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Main | Underwater again, and thoughts about the PADI approach »

July 20, 2006

The first breath underwater

What a day. I am not a scuba virgin anymore. Today, as part of my third session in the PADI Open Water scuba certification course, I breathed underwater for the very first time. This day will never happen again in my life and I feel like I am going to explode. I want to share, need to share, need to talk. So I am writing this blog entry.

I left for the Hudson Dive Family Center in Rancho Cordova, Calif., with time to spare because I always like to prep a few minutes beforehand. So I was the first one there and studied my Dive Tables. Our little group of four finally assembled at 6pm or so, and the master diver (or dive master?) told us the instructor was going to be a bit late as he was caught in traffic. So she took us to the far end of the pool area and began showing us how to assemble the diving gear.

We got to pick a tank, then a BC, then a regulator and weight belt. I couldn't find a BC that fit quite right, and so ended up with one that was too small for me. That was when I realized that not having your own gear even for training and certification is a bad idea. Gear that does not fit fights you, and that you don't want while you learn.

So there we were, like kids, all eyes on the dive master who showed us basics. How to position the tank. How to first put the backside of the backside of the BC into the water so the strap that holds the tank loosens now rather than when you get into the water. Guide the BC's sling in the back over the standing tank, position the BC so the tank valve is 2-1/2 inches below the top of the BC, pull the strap tight, guide it through the loop on the buckle, then lock the buckle. An experienced diver never gives it a thought, but we practiced three times to get it right.

Then how to put the regulator on, don't over-tighten, and yes, it can still rotate a bit. Make sure the second stage and the alternate air are on the right, the instrument and low pressure hose on the left. And the pressure hose goes into the BC with that snap-on valve. Grab the pressure gauge instrument, point the face away from you, and open the air valve on the tank to see if anything leaks, and also what the pressure is. One of the regulators seemed to lose air, but it turned out that the company who makes it is big in the Midwest where diving in cold quarries is popular, and so they added a tiny little valve that constantly blows a bit of air to prevent freezing.

Now the instructor shows up and sort of takes over. The Aquatic Center was very hot and humid and I was sweating up a storm while everyone else seemed comfy (maybe growing up in often icy Switzerland never quite lets me get used to the Sacramento heat), and in time all the various parts begin making sense. Even all the snaps and clasps and velcro on the BC. We didn't get to wear wetsuits, so my weight belt had all of 8 or 10 pounds in it.

Then it's time to pick all the gear and head on over the shallow end. Man, what a bunch of gear, and the stuff is heavy! Instructor Chuck, a former Navy Seal with 11,000 dives under his belt, now explains how to get in, how to place the BC, and shows two different ways to put it on. Easy for him to say. He just flips right into it. My undersized one is more recalcitrant, but eventually it's on. I mentally note that there's another good reason for a wetsuit: all that gear doesn't scratch up your skin if you wear a suit.

So now we're in the water and go through some procedures. Sweep your arm back to get the regulator and the backup. If you still can't grab it, reach to the first stage on top of the tank, then follow the hoses. And this is how you operate the BC inflator. And so on. Oh, and wear the mask under your chin, not on top of your head, else you'll eventually lose it.

Then without further ado the instructor makes us go under and breathe underwater for the first time. I had expected him to wax poetic a bit on what a life-altering experience that was going to be, forever changing everything, as the PADI book so nicely does, but perhaps ex-Navy Seals aren't poetic. Or maybe it's just Chuck who isn't. He is very poetic about lobsters, though.

So underwater we go and I ... breathe. A moment's hesitation, but no problem at all. Hey, cool. Big air bubbles bust out in front of my face and rapidly rise to the surface. Breathing is loud. This is the first time I realize that whatever I expected to be an issue wasn't, and whatever I expected not to be was.

I thought the BC would make positioning in the water easy, but I was forever compensating. I had fully expected a pinched nerve in my upper thigh to become a problem as it's been giving me sharp pains for the past few days. It never did. I thought my toes would cramp from the still unusual shape and pressure of the diving booties and big Scubapro Twinjet fins. The ties did not cramp, but my legs later sure did. Chuck now assigns buddies. Mom and son get together, and I am buddies with Amanda who has a timeshare in Bonair.

Chuck now briefly reminds us how to clear a flooded mask and we are to do that two or three times, or until we are comfortable. So we deflate the BC, sink to the bottom (of the shallow end) and practice. I can do it, but it isn't my favorite part as I do not like water in my eyes, especially when it is chlorinated. But it works much better than I thought it might. Then Chuck instructs us on how to take the second stage out of one's mouth and put it back in. No problem there. Then he very quickly recaps the handsignals, and now it's time to go deep. Or as deep as the pool goes, which is about 15 feet.

