anticipated arrival of 11:00 pm.

Here’s a great shot of our two captains enjoying cocktails and conversation in the bean bag chairs on the bow as we sail into the sunset…I don’t know, but why did I just think of those darn Cealis commercials?

As we head into the night, Zach cranks up the music on the boat’s surround-sound system, and then the Kracken emerges!  No, not the mythical Nordic creature made famous by the Johnny Depp movies, but rather Kracken, the dark & potent rum!  At this pace the disco ball will be dropping from the ceiling soon here!  And we still have dives to do tonight!! It’s not easy being “good” with this crowd, but you can see here I am as studious as ever, working on the blog for our readers.

Finally the engines slow down as we approach the GPS coordinates of the 3-masted wooden schooner Araby Maid, sitting upright in 215 feet of water since colliding with the SS Denver in 1902 and sinking directly to the bottom. Steve and Kenny climb back aboard the Mobile Diver and we cut them loose to get an accurate location on the wreck.  They are carrying a grapple hook with a few hundred feet of ¾” line attached and a 36 in. diameter float.  Attached to the bottom of the float is about 20 ft of additional line, and another small float with a small loop tied in the end of it to grab with the boat hook and loop our main line through.  Did I mention that this line between the main float and the small one was negatively buoyancy, in fact, substantially negative?  More on this coming up!

So it’s 11:30 now and the boys in the small boat have dropped the hook and believe they have snagged the wreck.  They back away, and now we maneuver the large boat into place to make the tie in.  I am on the bow, boat hook in hand, peering down into the black water with no moon to provide any illumination at all.  Needless to say, this was looking like it was going to be a bit of a challenge.  There was a bit of a wind blowing in a different direction than the current, so it was doing funny things to how the balls were floating as we approached them.  It took us several passes to get us in alignment with the balls and anywhere close enough for me to get the hook on it.  Did I mention the hook was black?  And remember that negative buoyancy of the tag line?  Well the result of that was the line dropped straight down from the big ball, and then looped back up into the bottom of the small ball, giving you absolutely nothing to snag with the hook except the small 6” loop on the small ball itself.  With the black water, black sky, and black hook, this was no easy matter for me to snag the loop, but finally I succeeded and we were able to tie off.  Our celebration was short-lived, as we realized that we were in fact NOT tied into the wreck, but simply dragging the anchor across the sand at a decent clip.  Once this became obvious we untied the line, the guys brought all the gear back on board, and we repeated the process once again.  So at 1:00 a.m. the radio crackled to life as Steve reported that they had hooked the wreck once again, and we could tie up to the line.  So we approached, dealing with the same wind/current issues, blackness, negatively buoyant lines, etc.  We made a couple of passes and I missed the loop not once, but twice, as the ball drifted from one side of the boat to the other.  We were idling, and the wind shifted again, pushing us sideways towards the balls, when suddenly the little ball disappeared, and the next thing you know the big ball is coming towards us at way too fast a pace.  That can only mean one thing – yes, the small ball and line must be bonding with our propeller shaft….ruh roh!!

We quickly shut down the engines, but the damage was done.  Zach and I jumped in the water and began sorting out the mess.  The first thing we did was tie off the main line going down to the hook, so we could work with slack line as we cut & untangled the mess.  As we tied off we noticed the GPS was indicating we were still making about a knot and a half, so we were dragging the hook again.  Go figure.  So into the water I went with Zach, and we spent the next two hours dicing and slicing and avoiding getting beat by the bouncing boat overhead and getting stung by passing sea life and avoiding slashing our own hands with the knives in the dark.  Finally at 2:30 in the morning it was mission accomplished and we set the big ball free to be picked up by the Mobile Diver, cleared all the line off the propeller and prop shaft, and climbed back on board.  We had now drifted about 4 miles from the wreck, dragging the anchor the entire time,  so an executive decision was made – the anchor from the small boat was not large enough to hold the big boat in place!  So enough of that, we ran over the Araby Maid for the third time, dropped our 60# anchor and 350 ft of chain and line, and hooked in solid.

So at 3:00 a.m. we made an executive decision – we were going to pass on our dive tonight and save it for first thing in the morning.  Probably a wise decision, but at least we made it here, in spite of all the challenges thrown our way!

The morning sun came shining down on the crew, scattered about the boat in various sleeping spots.  Beanbags on the deck, sleeping bags in the cockpit, the couch in the salon, and the bedrooms too.  After our late arrival and the additional in-water work we did during the anchoring process, no one was exactly jumping up and heading in for a Bonaire-style ‘Dawn Patrol’ dive.  Breakfast was made up, and we starting setting the rest of the gear up for our morning dive on the Araby Maid.   Upon checking the GPS, we discovered that we had drifted approx.. ¾ of a mile during the night, dragging our anchor across the sand.  So the first thing on the agenda was to pull the anchor, re-position, and drop again, hopefully right on the mark.  We reset the anchor, and let out about 400 ft of line to help reduce the chance of dragging again.  Some gear movement between the two boats and finally everyone was ready. Zach & I went in from the mother ship, but Steve suggested that just in case we were drifting again, that he drag us over with the current line to the marker ball.

