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…gosh..is 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!!

Key Largo – you’re calling our name – again!

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011

 

What is the magic of the sea that continues to draw us back, time and time again, to immerse ourselves in it’s healing embrace?  Is there something mystical about it?  Is it a subliminal return to the place where some say we came from so many millions of years ago?  Or is it the pleasant, muted euphoria that comes with the mind settling state of narcosis that the deep provides us?

Well I don’t know about you, but I’m going with #3 on the list above!  Yeah baby – and it’s time to head down under the waves again!  But this time of the year we’ve got so many fun additions to our normal Key Largo trip, including lobster hunting, and underwater pumpkin carving, to just add to the already great time we enjoy in America’s Caribbean.

Team Indian Valley Scuba head south today for another five wonderful days of splishing and splashing in the azure waters of the third largest natural reef system in the world, along the Florida Keys.  Our destination is Amoray Dive Resort, one of the most pleasant and well run operation in the islands.

My day starts off with in quasi-typical fashion, nothing is packed and I still have to build some PVC pipe frames for our upcoming DEMA show booths.  But wait, what, me worry?  Naaah!  We get the frames knocked out, I pack, sweep all the papers off my desk into my backpack, and actually head to the airport with time to spare!  No adrenalin rush today, that is for sure!

More to follow…

The Allure of Lobster Mini-Season

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

Every year the Florida commercial lobster season ends on March 15th and reopens in early August 1st for traps and harvesting.  This little break gives the lobster population a chance to spawn, tend to their eggs, and create the next generation of tasty crustaceans.  It also is a time for lobster movement, often from deeper waters, to the shallower reef systems inshore, where food is plentiful and the habitat offers a lot of great hiding places.  The last Wednesday and Thursday of July every year are reserved for recreational divers and boaters to get first dibs on all the spiny lobster that have been spawning all spring and summer before the commercial fisheries set their lobster traps.  This very special time of the year, as far as the lobster hunters are concerned, is called the ‘mini-season’!  For two days people from the around the country descend down to Key Largo to try their best efforts at catching Florida Spiny Lobster.  Although anyone with a Florida fishing license and crawfish stamp can hunt for lobster Aug 6-March 15th, most non-locals come down only for mini-season.  Late July in Florida is a recreational divers Mecca and a frenzy unmatched on the local waterways and reefs during the rest of the year.

Lobster Tails Abundant at the IVS Lobster Feast

Lobster Tails Abundant at the IVS Lobster Feast

For the past seven years, customers of Indian Valley SCUBA (IVS) have traveled from Harleysville, Pennsylvania to Key Largo to take part in Lobster Mini-Season.   The size and popularity of the IVS Lobster Mini-Season group has grown steadily over the years starting with just a few people in 2005 to a full boat of 24 divers the past few years.  IVS combines the two days of Lobster Mini-Season with the group’s usual weekend of Reefs and Wrecks dives with Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo, and also adds a two-day Florida Keys Wreck Trek from Key West to Key Largo option at the beginning of the week to round out a complete week of summertime diving.  The 2011 Edition of the IVS Lobster week included 17 divers on the Wreck Trek, 24 divers for Lobster Mini-Season and over 30 divers for the Reef and Wrecks weekend. The diving conditions all week were a bit windy but manageable for the IVS team.  Catching lobster on the shallow reefs off Key Largo was a bit challenging on the bumpy conditions but smaller recreational vessels stayed inland to avoid the rougher seas of the outer reef which meant more lobster to catch for the courageous IVS crew.  By Thursday evening, Team IVS captured 172 legal sized lobsters in two days of Mini-Season shattering the group’s 2010 record of 107 lobsters and providing the bounty for fantastic annual feast at the Key Largo Conch House.

