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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.

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. I was the first one there and sat down to study my Dive Tables. Our little group of four finally assembled at 6pm or so, and the dive master, or was it master diver, told us the instructor was going to be a bit late as he was caught in traffic. 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 buoyancy compensator vest (commonly called BC), then a regulator and finally a 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 you don't want that while you learn and practice.

So there we were, like kids, all eyes on the dive master who showed us the basics. How to position the tank. How to first put 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 to secure the tank to the BC. An experienced diver never gives it a thought, but we practiced it 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 supply 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 quickly 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 heat here in Sacramento, California), 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 up all the gear and head on over the shallow end. Man, the stuff is heavy! Instructor Chuck, a former Navy Seal with supposedly 11,000 dives under his belt, now explains how to don the gear, how to place the BC just right, and he shows two different ways to put it on in the water. Easy for him to say. He just flips and glides right into it. My undersized BC is more recalcitrant, but eventually it goes 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 air supply. 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 my 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, as she repeatedly pointed out, has a timeshare in Bonaire.

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 hand signals, 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 dive master bringing up the rear. I am having a hard time descending and try to use the air control mechanism on my BC to compensate. Chuck comes over to help 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 more or less neutral buoyancy, we reach the end of the shallow end of the pool and begin the descent.

Here I was fully prepared to encounter significant problems with equalizing my ears. But none happened. I pinch my nose closed through my mask and blow against it to adjust pressure in my ears. 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 Twinjet fins than I expected. The dive boots 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 reluctant to touch her, grab her, or guide her in our efforts to move underwater. 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 quite 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 that’s freely floating around. I plan on using wrist-mounted gauges instead.

So now we stand in the shallow end and 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 dive master 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 explains the remote possibility of a second stage becoming stuck open, with all the air escaping rapidly through the mouthpiece. If that happens underwater, the trick will be to gulp some air until a solution can be found. We practice breathing from an unbroken stream of air by depressing the purge valve. My buddy first has the mouthpiece in her mouth all the way, closing off the flow of air. I show her how to practice and we both find it easy. It goes through a lot of air in a hurry.

Now it’s time to experience what it feels like running out of air, and how to signal for help. Chuck takes us down underwater and, one by one, turns off our air, making us watch the pressure gauge as it drops to zero. We give the "out of air!" signal and he reopens the air valve. No problem.

Up we go and now we have to show that we can snorkel. I like snorkeling and have no problem doing it with the dive gear on. At the deep end of the pool, the instructor makes us deflate our BCs completely and stay afloat using just the fins. What a difference! With the weightbelt and no wetsuit I am definitely VERY negatively buoyant, and powering the big fins almost immediately cramps my calf muscles. I try staying afloat as best 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.

So that's that. Chuck shows us several elegant methods on how to get out of the BC and heave it up the side of the pool. Then we carry everything over to the water tank so we can rinse things out. Rather casually, actually. I was prepared for a much more thorough cleaning, as described in the course book. Then we carry the tanks back, with the plastic dust valve off. The dive master says that's so they know they are empty and need to be filled. No classroom for us tonight. It was all pool.
I talk with instructor Chuck for a few minutes and ask him what he considers the difference between the various scuba certification agencies. He explains who all they are, how large they are, and what their priorities are. He says he's certified at many levels both with PADI and with NAUI. He describes PADI as recreation and pleasure oriented and NAUI as more technical and demanding.

So then I get dressed, and leave. I see Amanda on the way out and she goes, "Bye buddy." Though it’s night, it is still 103 degrees outside. I sink into the seat of my PT Cruiser, start the motor and turn the A/C to max. I feel thrilled, excited, exhausted. I know that I had just done something that I will only experience once in my life. My first breath underwater. 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 in overdrive. I am not a scuba virgin anymore, and somehow writing words onto a computer 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.

Posted by conradb212 at July 20, 2006 10:06 PM