Well let’s just say that some plans definitely look better on paper than in life, and this in-water dragging fell into that category.  The extra drag from the four bottles we were each wearing, managing free-flowing reg’s due to the current as we motored over, and the extra physical stress of holding on to the line as we bounced through the waves, made for a somewhat winded start on our deep dive.  We recovered well though, helped by the excitement of discovering the 200 ft plus visibility stayed with us all the way to the bottom today.  The wreck was covered with life, from the large goliath groupers to big tropicals and schools of swarming amberjacks.  With the fantastic visibility this was a photographers dream come true, however, I had opted to not bring any extra gear down not knowing what the conditions would be.  Neither did I bring my lionfish spear, and boy what a target rich environment we had here!  Probably a hundred of them on the wreck – would have made for some easy pickin’s for sure!  Zach & I enjoyed a 215 ft dive on Trimix, with 30 minutes of bottom time followed by 90 minutes of deco and hang time, for a total run of 2 hours – sweet!

Back on board for lunch, and then the spear-o’s went back for one more visit to the seafood aisle.  Before we broke camp though, there is a lot of discussion about what we should do next, with some wanting to stay here and dive this again, or possibly head further out to the Rhine, or north to the U-Boat, or back closer to Key West and home.  With our group of 18 IVS divers coming down on Sunday for the Wreck Trek, it is imperative that I am back at the dock by early Sunday afternoon to begin the next phase of this adventure, so that information helps finalize our plans (for now).  We opt to get moving and head back in the general direction of home, to our third destination, the wreck of the Chelsea.  This former ocean-going tugboat, which was featured in the movie The Mysterious Case of Benjamin Button, starring Brad Pitt.  This was the boat that he worked on in that movie during one phase of his life.  It has only been down for 2 or 3 years, accidently sinking as it was making passage out of Key West.  It sits perfectly upright in 175 ft of water, and even though it is a relatively new wreck, the sea life is really being attracted to this wreck.

But the challenges on this trip are hardly over!  As we approach the Chelsea, we stop about 30 minutes out, to cut the Mobile Diver free and let it run ahead and mark the wreck site with it’s grapple and float.  Since only a few of us are making this dive, we decide to streamline the process and hot drop on the wreck, letting the two ships idle nearby and pick us up when we complete our dive.  Pretty cool, night diving on a new wreck, middle of the ocean, black night, 185 of water, no civilization within 80 miles of us – perfect night dive planning!  So we pull the Mobile Diver up close, Capt. Steve climbs aboard, and we cut him loose to fire up his boat and run ahead.  Well, as we pull away, the radio crackles to life, and Steve informs us he cannot get his port engine started and has no electronics. Seems he left something on earlier today and it drained his batteries.  He managed to get one outboard started, but that was it.  So we back up to him, and pass the generator over, so he can begin charging his batteries while he motors over to the site with us.  Of course, nothing comes easy, and an hour later, the situation has not changed.  So now we are thinking a hot drop might be in order, and the creative minds are hard at work here with plans, alternate plans, and various other scenarios that are making my head hurt!  Finally we get the ball dropped to the wreck, and the Mobile Diver tied off to it, and leave the Fish Happens to idle nearby and await us.

Only Zach, Steve and I make this night dive, finally getting in the water at 10:00.  Now we often talk about “pinnacle” dives, and what you should do and what perhaps you should not do.  So, considering this might end up being my deepest, longest, technical night dive, on a brand new never-dove wreck, with a new buddy, 85 miles out to see…yeppers, this falls smack dab in the middle of the “what not to do” list.   That being said, we decided to dive, and dive we did.  Now back when Steve was dropping the hook, he felt he was “right on the numbers” meaning his GPS was telling him that the wreck was right below him. His sonar was also on the fritz with his electrical problem tonight, so we just said the heck with it, it must be there!  Just in case though, I had the presence of mind to take a 450 ft reel with me on this dive.

