Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sunday on the Sea Bass


"Rig. May I have the definition?"

"Rig - Noun. Tackle, equipment or machinery fitted for a specified purpose, eg. an oil-drilling rig."

"Rig. W-R-E-C-K."

"That is correct."

We got up at a quarter of five this morning, ready and raring (well, as much as one can truly rare at such an hour) to go do our deep-diving certification at the oil rigs. We had packed all our gear yesterday, so we didn't forget anything. We woke up right when the alarm sounded, so we weren't late. We put on warm clothes, we fed the cats, we had the directions to the boat, and everything was going fine.

We got to San Pedro a little early, which was good because we spent a good ten minutes driving around trying to find where the Sea Bass was moored. Having located it at last, we hauled all our heavy gear over to the dock, carried it down the steeeeeeep ramp to the boat, and got everything assembled so we would be ready to get right in the water after the approximately twenty minute trip out to the rigs. Unlike our last diving trip, we didn't have any surprises with our gear ("Hey, where are my weight pockets? Why is my regulator hose ballooned out like that?") We were golden. We signed all the necessary release forms, gave the galley crew our sandwich order for lunch, and sat down to chill and wait for everyone else to be ready to go. Then we heard the following (paraphrased, of was early), between one crewman and the other:

"Hey, why did you shut the compressor off? This guy needs an airfill."

"Um, I didn't shut it off."

"Oh. Well then it's not working."

Sometime while we were getting our stuff together, our instructors (and good friends) Dave & Shay arrived. Smiley and energetic (really, I don't know how they manage it, no matter how early the morning), they started getting their stuff together, and Dave told us about their tribulations of the day before.

There were seven students in this month's Deep Diving certification class. We all went to the shop on Friday night to consume lots of pizza and go through the knowledge portion of the class. Everyone did well with the bookwork, and we were psyched to be learning another scuba skill. Some of us did not have safety sausages, which the Sea Bass requires for a trip of this nature, where there is potential for a lot of current, which could pull a diver off target and into open ocean. Shay didn't have enough at the store for everyone while we were there on Friday night, but she knew there were more in inventory and would bring them to the boat for those of us who didn't have one. However, when she went to fetch them out of the store room on Saturday afternoon, the safety sausage fairies seemed to have spirited them away sometime between then and last week's inventory check. There were no sausages to be found. She called a couple of other dive shops, trying to do a supplies swap (you give me what you have now, I'll order more on Monday and reimburse you for what I took), but no dice. It was as if all of the safety sausages in the land had gone missing. Dave didn't get a chance to finish telling us the story, but I gather that they eventually located some, or else we wouldn't have been allowed to dive that day.

Saturday, however, continued to be unkind to our instructors. One of the students, C, had answered affirmatively on one of the "past medical conditions" questions on one of the many release forms. This isn't usually a big deal. PADI gets picky about all kinds of things; if you had asthma as a kid, even though it doesn't bother you anymore, you have to get a note from your doctor confirming that you are in no way hindered by this previous condition and can therefore dive safely. C's doctor was supposed to fax his note to the shop, but as of mid-day Saturday, she had not. There was much calling back and forth, leaving of anxious messages on the doctor's voice mail, before the requisite note was finally faxed and received.

Two brothers, A & S, were the youngest of the group, one in high school, one just graduated. They went through the classroom portion with us on Friday night, but it wasn't until late Saturday that our instructors learned that the younger of the two was actually still a year too young to meet the certification age limit. The older brother wasn't going to dive without the younger, so our group was down to five.

"How's June 30th for everybody?"

Shay gathered us all around to break the bad news that the crew hadn't been able to fix the compressor. No compressor, no air to put in the tanks. No air, no diving. We'd have to reschedule. Tom & I won't be able to go on the alternate date, so we'll have to wait for the next certification class. That's okay though. If the dive gods were trying this hard to keep us from the rigs today, there was probably a good reason.

Also, the day wasn't a total loss. The Sea Bass crew has been struck with a little bad luck on Saturday as well, but this time their misfortune was our gain.

On Saturday they had taken a charter group out to dive a wreck called the Olympic II. The linked page has the full story, which is pretty interesting, but the short version is that the Olympic II was built in 1877 in Ireland and was originally a clipper ship called the Star of France. In 1900 she was sold to the U.S., where she underwent modifications to become a fishing vessel for the Alaska Packers Association. In 1933 she was again sold to a captain in Hermosa, California, who further modified the vessel to serve as a more rugged fishing barge. Seven years later, in late 1940, she collided with a Japanese freighter that was, oh, about 37 times her size (give or take), and promptly sank in about 100 feet of water.

