Teaching an old(ish) dog, new tricks

A really good friend of mine who runs a charter boat out of Florida has a wonderful phrase to describe divers  who are really set in their ways and somewhat complacent when it comes to dive prep. You may have seen them on a dive boat near you. They always dive exactly the same gear package, right down to the back-up lights on their shoulder harness, double cylinders, a stage bottle, canister light and a full complement of reels, spools, and sundry accessories; including a scooter.  Now he is first to admit there’s nothing inherently wrong-headed about that, except they dress the same regardless of whether the day’s target is a 150 foot dive on a brand-new wreck or a 25 foot bimble in a local quarry.

He calls them One-Dimensional Divers.

“I think they are so blinkered and taken with the self-importance of being a technical diver,” he says. “They forget to stop, smell the roses, and kick back!” He says that the real sign of a one-dimensional diver is that they can turn the simplest of dives into a major undertaking. “And where is the fun it that?” he asks.

And after 18 years of lugging a full North Florida Cave Diver’s rig around the country, and using it on even the most straight-forward dives, I felt I’d fallen into the one-dimensional mode myself. I told my buddy things had to change; and he offered the perfect solution. “Buy a closed-circuit rebreather.”

Working for a training agency gives an old guy like me a slightly off-kilter prospective on dive gear, dive travel, and the whole business of diver education. For example I figured I knew quite a bit about CCRs (closed-circuit rebreathers) because I have an instructor rating on a SCR (Semi-Closed Rebreather), have proofed rebreather manuals, and have logged lots of hours on several different CCR units doing everything from try-dives to bona-fide courses.

How wrong I was.

The seed change was actually getting a unit of my very own to look after. Not a loner, not one that a manufacturer suggested I take a look at, but one that I had to take apart, clean, keep spiders from visiting, change its do-dads from time to time, reassemble, and learn to dive from ground zero with the express goal of getting comfortable enough on it to drag it halfway around the world to dive the wrecks of Truk Lagoon.

To be blunt, it was one of the best things that has happened to me and my diving in a long while; and it certainly has also been among the most instructive.

The reasons for this are varied and many faceted but let’s keep things brief and simple and start with the whole one-dimensional / complacency thing. No matter how hard one works at keeping focused and realistic about skills, planning, only taking into the water what’s needed on the dive, and doing things to the letter, human nature has a wonderful way of turning short-cuts into “best practice.”

On open-circuit dives, it is very easy for an experienced diver to become one-dimensional. So much so that at times, dive plans for commonly done personal dives – ones that fall into the “I have done this a thousand times before” category – became marginally adequate at best. As little as it turns out I know about CCRs, I did know enough to understand that the one-dimensional / complacent approach will quickly get you in a very deep pile of trouble.

Occasionally doing something totally outside the norm, helps adjust one’s attitude. Training on and then diving a piece of kit that resembles nothing you are used to diving, definitely turns a few knobs.

As you know, a rebreather recycles exhaled gas, scrubs out the carbon dioxide, squirts a little oxygen back into the mix to compensate for the stuff used by the diver’s metabolism, and is designed to keep the process going for hours at a time. It also mixes gas so the diver breathes “best mix” regardless of depth and it does all this in a compact package (read this to mean, less weight than a set of doubles!).

The other side of the coin turns up the nasty little vagaries attached to rebreather diving, and understanding and working around these is the central theme of a rebreather class.

In short, a CCR can deliver too much oxygen one minute and not enough the next; both harbingers of a bad day at the office for any diver. The little chemistry set that extracts carbon dioxide from the breathing gas can suddenly stop working for all sorts of reasons; most attributable to user error, and again bad news all round. The unit can leak a little making breathing an awful chore, or it can leak a lot, flood and cease working at all; both of which are good reasons to bailout and go home with one’s tail between one’s legs.

All this of course comes as a real eye-opener to the experienced open-circuit diver who has been diving the same kit configuration since Reagan was in the White House.

My other eye was opened by our CCR instructor, a good friend who for that reason alone cut me and my buddies zero slack during the whole week we worked with him to earn our certs on the Pelagian manual CCR we had opted to buy.  He pushed us relentlessly and continuously picked up on any fuzzy logic we fell into using. He watched us with the eyes of a caffeine-crazed hawk as we prepared our units for our underwater escapades; and once in the water we were on a very short leash and ANY moment of distraction or deviation from our plan resulted in yet another simulated failure and drilled contingency action. In short, he treated us like the rank novices we were and took no account of the combined 30 or so years of technical diving experience, and technical instructing we had between us.