Forty-Five Attend the 2011 IVS Lobster Feast at the Conch House

Forty-Five Attend the 2011 IVS Lobster Feast at the Conch House

The Conch House, established in 2004 by Ted & Laura Dreaver, started as the Key Largo Coffee House, and quickly established itself as a great place for a good breakfast.  In no time at all, they expanded to lunch & dinner, and at the same time, changed the name to the Conch House to better reflect their all-day fare.  Today, with the addition of daughter Stephanie, and sons Justin & John, the family owned Conch House is one of the best restaurants in the Upper Keys due to the establishment’s unmatched combination of ambience, unique culinary delights and friendly service.  Most often, it’s one of the family members who takes care of you while dining at the Conch House.  For the annual IVS Mini Season Lobster Feast, the staff of the Conch House graciously takes in hundreds of lobster gathered by the IVS crew and cooks up tasteful dishes of lobster cerviche, lobster fritters and of course broiled lobster tail with drawn butter…Hmmmm!!  For the 2011 IVS Lobster Feast, the Conch House served up over 150 lobsters with no leftovers to spare.  Forty-five hungry people attended the lobster feast including the complete weekend contingent of IVS Reefs and Wreck divers, the owners and staff of Amoray Dive Resort and a few local friends who dive with the IVS crew.  Everyone at the annual lobster feast ate like kings and had a fantastic time.  The warmest appreciation and thanks go out to the owners of Amoray Dive Resort and the boat crew of the Amoray Diver for making another successful IVS Mini-Season possible.  Plus, a big thank you goes out to the professional staff of the Conch House for once again putting together a wonderful annual lobster feast.  See you all again next Lobster Mini-Season!

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!

Tech Diving the Florida Keys

A tale of deep, dark adventure for sure!  Following on the heels of the Memorial Day trip, Brian Hubler is staying down to complete his Trimix certification with me this week.  So we’ve got some exciting dives planned – first the Spiegel Grove to do some technical warm-ups and skills reviews, followed by a trip out to the Northern Lights off Key Largo, then finally a celebration dive on the USS Curb in Key West.

Well fate, and the weather, has decided to not be so kind to us, and the fantastic days, quiet seas and calm breezes that we have enjoyed for the last week are officially…Over!  It is blowing now, but dive we must, so we head out on Monday to do a single extended technical dive on the Spiegel with Chris Brown and the folks at Silent Dive.  We opt to do this dive on nitrox with some 100% O2 to clean up at the end of the dive, and head out into bouncy seas and gray skies.  The current above the wreck is ripping, and the mooring balls are a bit awash, so we know we’re in for a bit of a thrill on today’s dive.

The IVS Boys at the No Name Pub

The IVS Boys at the No Name Pub

Well with the start pictured above, you can only imagine the rest of this story!  No, not like that…just three good divers planning and executing a day full of really nice dives!  We boarded Robert Trosser’s boat, FINZ, and headed out into a beautiful day on the ocean!  Swordfish were jumping, dolphins were playing with our wake, just everything you imagine when you think of great days at sea.
Stop # 1 was the USS Curb, a former naval salvage tug sitting perfectly upright in 190 ft of water.  For some reason Rob was unable to get a fix on it, even though we saw it on the depth finder, jumping up from the bottom profile.  So Rob dropped in overboard, and we dragged him a bit to where the underwater mooring should be, but he came up dry.  We repeated the exercise a second, and then a third time, and finally said “screw it, that’s not going to work”.  So we ran over the marks on the depthfinder again, threw the hook, and then drifted back in the current until we hopefully snagged the wreck.  Well we drifted, and drifted, and drifted, and finally, we snagged something!  At this point I said the heck with it, whatever we grabbed, we’re going diving!
So we geared up and in we went, Dave with a big fat 120 of air on his back, and Mark & I with some Helium in our double 100’s.  We were all slinging stage bottles, a 100% O2 and a 50% O2, both forty cubic foot cylinders.  Should be more than enough gas…..more on that later!
Dropping into the beautiful clear warm water, we saw nothing but anchor line going forward from the FINZ.  So we followed it, and followed it, and followed it…..holy smokes, how much anchor line does he carry??   We followed it some more, and some more…..and our depth was still less than 50 feet!!  What the heck, I am thinking, as we followed it..some more!  Finally, something is materializing out of the mist….what the heck is that I am thinking??   Lo and behold, as I get closer, I see what it is:
Yes, the anchor had snagged the underwater mooring, and we were in fact tied into the Curb!  Cool!  So another 150 feet of line, and sure enough, there we were, on the wreck!
More to come!

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!