Friday, February 13, 2015

Nurse the Hate: Shipwreck Dive




I had decided last year to dive a shipwreck.  The idea of a shipwreck is really appealing to me.  A murky doom laden ship deep in the water is something almost no one sees with their own eyes.  Sure, everyone has seen it on Discovery Channel, but it’s different in person.  It is very difficult to capture on video the scope of a proper shipwreck.  They are massive.  The ocean acts like a ticking time capsule slowly eroding the best laid plans of man. There is something chilling about a shipwreck.  It speaks to the impermanence of life.

The Superior Producer is a 165 foot freighter that had the fate of being poorly loaded and then subsequently became swamped in rough waters off the Dutch island of Curacao when the cargo shifted in rough seas.  It went down in 1977, and sits in 120 feet of water directly underneath regular cruise ship and military boat traffic.  As both cruise ships and naval vessels tend to frown on unidentified scuba divers swimming around, the wreck is only available once a week.  Well, in theory one could access it on other days, but one would also have to be fairly comfortable with a pissed off trigger happy teenage soldier with an M-16 or an even more pissed off naval diver that would undoubtedly do something very terrible to you in the relative privacy of the deep ocean.

I had made arrangements via the wonders of the internet to dive with a Dutch expat named Bas.  I glanced at his website and everyone seemed to like Bas.  In retrospect, I don’t think I ever looked at any of his qualifications, but as I didn’t notice any Yelp headlines along the lines of “Dude almost killed us” or “Clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing” I proceeded with my naïve enthusiasm intact.  The idea of diving based on a website is crazy when even a moment’s thought is devoted to it.  Based on a few Yelp entries I would be descending into a fairly dangerous environment with a complete stranger, using all of his gear, having no real idea of his experience or qualifications.   

Bas picked me up at my hotel.  A heavy smoking guy with a colorful past he only hinted at that included stops in Australia and Thailand, he fit the stereotype of “dive guide”.  Most dive guides seem like the guys you went to high school with that partied too much, wandered around the planet on the warm weather hippie trail, where they picked up exotic tattoos and the skill of diving.  Now in their 30s with diving as their one marketable skill, they pick up fuckwads like me at our hotels, toss us into the water, and hope we don’t do anything stupid.   

I differ from most scuba enthusiasts in a couple of key ways.  First, I am much less experienced than anyone else I am diving with on any excursion.  Living in Northeast Ohio in the snow and ice doesn’t help, but I have no idea how these other people on these dive boats find the time to make 100+ dives.  I manage to get to a tourist destination with warm clear water 1-2 times a year.  Everyone else always casually mentions how awesome the Red Sea is compared to Pago Pago.  I have no idea what I am doing wrong in that I am not jetting out to Pago Pago on a whim.  Everyone else in the boat has done everything already and spends most of their time being unimpressed.  When I get out of the water and back to the boat, I will exclaim “Did you see the fucking size of that grouper!” while everyone looks at me blankly like I am the biggest rube on the planet.  I am always jacked up and excited about all the crazy shit I see in the ocean.  I haven’t learned to play it cool yet.    

The other key difference is how gung ho everyone is about their gear.  Like guys that are too into golf, men in a dive boat can be counted on to get competitive about their unimportant gear.  “Yeah, I used to use a Skyrex 220, but I switched over to a Pacifica 14 last year.  It’s so much lighter.”  I never know what the fuck these guys are talking about.  I just show up, take whatever gear the shop gives me, hope it works OK, and flop out of the boat when someone tells me to do so. I am shockingly frank in what I don’t know.  This caught Bas by surprise.

“Well, it’s ripping today.”  What do you mean Bas?  “The current the Superior Producer is famous for, or infamous for I should say, is really ripping.  Conditions are about as bad as they can be.  It’s going to be crazy out there.”  Oh yeah?  “How many wreck dives have you done?”  None.  Dude, I’ve only been on about 10-12 dives ever.  (Silence… He lights a cigarette)  “OK…  Well fuck it then.  We’ll figure it out.”  

The wreck is only about 100 yards offshore, so we drove over to the shore dive site in his pickup truck where I initialed a bunch of forms saying I wouldn’t sue him if I killed myself out there.  I’m not sure how I would sue him if I was dead, but it is a litigious world we live in.  We came to a stop at the end of a scrubby little road with plastic bags and beer cans littering the general area.  It was about as unscenic as you can imagine.  This spot was the Toledo of the Dutch West Indies.  I tried to remember how to get into the various gear while Bas went over the dive plan.  “Alright… We are going to walk out on those rocks over there.  Don’t fall off those rocks because you’ll break your fucking leg.  Then we are going to swim way out left before we descend.  That current is so strong we will have to drift over to the wreck while we make depth.  We aren’t going to stop and look at anything on the way out there unless we see a goddamn mermaid, and even then don’t spend too much time because if you do…whew!...we’ll miss the wreck and drift right by.”  All right.  Hey, how does this attach?

