July 22, 1999

Prose, including snippets (mini-memoirs).
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sasha
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July 22, 1999

Post by sasha » February 3rd, 2018, 3:32 pm


(I used to scuba dive. I also used to be fat. When I could no longer zip my wetsuit, I went on a long hiatus from diving, resuming some years later after dropping 50+ pounds. I’d assumed that being trim again also meant I was a scuba diver again. I was wrong.

The following account is taken from my journal at the time.
)



I had thus far resisted Jeff Blake’s suggestion that we go diving together some night after work; it had been a long time since I’d been underwater – at least two years – and my equipment was getting a little long in the tooth. My regulator’s last annual tune-up almost didn’t happen because parts were becoming too hard to find. At the last minute the technician had found an old US Divers regulator in its original package, which he’d plundered for the necessary springs. I hadn’t even bothered this year. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had my tank inspected.

However the DOT sticker was sufficiently recent that the dive shop had no issue with charging my cylinder up to 3300 psi, and after a quick dress rehearsal at home of the gear-on process, I accepted Jeff’s invitation to a late afternoon dive in Dublin Lake.

It was Thursday, July 22, 1999 – a hot, humid summer afternoon. Despite the heat, I changed into my wetsuit in one of the bathrooms at work, and by the time we rendezvoused in the parking lot, I was already slick with perspiration. We decided on a place by Dublin Lake to meet, and set out in separate cars.

We pulled off 101 at one of the several turnouts along the north shore of the lake, and spread out our gear. Despite my practice run a few days earlier, the ritual was at once foreign and familiar, and steps that had once been habit now had to be undertaken with some deliberation. I wished that my rehearsal had been less superficial. But I mostly got it right, and with a final tug on the various lanyards and straps, lumbered towards the water.

Over the years I’d had to let these straps out to accommodate an ever-expanding girth, and my recent weight-loss had required me to snug them up again during my dry run; but I hadn’t taken them in enough. The vest still hung too loosely on me, and I should have taken the time to cinch things up even more, but I was getting very warm and anxious to press on, and figured it wouldn't matter all that much. I was also having some difficulty getting the tank harness just right, and ended up with too much slack in the left shoulder and barely enough in the waistband; but again, I was overheating, and in a hurry to get into the water. The heel had ripped out of one of my booties, and I hadn't taken enough time to adjust the stops on my weight belt, with the result that the weights themselves were off-center and too close to the buckle, so I couldn't cinch the belt tight. To hell with it, I said, and with everything sloppily clanking and and shifting around, I donned my mask and fins and plunged eagerly into the water, savoring the sudden rush of coolness trickling into the suit.

I was going diving!

Jeff followed in a few minutes, and trailed behind me towing the flag. We exchanged the OK sign - even on the surface, we were burdened down by our gear and couldn't speak very clearly - so I vented my BC and dropped down into about 10 feet of water. The bottom sloped downhill here, so I kicked a few times to get a little more depth, then paused to adjust my straps. The weight belt felt even looser than it had on shore, and was hanging uncomfortably low from my hips; but the buckle was already butted up against the first weight, and couldn't be tightened any further. Worse, my left shoulder harness was sliding down my arm, so that the tank felt like it was falling off; and my BC was so loose it had shifted so far around as almost to be sideways. The vent ball was near the middle of my chest rather than just above my right breast, and I had some difficulty finding it. I should have paused then and there to address these problems, but I was excited to be underwater again, and carelessly assumed that everything would work out just fine.

It proved to be a fateful, and nearly fatal, mistake.

The bottom here was nearly featureless, a steep, muddy hillside strewn with mussels and clams. So tenuous and jelly-like was the interface between earth and water that even our lightest touch raised dense, blinding clouds of silt, limiting our visibility even further from the modest 8-10 feet through the virgin water ahead. The deeper we went, the greater the water pressure surrounding us; and the greater the pressure, the denser our bodies became, which responded by sinking even faster into that mud. I was continually letting little bursts of air into my vest to keep myself off the bottom, and kept my finger on the autoinflater's trigger as we descended.

By 50 feet, it had grown quite cold and dim, and the surface was no longer visible. The hole in my boot was not proving as bothersome as I'd feared it might, but my new gloves didn't seem very effective at keeping out the chill, which felt especially sharp on the exposed parts of my face.

The only topography of any interest we found was a small cluster of boulders, one of which was quite large, perhaps 7 or 8 feet high and 10 across. It was festooned with some kind of white organic encrustation that looked like popcorn. We silently oohed and aahed, OK'd to one another, and showed one another our instrument readings. I was finding it difficult to read, partly because my close vision has deteriorated with age, and partly because of my unfamiliarity with his instruments. I would learn later that he was having the same difficulty. It was one more in the long string of little glitches that were accumulating and leading up to what was about to become a near-disaster.

