Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus

As a child I was very comfortable on the water and in the water.  We were a boating family and spent our summers on the Ohio River anchored bow and stern off the beach.  I sea kayaked quite a bit in the 90s but didn’t do much swimming in the frigid waters of Puget Sound and around Vancouver Island.  And then I upgraded into a sailboat and did some wonderfully exciting sailing summer and winter in the Seattle / BC area.  Now that we are on the boat in Mexico I’m finally in warm water for the first time since my youth.  And I find that I’ve lost some swimming skills.  When I can, I jump into the water and swim around the boat just to get comfortable.  But, I’ve got a ways to go.
We thought at first this was our ferry boat panga.

Connie and I have attempted to clean the hull on Traveler using our snorkel gear and have had some success but neither of us seem to be able to submerge deep enough to clean the massive keel. So we have considered SCUBA or maybe a hookah device for that job. 

Last year we were anchored in Ensenada Carrizal near Manzanillo and we decided to do some snorkeling off the boat.  Connie suggested we take the dinghy but I insisted that we could swim over.  About halfway across with a chop forming on the water I started having difficulty, getting water into my snorkel and mask.  I ripped off my mask and gasped for air and felt myself going down.  I tried to calm myself but ended up calling for Connie to come assist.  She swam back, calmed me down and hauled me to land so I could recover.  It is in this context that I relate the following story about learning how to SCUBA dive.
This guy did an amazing job handling the panga

Connie’s daughter Tesla and her boyfriend Justin gifted Connie a very nice SCUBA setup, everything she’d need to dive.  In California this last summer we took that gear to a dive shop and were able to parlay it into two full rigs so that Connie and I could both dive.  Now in La Cruz we decided to take diving lessons and get certified in the process.  We looked at various high quality programs then found a cheaper option with Chico’s dive shop so we teamed up with Vicki and Lane on Adesso and the four of us did some studying then showed up at dawn at Chico’s on a Sunday morning.  

Rudolfo gave us a short verbal class standing on the sidewalk outside his shop.  We asked where the pool session would be and he just smiled.  Most of the dive instruction programs have you get into a swimming pool to practice with the gear before setting out on your open water dive.  But no, we walked down the beach and boarded a panga and went straight out to an anchored catamaran dive boat. Turns out that the “pool” was a very large pool.. the ocean. 

Dive master, Fausto
On the dive boat we met Fausto, our dive instructor.  He showed us how to connect our octopus to the tank and rig the BCD (buoyancy control device).  I’m getting nervous, looking at all this heavy gear that looks like it would take me straight to the bottom.  When we got to Los Arcos, a popular dive location just south of downtown Puerto Vallarta, one of the guys did a free dive with a fat rope in his hand and tied it off on a big rock 25 feet down.  All around us were other tour boats with pasty white gringos aboard planning on swimming or snorkeling or paddling.  

We got on our wetsuits, put on our weight belts, 16 lb for me and 8 lb for Connie.  This turned out to be too much for me and not enough for Connie.  Then the mask and flippers and the BCD with a huge aluminum tank on the back.  I stuck the mouth piece between my trembling lips and sure enough, I could suck air into my lungs.  Then Fausto had us get into the water.  Yikes!  But I did float.

Once Fausto joined us in the water he motioned for us to hold onto the anchor line and start to descend by holding a hose above our head and pressing a release valve.  Soon the water came up to my goggles, then I was underwater… and I was breathing.  Breathing pretty fast but I’m not drowned yet.  I started to descend, taking time to clear my sinuses every few feet. Connie fought her way under the surface by hauling herself down the anchor line.  I dropped like a rock.  Soon we found ourselves on the bottom doing the OK signal.  My pulse rocketed, my breaths came rapidly.  I kept saying to myself, “Don’t panic.”
Dive boat with panga towing astern

Our dive instructor had his hands full keeping the four of us together as one or another kept floating up towards the surface and he had to motion for the rest of us to stay put while he swam up to haul someone back down. Fausto found rocks on the bottom and started stuffing them into the BCDs for Vicki and Lane to hold them down better.  Once we got our buoyancy under control we went for a little underwater swim.  Fausto found a puffer fish and passed it around to the group. It was all quite magical and I forgot to panic, getting my breathing under control, and actually starting to enjoy the experience.

Vicki, Lane, Connie, Scott
To ascend, we found the anchor line again and went up hand over hand to the surface.  Then we inflated our BCDs so we would float at the surface.  The boat crew helped us get out of our weight belts, and BCD/air tanks so we could haul ourselves back aboard.  Whew!  That was an exhausting 45 minutes.

On the way to the next dive site, Fausto ( we were all beginning to really like this guy by now ) coached us as to what we’d do next.  After a quick snack we suited up again and this time took a giant step off the back of the boat.  I plummeted to the bottom and Connie fought her way down.  This time we had a sandy bottom so we practiced trying to hover in place with the tips of our flippers touching the sand and our chests rising and falling slightly with our breaths.  We then took a little swim around and by this time I was ready to stop this nonsense as my nose hurt from pinching it and my legs were starting to cramp. 
Vicki on lookout, with Connie being just cooler than hell and Lane getting his groove on.