Kenny maneuvered the big boat over alongside the ball, and Zach & I dropped in.  Down the line we went, and the viz was kinda murky. Not a problem, we are looking for a wreck of some sorts, that neither of us have ever seen before.  No problem mon!  So I set a strobe at the 20 ft mark on the down line, and another just above the chain at the end of the line.  We looked up to see the wreck and saw…nothing.  So with the fact that we are 175 ft down, in an unknown area, and can’t see anything, I decide it might be appropriate to tie off the reel and use that as our virtual “breadcrumbs” to find our way back to the ascent line when it is time to come up.  I tie off, and Zach & I begin the search.  I pay out line as we go, and have about 400 ft of line out when we decide it is probably not to our right.  So we pick up and begin a big arc towards our left, using the reel as our guide, just swinging along and maintaining our search pattern.  Seventeen minutes into this technical dive, suddenly Zach is waving his light to me, indicating he has something of interest to show me.  Well it’s a wreck of course, and we are right at the  propeller.  Had we had 20 ft less line we might very well as missed that too, but fate has once again been kind.  We tie off the reel at the wreck, and begin our exploration.  A couple of huge Jewfish are there to check us out, swimming nonchalantly around us, letting us know who owns this wreck.  Schools of amberjack are there hunting, and a good cross-section of the marine food chain is represented here tonight.  The ships name ad homeport of Norfolk, VA is clearly visible, and evidence of the surprise and speed that this boat sunk was everywhere, with suitcases full of clothing, shoes and other personal items, and plates and other sundry supplies can be found all over the wreck.  This is a very cool wreck indeed and I am very glad Zach and I decided to do it.  Funny, at no point in the dive did we run into Steve – it seems he dropped in, didn’t quite follow the anchor line to the bottom, and as a result, he never found the wreck!  Oh well!

Well this wreck was so cool, we could hardly pull ourselves away.  Now I was diving double 100’s on my back with 17% O2 and 30% Helium in them, plus a single 40 CF sling cylinder with 55% O2, plus another 40 CF with 100% O2.  Now I had used the 100% bottle earlier this morning, so it only had about 1,500 psi remaining in it.  The boat had an O2 line hanging at 20 ft, so I figured just in case I needed it, at least that was there to tap into.  Well forty minutes into this pinnacle night / deep / tech dive, my “time to surface” was showing about 3 hours before I could breath air again.  Hmmm, I am thinking, re-thinking my gas supplies, and I figure it is really time for Zach and I to head up!  But wait, there is a navigation lamp sitting there, calling my name.  So we stop, and I remove the light, sawing the cable off against the sharp edge of the wreckage, and we head towards the stern to begin our path to ascent.  At the reel, Zach offers to carry my prized navigation light, so I reluctantly hand it to him so I can have both hands free to rewind the line on the reel.  So we coil up the line, get back to the hook, and start our ascent.  Bottom time is now at 50 minutes and total ascent time has exceeded 3 ½ hours.  I am thinking, this is not going to be pretty.

My first deco stop is at 100 ft, so I begin the slow ascent.  90 ft, 80, and finally I can switch over to the 55% bottle.  My partial pressure of oxygen hits a little over 1.7 ATA, but I am relaxed, my breathing is controlled, efficient, and slow-paced, and I am thinking we should be fine.  Well the 70 ft stop alone was 17 minutes, the 60 was similar, the 50 even longer. I am watching the needle on my stage bottle get lower and lower, and thinking about alternate plans.  Meanwhile, Zach, diving with similar yet different gases, and using a Liquidvision computer vs my Cochran, has a different decompression profile and different stops, so we are ascending as two solo divers, not as a buddy team.  Hmmmm, I am thinking, he is a real good breather, and I am wondering what he is planning to do with his deep deco bottle.

Well at 50 ft my regulator starts to breath a little hard, and I eek through that stop but this 40 ft stop is going to be a challenge.  By slowing my breathing even further, thinking happy thoughts, and really getting as “Zen-ish” as possible, I manage to suck the last drop of gas from that cylinder just as it was time to head to my 30 ft stop.  Here I needed to make a judgment call, and Zach was too far above me, so I opted to split my 30 ft stop and my 20 ft stop, combining them into a 25 ft stop and switching over to O2 a little early.  The Cochran was able to do the math, and adjusted my times, recognizing that I had reached my switch point for my final gas.  With my limited supply of 100% O2, I had planned as a contingency to utilize the ship’ hanging O2 supply to finish my obligation, plus an extra five minutes for good measure.  It all worked out, and we finally surfaced. But just before we surfaced, Zach hits his leg on the mooring line, he same leg he had tied my navigation light too, and yes, you guess it.…it dropped to the bottom of the sea. We signaled the mother ship, and started our swim towards them.  But wow, the sea had really kicked up here and it was everything we could do to make it over to the boat.  Big confused waves, lots of chop, the wind is howling, the boat can’t back up to us cause it is so rough…yeah, this is the way to wrap up a great dive!

