This is me with Rob Palmer and Ed Utitus after my first Drager Rebreather Dive in 1995 at Seaview Hotel
MY FIRST DRAEGER REBREATHER DIVE
In the spring of 1995 as I was sitting at an outdoor bar in Grand Cayman, I watched some divers learning how to use Rebreathers. Curiosity got the best of me and the next thing I knew I found myself talking them in into giving me a Rebreather Demo dive. I did not realize it at the time I started that conversation that I was talking to Rob Palmer – the tech diver who was one of the pioneers in introducing Rebreathers to the Bahamas and the US. Immediately after that demo dive, I decided I needed to get Rebreather certified.
Trouble was I was not yet certified for nitrox. Getting certified for nitrox was not too complicated because I had an instructor on my staff who had the qualifications to teach that. The Rebreather was a bit more complicated. However, in one action packed weekend at Dutch Springs in Pennsylvania I became not only a SCC Rebreather Diver but also a TDI Nitrox and rebreather instructor for Drager Dolphins and DragerRays. My instructor was Cliff Simeneau..
THE CHECK OUT DIVES
The scuba-training program with the Rangers progressed until you had finished all of the skills in the pool. This took some people (like me) longer than others. As I remember it was about 12 weeks long. Then there was our check out dives. Our first check dive was off of a breakwater wall near Lews Delaware. We took a boat out to the breakwater (which was also a Coast Guard light house station). It was a rainy and gloomy day. There were 40 students including myself and another woman by the name of Jean. She and I had been the only two women in the original class of more than 200 who had started what seemed like eons ago. We were both still there in part because we had made a vow to each other not to drop out.
The first check out dive was not much. One by one and alone we were told to descend along a rope into the murky water. We were told that there would be a diver at the bottom of the rope. When we got to the diver we were to show him that we could flood and clear our masks and then we were to buddy breathe. I had never before been in salt water. My wet suit was a man’s suit. They did not yet have women’s wet suits. It did not really fit well. I was cold and shivering before I entered the water. To top it off the visibility was about 6 inches. Well I went down, hand over hand to the bottom of the rope. I came faceplate to faceplate with the diver at the bottom who immediately reached up and pulled my mask off of my face. The shock of the salt water was almost as bad as the shock of the cold. But I recovered the mask, put it on, and cleared it. At that point the check diver pulled my regulator out of my mouth and indicated that I should buddy breathe with him. We did this for a minute or so and then he signaled me to go up. That was the end of the check dive. The most memorable part of the rest of the day was that the coast guard men offered to let Jean and me use their showers. They let the guys just sit outside in the cold. Male chauvinism did have a few things going for it at times.
That was the end of the “diving” for the day. Our final check dive was done in fresh water in the Pataxulte River just out side Washington DC. That was even more memorable. The plan was that we were to swim out to the middle of the river and then perform a buddy-breathing ascent. The team was Jean and me and one of the instructors. There was a moderate current. He positioned himself between the two of us, grabbed us each by an arm and literally forced us out into the middle of the river. I could not see a thing; the swift water was, to say the least, confusing. He nodded and we began to buddy breath. He dragged us to the surface. At least I don’t remember kicking. We got to the surface and he yelled at us, “that was fine but you both should be dead because you came up too fast.” That was the end of that dive. That evening there was a celebration party at Jean’s house and we all received our NAUI certifications.
It was probably 50 dives and two years later before I actually felt comfortable as a diver.
Fortunately, things have changed since then.
MY FIRST SCUBA CLASSES
My first Scuba Training class was really my second real exposure to scuba diving. The first was in Havre Montana where I dove with a double hose regulator and a tank that had a decal on the side that said "never hold your breath".
We moved from Montana to Baltimore Md in 1964 and it was there that my husband and I became involved with a club based out of College Park Maryland called the Atlantis Rangers . The Rangers were and still are to the best of my knowledge a fairly large club loosely organized around the University of Maryland’s College Park Campus. In 1968 they ran a large scuba training program entirely developed around former UDT training of some of the members. It was an intense program. There were 10 once-a-week theory sessions held at one of the lecture rooms at the University. Each theory session was 2 hours long. Then on Saturday mornings they held pool sessions at the Navy research pool outside of Washington DC. This was an ideal pool for teaching Scuba. It was 25 meters long, about 6 lanes wide and had a 15 foot deep end.
The Rangers had developed a station training format that is somewhat similar to the PADI modular format used today but was much more intense. Because their background had been military there was a great deal of emphasis placed on physical fitness. I remember having to run laps around the pool with tanks on our backs, having to do pushups in full scuba gear. We had to swim a lot farther than the 200 yards, which we require today, and to tread water for a considerably longer time. The swimming was not a problem for me. I had played water polo in high school and routinely swam at least a mile a day at that time anyway.
Learning the skill of diving down to the bottom of the 15-foot pool and recovering my mask, fins and snorkel was a problem. Most of the people involved with the training had little knowledge of the buoyancy differences between men and women. I spent nearly 9 hours (on three consecutive Saturday mornings) trying to reach the bottom of that pool. Finally one of the instructors had an inspiration. He went out to his car and brought me in a really heavy weight belt. I am not sure how much weight was on it but my guess would be about 30 pounds. Well, I was treading water when he handed me that weight belt. As you can imagine that took me to the bottom of the pool in a big hurry. I got the mask and fins on and then let go of the weight belt and popped immediately to the surface. Forget about equalizing ears or anything like that. I never really understood how I didn’t blow both eardrums.
Anyway, I was then “passed” on to the next station where I was allowed to progress to Scuba. The rest of the pool training sessions were uneventful other than the fact that there was a lot of harassment that we have ruled out in scuba training today. Some of the things that were considered necessary skills during the early years of diver training that are now passé include:
I remember when the club decided that everyone should own a scuba vest. We bought a lot of surplus Mae West Navy life jackets. They had double compartments (front and back). We cut these apart thus making two vests from one. My first scuba vest cost me the grand sum of $2.50.
SEE THE CHECK OUT DIVES NEXT COLUMN