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!
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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!

Tec diving, Key West style!

Indian Valley Scuba doesn’t just pride itself on offering great training opportunities year round, it also provides the places to go and dive the sort of dives you’ve been training for!  Case in point, our Extended Range, Trimx and Advanced Trimix programs – we need wrecks in the 200 ft depth range, and we need them year round!  What better place to find some of them than off the waters of Key West?

Kris & Michele Gosling joined Dave for a long weekend of technical diving in one of our favorite locations, Key West.  I flew down while the Gosling’s drove, and boy, while I think I pack a lot for a dive trip, these guys have me beat hands down! Good to know if I need to make any on-site repairs, Kris has at least one, if not two, of whatever I need on hand!  Once again, this darn weather thing has got to get better, as the marine forecasts are hinting at one lousy weekend on the ocean!

We really try to give our business to the little guy, but shop we used to supply us with gas mixes and rental tanks in January has not returned our calls or emails for the past two weeks.  Such is life with some businesses in the Keys…is it any surprise the failure rate is so high?  So, rather than making this a technical snorkeling trip for myself, I stop at IVS-Key Largo, and pick up the tanks we keep in storage there.  Downside is that the double 100’s have been filled for some shallower diving on the Speigel Grove, so my ppO2 will be a tad high on our dives tomorrow on the Vandenberg.  Well, the living DAN medical research experiment continues, so I’ll just make sure my affairs are in order before the morning drop!

Friday morning came and we got our 7:00 a.m. report from Capt. Chris Norwood, of Florida Straits Diving.  Wind is blowing at 25 knots plus from the southwest, and seas are 8 ft outside the reef.  Hmmmm….not the sort of conditions that the 26 ft Lucky Dog handles well on that ocean.  So, we turn our sights a bit, and Chris finds the Southpoint Divers boat is heading out this morning for a double dip on the Vandenberg.  Perfect! Or so it seems…

So we head over to the shop, and get squared away with Eric the manager.  Quick Quiz – what is Rule #1 of scuba diving?   Fill out the waivers, of course!   So we take care of the necessary paperwork, and drive the truck over to the Hyatt where the boat is docked.  As we pull into the lot, there are four Key West roosters (real roosters, not any other kind, thank you!) strutting across the lot. I know what they are thinking as they watch me drive up…”he’ll slow down”…he’ll turn to avoid us”….”he sees us”…….’holy smokes, he’s gonna hit us!!”…and with that last thought the feathers explode as the roosters careen out of the path of the truck, with the leader flying up against the drivers door and letting me know, in rooster terms, just what they thought of my sense of humor!   Gotta love me!

So rooster incident over, we unload the truck into the carts, haul them through the Hyatt’s pool area, and as we load our extensive pile of gear, are thankful we are on a 46 ft Newton cause we sure had a lot of stuff! Doubles, multiple stage bottles, pelican boxes, camera cases, even a few milk crates thrown in to give it that Northeast US dive boat look!  Our able crew today included Capt. Tim, first mate Henry, aka Cuban Henrik for his uncanny ability to fall off the dive boat, and the girls, Amber Whinery and Lucja Jakubowska.  Amazingly small world that we live in, Henry formerly lived in the Lehigh Valley, and Lucja used to volunteer with O’Donnell Diving working with disabled divers at the Variety Club in Worcester, about five miles from Indian Valley Scuba.  Amazing! OK, I digress……..so, we headed on out and this fast boat had us on the site within about 40 minutes.  The mooring balls were visible, but not by much, indicating some significant current at least at the surface.  But the good news was that the water was clear and blue as far down as we could see.

So we briefed, geared up, and splashed in, making sure we had a good grip on the granny line to avoid a stressful surface swim with all our gear on.  We opted to leave the cameras on board until we figured out how bad this current was.  Smart move!  As soon as we splashed it was a serious hang on the granny, as we went hand over hand, pulling ourselves forward, trying to avoid getting our breathing going too hard, as this would come into play with our gas management plans later.  Finally, we are there on the mooring line and we start to descend to the wreck.  Whoa!  What happened to the blue water?  What a tease, that layer was only about 10 ft deep, and now we are in some serious soup.  It only gets thicker as we descend, to the point where I am straining to see the wreck, and finally I am within 10 feet of the mooring tie off, and I cannot see anything past the metal structure that the line is tied to.  Wow…this is gonna suck!