Of course that same weather was here to play hell with our towing plans, and we began looking at the hook-up in the dark.  We send additional fuel over for the generator, plus supplies and drinks for Capt. Seve to spend the night on board his boat.  We get hooked up, and begin the tow, As soon as begin to make way, the first three waves crash right over the bow of the small boat,  OK, looks like we have to slow it down, and we do, and we slow it again until we are making 2.4 knots.  This is going to be one long ride; that is for sure!  This probably also impacts our morning dive plans, but of course safety comes first, so we’ll re-visit things once the sun rises and hopefully the seas have subsided a bit.

So much for the seas subsiding, at least during the night.  That bit of wind and waves that we encountered at the end of our dive was just a prelude to what was to come.  We ran through the night with winds in excess of 25 mph, and waves exceeding six feet in height, along with periods of driving rain, made for a 2 knot speed all night long.  So starting from 104 miles out, we were still 80 miles from home come sunrise!

Oh well, we decided to cut the Mobile Diver free and let Steve work on his problems as he tagged along behind us.  Of course, with him only running one engine on a catamaran, that limited his speed, and also limited our matching speed, to about 4 knots.  This could be a long ride home!  But one again, the wheels were turning, and Zach jumped ship to head over to help Steve out on the Mobile Diver.  Four hours later, a couple of new spark plugs, a bit of education on how to jump start electronic ignitions, and the Mobile Diver was up and running!  Woo hoo!   So we fired up all the engines and made haste back to port, finally arriving at Key West at 4:30 Sunday afternoon.

A quick unload, hugs and handshakes all around, and it was time to head to Duval Street to meet the Indian Valley Scuba Wreck Trek gang!  See Part III of this blog report for more on that!

2nd Annual Vandenberg Underwater Grand Prix

Indian Valley SCUBA at the 2nd Annual Vandenberg Underwater Grand Prix

IVS at the 2nd Annual Vandenberg Underwater Grand Prix

The team from Indian Valley SCUBA headed down to Key West this past weekend May 20-22nd to represent and participate in the Wreck Racing League’s first race of the Formula H2O Racing season: The 2nd Annual Vandenberg Underwater Grand Prix in Key West, Florida. The first season of underwater scooter races proved the popularity of the sport and season two looks to further increase the participation of racers and exposure to national media. The race weekend started with an early evening arrival in Key West just in time for the race race registration and opening ceremonies at Hogfish Bar & Grill in Stock Island just east of Key West. Numerous racers, event organizers and crew of the M/V Spree turned out to discuss the two days of diving over the weekend. Co-founder of the Wreck Racing League, Joe Weatherby, welcomed the crowd to the first race of the season and described how each day was to unfold.

Wreck Racing League Opening Ceremonies at Hogfish Grill

Wreck Racing League Opening Ceremonies at Hogfish Grill

Both days of diving on the weekend would be from the M/V Spree liveaboard boat based in Stock Island with scooter practice and certification classes on Saturday and race day on Sunday. After the opening ceremonies at Hogfish Grill, the IVS crew head over to the Spree to check in and setup gear for the weekend. The IVS pickup truck had just arrived in the Keys on Friday afternoon and was packed to the brim with dive gear, video equipment and some killer Hollis DPV’s. However, our ride was no where near the most packed vehicle on the road in comparison to pick up truck we saw in Big Pine Key headed Key West jam packed dangerously high with boxes of event chairs. Ironically, the chairs were headed to a facility right next to Hogfish Grill in Stock Island for a big party on Saturday, and we got to see them again when they arrived…OK, well except for those two that flew off the top of the load in Marathon!

A Pickup Truck Full of Event Chairs Even Impresses David Valaika

A Pickup Truck Full of Event Chairs Even Impresses David Valaika

After unloading the IVS truckster, the gang headed down to downtown Key West for some late evening eats. The team enjoyed an excellent meal at Thai Life Floating Restaurant just off Route 1 in Garrison Bight. What better way to enjoy a meal in Key West than on a floating restaurant. The food was excellent, the weather was perfect and we all enjoyed watching Big David Valaika sweat buckets over the mildest Pad Thai dish ever. Good thing David V. did not add any red pepper to his dish!!

David Valaika Wonders Why He Chose Thai Food for Dinner

David Valaika Wonders Why He Chose Thai Food for Dinner

Saturday started bright and early on the M/V Spree with detailed boat and race briefings as we traveled to Western Sambo Reef for check out dives and DPV practice. The viz on Western Sambo was limited the topography fairly flat near the Spree but the few coral heads around provided an abundance of marine life. One coral head had 8 lobsters laughing at us since lobster season is months away and the coral head lies within the protection of the National Marine Sanctuary. We also saw a couple of nurse sharks and plenty of the scooters racing as all the racers tried out their rigs and worked on their racing technique.