I will freely admit that I did not foster much confidence in Bas as I really appeared to have never seen any dive gear or be aware how any of it actually worked.  On top of that, I had never been to the depth we were heading to (110 feet) or dealt with the various hazards a wreck can present.  For example, with a strong current a diver can easily get tangled in debris, have his respirator ripped out, or freak out when entering an enclosed space like the bridge of a sunken boat.  The downside of being at 100+ feet is that the diver cannot just shoot to the surface or because of not de-pressurizing the diver will be afflicted with “the bends”.  That means nitrogen bubbles settle into the joints and bloodstream and cool things like paralysis, bleeding out of places one shouldn’t bleed out of, or death can result.  Safety stops have to be made as the diver works toward the surface to allow the body to return to normal.  That’s tough to make the brain do that when air supply gets cut off, a shark swims by, or general panic sets in.  That’s why Bas probably had some concern when I said things like “Dude, don’t worry.  I’ll be fine when we get in the water.  Now which one of these buttons gets the air out of the vest?”  I made no attempt to conceal how much I didn’t know.  We were both locked in.

As we went over final instructions “OK, we are going to swim into the bridge.  You will notice a bunch of windows.  If you freak out, you would have to be a retard not to be able to get out, OK?”  Yeah man.  “OK, then we’re going to swim straight down through a hatch into the second floor.  Once again, windows are all around, so if you freak out???”  …Um, I’m a retard because there are plenty of ways to get out?  “You got it!  OK, then we will pop out of there and swim down into the cargo hold.  It has a bunch of steel beams, so when we swim out of it, look up.  You don’t want to hit your fucking head.”  I nodded as this seemed sensible advice.  It was then that four divers emerged right in front of us near the shoreline.

The dive guide of that group was a red headed Dutch guy that Bas obviously knew.  This guy looked like he had stepped out of a 16th century Flemish painting and into a wetsuit.  Extremely skinny with a red beard mirroring his sharp features, he awkwardly ascended from the rocky shore.  They greeted each other in some creole/Dutch language combo.  “How is it out there?  Ripping?”  No.  It’s all good.  “The current isn’t bad?  It was horrible yesterday.”  The redhead just shook his head “no”.  Bas turned to me.  “OK, fuck it then.  We’ll swim straight out to it.”      

It should be noted that when you see someone on TV walking into the sea in dive gear they are making it look easy.  In my wet suit and tank, I moved like the first amphibian making its initial tenuous steps onto land.  It must have looked like 50,000 B.C. and I was the very first frog.  It is not easy to walk down seaweed covered rocks with waves breaking on you while wearing a shitload of bulky gear.  I somehow managed not to break my fucking leg on the rocks and got into the ocean.  Then I had to bob around in my vest while I awkwardly tried to put my unfamiliar flippers on.  “Hey man… How the fuck do these attach?  Wait…  Wait… I got it.”  Once again, I was not inspiring much confidence.

Bas made the OK signal and we let the air out of our vests and started to descend.  I hadn’t made a dive in a year, and immediately remembered why I do this.  Everywhere is color, interlocking details of coral, crazy fish, and the immensity of the sea.  It’s the best.  I began to get comfortable with everything as we swam out to the direction of the wreck.  I had no sense of how quickly we went to depth as I just kept pressurizing and got reacquainted with the feel of breathing underwater.  It was just sand, coral, and more sand.  Then, out of nowhere, there was the wreck.  Look at that fucking thing.

We got on top of it fairly quickly and entered the ship.  Sharp coral encases almost every surface. The gray green of the metal is contrasted by the occasional bright fish shooting by.  Clank.  Damn it.  I hit my tank against the ceiling of the bridge.  Something one never considers when entering a room on a ship is what it would be like to enter that room while weightless.  A room that must have seemed very large when the ship was afloat seems much smaller when 100 feet down in water with an oxygen tank strapped to your body.  We swam to a small hatch in the floor and swam directly downward vertical through to the lower level.  There were two things that went through my head.  “I have to swim straight down through that little hole?  That seems sort of fucked up.” and “This is badass!”.

We worked our way through the ship.  Giant tarpon held steady above the cargo hold.  Big butterfly fish looked annoyed.  We made a turn and swam down what would have been the main walkway on the deck.  We dropped down past the enormous rudder and propeller.  A large barracuda finned over to give me a look.  I looked at the depth gauge.  106 feet.  Fuck, that’s really deep.  I looked up.  The surface was just a slightly brighter blue, but no real detail to get a feel for just how far away it actually was from this place.  We began to swim back to shore underwater, allowing the gradual incline of the bottom to serve as our decompression phase.  We popped our heads out of the water a mere 15 feet from our entry point.  Way to go Bas.  

I was quite pleased with myself to have knocked out goal #1 of 2015 and not kill myself in the process.  I would like to go on record that had I somehow drowned myself on the wreck; I still would have accomplished the goal just by entering the bridge of the Superior Producer.  My feeling of adequacy disappeared rather quickly as I even more awkwardly emerged back out of the ocean on the rocks where I could break my fucking leg.  We slogged back to the truck with our gear.  A couple walked by us, giving us the eye.  I wanted to say, “Hey!  I just dove a shipwreck!  How awesome is that?” but I didn’t.  I played it cool instead.  Somebody book me a trip to Pago Pago…  I’ve got this diving thing down.

2 Comments:

At February 13, 2015 at 11:57:00 AM EST , Blogger Frank said...

Very badass. Congratulations!

 
At February 13, 2015 at 11:57:00 AM EST , Blogger Frank said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 

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