OK, so it is hand over hand down the structure as I strain to see any sort of deck or other parts of this ship…I know there is a 540 ft long ship here, and my hand is on it, but boy I cannot see it!  Finally I touch a flat surface, and shimmy to my right, to the edge, and realize I am on a deck on the superstructure.  So Kris and I drop down another level, to the next flat surface, and start to make our way forward, with the plan being a “hole in the wall” tour to show this ship off to it’s newest diver.  As I started forward, I finally ran into a wall, so I figured we might be at the back of the ship’s bridge, maybe.  So a little to the right, and whoops, I fall over the edge again, so we weren’t on the deck!  OK, now I slide to the right, and there is the gunnel and some railing, so I know I am on the edge of the ship’d deck now!  Kris and I move forward, keeping four sharp eyes out for the gaping 20 ft x 20 ft hole that would be our entrance to the innards of this wreck.  Well, four sharp eyes evidently were not quite enough, as we keep looking to our left while keeping the gunnel and railing to our right, and guess what we found?  The bow of the ship!  How we knew this, you ask?  Cause our starboard gunnel just ran into the port side gunnel and the deck got kinda pointy, that’s how!

Well that would mean one thing….we have missed the cargo hold entrance!  So now we turn around, and head straight down the centerline of the ship, go over the huge anchor windlasses, over the #1 cargo hatch entrance, and finally, there it is, the #2 entrance. How did we miss this on the way past the first time?  Tells you something about the visibility for sure!

So a little communication at the top, Kris is ready, and we drop, straight down the shaft, until we hit 130 feet.  There we have an entrance towards that heads toward the stern and should serve as our jump off point for our Hole in the Wall tour.  So I start in, being careful with my buoyancy.  I am waiting for the viz to clear, figuring the messy water outside would not have filled the inside of this wreck too,  Wrong!  I penetrate about 50 to 60 feet into the ship, and cover my light, only to discover that not only is there any visible light ahead, but there is equally none from the direction we just came.  We are essentially totally silted out with the low visibility right in the middle of the day!  OK,,,survival thinking mode kicks in here, this has all the makings of being my final dive, so I do the prudent thing and turn the dive.  I have enough room to spin around, and do so carefully to keep track of the definition of “around”, meaning I am pointed back in the direction we came from.  Viz was that bad!  So we kick on back, and eventually the area around us opens up, and I “think” we are in the shaft.  I cover my light, and look sraight up, and I can just make out a light glow of daylight through the murk, still with 60 feet of shaftway above us, and a total of 130 feet of water,  Man, did I say this viz sucks?

Well heck, we’re here, and we’re training, so let’s do some reel work!  Kris unclips his reel, and as he does, his carabineer pops off, and slowly drops into the murky abyss.  Instinctively I start towards, it, and then realize how bad the viz is further down the shaft (like I somehow forgot that!) and I give the ‘throat slashing’ signal to Kris, letting him know that Indian Valley Scuba has a fine array of carabineers for him to choose from when we get back to Pennsylvania!  Yes it would take some serious narcosis for me to miss a sales opportunity on a dive, even at depth! 

So we tie off, and I have Kris lead, and we head inside on the 110 feet level.  Past piles of jumbled file cabinets, desks, bookcases, all sorts of junk left over from the ships cleanup.  We get into a hallway, drop back a bit, make a 90 degree turn, then straighten back out, heading towards the stern.  Viz is a steady <10 ft throughout.  Finally Kris has had enough, and we turn, actually we back up, cause we are in a narrow hallway and there is no real chance to actually turn around.  So we back it up, never losing contact with the line, and finally I am able to turn, as does Kris, and we make our way back to our entry point, reeling up the line as we go.  Still lots of denizens of the deep for us to see, shrimp running around on the walls, qull clams, juvenile fish, and many flavors of silt and particulate!  We get back to our tie off point, and Kris has had enough, so we turn in the direction that appears to be up, and make our way back up the shaft to the deck level.  From there we navigate back to the mooring point, and begin our ascent to the surface.  Thirty minutes of bottom time at 130 ft, and only a 13 minute ascent, so overall not a bad run.  Lots of practical experience gained and Kris has shown great buoyancy control skills, good reel handling (except for that carabineer incident, but we’ll discuss that at the cash register next week!), and he also demonstrated why he is wearing double 130’s on his back – this boy can breath!!  We’ll work on that too!