Eight Spiny Lobsters Cram into a Coral Head on Western Sambo Reef

Eight Spiny Lobsters Cram into a Coral Head on Western Sambo Reef

After Western Sambo, the Spree traveled to the Wreck of the Vandenberg for race course setup and some serious practice with underwater scooters. David Hartman and Natalie Weatherby took care of the race course setup placing markers from the start finish on the forward balcony on the forward section of the exhaust stack all the way down a few hundred feet to the large tripod structure on top of the aft section of the forward superstructure. The bottom of the Vandenberg’s hull rests on sand in approximately 150 feet of water, but the ship is so massive that its superstructure begins about 45 feet below the surface. The course was perfect and the viz was low but manageable enough for the racers to handle the turns since there was no current all day on the Vandenberg. Each racer took a few practice runs before refilling tanks for a brief second practice dive before the Spree was to head back to port on Stock Island.   Dave Valaika even managed to spear five lionfish off the wreck as he scootered along; perhaps planting the seed of an Underwater Scooter Jousting special category for the race events…hmmmm.  Finally back on board, all the racers approved of the course and were excited and amped for an early race start on Sunday morning. Saturday night was a quiet affair for the group as all racers decided to crash early to prepare for race day.

John Glodowski Navigates the Far Tripod Turn on the Vandenberg Race Course

John Glodowski Navigates the Tripod Turn on the Vandenberg Race Course

Sunday was race day and the Spree was scheduled for an early departure to ensure placement on the proper mooring ball on the Vandenberg and to give the racers plenty of time to prepare for the big event. Viz was still poor but no current and a favorable race course setup called for speedy scooter race conditions. The racers went off in two separate groups competing in multiple classes to achieve the fastest speeds while staying within the race course. Mike Vivona won the Modified Class, Rick Iossi won the event’s Expedition Cass and Kelly Friend of Key West won the recreation Class, all racing faster than their competitors around the superstructure of the 523-foot-long former U.S. Air Force missile tracking ship. John Glodowski from Team IVS took third place in the Expedition Class with an impressive showing. Check out the video highlights of the big race in the video below and view recorded live race feeds filmed on race day on the Spree on the Formula H2O Racing Facebook Page.

The Wreck Racing League or WRL is the sanctioning body for Formula H20 Racing: the action packed sport which combines underwater scooters and scuba diving racing on artificial reefs.

IVS Invades the Keys – again!

If it’s December it must be time for Indian Valley Scuba to invade the Florida Keys one more time.

Twenty four of us headed down Thursday to one of our favorite dive destinations, Key Largo, for a long weekend of diving, fun and laughter.  Some of the gang headed down a day early, and by tonights night dive we had 5 divers and 3 riders on the boat.  We headed out at 6 o’clock for a very nice dark night dive and tied up to the Benwood wreck.  Meredith Bernardo and I enjoyed a nice hour-long dive on this wreck, running right into a turtle to kick it off, then a big southern stingray, lots of lobsters, crabs, basket stars, spiny urchins, shrimp, sleeping parrot fish, spotted drums, feeding tube anemones, puffer fish and more.  At the same time, Pam Schools, Chris Muller, and Andy McConaghie, representing Dive NY, enjoyed a nice dive on the reef adjacent to the wreck…tell me again, what was that part in the briefing about going down the mooring line to make sure you find the wreck?  Hmmmm….looks like we’ll be helping them out  with a few navigation pointers over the weekend.  None the less, everyone had a great time, and the trip is off to a good start!  We followed that up with a nice snack at the Paradise Pub, joined by Katie Chin, Steph Skelton, and Jesica & Sheril Tyre.  Dave Hartman joined us along with his friend Seth, an independent film maker in town to work with our friend Ken Nedimyer and the Coral Restoration Foundation – amazing small world!  Even cooler, our group represented the far and wide reaches of the IVS family, with Ohio, California, Florida, New Jersey & New York divers in attendance on this trip. 

Ruh-Roh!  Friday morning came and so did the rain!  It was absolutely pouring this morning – so unlike the weather we had ordered!  Oh well, we’re here to dive, so dive we must!  The rest of the gang had showed up during the night, including Brian, Mary & Dan Young, Kim Luisi, Dave McLaughlin, Alex Cajkovich, Nikolina Cejvan, Luke Miller, Rick Jurewicz, David & Katie Manninen, and Felix Gryn.  Most of us had managed to arrive uneventfully, but Luke & Rick had the pleasure of meeting one of the locals on the way down from the airport, as she nailed the back of their rental car, ripping the whole rear bumer off!  That’ll make for some ‘splaining to do at the Rental Return counter!  After introductions and hugs, the boat headed out with most of the gang, while Sue and her students, accompanied by Meredith and I, headed over to Jules Undersea Lodge.  Our dives there were great, all skills completed with panache, and we were greeted with lobster everywhere, and even a sleeping nurse shark, right there in the lagoon.  This team is ready to take on the ocean!  Meanwhile, the guys on the boat were hammered by the rain, but still managed to get two decent dives in.  

