Wednesday, April 13, 2011

you never forget to breathe except when you do

Days Remaining to Next Beer: 339
For my birthday last year my wife purchased the PADI certification course for open water diving, essentially the first step towards opening up whole new ways to explore and enjoy the depths I’ve dreamed and drawn about for most of my life, since reading Kon-Tiki , Moby Dick, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as a youth. And seeing the films. And reading the comic book adaptations. And re-enacting key scenes with Kenner Star Wars figures, Fisher Price action figures, Lego submersible craft, and balsa wood and dental floss rafts.

The course needed to be completed before we departed for Hawaii in early October. Good to have a visible goal. And a friend, former Dive Master Aeron who gave Lindz the skinny on the Dive Locker shop out on 4th, a shop he used to teach out of during his younger years, as well as repairing dry suits upstairs when the shop owner had his own brand of dry suits going. Aeron’s family and ours would be among those sharing a condo on the Turtle Bay shoreline in Hawaii, and the plan was simple, get certified so that in Hawaii Aeron and I could do some diving.

Before the night of the first class we met Aeron at the shop to get some of the basic supplies I would need, a mask, snorkel, and fins, and to pick up the course materials to get ahead on the reading an exercises before the first class. I got the gear with the guarantee that after time in water with it during the first class,  could exchange it should anything not suit me. Turned out the closed heel flippers were too casual and confining, and I swapped them out for open heel fins that would work bare foot or with shoes, and I ordered a pair of shoes. Everyone is different, and I enjoyed learning on the go what i felt more comfortable with, what a surprise I would want scuba shoes, says the guy that loves shoe shopping almost as much as comic book stores, toy shops, or antique markets.

Leading up to the first class I read the assigned chapters, did the Question and Answer sections to test my knowledge, and reread the content to ensure I had it down. I developed anxieties about forgetting to breath and having my lungs over expand as I ascended from the depths, rupturing my lungs and leaving my son with the proud knowledge his idiot father at least died an organ donor, just not for lungs. I worried about getting too much nitrogen in my bloodstream, ascending too fast and getting the bends. I stressed I wouldn’t be able to clear and equalize my air passages, my sinuses, as I descended, or worse, as I ascended and ended up facing a choice between rupturing an eardrum or drowning.

Basically, the homework gave me the Fear, frightened the crap out of me.

I dreamed about that scene near the end of the Piano as the massive instrument drags Holly Hunter down into the velvety blue depths. I closed my eyes and saw the faint glow of Moby Dick’s tale in the full page painting of the whale descending, with Ahab lashed to him I believe, into the violet blue bleeding into inky, oily black depths in the comic illustrated version by Bill Sienkiewicz. A beautiful painting that turns out is still for sale on his website is anyone runs short of ideas for what to get me as a thank you gift should I happen to save your life with one of my kidneys or something.

Since we’re mentioning favorite pieces of comic book art, Phil Hale’s cover for Flinch issue 1 is also a long time favorite, and basically anything by Ted McKeever, particularly his work in Plastic Forks. And back to Bill Sienkiewicz again for Stray Toasters. But I digress.

I arrive for the first class with my mesh back full of fins, mask, snorkel, towel, swim trunks, and the remains of a sack o’ snacks Lindz packed for the ride over, as she’d fetched me from work downtown as drove me over to the dive shop, baby Otis chortling from the back seat, so I could eat something healthy en route and have a plastic container of trail mix for later on. No better way to shore up your confidence and jut out your chin in the face of the unknown that with a selection of vegetables, maybe some hummus, perhaps a pepperoni stick or two, and a cup of trail mix. Like going to war, or to drown, essentially the same thing.

I’d arrived a bit early, so I took a seat and reviewed the reading materials, took the quizzes again, and waited for the teacher and other students. Before long the damp smelling room had filled, mostly people half my age, including the instructors, and away we went. First a round of introductions, some back story on the teaching staff, then the PADI video, followed by a spoken lesson, a brief quiz on the reading material, a review of the answers, and briefing for what the rest of the evening would entail. I passed the quiz and experienced more relief than I ever recall feeling back in high school after any pop quizzes then. Perhaps because I had a firm sense of an end goal, something tangible and desirable.

Next came loading the van with tanks, weight belts, big blue sacks full of gear for each of the students, and ourselves. I recalled Navy drills as I joined the fireman line and tried to help with as much of the heavier lifting as I could manage. Air tanks are some heavy tubes, let me tell you, especially when the person handing one to you doesn’t pay attention and drops it on your toe. While not flip-flops, Addidas Sambas are a far cry from steel toed workman kicks.

