Spence Green

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I work at Lilt. In addition to computers and languages, my interests include travel, running, and scuba diving. more...

Rebreather Trip (Aug 20-22 in Morehead City, NC)

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Long considered the province of the well-to-do and dare-to-do, the closed circuit rebreather (CCR) has become a more common sight both at sea and in cave country. Ten years ago, the CCR was the Aston Martin of scuba diving: expensive, exotic, and ostensibly dangerous. Its users were pioneers in a sport that has had no dearth of risk-takers. But with at least 11 commercial models available today, the CCR is more like a Corvette or a 7-series BMW. No longer considered a “death machine”, it is drawing interest from wider circles of recreational and technical open circuit divers. Nonetheless, CCR divers do not normally congregate in large groups, so most dive operators have not yet oriented their operations toward this audience.

It was therefore significant when 16 CCR divers assembled on August 20th at Olympus Dive Center in Morehead City, NC for three days of silent diving. Olympus had never hosted such an event. As with any group of soi disant pioneers, there was much talk of being ‘on the cusp’ and ‘getting in at the right time.’ One diver likened the CCR scene to gearheads, who have little interest in the automobile as a transportation alternative: they seek to maximize performance for its own sake. Likewise, the CCR is not for those who wish to simply go underwater. It is for the enthusiast who craves long, deep, quiet dives. These parameters often preclude fellowship with ‘the OC crowd’, hence the incorrect perception of ‘rebreather arrogance.’ This label is often incorrect. CCR divers pay enormous sums-most of them hit the water with more than $10,000 in equipment-to liberate themselves from the sucking and gurgling noises of open circuit scuba. The ‘aluminum-80 diver’ renders this investment worthless, hence the annoyance at his presence.

Although these CCR divers were previously unacquainted-they met through Rebreather World, an internet forum-they quickly discovered a common medium: the language of survival. Knowledgeable persons in this field fall into two categories: those for whom it is a necessity, and those for whom flirtation with it is a source of pleasure. Society rewards casualties of the first group with medals and statues, while the latter contingent may win only posthumous best-sellers or, in the more common case, a jocular analysis of their untimely demise. For this reason, “technical diving” remains an ironic bit of nomenclature: it is still recreation; people do it for fun. There is less glory in survival by necessity than there is in survival as sport.

This common ground quickly united a melange of people. There was a man in his sixties and another freshly-minted from college. There was an underwater photographer, an oil-field superintendent, a cardiologist, a combat veteran with three Purple Hearts, a music director, and a nurse. Some were married, others were not. They brought Optimas, Megalodons, rEvos, and Inspirations, although some of these machines had  been modified beyond recognition. Despite these differences in education, wealth, and occupation, all had gotten the bug, the ‘rapture of the deep’, as Cousteau called it. They had come from many places, with much baggage, to dive.

On most days, Olympus runs two boats: the Olympus, whose captain, George Purifoy, found the U-352 in 1974, and the Midnight Express, piloted by his son Robert. The CCR group had chartered the Midnight for three days. Robert and his two mates were apprehensive, and for good reason. Several weeks before, they had pulled up to the wreck of the Spar for a routine dive. Two men were in the water, one of them unconscious. The mates pulled the man aboard and began CPR, but it soon became clear that he would die. He was wearing a CCR.

As a result, the trip organizer, planned two 60-minute ‘shake-out’ dives on the first day. Marathoners do not plan two-mile workouts, and neither do rebreather divers dream about hour dives. The crew did not know the divers, however, and the divers did not know each other. No one objected because everyone felt the presence of a new thing, something previously undone.

By 9AM on the 20th, the Midnight Express was tethered to the Caribe Sea, a 250-foot tanker sunk by U-158 in 1942. The hull had split open like a walnut, leaving the steam boilers and other running gear exposed. The wreck’s main attraction, however, was its resident sand tiger sharks, several of whom could be seen from the boat. The divers took only minutes to ready themselves, and as Captain Purifoy finished his dive brief, they sat conducting their pre-breathe rituals, deeply ventilating themselves and their equipment like nervous adolescents in a Friday-night locker room. Before he ‘opened the pool’, Captain Purifoy pointed to a white stick on the horizon. “That’s the lighthouse,” he mused, “Can you believe that the U-boats were that close?”