Friday afternoon we headed back out, with the Speigel and Benwood our wrecks of choice and in spite of the snotty seas, the dives were quite nice.  Decent viz and no current on the Spiegel, so the trip was definately worth it – and most of us were graced with a visit from one of the huge Goliath Groupers that call the Speigel Grove home.  Our second drop was the Benwood, and although the vis was down a little, still a really nice dive to wrap up our first full day of diving in Key Largo. 

Time for a short dinner and we head out for a Friday night dive, moved up a night because the boat parade is Saturday night.  As we load the boat the trees are sorta whistling overhead, so it is not a good sign.   Not ones to give up easily, we head out to sea, hoping for the best.  The whitecaps in the bay might be a bad sign, but we soldier on, eternal optomists that we be!  We pass thru Adam’s Cut, and head out into the open sea.  The whitecaps grow a little but it’s still OK, we keep a positive attitude!  The waves are sorta breaking over the front of the boat…OK….maybe this is getting worse…..OK…we have to slow down even further…..OK…..finally prudence overcomes the desire to dive, and we decide to turn around and call it a (diveless) night. Funny thing was that somehow Katie lost her underwear on this non-dive, and there were reports that Andy had some ‘splaining to do with his laundry the next morning……

Saturday morning came upon us and so did the rain.  The winds have been blowing all night at 25 knots plus, so the conditions on the reefs and the sea reflect all that energy that nature has been throwing at us all night long.  Early reports indicate that it sucks out there, so we decide to hold off on the morning trip.  Finally the winds are down to about 18 knots, so we decide to head out at noon for a three tank trip.  We are diving in standard IVS reverse profile mode, doing two reef dives followed by a deep one to the Speigel Grove.  We head out to French Reef, the deepest of the local reefs,  and hope for the best.  As it turns out the vis is under 20 ft, so keeping the group intact is quite the challenge.  We manage none the less, and our open water candidates truly shine in the less-than-optimal conditions.  Two nice reef dives, and then a Nitrox-enhanced dip onto the Speigel Grove, with conditions approaching perfect – what a pleasant surprise indeed!  It is truly amazing what a difference of a mile or two can make with regards to the conditions on and under the water.

Finally it is time for the big holiday celebration, and our token house mother Stephanie has been busy all day shopping and prepping for tonights bayside feast.  Seth steps up to the role of grillmaster, and he does a splendid job preparing the meats to everyone’s liking.  Burgers, dogs, fixin’s, sides, salads – Steph has outdone herself making this a special holiday treat!  And no holiday celebration would be complete with a visit from the big man himself, and we were not disappointed at all, as Santa (aka yours truly), assisted by his lovely elf Meredith, joined the party and helped spread the holiday cheer.  And we were joined by DiveNY’s own Chris Muller, who was fully dressed in his holiday pixie (or was that elf?) smock.  Amy Slate joined our party with a group of her friends, so it was a great evening for all.  We were even joined by former astronaut Scott Carpenter, who is a fellow member of the Explorers Club and shared some of his amazing stories with us.  And in keeping with the international flavor that IVS embraces, we had cerveza’s from many nations oveflowing from our coolers to celebrate the holiday event.  Some of those libations might be behind the rumored theft (or as they call it in New York, a ‘relocation’) of one of the Amoray golf carts – we’re not naming names here, but how it ended parked in front of Katie’s door that night might be a good place for CSI-Key Largo to start the investigation. 

Finally Sunday morning dawned, and so did that fantastic weather we had ordered.  Clear skies, beautiful sun, and flat seas were the order of the day!  We headed out to two nice dives on the Elbow, starting with the City of Washington, where we got to crash another Creature Feature feed being conducted by our friends at Slates Atlantis Dive Center.  Huge grouper interaction, but alas, no sharks today.  We also ran a little Fish ID class on this great wreck, but it’t tough to focus when the 300 lb grouper keeps bumping into you.  We then motored over to the Train Wheel Wreck, where conditions were a little snottier and the surge a little stronger.  Still a good dive, viz was great, and we all enjoyed another 60 minute dive in Key Largo.