My weight belt was now so loose I was concerned about it falling off, and my left shoulder strap had slid halfway down the bicep, hindering use of that arm. I was constantly making adjustments, but was unable to fix either problem. Then I noticed I was drifting away from the bottom, and a quick glance at my depth gauge showed why: the hill we'd been descending had bottomed out and then risen slightly, to about 40 feet. The volume of air I'd bled into the BC for maintaining neutral buoyancy at 50 feet had expanded as we'd climbed the hillock, and I was now overly buoyant. Ordinarily this isn't really a problem: the BC is designed to be as easy to deflate as to inflate. I reached up with my right hand for the vent ball, but I couldn't find it.

Shit, I thought, and Jeff gave me a puzzled look as I floated slowly away from him. I struggled into a head down position and used my fins to push back to the bottom as I continued groping for the vent. Since I was upside-down, there was no telling whether the vent ball was above or below its normal position. My hand kept hitting the inflater instead, but I was unable to find the release valve, and I gestured a little frantically to indicate that I was hunting for something. But he was unfamiliar with the horsecollar BC design, and had no idea what my problem was. Finally my fingers found the ball, and, heart pounding from relief, I yanked it and plopped back down into the mud as a cluster of bubbles rocketed up into the vague light from the unseen surface so far overhead.

We noodled around in the muck a little longer, marveling at its pudding-like consistency and how we could make it undulate like a drumhead by poking it gently with our fingers. By this time we had each used about 1000 pounds of our air, and although that was less than half of what we'd carried in, Jeff indicated he wanted to surface and look around, so we switched from our prone "mudskipping" positions to kneeling heads-up preparatory for ascent. I found my autoinflater - after a minimum of fumbling this time - and pressed the button to refill my BC.

But nothing happened.

I pressed again, thinking that I just hadn't pressed it hard enough to trigger it the first time; but instead of the comforting hiss of air, all I could hear was the booming clatter of my exhaust. I was going to have to inflate the vest orally, something I haven't done since I was much younger and more practiced. I reached up for the pleated hose - and couldn't find it. My heart skipped a beat.

This was getting bad.

Jeff was watching me, but I didn't know how to convey to him my problem, so I just pushed up from the bottom and began to climb using sheer horsepower. The ascent wasn't too difficult, but I was still vastly relieved when I was finally able to resolve the ripples on the surface of the water. At about 15 feet I did a 360° pan for boats, and a few seconds later broke through.

The water slapped about our faces. Jeff took out his mouthpiece and gurgled, "You okay?"

I removed mine and stiffly tilted my face upward so I wouldn't swallow any more of the lake than I needed to. "Yeah," I said, downplaying the potential severity of the problem for my own benefit as much as for his. "But I can't seem to inflate my vest."

"We’d better head back in, then," he said. I was already tiring of struggling to stay afloat and grunted "'Kay" or something as I shoved the regulator back into my mouth and flipped over. I slipped below the surface and began falling head first, five stories back down to the bottom.

My ears squeaked and crackled as I repressurized them during the drop, and I felt an odd little flutter of unease as the darkness and icy chill swallowed me up. I could see nothing - nothing but a gradient of green murk, and I was plummeting directly into the darkest part of it. The bland uniformity of the gloom and the lack of any visible features was at once hypnotic and disorienting.

Suddenly I was there: still dropping at top speed, I found myself only inches from the bottom! I had apparently fallen into one of our silt clouds, in which the visibility was less than a foot. I barely had time to throw my hands out in front of me, and I augured into the mud up to my elbows like an artillery shell. Silt exploded up around me from the impact. Hope Jeff didn't see THAT, I thought, and looked around for him.

But he was nowhere to be seen.

Unbeknownst to me, he was having problems equalizing the pressure in his ears, and was unable to get below 5 or 6 feet without severe pain. I had fallen alone into the depths without any means of controlling my buoyancy. I could no longer deny the potential severity of my situation, and that vague unease I’d felt on the way down was beginning to taste unpleasantly like fear. I thought briefly of setting out alone along the bottom for shore; but I hadn't even taken a compass bearing while I'd had the chance on the surface, and I had no idea which way to go. So I decided - correctly - to go back up.

I righted myself again and began my second arduous climb back to the surface. I hit the autoinflater once more on the off chance that the problem was temporary and had somehow corrected itself, but it was as dead as before. I also noticed that I couldn't feel the hose from the regulator's first stage, and supposed that somehow it had come unattached. Perhaps I had not seated it firmly enough, or perhaps I'd inadvertantly released it when I'd been hunting for the dump valve. In any event, I would again have to ascend without it. I was beginning to breathe harder, now, and not just from the exertion - the pounding of my heart was increasingly due to the alarm building within me at the prospect of becoming another tragic summer statistic. I could practically see my air pressure gauge drop downward with each panicky, gulping breath. I pumped my legs to bear me upward, back into the light, back into the air, and had established what I thought was a reasonable rhythm when a fin hit something solid. I looked down to see what it was.

