Lesson Learned

When you were about half as old as you are now, there was no doubt in your mind that you were twice as smart. Or if not twice as smart, at least sure you were immune to all and any accidents. It scares me to think back to many instances like that, a majority involving cars, but one especially that involved a dive.

It was in January. The dive was to be on a recently found wreck out of Montauk Point, NY. For me to get there from western New Jersey it was necessary to leave after work which was late in the afternoon. After driving for what seemed to be days across Long Island, it became very obvious how it got it’s name.

Arriving late at night, I checked into a motel and tried to get whatever sleep possible. The dive boat was scheduled to leave at the crack of dawn so most of my night was spent waking up to make sure I would not be asleep when it was time wake up. Funny how that works.

The dive boat did leave at the crack of dawn with about 30 of us on board and raring to go, more or less. The boat was a very large, very slow diesel powered catamaran with a name of Hell “something”. You know, now that I think of it, perhaps that should have been a warning right there and then. After many hours of motoring along, a diver shouted that the wreck had been located. Someone threw a marker in the water of some sort so the boat could swing around to anchor.

The weather was very nice with plenty of sun, temperature not too bad for January and the seas calm. As the boat slowed, another person threw a nickel into the water. We watched as it flickered and sank, showing us that the visibility was quite good, probably in the 30 ft range. We waited for the anchor to drop. And we waited and waited. The anchor did not drop.

For some reason, that to this day I still don’t know, the captain was unable to relocate the wreck on the next pass. Or the next pass after that. The marker someone had thrown in either was not tied or didn’t reach bottom. No matter what, the marker was no longer a marker. Drawing an “X” on the water would have been just as good. Three and a half hours later the captain once again found the wreck! Three and a half somewhat boring hours talking about whatever one could for three and a half hours.

Unfortunately by now the weather had changed. The seas became much rougher, a strong current had started and the visibility had dropped drastically. The sun was still out though. Now after spending well over 6 hours on the boat, quite a few divers elected not to go in the water for various personal reasons.

Time was pressing according to the divemaster so I was told 7 minutes bottom time maximum. This was going to be my deepest dive at 110 feet. I was already excited about that plus this was my first Atlantic wreck dive. The first diver jumped off the bow, swam to the anchor line and tied a rope to it so each diver could pull themselves to the anchor line and make a descent. Soon my turn came and in I went. I don’t remember feeling one bit of cold water. I do remember pulling on the rope and finding the end in my hand.

By this time the seas had become very rough and choppy with a wicked current. Not at all ideal for trying to tie something. With all my energy I swam to the anchor line and after a long time of being thrown around by the sea and many attempts got the rope retied. I was exhausted. My buddy now jumped in and signaled he would go down first. I nodded ok and he went under. I followed. I can remember only three things from that dive. One, the anchor line was more like a one inch steel bar because the current was so strong. Two, I wondered if I could find the nickel the guy threw over and last, I was breathing so fast and furious that if anything went wrong with any part of my breathing system I was done.

Neither my buddy nor I was wearing any sort of alternate air source. I guess they either weren’t heard of then or not so popular. All I could see was my buddy’s fins in front of me and that was it. Visibility was down to a few feet of very dark water. During the entire descent the main thing on my mind was my breathing. Instant inhale, instant exhale. Not a nano second between. If I did need air from my buddy there was no way I could get his attention and wait for his reply. Simply no way. But on down I went. We touched the wreck never leaving go of the anchor line, looked at each other and decided it was already time to head back up.

All the way toward the surface all I could think about was my breathing which had not slowed one bit. At least now I was on the way up and not down. Upon reaching the surface I said to myself, “I made it.” It wasn’t a feeling of relief but more a feeling of accomplishment of having taken a great risk and “won”. It never occurred what the word “lost” would have meant. One other thing flashed through my mind. Maybe that wasn’t a nickel, maybe it was a quarter!

After all the divers were aboard the captain announced that the anchor was stuck. In went a diver to cut the line and we all sat waiting once again. A few more hours back to the dock and the dive was officially over.

So why for a seven minute dive did I drive 6 hours each direction, spend a night in a motel, endure endless waiting on a boat with seasick people all around and pay a great deal of money to boot? I don’t know why.

I do know that I have on many occasions since gotten somewhat tired underwater and always remembered that dive. Immediately I either rest or make sure my buddy is aware and close by. I have never since that day allowed myself to get totally exhausted or even nearly so underwater. Whoever was supposed to have securely tied that line also taught me to make sure lines are properly tied. Had the line been tied I would not have become exhausted. If you don’t know what it is like, try sprinting with everything you have for 100 yards, turn around and sprint back with everything you have, stop dead in your tracks and try to hold you breathe for 5 seconds. It would have taken far more than 5 seconds to straighten out any air problem.

Even so, I never should have gone down. Since nearly everything else had gone wrong who was to say my regulator was going to work. Because I was young and inexperienced, because it was my first (and only) Atlantic Ocean dive, because if I went in I would be better than those who didn’t, because I paid for all this in advance, I threw out all caution and went diving. I really feel quite lucky when I look back on it. Quite lucky and really stupid!

Bruce Bowker

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