Actually, that’s a lie. He did make a special mention of all those open circuit dives we had made. And that was what brought things into focus. “You guys,” he told us, “are swimming in dangerous waters.” He explained that we had to understand and believe that we were right back to where we were when we first started diving open-circuit scuba. We had to plan and dive beginner dives again and not be tempted to think that it was ok to dive to 60 or 70 metres because we’d done that on open-circuit a thousand times.

“It doesn’t matter much,” he said, “how many dives you have or where you’ve been on open-circuit. That was the stone-age and is all in your past. You are starting with a clean slate now, and it’s important you learn to paddle around in the shallow-end of the pool before you attempt to swim the English Channel!” (He’s a Brit.)

Now here is the cool part. As soon as he let us loose with cards that said we were certified to dive without adult supervision, we starting to rack up the hours on the type of dives we had not done for years.

We went back to shallow wrecks we had ignored for more than a decade and a half. We planned weekends of multiple two-hour dives in sheltered little spots we would have swum right by if we had been diving open circuit. We relearned the simple pleasure of gradually working around a very much narrower comfort zone and competence level. We practiced bail-outs, we obsessed, we had great fun, and in the final analysis, we changed back to being a little more multi-dimensional in our dive planning and dive execution. I think it’s fair to say that becoming a weekend CCR diver, improved my OC skills.

Oh, and Truk Lagoon. Well, a story for another day, but we worked hard to build our competence and it paid off. What incredible fun to dive a CCR in that environment, even if we did opt to give some of the deeper wrecks a miss… you see, as far as the CCRs are concerned, we’ve only been diving a year.


Dive Report: Truk Lagoon, February 2010

Right up front let’s establish the parameters. One of the major reasons for Erik, Dave and I to get trained on and build experience on the Pelagian DCCCR was this trip. We wanted a simple, manual unit that could pack up in a small dive bag and be used almost anywhere in the world. The Truk trip was to be the acid test.

Pelagian in Truk LagoonAs with any long-distance dive trip offering hope of a successful conclusion, this one was planned well ahead. A tactic made more necessary since Odyssey – our 40 metre live-aboard – books dedicated group charters two to three years in advance. Frankly, time dragged for a while, but then the last six months somehow disappeared in a wild flash of various activities; some even connected to the trip.

What I mean to say is, despite of all the planning and worrying and preparations, this one kind of crept up and surprised us.

One bonus of having had a long lead time was that all the vagaries of diving CCR were worked through almost a year before our departure date. I’d met with Cliff Horton (the booking guy) at BTS the March before. I ordered the same scrubber material we dived at home, and found out what tanks would be available to us.

Although promoted as CCR-friendly, our group was mixed about 50-50 between OC and CCR and the only herding-cats-exercise was trying to coordinate everyone’s demands for tanks and gas mixes. This chore dragged on somewhat and in the final weeks I determined it better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission; that is, I ignored some of the less critical demands. However, kept front and center was the requirement for everyone, OC and CCR, to have something appropriate to breathe first thing on our first day. Other needs could be worked out after that. Also important was to make life easy as possible for the crew. It made sense that if the process of getting things ready for us could be streamlined, we would store up brownie points to trade for favors later.

Pelagian DCCCR in Truk LagoonYou should know that getting to Chuuk International Airport is a logistical exercise worthy of a TV reality show. Last minute changes also created challenges. My personal saga began early morning on Thursday in West Palm Beach, Florida instead of from my home airport in Toronto; Erik and Dave got an early morning call ON departure day telling them their flight from Rochester to Newark to hook up with their connection to Honolulu was canceled; they traveled on a different airline to Hawaii via Chicago.

However, things somehow worked out and instead of meeting in the President’s Club in Newark, we met up in the lobby of the Ohana Honolulu Airport Hotel to enjoy an eight-hour layover. Two things the traveler should know about the Ohana Airport Hotel:

  1. Do not eat the chicken caesar salad. It takes like cardboard dipped in printer’s ink sprinkled with budgie shit. And I am being diplomatic here.
  2. The staff are aware of the kitchen’s short-comings and at mealtimes are running scared and hard to find

In 1969, Jacques Cousteau and his team of happy pirate scientists and explorers dropped anchor in Truk Lagoon. It’s not clear if JC was the first to mount a dedicated expedition but close on the heels of the broadcast of his 1971 television documentary about the lagoon, its abundance of wrecks, and the history of Operation Hailstone, the place became a scuba diving paradise.

Cousteau had it easy though. I wonder how the viewing public would have taken to the notion of visiting Truk Lagoon if his original movie had been honest about the boredom of a half-day spent island hopping across the Pacific from Oahu / Honolulu to Weno / Chuuk with stops at Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae, and Pohnpei; each complete with a security inspection of the plane’s cabin. This phase of the journey reminded me of an episode of the Twilight Zone where the passengers are in purgatory but do not realize they have snuffed it. On a positive note, we had exit row seats, plenty of Cliff Bars and at least there were no crates of chickens in the cabin.