It was the bottom.

Now I was really frightened. I sucked in a breath and struggled against instinct to hold it as I pulled myself upward with my hands and feet. I rose up and put my legs into it, and slowly pulled away from that implacable mud toward the blessed wind that blew free across the lake's surface, still too far above me to be seen. I forced myself to remain calm, and to neither outrace nor fall behind my bubbles, as I'd been trained; and before long I could make out Jeff's legs dangling down from the shimmering surface. I approached the ceiling a little more quickly than I would have liked, and tore through. I ripped the regulator from my mouth, and with as much urgency as I could get across without sounding panicky, I blurted, "I'm in trouble."

He was at my side in an instant. "Can't inflate," I gasped. "Can't find the inflater," meaning the manual inflation tube. He reached under the pocket of my vest and pulled the CO2 handle - God, I hadn't even thought of that - but nothing happened! Either the cartridge was so old that all the gas had long since bled away, or the puncturing pin had rotted out. I was groping over my left shoulder for that goddamned inflater and not finding it, and my right leg was beginning to cramp. He spun me around and grabbed the top of my backpack. I deduced he was getting ready to haul me into shore, so I stopped struggling to make his job easier; but I started to sink, and had to resume kicking. I felt a sharp pain in my right leg as it cramped again. I was shipping so low in the water that each tiny little swell broke against my face, and I couldn't breathe. I reached for my regulator but couldn't find it; in all my thrashing it gotten twisted around me somewhere. I knew I had nearly 2000 pounds of air left, but I didn't have time to hunt for the mouthpiece. I was at the threshold of panic, and I knew if I didn't do something drastic, and do it immediately, that the situation was going to get very bad, very quickly.

"I'm dumping my weights," I managed to sputter past another mouthful of water, and I reached down for the quick-release on the weight belt. I found the buckle and tugged. It opened straight away, and the weights shifted, but for one heart-stopping moment they hesitated, as though they'd become snagged on something. Then they slid down past my buttocks and slipped free to plunge back to the bottom. Twenty-two pounds lighter, I bobbed up out of the water like a cork.

"Good thinking," Jeff said, but I had finally found the oral inflater and was blowing into it. The vest billowed up around my face and I gratefully slumped into its cradling support, more comforting than if it had been a woman's bosom. I tipped lazily over onto my back, and let out a long shuddering breath.

"Holy shit," I panted. "Thanks. That was really close. Thanks."

"No problem," he said. "Let's get back to shore."

"If you insist," I replied, and after taking a bead on our cars, plied leisurely across the water on my back, enjoying the sight of the late-afternoon cumulous clouds towering overhead almost as much as the fact that I was getting another chance to see them after all.

The surface trip was slow and relaxed, and gave me ample time to recover from my fright. By the time my feet finally found the gravel at the edge of the water I'd begun reflecting on what had gone wrong. Already I could see some of the mistakes I'd made, not the least of which was overconfidence based on the diver I had been fifteen years ago rather than the diver I am today. The same could also be said of my equipment, and as if to emphasize this last point, one final malfunction brought me up short: the strap holding one of my fins had become so brittle that it snapped while I was removing it. If that had happened ten minutes earlier, while clawing my way back to the surface, or during my struggle to stay there... Despite the heat, I felt a little chill. Not only were my skills rusty, my equipment was out of date; and although I had been aware of this, I had chosen to ignore it and press ahead anyway. I had fucked up big time, and was now lucky to be alive.

I shrugged out of my tank while Jeff lumbered up onto shore carrying his on his back. He breezily acknowledged my repeated thanks for keeping his cool while I'd been losing mine, and assured me that he'd been in similar binds before. Then he ruefully laughed and expressed regret that our first dive together had been such a lousy one.

"Oh I wouldn't say that," I laughed back, unzipping my jacket. "We're standing here on shore joking about it, aren't we?"


(Post Script - I climbed back on the horse a few weekends later, & signed up for a scuba refresher course at the dive shop. I needed a new weight belt anyway. I passed the course with flying colors, losing a few points in the pool session only because I failed to check for boats on ascent! But a walk-through of the shop gave me a bad case of sticker shock. The gear is a lot more sophisticated - and expensive - than it had been in 1975. I said I'd think about. But I didn’t. I am now proudly an ex-diver.)
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I'm not an outlier. I just haven't found my distribution yet.

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STUPID BOB
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Re: July 22, 1999

Post by STUPID BOB » February 3rd, 2018, 7:10 pm

Wow. On all counts.
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still.trucking
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Re: July 22, 1999

Post by still.trucking » February 4th, 2018, 12:36 am

thankyou 8)
for the story


I have ignored the still small voice too— to my peril
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the mingo
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Re: July 22, 1999

Post by the mingo » February 7th, 2018, 1:36 pm

Enjoyed, sasha - <* 8) *>
Doll, you may have found a place of rest but I'm still on the trail.