When the Sea Bass had taken their charter out on Saturday, the anchor got tangled up in the wreck. They'd had to cut it loose and return to port, but they were eager to go back and fetch it, sooner than later. With the compressor on the fritz, the captain said that they'd be going in search of their anchor, and that we were welcome to take a dive on the wreck if we wanted. If you ask a bunch of divers who got up before the crack of dawn and were primed to go spend the day underwater if they want to go dive a nifty shipwreck instead of just going back home, I'll give you one guess what the answer will be. A short while later, we were pulling out of port, headed in search of the Sea Bass's anchor.

The sea was choppy. I became seasick. Yay.

The seasickness was not so much from the ride over to the dive site, which was quite short, but from sitting there for about an hour rocking and rolling while the Sea Bass's two divemasters got geared up, dove down to untangle the anchor, and sent the line back up to the surface. Remember our friend the safety sausage? Well, it turns out that the bigger, sturdier ones can actually be used as lift bags - underwater balloons that search & recovery divers use to haul heavy or cumbersome stuff back up to the surface. You carry the bag down, affix your haul, inflate the bag underwater, and let go. Since gases expand as pressure decreases, you don't have to put much air at all in a bag at 90 feet below the surface; it will fully inflate all on its own on the way up because the air volume will expand by almost three times from its volume at 90 feet. Pretty cool! Anyway, the divemasters went down to the wreck, freed the anchor line, which they said was pretty thoroughly wrapped around the wreck's support beams, pulled the anchor aside and sent the line up with the safety sausage.

Then came the maneuvering back and forth, trying to grab the sausage and line. When we finally caught hold of it, the boat drifted away, the plastic clip holding the line to the sausage snapped, and the line sank back into the depths. Over an hour of bobbing around, now for naught. Yippee. Since everyone only had one tank of air, the divemasters were out. The rest of us on the boat got our turn to dive next, and Dave & Shay, being the most experienced aboard, were charged with again retrieving the anchor line. I was just looking forward to getting underwater, where I knew the seasickness would subside. Before too much longer, we were hopping off the back of the boat and descending.

The wreck was cool. It was covered with strawberry anemones, and camo-colored sea cucumbers were lounging here and there. It was a fairly large wreck; in "life" the Olympic II was almost 260 feet in length and nearly 40 across. There were a lot of bass, and some large (Shay saw a 6-footer!) lingcod swimming around and under the wreck. On the surface we could see and hear some sea lions, but we didn't run into any underwater. Tom & I spent a good twenty minutes cruising around before we ran our tanks down to our pre-determined minimum air limit (which was still quite generous, I assure you...we're good, safe divers) and ascended. It was just past 10 in the morning. Even though we didn't get to the rigs, we still had a good morning and got a neat wreck dive out of the deal.

We spent approximately another hour trying to pull up the anchor, which had managed to become re-entangled, even after Dave & Shay had freed it. There was a pretty good current that was doing not-so-nice things to the anchor line, so it was frustrating, but not a huge shock that the darned thing was stuck again. I was feeling pretty green again, so the whole thing was kind of a blur. Dave got back in the water to try and free the thing a third time (he still had enough air in his main tank for a very short dive, and he took a pony bottle with him for insurance). When he got back, he said that the beam on which the anchor was hooked had collapsed, which resulted in it being pretty tightly trapped, but he'd managed to free it and haul it out of the wreck and onto the sand. The captain was done messing with the anchor for today, so he left a marker buoy and we headed back to port.

Once home, Tom & I turned on a soccer game and promptly passed out on the couch. It was barely lunchtime, so we had most of the day left to us, but we spent most of the afternoon napping. ;) Diving is tiring work! All told, a good day, even though we were denied the rigs. No worries - I have no doubt that we'll get to them eventually.


Momentary Academic said...

You are such a rockstar. Are you sure you're not a superspy? You do science work, you dive, you can shoot and ride... hmmmm.

I'm on to you Susan. :)

Tom said...

The seas were angry that day, my friends. Like an old man in a deli trying to return soup...

madre said...

HA! A secret agent just like Dad!!

susan said...

Honestly, people, have we learned NOTHING from the whole Scooter Libby debacle? A little discretion if you please!