Off goes instructor Chuck, and us buddy pairs are to follow, with the master diver at the rear. I am having a hard time descending and try to compensate. Chuck comes over and shows me. I'd had two problems: the ill-fitting BC's inflator and deflator buttons were almost out of my reach, and apparently I was pushing both, or the wrong one. Finally I reach neutral buoyancy, we reach the end of the shallow end and begin the descent.

Here I was fully prepared to encounter significant problems with equalizing. But none happened. My right ear did a little hiss when it equalized, the left one a bit later. There never was any pain. On the other hand, I struggle more with the big Twinjets than I expected. The booties feel great, but I have definitely not mastered how to use the powerful fins. I remember an instructor's graceful movements I've seen on a training video and try to move my legs like that. I probably failed miserably, or maybe not.

In the meantime, I am getting ahead of my buddy (budette?). I look back repeatedly, but find it not so easy to stay close to her. Other times we bump into each other. I find myself very reluctant to touch her, grab her, or guide her. It just doesn't seem proper. But we valiantly practice our signs. "Are you okay?" "I am okay." Then we sit at the bottom and Chuck makes us flood and clear the mask again. Then we do a controlled ascent. My buddy and I do a very slow one. It's a nice feeling to slowly float up. Then down again, and now we're swimming after Chuck, diving around the pool.

Here I notice a few other things I did not expect. Breathing is not hard, and I think I do it right: slow, deep breaths. But at times I feel I am cramping my mouth on the mouthpiece. One time, while clearing the mask I inhale a bit of water and choke for a second, then, remembering what I'd read, cough into the second stage mouthpiece. No problem, but I become keenly aware that should I panic, which I was never close to, that would not be a good thing. Equalizing continues to be a non-issue.

By far the biggest thing I notice is that I feel very disoriented and really never quite know where I am. Looking for my buddy is harder than I thought it'd be, and there is much more tunnel vision than I expected. I never felt I truly knew where I was. So then my buddy floats up and has trouble adjusting her buoyancy. Chuck goes after her and she comes back down. I note again how much easier the breathing is than I expected, but how much harder orientation and movement control. Eventually we end up back in the shallow end. I realize that I had not checked my instruments once. And that I am probably not going to like a console floating around and go for wristmounted gauges instead.

So now we stand there again. We all check our air. We'd started at 3,000 psi. Three of us were down to 1,800 psi, one at 2,000, and the master diver at 2,500. I don't know how long we'd been down, but the air sure seemed to go a lot faster than I expected. Chuck now goes through the possibility of a second stage stuck open. We practice breathing that way by pressing the valve. My buddy first has the mouthpiece in her mouth all the way and that, of course, doesn't work. I show her, and we both find it easy. It goes through a lot of air in a hurry.

Chuck takes us down again and, one by one, turns off our air, making us watch the SPG as it drops to zero, then make the "out of air!" signal so he opens the air valve. No problem.

Up we go and now we have to show that we can snorkel. I have no problem with that at all. I like it. At the deep end of the pool, The instructor makes us deflate the BC completely and stay afloat using just the fins. Ouch. With the weightbelt and no wetsuit I am definitely VERY negatively buoyant and powering the big fins immediately cramps my calf muscles. I try as much as I can, but then inflate the BC so I won't go under, yet still find myself grabbing for the side of the pool. "Not in my ocean!" Chuck growls at me. Hehe.

So that's that. Chuck shows us several cool methods on how to get out of the BC and heave it up on the side of the pool. Then we carry everything over to rinse things out. Rather casually, actually. I was prepared for a much more thorough cleaning, as described in the book. Then we carry the tanks back, dust valve off. The master diver says that's so they know they need to be filled. No classroom for us tonite. It was all pool.

I catch Chuck for a few minutes and ask him what he considers the difference between the various agencies. He takes his time to explain who all they are, how large they are, and what their priorities are. He says he's certified at many levels both by PADI and NAUI. He describes PADI as recreation and pleasure oriented and NAUI as much more technical and demanding.

So then I get dressed, and leave. I see Amanda on the way out and she goes, "Bye buddy." I sink into the seat of the PT Cruiser, start the motor and turn the A/C to max. It is still 103 degrees outside. I feel thrilled, excited, exhausted. I know that this is a thing that I only experience once in my life. I want to shout, scream, and feel a huge need to discuss this all with someone close to me.

An hour later my emotions are still at 130% capacity. I am not a virgin anymore, and somehow blasting words onto a screen doesn't fill the void and desire to talk and discuss. The good thing, of course, is that having no one to talk to forces me to write it all down. Hey, I am a writer. And so now anyone who's never done it knows how it feels the first time, or at least how it felt to me.

Whew.... I am not a scuba virgin anymore. -- Conrad

Posted by carol at July 20, 2006 11:55 PM