We surfaced again and I flopped aboard like a wounded fish.  It was all smiles as we headed back to the beach for a Panga landing and short hike back to the shop to find Rudolfo who said he’d meet us there after the dive.  There was no Rudolfo so we found some NAUI books and a DVD to watch and a long worksheet to fill out and then caught a taxi back to La Cruz.  

The day had started before sunrise and ended in the dark so it was a very long day for us.  Later, back on Traveler Connie and I tried watching the DVD but it went on and on, too long and the hour was getting late.  We took the workbook and used the manual to look up all the answers and did our best to complete as much as we could before falling down at about 11:00 PM exhausted.

Day two started out like day one with a short intro from Rudolfo, a panga ride to the catamaran, and a delightful motor out to Los Arcos.  I’m tired. Connie, Vicki, and Lane are tired. But we had smiles on our faces and were ready to jump into the water when the boat got its mooring line tied around the rock.  The scene around Los Arcos was a madhouse with lots of small boats negotiating around swimmers in the water.  On this day we had about 6 other divers along on our boat and another 8 snorkelers, a crowded boat.  So Fausto, as dive master, had to pawn us off on Daniel for the day’s instruction while he attempted to keep track of 14 folks in the water.  Daniel turned out to be a very good instructor, being very thorough in his explanations. 
Daniel assisting Connie back aboard

We adjusted the weights, giving Connie extra and taking one off my belt.  After taking the giant stride off the boat we descended all together without the anchor line.  Down below we formed a circle and Daniel motioned for us to start our training procedures.  We took the regulator out of our mouths then put it back in, clearing it of water with a big puff.  Next we took the regulator and threw it away, found it again, purged it and started breathing again.  We repeated various scenarios of losing the regulator, watching each person do the drill in turn.  Without the extra weight I kept floating towards the surface and expended lots of energy trying to stay down.  I figure my weight to carry is not 16 lbs and not 12 lbs but probably 14 would be a perfect amount.

Next was the “out of air” drill.  I made a motion quite like getting my throat slit and Connie grabbed me and whipped out her secondary second stage regulator offering it to me. I took mine out of my mouth and grabbed hers and we buddy breathed together.  Then she wiggled her fingers and pointed upwards, the signal to proceed to the surface.  We started going up then Daniel grabbed my leg and we came back down.  I gave Connie back her spare regulator, cleared mine and started breathing through it again. 

Los Arcos dive location
We took a break up top then started our fourth and last dive.  At the bottom we assumed a yogi position, grabbing the tips of our flippers. This didn’t work so well for me so I just floated prone. Connie floated upside down.  The point of this exercise was to establish buoyancy so that we hovered in the water, not sinking and not rising.  With Daniel’s coaching I finally got it down and got the high five and fist bump.  My chest swelled with pride… and I started to rise uncontrollably. 

Yea Baby, That's what I'm talking about!
Next was the big challenge for us all: clearing the mask.  We started by letting a little water into the mask, then tilting the head back and exhaling through the nose to force the water out.  Then we let in more and finally filled it up.  At the end we had to remove the mask entirely and put it back on and clear it.  I shut my eyes and took off the mask, holding it at arm’s length.  Then I wrestled it back on getting my hair out of the way.  I tilted, I blew, and I opened my eyes to find they were underwater.  Stinging salt!  It took me a few tries to finally get the mask cleared.  In the meantime I swallowed about a quart of sea water through my nose.. yum!  Thank Dog that exercise was over.  I got the high five again and we headed across the sea floor looking for more depth.  Finally we surfaced a couple of hundred yards from the boat and she came over and picked us up.  

What did you get for Solstice?
Back at the shop we found Rudolfo who gave us a little review and we were done!  Finished. Certified. We found a taxi and headed back to La Cruz to rinse out our gear at the dock in darkness then dinghy out to Traveler where we collapsed, fatigued beyond belief.  It’s taken us two days to recover from all that physical activity and stress.  It remains to be seen just how much diving we will do but now we know that if we need to dive down to check the anchor or unwrap a line from the propeller we can do so.  We’ll also be able to clean that big keel.  Gosh, aren’t we growing up into the boater’s life quickly! 

So if you want to get certified and want to quickly get-er-done, head down to Puerto Vallarta and I’ll hook you up with the gang at Chico’s.  Just strap it all on and jump in!  Easy Shmeasy!
The next day was christmas eve

1 comment:

  1. Congrats on getting certified, Scott and Connie! Now, just visualize having your claustrophobic feeling while being surrounded by dozens of reef sharks---and you're ready to dive Fakarava! (In case you misinterpret my tone as smug, I'm not certified at no, not smug---just kidding around!)