After a brief lunch and a quick turnaround at the dock, we sailed out for our final afternoon of diving, which was a double deep adventure to the Duane and the Speigel Grove.  Conditions on the Duane were fantastic, with the exception of the current, which was absolutely ripping!   Talk about a baptism of fire for our newest divers – what a ride it was indeed!  A good briefing prepared everyone for the worse, and without exception the group had a fantastic dive, even enjoying some precautionary air sharing to ensure that ample gas supplies were available for the ascent and return to the Amoray Diver.  The viz was forever, and the fish life abundant, so all in all a great dive – but the descent and ascent were a rush!   The best part was the ‘spider man crawl’ down the front of the Duane’s wheelhouse.  Of course, after Dave jumped over the rail and headed down, Katie Chin was trying to figure out how to follow, with her significantly shorter arms not quite reaching like Dave’s did – but the rest of the group enjoyed watching her crawl over the rail, one leg at a time, and finally make it down to the main deck where Dave was patiently waiting.  All good, everyone ascended without incident, while experiencing diving in some real serious current conditions, and another great dive under our belts.

Our second location was the Speigel Grove, and again, what an amazing difference a couple of miles can make.  Nearly no current, great viz, a huge turtle putting on a show at the surface for us, and another fantastic dive.  Again, our newest divers performed fantastically, with lots of nice comfortable planned penetrations into the wreck – welcome to the world of IVS!  And, never to overlook a break-thru moment, Sheril Tyre was finally comfortable enough in her diving on this second visit to the Speigel to relax and pee in her wetsuit – amazing how the little things come together!  Thank goodness it was an Amoray rental!     

We wrapped up the trip with dinner at the Conch House, and our guest of honor was Sue who was celebrating her birthday today in perfect style – underwater and surrounded by friends!  And talk about making it an even more perfect birthday party, we had the Eagles on the big screen and watched as they kicked NY butt (sorry Dive NY’ers!) and cemented undisputed first place in the NFC East conference!  On top of that San Diego put the Cowboys in their place, and the Browns even embarrassed the Steelers with a win – great day for the IVS football fans in attendance (again, sorry Dive NY!).  And of course it was time for the graduation ceremony, as we congratulated our newest PADI National Geographic Open Water Divers Jesica & Sheril Tyre, and Luke Miller, our newest PADI Deep Divers Dave & Katie Manninen, and our newest PADI Enriched Air Diver Alex Cajkovich.  Finally, we announced the winners of the coveted ADD (All Dives with Dave) Award – Meredith Bernardo &  Andy McConaghie – way to go guys! 

Monday saw most of the group head home, while Felix, Pam, Chris, Andy, Dave Hartman and Dave V took a scenic ride to Key West, with the destination being the wreck of the Vandenberg.  We met up with Chris Norwood, owner of Florida Straits Diving, and one of the significant players in the actual sinking of the Vandenberg.  Our first stop was our newest Keys lodging choice, a waterfront condo on Stock Island, from where we’ll be basing our Key West op’s for 2010.  The condo is first class, and located right next to the Hogfish Bar & Grille, a great local hangout.  We settle in and then head downtown to get this diving started!

As it turns out the wind has been kicking pretty strong all morning, so rather than beat ourselves up on Chris’s boat, we all jump onto the Lost Reef Adventures boat for the double dip on the Vandie.  I had arranged for our good friend and Vandenberg project manager Joe Weatherby to be our tour guide for some deep and dark journeys through the wreck and he was ready to show off his baby.  We dropped in as two groups, with Andy, Felix, Chris M and Pam enjoying a self-guided tour, and Joe, Chris N, Dave H and myself set for some serious ‘learning the lay of the land’ touring.  Down we went, with 80 ft or better visibility, 80 degree water, and zero current for our first dive.  We dropped in the forward cargo hatch shaftway, dropping down to the 4th deck at 134 ft, then beginning our tour towards the stern.  We passed through room after room, zigging left and right, around equipment, shelving, and furniture, finally exiting at the beginning of the engine rooms.  We move up to the main deck, and Joe and Chris head for the ascent.  Dave H and I are fine with our gas and deco obligations, so we head aft, circling the stern, and then work our way forward, circling the bow also – that 540 ft of wreck – you can tell there is no current when you can do that on a dive!  We work our way back towards the moring line, and finally surface after a 50 minute, 134 ft deep dive – first class!  And my personal thanks to Mike Cochran and his team for developing the algorithm that makes dives like this possible!

We enjoy a brief surface interval, which was not brief enough, if you ask Chris Muller  – cause the entire time we got to enjoy local divemaster-candidate (and Speedo wearing) Tom ogling Chris’s manly physique.  Hey, we’re in Key West, and if this thing with Pam doesn’t work out, at least Chris knows he has options!  Finally, enough of that, we descend again, this time dropping right down onto the wreck, and touring the weather balloon storage garage, complete with basketball backboard, then down into the hydraulic steering room, out and under the rudder, hitting the sand at 144 ft, popping into the engine room and winding our way through the myriad of catwalks, piping and ductwork there, through the tank room, and finally out the side, then up into the berthing area.  Another great dive, 40 minutes of bottom time, and back on the boat with nearly 1500 psi left in my 120 – almost sacriligous, if not for that deco obligation part!   As we head back to port we enjoy a beautiful sunset, two cruise ships leaving port, lobster boats heading out to check their traps, sail boats all over the harbor – almost a Norman Rockwell scene, with an IVS twist of course! 