Pelagian DCCCR in Truk LagoonWe arrived in Chuuk mid-afternoon Saturday with all our bags but slightly disoriented. I would like to have blamed alcohol or drugs, but the culprit was the International Dateline. Well known, but poorly publicized in the travel guides; any journey that crosses more than a dozen time zones and incorporates rolling forward the date on your wristwatch magically flushes the human brain with the hormonal equivalent of Drano®

One other snippet of information travelers to this part of the world need to understand; this is the third world. Nothing you will see travelling through the countryside between the airport and your hotel remotely resembles a paved highway, roadside restaurant, CVS pharmacy, Winn Dixie, or Starbucks. Chuuk is uncomfortably poor. There is no veneer of gentility or quaintness hiding that poverty from the sensibilities of western tourists. There is no local tourist association or board of trade covering up the patina of rust and ruin with a lick of colorful house paint. Shanties line the potholed mud road. Collections of abandoned motor cars and pickup trucks punctuate stands of banana trees and flowering shrubs. Ugliness and graffiti dots walls and doorways. The island of Weno – the main island and Odyssey’s home port – has nothing in the way of tourist infrastructure outside of a couple of hotels. It seems that apart from wreck diving, the island offers nothing to pull tourists from passing planes and boats. The foreigners one does see are either wreck divers or missionaries; and there is little to distinguish one from the other except the messages on their T-shirts and the over-sized bling around the Christians’ necks.

Our “hotel shuttle” dropped us and our bags at Blue Lagoon Resort and our rooms were dry and cool, faced the ocean, and did not have restricted leg room. First order was a shower and a whole can of soda.

We were not scheduled to board Odyssey until 17:00 on Sunday so we had slightly longer than 24 hours to relax and acclimate and sightsee. The sightseeing was completed before supper and so we were able to spend a day lying around, checking TSA had not fiddled with our rebreathers too much, and sorting out wet from dry bag articles before boarding our home for the next week.

A quick word about rebreathers and airport security. Film-maker, explorer and CCR guru, Jill Heinerth, came up with the idea of labeling dive gear, especially rebreathers, with a note explaining the various suspicious bits and pieces in a manner that makes sense to the average TSA operative. I created a version of Jill’s template for our group. It featured TDI and NOAA logos, a breakdown of CCR components including the head and “gas” sensors (NEVER mention oxygen to anyone in the security industry), and the statement that the life-support system it describes offers no threat.

Throwing one of these notes into a dive bag is a great proactive move for anyone travelling with a ‘breather. Prior to our Truk trip, I had a conversation with the Canadian version of a TSA team leader while carrying the scrubber head of a Pelagian CCR through security at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. He read the official looking document, asked me if I worked for National Geographic and walked me through the screening area with a thank you, have a nice day.

Following a very laid-back day as guests at Blue Lagoon, and right on schedule, Odyssey’s tender picked up our baggage, and its skiff picked up the 11 of us and delivered us to the boat at anchor in the lagoon about 300 metres off shore.

The deal with our charter was its billing as a “Tech Week” the major difference between this and a non-tech week was that for us, nitrox fills and surface-supplied oxygen (fed to a bunch of second stages hanging off a solid deco bar under the transom at about 4 metres) would be free. Tech week also focused on a selection of dive sites in the 35 to 60 metre range.

What was the same and a constant on Odyssey charters was the cleanliness and size of the state rooms (flat-screen TVs and DVD players in each room is a nice touch) the level of service and hands-on help (high and appropriate), the quality food (most of us gained weight), and of course, the visual appeal and historic significance of the diving itself.

First impressions of the handful of our group who had not dived off Odyssey before was, Wow! This was closely followed by supper.

The majority of the wrecks in Truk are lined up in formation around the Dublon, Eten, Fefan and Uman Islands. The Fourth Fleet anchorage was just on the western side of Dublon and the repair anchorage to its east. There are many dive sites there. The wrecks on our agenda included: the Nippo, Hoki, Rio de Janeiro, Amagasan, Shotan, Fujisan, Shinkoku, San Francisco, Heian, Kensho, Nagano, and a couple more deepish ones that Dave, Erik and I did not dive and I did not take note of.

The pool opened immediately after a post breakfast dive briefing early on Monday. Another thing about tech week was that we punters were free to dive as we chose with the only restriction to be back for lunchtime. We took full advantage of this.