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sasha
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Re: July 22, 1999

Post by sasha » February 7th, 2018, 5:44 pm

thanks, all, for your comments
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I'm not an outlier. I just haven't found my distribution yet.

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mnaz
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Re: July 22, 1999

Post by mnaz » February 10th, 2018, 6:49 pm

And THAT ... is why you won't find me down there.
Well told. The gravity of this situation and raw stabs of fear convey clearly, with impact. About the only thing I've experienced remotely close to this is getting lost on a sagebrush ocean in the desert. I literally had no idea where I was on the face of earth, with fuel running out. The danger wasn't so immediate like a diving situation, but it meant a more sustained fight to subdue panic-- I had more time to think about it...

saw
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Re: July 22, 1999

Post by saw » February 10th, 2018, 8:18 pm

harrowing tale of crisis management
I scuba-ed some in the keys, but ended up
being more fond of snorkeling...maybe
it was my fear something might go wrong
or maybe I liked to be unfettered, but wow
what an experience for you...good thing to write about sasha... 8)
If you do not change your direction
you may end up where you are heading

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sasha
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Re: July 22, 1999

Post by sasha » February 11th, 2018, 3:45 pm

mnaz wrote:
February 10th, 2018, 6:49 pm
About the only thing I've experienced remotely close to this is getting lost on a sagebrush ocean in the desert...
One time long ago I got disoriented in dense forest - I knew I wasn't far from a wood road, but had lost track of which way to go to get there. The wrong direction would have left me out there for a very long time. I had to fight back the panic and think. It finally occurred that at that time of day, my shadows all pointed northeast, and I knew I was south of the road. So I kept the shadows to my 2:00, and in 5 minutes I made it out.
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I'm not an outlier. I just haven't found my distribution yet.

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sasha
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Re: July 22, 1999

Post by sasha » February 11th, 2018, 3:53 pm

saw wrote:
February 10th, 2018, 8:18 pm
harrowing tale of crisis management
I scuba-ed some in the keys, but ended up
being more fond of snorkeling...maybe
it was my fear something might go wrong
or maybe I liked to be unfettered, but wow
what an experience for you...good thing to write about sasha... 8)
I've been diving in the Keys, too - Pennekamp State Park. That was at the height of my diving days, when I was good at it. I think the most beautiful thing we saw were a pair of manta rays gliding overhead, grazing on plankton - flying cows of the sea! The barracuda were a little alarming at first, but we soon got used to them. We mostly rode out to the reefs on chartered dive boats, but one day decided to rent a skiff of our own. We anchored amidst a little flotilla of fishing boats and put in. While we were under, a thunderstorm rolled in. We surfaced in dense fog, without another boat in sight - but by going back down and retracing our steps along the bottom terrain, we found our way back to our boat.
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I'm not an outlier. I just haven't found my distribution yet.

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mnaz
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Re: July 22, 1999

Post by mnaz » February 11th, 2018, 3:59 pm

Similar to my experience. I thought I was probably in the general vicinity of a state road to the south, but on the vast open desert, how "close" was that? A mile or two? Twelve miles? I got lucky when someone showed up to go camping by a nearby spring (it was a holiday weekend), and they told me which cow path to take to reach the road, which turned out to be "just beyond the next rise" (a couple miles off, closer as the crow flies)...

saw
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Re: July 22, 1999

Post by saw » February 12th, 2018, 10:16 am

wow sasha...I saw a motion picture....can't recall the name....where two divers emerge to find no boat....the whole movie is the two of them trying to survive...oh oh, just remembered.."Open Water"...really terrifying

yeah the barracuda are alarming at first because not only are they lightning fast, but they got a mouth full of razor sharp teeth they don't might showing you...turns out they are mostly just curious....like, who the hell is jumping in my ocean ?

I've been to Pennecamp...and many other places...spent 8 years in the Keys...Key West, Stock Island and Big Pine Key....still have friends down there on Sugarloaf Key
If you do not change your direction
you may end up where you are heading

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sasha
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Re: July 22, 1999

Post by sasha » February 12th, 2018, 1:58 pm

Key West is a wild little town, eh? At least it was in the 70s. Especially that stretch on Main St with all the open-air bars. Half expected to see peg-legged buccaneers with eye patches & tricorner hats tossing back flaggons of grog! Harrrr, me bucko.... Avast!

Provincetown MA at the tip of Cape Cod is quirky as well, but in a different way - thriving gay and arts communities. Must be something about Land's End that invites the individualistic.....
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I'm not an outlier. I just haven't found my distribution yet.

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