Tuesday, August 11, 2009


There’s something amazing about watching people learn to scuba dive. It was the thing I liked the most about my stint as a dive shop owner. (And there was a lot I liked about that job: bringing my dogs to work with me, nobody telling me what to do, talking about diving all day long, etc.) The most fun part of the job was watching new students come back into the shop completely energized after their first open water dives, and they talked in a steady stream of exclamation points “And we went to 20 feet!!! And we saw starfish in the rocks!!! It was so cool!!!”

On Saturday our friend Sean was running a class that a few friends of ours were taking, and Todd and I went along for the first open water dives at Fort Wetherhill in Jamestown. On the first dive, Sean took them to 15 feet, and just had them try to sort out their buoyancy. It’s actually quite dangerous to be too buoyant that you float to the surface unexpectedly. But on the other hand it’s rather uncomfortable to be too negatively buoyant that you bumble around on the bottom too. So the idea is to establish neutral buoyancy, where you actually feel weightless. The visibility was lousy, as it often is in Rhode Island, but it was made worse by newbies stirring up the silt on the bottom. I hovered off to the side and helped keep the six students together, while Todd “sheepdogged” and went all over the cove to retrieve lost students. The phrase “herding cats” comes to mind.

I could read the frustration on the faces of the students underwater and was taken back to my first open water dive in Sydney Harbor. I joined the dive club on campus and took the lessons in my first month in Australia. The first open water dive was done from a rock entry, which meant that we walked out to the end of some rocks near the ocean and did a giant stride entry from the “cliff” into the water. The top of the cliff was maybe 6-8 feet above the water’s surface, and I hobbled out to the edge barefoot with 40 pounds of scuba gear strapped to my back. Nobody told me about needing scuba boots, and the barnacles on the rocks scratched against the soles of my feet before as I painfully hobbled to the edge where I donned my fins and jumped into the water. It even says in my dive log from that day, “I need boots. Ouch!”

The movement of the waves shoved me back and forth as I descended. I felt discombobulated and uncomfortable. As I climbed out onto the rocks after my dive I bashed my knee and I still can feel a slight bump from it, some 15 years later. My lips were raw and salty, like I’d eaten too many potato chips. Once in the parking lot I scanned my surroundings for a bus stop so I could escape. I hated my first dive, but I hadn’t driven myself to it and was stuck going on the next one.

Luckily the next dive was a calm beach entry. The sun had come out. Large blue grouper fish approached to check out the bubble makers invading their habitat. I kneeled on the sandy bottom and watched in awe as they circled above me. I was officially hooked.

I relay this story to every new diver I meet and say to every single one of them, “All you have to do is tolerate the first open water dive. It’s weird, it’s uncomfortable. Just get through it, on the second dive you’ll have a better sense of what to expect.” Every new diver I’ve met always confirms my assertion. “You were right, the second dive was much better,” they always say.

That was also very true with the group on Saturday. On the second dive, Sean took them through some skills underwater. The group lined up and kneeled in a row as Sean went one by one to have each diver demonstrate the skill. The divers stayed still. They understood a little more how to control their buoyancy (I am still learning about buoyancy even now. I still learn something new with every dive.) And they all said the same thing at the surface, “The second one was way better! I felt more confident!” Yesiree!

On Sunday we took the “Under Achiever” out for a spin to see how it’ll do as a dive boat. Todd and I first rode out to Hope Island and dropped the anchor. The ride south to the island was a bit hard on me. Even though water is fluid, it is still a hard surface when a boat crashes onto the surface after getting thrown upward by the waves. I tried to sit in my chair and felt my ribs do a bump and grind dance with my clavicles every time the boat slammed into the water. I let out an involuntary “OOF!” every time the bottom of the boat flopped into the surface.

Once anchored, we followed the line into the murky green water to the bottom at 20 feet. I extended my arms out in front of me and could not see my fingertips. Visibility was 2-3 feet. We bumbled around on the bottom, looking for quahogs. I didn’t look for any, and just kept my eyes on Todd. If he strayed more than 2-3 feet away from me he would slip out of sight. His light blue fins revealed his location, though I was close enough to him to risk being kicked in the face. I held my hands in front of my face to catch his kicking fins, and didn’t bother with sight seeing. We ascended and declared the site “sucky” and got back into the boat.

A few moments later, thank you 150 horse engine, I dropped the anchor just north of Patience Island where the water was calmer. We descended to 15 feet, and I clipped the catch bag to my BCD. Todd crawled along the bottom, stirring up the silt as he hunted for clams. He handed several dozen to me before I became weighed down by the catch bag. At this spot I could still see a foot or so beyond my fingertips, but once Todd stirred up the mud, visibility became zero. I reached out and grabbed his arm just to make sure I knew where he was.

Carrying the catch bag for Todd underwater is much like carrying a purse on land. “Here, can you stash this in your purse?” he asks, while handing me his cell phone and his gigantic collection of every key he’s ever gotten (we joke that he’s in janitor training with all those keys. What do they open? Who knows?!) I toss them into my backpack purse and brace myself from the weight. He handed me clam after clam, like so many keys and cell phones. The quahogs in the catch bag added weight to my left side and discombobulated my sense of buoyancy.

The salt water stung my right eye as we dove, and I closed it and looked through the left one for the duration. I am a bit persnickety when it comes to my gear. If there is a single strand of hair caught in my mask seal, water will freely flow into the mask, irritate me, and ruin my dive. I closed my right eye, and made my way through the fog using on my left. (Every season I toy with the idea of taking a page from the book of Taoist Biker, and shaving my head for dive season. Maybe someday.)

We ascended and brought the clams aboard. Todd rubbed his hands together in delight over fresh clams for dinner, while I lamented how my house would stink from their preparation.

With the anchor safely stowed, we bombed around the bay and explored. We still had our wetsuits on and I cannot decide if we looked like dorks with them on, or if we looked cool. Though I think I would have looked cooler with a shaved head after all.



Anonymous Taoist Biker said...

Honestly, my guess is that the mask strap would irritate the holy hell out of the stubble. I've never tried to wear a mask since I took to the blade, but I'd love to try sometime. :)

Advice: Buy or make a mock-up of a spear gun and carry it with you. That way you go from "dive dork" to "is that a SEAL?" or at least "extra from Thunderball."

August 12, 2009 at 10:33 AM  
Blogger BJ Knapp said...

TB: I can't imagine that stubble would be any worse than getting chucks of wet hair ripped out by the silicone strap. But you could probably wear a mask with a neoprene strap on it. It's nice and soft and won't irritate the hair.

August 12, 2009 at 1:12 PM  
Blogger BJ Knapp said...

Oh, and TB, why carry a mock spear gun when the real thing is in my gear room?

August 12, 2009 at 1:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ilove reading about your life journey's!

August 13, 2009 at 8:33 AM  
Anonymous Cece said...

Oops that's my comment above. lol

August 13, 2009 at 8:33 AM  
Blogger BJ Knapp said...

Cece, darlin, I knew it was you. I am glad you like reading. I sure like blabbing incessantly about diving. We joke that the dive takes an hour, but we spend 3 hours talking about it. LOL.

August 14, 2009 at 10:23 AM  
Blogger Kevin Horgan said...

Scuba diving equipment for women. ... why you wouldn't choose a travel light BCD as its not missing anything normal BCDs have but is literally half the weights. Best lightweight travel bcd

October 8, 2018 at 9:05 AM  

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