Poor visibility on the first dive did not prevent close inspection of both the wreck and the sharks swarming around the dive group. Bubbles, which are like insect spray for marine life, normally cause the creatures to keep their distance. In this case, the divers came as silent visitors, capable at times of touching the inquisitive beasts. But the most stunning sight came later as the divers slowly turned toward the anchor line. In the half-lit gloom, 16 shapes began orbiting the line while making a slow ascent. There was no sound, only occasional gestures quickly acknowledged with nods and glances. It was like opening your eyes during prayer at church only to find that others are doing the same, all without conversation. The sharks ascended, too, and soon everyone-man and animal-was flapping horizontally in the lazy current.

In addition to perceiving that technical diving requires a mantle of arrogance, some find the equipment requirements prohibitive. Who wants to enter the water laden for battle like one of Hannibal’s elephants? CCRs make a surprisingly small footprint, though, and each diver needed only his seat, a locker for his fins and mask, and a space for his bail-out bottle. Several people from the group dived on the same boat after the trip and observed with sardonic smiles as the open circuit divers hauled tanks, dive bags, buoyancy compensators, and other hardware onto the boat. One over-burdened enthusiast nearly fell off the gangway with his 100-bound steel twin-set. The open circuit contingent, which had a size comparable to the CCR group, reduced open deck space by nearly a quarter.

In many ways, the real work in CCR diving begins after the boat returns to port. Depending on the unit, the cleaning, tear-down, and setup required to prepare a rebreather may take over an hour. The Olympus facility did not strain to accommodate the group as they washed and lubricated loops, discarded absorbent, and filled oxygen tanks. A locking cage was made available to the divers for storage, alleviating the need to carry the hefty units back to dorms and hotel rooms. Most of the group stayed at the Olympus bunk house, allowing the more cautious divers to make frequent trips to the dive shop to ‘check on things’, e.g. tweak their rigs.

That evening, the group had the first of several dinner meetings. The dive had been successful, but most of the discussions concerned other places and other people. To the rebreather arriviste, this is the magic of CCR diving. The torch-bearers in diving are spoken of not as abstractions, but as neighbors. Some trained with Jill Heinerth, others with Tom Mount. The divers have warm relationships with executives at the equipment manufacturers. Although there are over 2 million divers in the United States, the world seems small because only a few thousand individuals-those who own rebreathers-matter.

Next day the boat disembarked under a threatening sky. A low-pressure system in Florida had collided with high-pressure weather from the north. The Atlantic had turned lumpy, with six-foot seas and 20-knot winds. Captain Purifoy elected to stay inshore, so after a short yet pitching ride, the boat arrived at the Indra, an old transport vessel sunk as an artificial reef. Only 60-feet deep, it would be a pedestrian dive. Nevertheless, the crew loosened the shackles slightly and allowed a 90-minute run time. It was time to go “wrecking.” The more impetuous divers were inside the wreck’s bowels only minutes after descent. Others chose to enjoy the abundant marine life-and 50-foot visibility-outside of the rusting hulk. The OC crowd was present, but no one seemed to mind: there was so much to do and so much time to do it.

On the way up, it was clear that conditions had changed. From the calm water at depth, the divers looked up the anchor line, which was now connected to a cork being tossed by the sea. Aft of the open deck, the dive ladder would disappear from view, then arc downward with great force, sheathed in foam and bubbles. Having donned his own dive gear and taken a first-hand look, Captain Purifoy said that although the day’s visibility lacked precedent, the sea dictated a short surface interval and a 30-minute second dive. Then, the boat would beat a hasty retreat. Some divers made the second dive, while others climbed above the crew cabin and watched the waves crest.

Tropical storm Faye ended the dive trip. By Friday, fishermen were reporting ten-foot seas in the vicinity of the Outer Banks. Despite this premature conclusion, the trip was an unquestionable success. The group had experienced the benefits of communal learning, a feature notably absent from US diving. Whereas divers in Europe and Asia often assemble in clubs, diving in the United States remains a transactional affair: you book a dive, get wet, and go home. These CCR divers, however, went home with knowledge of new techniques, alternative equipment configurations, and future diving destinations. Six of the eleven different commercial CCRs were represented, and some divers were already talking about switching units.

Moreover, the Olympus staff was noticeably more comfortable after the trip. Rebreather divers need friendly operators, and this group represented the CCR community well by adhering to guidelines that were admittedly conservative. A 4-day trip has already been booked for next year. That much time, at least, will be needed to assimilate all that was learned.


Written by Spence

September 8th, 2008 at 10:05 am

Posted in Travel

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