Cram into the van, or get clever and hop in with one of the instructors driving separately like I did. Arrive ahead of the van, pitch in some coins to help the driver to pay for parking, andwhen the van arrives unload it with the same big stupid grin i’d had spreading like a rash across my noggin since I’d passed the quiz. I was about to get into water and scuba. Granted, just the UBC pool, but gotta start somewhere.

To preface some, I’d had a very carefully supervised taste of Scuba the preceding November in Hawaii of the back of one of the Catamaran tours. A wonderful instructor named Skip had given two of us brave souls a crash course and then gotten us into the water for a shallow dive, down to about 25 feet. A PADI excursion, I went into their system at that point, though the dive didn’t really count towards anything except demonstrating to me that I could equalize, although initially I did have some issues with that, as I’m told lots of folks do.   

After the 20 minute or so dive, once we were back up on the catamaran, Skip had slapped me on the back and said I took to it more naturally than most tourists he dealt with, and that I seriously should become certified. And a few months later, I felt I was about to do Skip proud. Hopefully I’ll do him even more proud as I begin training to become an advanced diver later this year, and get more dives under my ample sized belt. Kudos to Skip though, a shitty instructor could have turned me off to this lifelong ambition, to dive, to hang out down where it’s hotter, under the water, beneath the sea.  Instead, he walked me through the practical aspects, and steps to get in and breathing, and to always keep breathing, always inhaling, or failing that and needing to surface, exhaling. Never hold your breath, he said, and the instructors helping us set up our gear that first night kept reiterating the exact same sentiments.

The key difference between my initial taste off the back of the catamaran and the class struggling to follow the leader by the side of the UBC pool was that on the catamaran all the set up and gear wrangling had been done by someone else. Now we were learning to do it for ourselves, step by step, piece by piece, inch by inch, kilo by kilo. From spitting in the mask, and when to do so, to how to test valves, what order to attach bladder jacket to tank, how to face the hoses, and what should drape to which side, how to tuck up the secondary regulator without binding it in such a way your dive buddy can’t easily tug it free and accessibly in an emergency.

We were walked through how to don the gear, different ways to step or back roll off the side into the pool, how to inflate and deflate the BCD, and all the things we’d get tested on once we were in the water.

One of the first into the water, age before beauty, I began to go through the tests Skip had done, flood and clear the mask, pull out and regain the regulator and clear it via exhale and via purge button.  I felt a firm tap on my shoulder and looked up to see one of the instructors glaring at me and pointing up to the surface. We were in 4 feet of water, so standing up took care of that. I again had Navy flashbacks as I learned that should I elect to go ahead of instruction on my own again, I could sit the night out and start all over again another day. I nearly turned the pool water blue for a split second, instead simply nodded furiously, yes sir, ma’am, will do, roger copy wilko, over, please don’t kick me out! 

From then on I followed along and went through all the tests almost effortlessly. I’d overcome my concerns about mask or regulator loss, and actually found keeping track of a buddy to be the more daunting task, especially when whomever the instructor paired me up with kept looking at me for answers as to what to do. Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I had a clue, except that more often than not I did, since I’d done the reading and relived my albeit touristy dive off the catamaran innumerable times. Just enough knowledge to be dangerous if I were to sort to let my confidence get the best of me.

Soon we were having a moment of group swim, a frolicking mayhem with underwater torpedo shaped footballs to chuck slowly at on another, an exercise designed to help everyone grow more accustomed to how they can move and orient themselves underwater with all that gear on. And where I found I wanted a different sort of flipper, and a wet suit, as i quickly discovered that even in the warm UBC pool, breathing air contained under pressure drops your core temperature severely, enough that I kept shivering through the last twenty minutes or so of the in water part of the lesson.

The only issue I had with the UBC pool as a training space is the confines of the segment of pool we were roped into. There are multiple dive schools in the pool, and public swimmers leaping off the diving boards, or water polo players practicing their pool bottom scuttles, and lane swimmers ploughing back and forth across the breadth of the pool, legs churning and faces making fishy expressions. On one hand, while you’re sedate waiting your turn to prove you know what to do if your mask has flooded or come away, or if you need your partner’s secondary after informing them with gestures that your own air supply has run out, watching all this activity from the bottom of the pool without worry of surfacing for deep breaths of air like the frogs in my big aquarium at home is extremely soothing. 

As a kid at Washington College Academy I used to work around campus to help pay for my tuition, and a lot of that work was in the sports center, basketball court upstairs, and big swimming pool downstairs. Mopping, grout scrubbing, cleaning dead birds out of the filter traps and rescuing the occasional sleepy bats that mistook the changing rooms for caves, dislodging them from their perches dangling upside down from foam ceiling tiles with a broom into paper bags and the bats gingerly outside; letting them go in the field adjacent the facility. Often after I finished up the pool would be opening for public swim, all the country kids from miles around would ride their tractors or bikes or pick up trucks or horses to the school to take a dip in the one pool for miles and miles around. 