The water in Truk is warm (28 degrees by my bottom timers) and we had visibility that ranged from a few metres to about 30. We experienced little or no current and overall conditions were mild, except…

The trade winds blow in February and we were faced with “big seas” on several days. However, big seas in Truk Lagoon are manageable; especially when one dives off a big boat. The most daunting thing is the Odyssey’s tendency to put her head into the weather and shake her tail like a cat watching a bird feeder. This increases the task-loading of anyone hanging out at the deco bar to off-gas; and this was certainly a factor in our dive planning. In short, we planned to use the deco bar and the gas it offered only as part of a bailout plan – a contingency that did not arise for any of us. We carried jon-lines and finished our decompression either close to the mooring line or on the shallowest part of the wreck. When those obligations were finished, we swam to one of the stern ladders and grabbed on.

Pelagian DCCCR in Truk LagoonWe three Pelagian divers dove as a team. We had Franck and France (inspo divers) with us for some dives but not all, and sometimes we started out with OC divers but our plan on the shallower sites was to pull one long dive rather than do two shorter ones; and that meant OC divers did not have the gas to stay with us for two hours or more of bottom time.

Odyssey does not offer trimix, so we dived air diluent and oxygen in 4 litre (30 cubic foot) cylinders with an 80 cubic foot aluminum cylinder of ENA30 as a side-mounted bailout.

My comfort with CNS toxicity, specifically 24-hour or daily CNS limits would not cover the space between absolute zero and the freezing point of helium, therefore on deeper dives, we were severely restricted by the inability to run an oxygen set-point during bottom times lower than 1.3 to 1.35 bar. This caused some issues with our planning later in the week and we either passed on deeper dives or pulled OC-type bottom times.

For the record, 24-hour CNS limits are among a handful of issues that seem to have passed the tech community by. Bill Hamilton, who wrote the book on the topic, advises divers to be particularly mindful of and conservative with 24-hour limits. Therefore if the 24 hour limit of a 1.1 set-point was 270 minutes (which it was and still is) we were careful to plan our running exposure over the whole week of diving well within that limit.

OK, the units themselves performed like troopers. We took three units halfway around the world and had precisely zero problems. No cell issues, no battery problems, no software to kick up a fuss, nothing broken or misplaced, and no lost time fiddling with distractions. Score a huge positive mark.

Andy Fritz’s design allowing for the Pelagian to use any sized bottle without the need to buy a special frame or to make any adjustments – other than the cam straps – is a brilliant innovation for a travel CCR. The fact that we did not need to carry bottles with us, and that the boat could provide us with a bottles that held enough oxygen and dil to last for several dives, cut our prep time considerably. On a live-aboard offering several dives a day, this is a very nice bonus, so score another big positive point.

The unit’s compact profile and lightness – a real boon for airline travel – also translates into comfort in the water and stability while moving around on deck and on the dive platform. This trip was the first time for any of us to dive the unit in a wetsuit and of course, compact and light really shine when all you have on is booties, fins a mask and a 3 mm suit and hooded vest.

Erik and I use a HOG single-tank 34 pound lift wing. This configuration with a steel backplate and 2 kilos of lead balance weight provided enough lift with a single aluminum stage; but I would suggest more lift to carry additional bottles safely.

The dives themselves were spectacular. The wrecks are littered with the detritus of war; the holds filled with fighter aircraft, tanks, bulldozers, railroad cars, motorcycles, torpedoes, mines, bombs, boxes of munitions, radios, spare parts, and god only knows what else. Hulls, decks and superstructures are coated with sponges, corals, and invertebrates. Tropical fish, turtles, rays, sharks and jelly fish completed the picture. My logbook contains a fair number of expletives, all of a very positive nature.

I have dived in Truk before on open circuit, and it too was spectacular. It also presented less logistical challenges. No matter how you cut it, lugging a rebreather, even one as portable as the Pelagian, across 15 time zones had better have a payoff that makes up for the effort.

In my opinion, it did. Dave, Erik and I made dives that would have been impossible on OC. Always mindful of the limits of our bailout and experience, we pulled nothing epic, but a two and a half hour bimble at 35 metres would simply be impractical wearing doubles. We explored engine rooms for 40 – 50 minutes at a time. We went places where exhalation bubbles would have trashed the visibility in minutes, but exited without leaving a trace of silt. We were warm. Our dives were peaceful, and our decompression short. We left the water feeling great and had to invest little time setting up, refilling, disinfecting and rinsing our rebreathers.

I will return to Truk and so will the Pelagian. It will also be my companion on lots of other adventures because this trip underscored two things:

  1. diving CCR on a multi-day trip offers huge benefits
  2. the Pelagian is a very practical solution to travelling with a CCR

All photos are copyright Bill Downey

For information about Odyssey, visit http://www.trukodyssey.com/