Back to the condo, we gussie up a bit, and head over to the Hogfish for a bite to eat, then some of the crew head back into town for dessert while Felix and I decide to crash at the condo for the evening and enjoy some Monday night football, another great surprise as the Niner’s kick butt in Arizona.

Tuesday morning Pam, Andy, and “Tom-bait” Chris head back up to Miami to catch their flights home, and Felix and I have one more day of diving.  Our mission today is to visit the USS Curb, a WWII naval salvage tug that sits in 220 feet of water off Key West.  This is another exploratory dive for our IVS tech trip schedule for next year, and we’re excited about getting our first chance to dive this intact and upright wreck.  Our second destination will be back at the Vandenberg to wrap up a great weekend of diving.  The winds have dropped down to 10 knots, and the seas are relatively flat, helping to ensure a great afternoon of diving.

It’s going to be a late start as our dive buddy and local celebrity Joe Weatherby is being honored by the local chamber of commerce this morning for his work in the Vandenberg project.  Finally we head over to fil tanks, choosing mixes of 24% and 32% nitrox for our two dives.  Load the boat, prepare the rigging with 300 ft of down line, a heavy grapple hook, and a big poly ball float, and we’re ready to head out.  It’s about a  40 minute run to the Curb, and we run right over the wreck, watching it pop up from the bottom on the sonar.  We make three passes over it before our hook finally grabs the wreck, and we gear up and head down.  Conditions are great, but the sun is quickly setting, so it’s a bit dark as we approach the wreck.  The deck sits at 170 ft, so by the time we have dropped in, explored the engine rooms and lower chambers we are pushing 180 ft on this dive.  There are scores of big black groupers on this wreck, huge horse eye jacks, and a school of really large bar jacks working a silverside bait ball at the bow.  The wreck is covered with monofilament and fishing nets, so it’s an entanglement nightmare, but we’re careful and avoid snagging ourselves.  With the depth, our planned run time is 20 minutes, and it passes all too quickly.  Felix has already started to head up, and Joe is accumulating major deco obligations, so it’s up to me to run down and untangle the grapple hook from the lines it is caught in.  Joe motions to just cut the line, but I can’t do that, heck, I love a challenge at depth!  So I drop down to the grapple, and carefully untangle the lines, netting, and ropes it is fouled in, finally achieving success and tieing the hook back on itself to avoid snagging something else.  I start up the line, with a 13 minute deco obligation, and my first stop at 50 ft.  Felix is well ahead of me, but Joe is using his “pink” computer today, and so I get to spend an additional 27 minutes of run time hanging with Joe and waiting for his computer to clear. By the time I surface it has been a total of 60 minutes since my descent – thank goodness for efficient breathing!

Back on board, we motor over to the Vandenberg, and the sun has long set now.  Fifty minutes of surface interval is more than enough, and we drop down on the great wreck again.  Our mission this time is to visit one of the more dangerous areas of the wreck, the laundry room.  Access is limited to a shaftway from above and one set of winding stairs within the room.  We enter the weather balloon hanger, and drop straight down the shaftway, into 125 feet of darkness, in a space that is barely one diver wide – talk about a cool rush!  Finally I am in the room, and Joe & Felix follow me, being super careful not to silt ourselves out.  We tour the space, and then locate the stairs and work our way up to the 3rd deck, where we make a long 350 ft run through the crew berthing areas, ending up right under the bridge.  One last narrow passage and it is total siltout, as Felix loses sight of me.  Through the cloud I can see him turn, looking up one passageway, then another, not seeing me straight ahead due to the silt.  He turns around, and I follow, signaling to Joe that our plan has just been modified.  I chase Felix back out through the silt until I finally catch him, and we head out to exit the ship and begin our ascent.  It’s so easy to get fouled up in a wreck, and the Vandenberg has more than it’s share of tight passageways and lots of Key West silt throughout the interior.  We end up with a 43 minute total run time on the wreck, and I manage to score a brass light fixture complete with an intact frosted lens!  Finally we reboard, and enjoy a pitch black ride back to port to wrap up a fantastic weekend of diving and adventure.

Now a quick rinse of the gear, and Felix and I make the 4 hour drive to Miami where we’ll spend the night and catch our flights home in the a.m.  We can’t wait to get back here and explore these wrecks again – February seems so far away!