Before the pool opened a college student and member of the university swim team during normal semesters would arrive to act as life guard, and she’d prepare for her shift testing the water chlorination, walk around the pool to make sure all was well, no inappropriate objects or hazards or missing lids to holes that could trap a child’s foot. Then she’d have quick stretch and a swim, thighs like a speed skater, dives like the Chinese Olympians from board or side, surfacing and slicing through the water like she’d been born in Atlantis, rather than Atlanta. Initially I had hung around to swim and stare at farm girls. After I met the life guard, I hung around to see how an adult could be so friendly, and wondrous, and sincere. I can’t say it was a crush, as I had no sexual feelings or fantasies towards her, which at the age of puberty and hormonal imbalance, is an exception rather than the rule. 

She indulged my massive curiosity and slack-jawed awe by teaching me to dive from the side of the pool properly, how to tread water indefinitely, and how to slow my cadence underwater to expend less energy, through staying calm, and subsequently becoming able to stay underwater for far longer. The biggest risk to a rescuer or lifeguard for someone drowning is the panic of the person in trouble. Succumb to that panic, and you’ll both drown, or get injured. That lesson is true for scuba as well, perhaps more so, as you might be dealing with someone panicking or nitrogen drunk at depth, where solutions become more complex, and risks far more severe, as in life threatening.

And as the farm kids piled in dirty feet and all, the life guard would take her post, and I would swim with the few kids I knew, then find an opportunity to sit at the bottom for a minute or so and just watch people frolic overhead, as though they were flying in some strange blue heavens.

In the UBC pool, sitting and watching works fine, except for being constantly run into by other students drifting or back-peddling without yet having a sense of their peripheral or the scale of their new added tank and flippers. And once you get the chance to move, you have to beware the perils of drifting out of your allotted area and into the area where people were diving from the high platform and could slam into you risking serious injury for all involved, or drifting the other way and getting kicked in the face by a someone flailing in the lap lanes. You start to feel like a big, clunky fish in a small pond, and to yearn for the freedom of the open ocean.  Maybe that’s intentional on the instuctors’ part.

And then we were out of the pool, first the heavy gear, then the people, and learning how to rinse and disassemble the gear before hauling it all out to the van. Quick wardrobe change and towel off in the massive UBC locker rooms and outside to load the van. We began the class as strangers, but crazy how a soak together brings folks together.

Short ride later we’re unloading the gear from the van, half the students a fireman line passing tanks and bags and weights, the other half further inside the shop sorting gear out of the bags and hanging it up to drain and dry. Shoes go here, suits there, fins over there, etc.

Once it’s all been put away I went to the counter to book the rest of my dates for classes, and more importantly, certification dives, because I needed to be certified before my family boarded a plane pointed at Hawaii. My aggressive scheduling meant I’d become out of synch with most of my evening’s classmates, basically I’d be slotting into open seats in various other classes, since most folks would do a class or two a week, rather than four. And since I’d decided I wanted to do the certification dives in a dry suit, I’d have an additional day of night class learning the ins and outs of how to use a dry suit, something else I’d like to become certified for, since there is so much beauty off the coast of BC’s mainland and islands, though most of it looks better during the winter when the plankton isn’t blooming, and involves water that equals hypothermia for most folks not dressed appropriately inside of ten minutes.

After sorting out my aggressive schedule, someone that worked for the shop asked if anyone wanted to catch a pint. Having had snacks and feeling hungry, and relieved and excited and practically glowing, a quick call to check in and let Lindz know I hadn’t drowned and hell yes that was freaking awesome and I’d cab home soon after a pint and a bite.

Down on the corner from the dive shop is a cozy pub with decent burgers and local brews on tap, great stuff for sitting with some fellow students and two instructors that had helped me get started with everything. And I was glad for the chance to explain myself to the instructor that had busted me for getting ahead of the class, and learned that while I’d been doing the right things, I’d not appreciated that other students were following my lead, and that I needed to keep with the rhythm of the lessons both to assure the instructor I had a handle on what was being taught as well as not distract or mislead anyone else. Like so many aspects of life, it’s not all about me. It is also about my potential affect on others. Good point.

The two main instructors for the evening were a couple as turned out; and were planning to relocate to the Bahamas for a season before I would do my certification dives. What I learned from them while they were there, and from everyone else that I’ve been taught by through the Dive Locker, has left me informed, impressed, and eager to continue my training and further certification process.

I’ll write about the certification dives soon. For now, let’s close by acknowledging that the pint to personally celebrate making it through my first dive class, something I’d been psyching myself out so severely over, only to find that Skip might’ve been right, I am pretty easily at home with all of it, if not a natural, then naturally disposed to the science and spectrum of it all. 

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