Topside, the wind is picking up, and one by one the others on the boat are turning green and scratching dive #2, so it is now or never for Kris and I.  Twenty minutes of surface interval works, so we shift gears and plan to dive our computers for this second drop.  I am using my Cochran EMC20-H, and Kris is sporting a VR-3 and has a Suunto Cobra as a backup, so we have two good dive computers here, and one excellent snorkeling computer!  We gear up, move to the rear of the boat, and are disappointed to see that the blue water we had on the surface for the first dive has now disappeared.  Oh well, in we go, dragging ourselves back up the granny line, locate the mooring line, quick bubble check, all good, and we head down.  Upon reaching the wreck, we waste no time in dropping down on the port side, away from the current.  We tour along the deck a little, passing under one of the huge satellite dishes, this one being the one that broke off during the sinking, so it is held in place by some heavy cables to the superstructure.  Once past that, it’s time to do some drills, so Kris does his gas shutdown procedure, drops and replaces his stage bottles, and scores well on both.  Now for the tour…..we head around to the stern, and wow, there is a Goliath grouper in six to eight foot length watching us approach.  Very cool!  From there, we swing forward, enter the hatch down to the laundry shoot, Kris ties off again, and we drop, parachute style, straight down this tight chute,  There are no exits once you commit to dropping until you get to the bottom, so the adrenalin rush is good!  We hit the bottom at 130 feet, and I show Kris the laundry area, where the viz is much better than what we have seen so far on the wreck.  From there I drop down a hatch into shaft alley, where the main propeller shafts are located.  We check that area out at 140 ft, and watch as our deco obligation starts to accumulate.  We turn the dive, and head back up from where we came, not daring to attempt an alternative passage, with the viz as bad as it is.  The penetration line serves as our version of Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, leading us back to the relative safety of the exterior of the wreck.  Once back up on the deck, we made our way forward to the mooring point, and started our ascent.   Thirty minutes of bottom time at 140 ft, and we had a twenty minute deco obligation to satisfy before we could see the sunlight again.  As we hang, the Cochran clears, then the VR-3 gives us the OK to surface.   The Suunto?  It is “bent” beyond belief, and will need a couple of days in the divers time out chair before it is ready to submerge again.  Did I mention it makes an excellent snorkeling computer?

So back to the dock, and at least it is a beautiful day topside, although a bit breezy. We unload the boat, and head out to get gas….of course no one is there, so we shift to plan B, and take our tanks over to our friends at Sub Tropic Dive Center.  We get back to the condo, expecting to find Michele there to greet us with cold drinks in hand.  But no, she is not, and we call and there is no answer on her cell phone either!  Well, as it turns out, Michele is a bit, shall we say technically challenged?  Seems she took Kris’s new Nissan Maxima out this morning when we were leaving, and Kris started it up for her and had it running when she got in.  Well Michele stopped to do some shopping downtown, and made the mistake of shutting the car off!  Well when it was time to leave,  she could not figure out the Japanese version of how to fire this chariot back up!Seems you need to have the electronic key placed just so, press the ‘start; button, and make sure you have the gas pedal depressed at the right time.  So she spent some time searching for a place to insert the manual key, and finally went back to the last street vendor she had bought things from, and he came and figured out that tricky ignition.   I promised Michele we’d keep that secret just between us friends, so please friends, don’t tell anyone else!!  With that in mind, I won’t even begin to share her GPS story!

So finally it’s time to turn in, and during the night I awaken to what for a moment I thought were jets from the Naval Base flying by….and by…and by.  And just before I was fully awake, I could swear that was Dorothy tapping on my window, with Toto in her arms, seeking refuge from the storm! Nope, it turns out that is the wind, it is absolutely howling here, trees are shaking, rigging on the boats in the harbor is whistling, and that tapping?  Well it turns out it was only a tree branch outside my door whipping around in the wind…..oh well.   

Saturday morning comes and as you might imagine from the night, it isn’t much better.  Chris Norwood calls, his boat is scratched for the day, and so are most of the others.  The Sea Eagle from Captains Corner did head out to the Vandenberg, could not find the mooring balls as they were completely under with the current, and spent a half hour trying to tie in.  That failed, so they headed to the Cayman Salvor, and still could not hook in, so they headed about 12 miles west to try to find some quiet water on the far reefs.  So here it was, 11 o’clock in the morning and as I am talking to Leslie who runs the operation, she tells me the folks on board have still not gotten in the water for their first dive of the morning….man there must be some green faces on that boat, and we’re not talking a St Patty’s day event!  Needless to say there will be no diving today, so the Goslings head out to tour the town, and I stay in, to type this blog!

Saturday night in Key West would not be right without a party, and we have to look no further than next door to find one.  Turns out one of our local friends is celebrating his 50th, and the owners of the Hogfish Bar have shut the place down in order to throw a huge private party for him.  Well gosh, it is good to know people, we Michele, Kris and I are ushered into the party, and wow what a neat affair!  All you can eat buffet, all you can drink, all you can dance…..this place is jamming!  The band is fantastic, and the guest list reads like a Who’s Who in Key West.  Of course Joe Weatherby is in attendance, as is Chris Norwood, and some of the other captains and crews I have come to know here, plus George, the former mayoral candidate, Bobby, owner of the Hogfish, Dave Sirek from ABC news, and many more.  And even better, the owners of both Sea Tow and Tow Boat USA are there, and those who know me recognize how valuable these friends might be!  All in all, lots of fun, lots of laughter, great time had by all!   

So now it is Sunday, and the wind is still kicking, so most of the boats are headed west to the reefs.  The water is still too rough for Florida Strait’s boat, so Chris calls around to find us someone bold enough to take us south to the Vandenberg.  As the day progresses, most afternoon boats cancel due to the conditions.  OK, one boat available, $300 is the ransom for the ride in the washing machine…..no thanks!  Looks like we’ll be wrapping up this training in May!  Time to check the airline for earlier flight options home.   

IVS Invades the Keys – again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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