Nowhere to go but up

This is from an article I wrote for scubadiverlife.com

http://scubadiverlife.com/2012/06/27/my-first-mistake/

We all make mistakes throughout our lives, but most of the time we live to tell about them and hopefully learn something from them.  Sometimes, we feel the desire to tell others… nay, warn others about these mistakes in an effort to prevent them from making the same ones. And still yet other times we don’t say anything at all in the hopes that our friends will actually make the same mistake and we can point and laugh at them. (Or maybe that’s just me?)

One of the first mistakes I made diving nearly cost me my life. Well maybe not quite that dramatic, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. At the time I was certain I was going to die, and that’s what matters, right?  The dive is forever ingrained in my memory as both one of my worst dives, and one of my best for two very different and distinct reasons.  It is without a doubt, one of my most memorable.

Picture if you will a young adventure sports enthusiast and novice diver, having just barely completed her Advanced Diver certification.  I had breezed right through my Open Water cert and straight into my Advanced with nary a fun dive in between. The Duane wreck off Key Largo rests in 130 feet of water, but her deck is at 100, just barely within the boundaries of the Advanced Diver cert. Technically, it was “okay” if I dove it. Technically.  My dive buddy and I decided that this would just be the perfect dive for our first dive without instruction. Yes, you heard that right. All of our whopping 12 dives prior to this had involved instructors and were always on shallow reefs, in lakes, or springs.

I hopped in the water with a little more neoprene than I normally wear due to expecting slightly chillier water at depth. It was just enough to make me a tiny bit too buoyant.  I didn’t realize that, though, because we had this monster line tied to the wreck below.  I thought about the irony of a boat on the surface tied to a line that was tied to boat sunk over 100ft at the bottom of the ocean. ( And right now I’m thinking of the irony of the fact that I probably just misused the term irony. ) Then, with a certain amount of excitement and anxiety, hand over hand I pulled myself down to the murky depths below.  I didn’t realize I was doing it… pulling myself down, that is. I didn’t realize that I was underweighted.

At least not yet.

Eventually we landed safely on the deck of the USS Duane, did our ‘okay’ and air checks. My air was lower than I had anticipated, but I didn’t say anything.  I was anxious and breathing heavily, excited about the dive but also a little scared. We had a guide with us, but this was our first dive without an instructor. We started to make our way around the ship and I checked my air again. I was low. VERY low. So insanely low that it didn’t make sense because it seemed we’d only been there for just a minute! I showed my buddy, then we showed the guide. Of course, the dive was immediately called.

USCGS Duane

We started our ascent without the line for some reason and at some point during the ascent, I started speeding up inadvertently.  The guide motioned for me to slow down, and I tried by dumping air out of my BCD and exhaling.  I was rising above the other divers quickly. At around 35 feet or so my ascent became out of control.  The guide grabbed my foot and tried to hold me down but I was just taking him up with me like a balloon would carry a string. He let go. I don’t blame him. I was certain I was going to die. I tumbled head over feet trying to get control in the water, but my inexperience and disorientation wouldn’t let me. I exhaled and exhaled… fortunately, I knew to do that much.  I remember at one point looking up at the surface closing in and thinking to myself, “I’m going to die when I get up there.”  I did quite literally think that when I hit the surface something terrible was going to happen and I was helpless to stop it.  It was a feeling I’ll never forget and one I hope to never have again.

Well, I did hit the surface. Like a cork. No really, like a cork.  I popped up out of the water with force, I was so buoyant.  I did a quick check on myself. Nothing hurt. No head pain. No chest pain. No lung pain. No dizziness, blurred vision. Nothing.

WHEW.

The folks on the boat looked me peculiarly as they took my gear and I climbed back on. I explained that… uh… we had a race to the surface and I won!  Okay, so I didn’t tell them that, but I did explain what happened. They sat me down and told me not to move. The guide and the other divers came up a few minutes later and every checked over me again. I kept assuring everyone that I was fine (I was), but I was not allowed to dive again that day.  Honestly, I didn’t want to.  I had just scared the bejesus out of myself and my adrenaline still hadn’t shut off.

I walked away from that without issue but I very easily could have had serious complications. I walked away a bit humbler and with a harsh lesson learned.  But at least I did walk away.

So what was my first mistake?  Not enough weight? Pulling myself down the line? Not mentioning my low air as soon as I noticed it? Waiting too long to check it again? Not dumping enough air from my BCD fast enough? Not ascending up the line that I could have used to stop my ascent?

No.  My first mistake was diving outside of my comfort zone and outside of my limits. While technically I was cleared for a 100ft dive with my Advanced Certification, it was extremely stupid and arrogant of me and my buddy to do so after having only a dozen dives under our belt and ALL of them in shallow water, more controlled conditions (lake, spring),  and with instructors. For me to have selected the Duane as my first real open water dive alone was my first mistake.  All of the other mistakes… they stemmed from that one.

Know what you’re diving and know your own limitations. Just because your c-card says you can doesn’t mean you should. Be realistic about your experience or lack thereof.  As an instructor now myself, the last thing I want are my students making the same mistakes I did.  So I try to relay this story to as many of them as I can to teach any number of lessons (knowing your limitations, being weighted correctly, keeping an eye on air, etc).  I hope that my mistake (which certainly wasn’t my last!) can help others learn and not make the same one.  At least not this one.  There are some others that I happily keep my mouth shut, let happen, and point and laugh. 😉