Scuba Diving Class: A Boyfriend's Perspective
By Henry Chance
I awoke to find myself in a Richmond, Virginia hotel room. Most Saturday mornings this would be a troubling start, but today I had work to do. Today I will to get fitted for fins, a mask & snorkel, and learn how to breathe at the bottom of a pool. This is day one of my scuba certification class.
Regular readers will recall back in August, when a seemingly innocent offer of dinner and a chance to rekindle a college friendship flared into something much more! In just over a month I will fly to Indonesia for a twelve day visit to once again sweep Julianne off her feet, and see my girlfriend the mermaid’s aquatic world.
So I got up and readied for the day. The lesson was scheduled from 11:00 to 5:00 so I grabbed a hearty breakfast in the hotel. I answered a few work emails I missed the night before, took a trip to the drug store and the post office for an important errand, and made my way to Richmond Dive and Travel. Route 60, south of Downtown Richmond, is a wide two lane road with simple brick houses and small businesses on half-acre lots. Most of the houses looked like they might be unlocked. I parked my car outside the Dive Center entrance, opened the door and walked in.
The Dive Center’s storefront was small, clean and had a smooth cement floor crowded with racks and racks of dive equipment. I was also the only one there. I paced the rough aisles and walked up to the cash register, where a doorway led to another room. An air compressor labored somewhere in the back. I ducked my head in as a man in his mid 40s came around the corner. His eyes widened in surprise for a second. “You must be Henry,” he said and reached out a hand. Carl introduced himself and bustled around, explaining the day to me and looking for various pieces and parts to fit me. Richmond Dive and Travel is insistent about their students owning their own essential gear. Beginners don’t need to buy their own wetsuit or scuba tank, however I was fitted for fins, boots, a weight belt, dive mask, and snorkel all for $224.
Julianne had warned me to try not to get swept up by the flashy glittery gear. Very sound advice for an engineering guy who loves gadgets. Fortunately, Carl wasn’t looking to sell me the entire shop. In fact, most of his store appeared to have simple honest equipment at prices that were merely rude rather than outright offensive. While wrangling a flipper around my ankle, the shop door opened and a stout man came in. He wore a thin pair of sweats and a Richmond Fire Department t-shirt. He looked like he was built to comfortably squeeze through the doorway of a burning building and kick down a wall to get out. After introducing me to Sam, Carl said “Let’s get started on your paperwork and the quiz.”
Twenty minutes later, Carl graded my quiz while a third instructor, Nathan, came in. Nathan was almost as tall as me with a strong build and a shock of red hair. Carl finished up some paperwork while I made small talk with Nathan and Sam, asking about their dive experience and why they took up the sport. Carl put aside my paperwork and said “Well Henry, I guess we need to fit you for a wet suit. Go with Sam and he will find you an extra large to try on.” We went outside to an outbuilding where wetsuits, air tanks and other rental equipment were kept. Sam held several one piece neoprene suits up to me and muttered mostly to himself about large and extra large sizes. I couldn’t see any difference.
Sam sent me back into the test room to try on the one piece wetsuit, where fortune frowned upon me. I held the large piece of neoprene up to my body planning my entrance and exit strategies. Brute force seemed my best bet. I stripped down to my bathing suit, made sure the wetsuit was as unzipped as possible and stepped in. For those of you who don’t know, neoprene is snug. I wriggled and struggled to get both my feet through the legs with partial success. I got the left foot through, stepped on the suit’s right leg with my other foot, stumbled back and reassessed. I have an analytical mind. I can do this. I started working on the left side, hauling and grabbing at neoprene until I got most of the legging over the calf and up to the knee. I switched back to the right side and started hauling. The feet weren’t fitting through well. I couldn’t figure out why. A few minutes of grunting and heavy breathing later and I was ready to try for the arms. The suit’s waist was still around my thighs, but I figured I could help myself by getting leverage from my shoulders and back to pull the neoprene up. But how to get the arms up and over? I shrugged one shoulder in and stood up straight. The suit sloped at a diagonal across my chest. If Tarzan had worn a neoprene hide rather than a leopard skin the fit would have looked something like mine. Undeterred I shrugged my other shoulder into the wetsuit and stood straight, this time with both arms above my head. Muscles strained against dark synthetic fabric, and the waist slid up enough that I could almost walk. A few more cinches and the suit was on. I could even breathe. I grabbed the cord attached to the wetsuit’s large zipper and closed it, CAREFULLY. Every guy treats a zipper touching his skin with utmost respect and delicacy. It’s a survival instinct older than zippers.
All that effort and the suit felt… actually not bad! The thick neoprene made my muscles feel springy and tight, like whipcord under tension. The suit wrapped around my throat fairly tight, but I walked back out front to greet my instructors. Nathan and Sam eyed me speculatively.
“How’s it feel?” Carl asked without looking up.
“Fine”, I replied.”
“It’s on backwards.”
“It’s on backwards,” Nathan reiterated. I stood there squinting at him in confusion.
“Your suit’s on backwards”, Nathan said with a patient voice. “The zipper’s supposed to be in the back.”
That made absolutely no sense to me but I shrugged and turned back to Carl. Carl went over a couple other points while the neoprene continued to hug my jugular. He told me to get changed again, then put everything into a mesh bag to go to the pool. “And next time put the suit on with the zipper in the back.” Right. I nodded and went back in to change.
Back in the exam room, I unzipped the suit and made no additional progress undressing for the next two minutes. It turns out wetsuits are designed to peel off your shoulders simply by gripping the collar with both hands and straightening your arms down to your waist. Then, it’s simple to slide your arms free. But I couldn’t make that motion because my suit was facing the wrong way. Instead I ripped and clawed my left shoulder out of the suit half way, then did the same to the right. But the zipper only went so far. In short order I had trapped myself in an improvised straight jacket that was constricting my lungs with my own arms! Mild claustrophobia set in and I began thrashing to draw a full breath and cease the constriction. Failing that, I forced myself to calm down and went back to contorting one side of my body until I could get an arm free. Light at the end of the tunnel! The rest was uncomplicated though not easy.
I finished packing my gear as another diver-in-training, Brendan, arrived. Brendan is a Marine looking to join the Navy Seals. So he was here to learn something about diving before he went to training. We headed to a YMCA pool in separate cars. Carl went to open the back door for us while everyone else unloaded bags, air tanks, lead weights and some other gear. First, Brendan and I had to prove we could swim and tread water. No problem. We spent 25 minutes swimming laps with fins on and treading water in the deep end. The instructors spent the time talking about a recent industry trade show in Las Vegas. All their questions started with “Did you see the _______ over by…?” I can only imagine the wide range of toys and gadgets glittering in Las Vegas, a town famous for encouraging bad financial decisions! This diving thing could prove a very expensive hobby.
Next the three instructors took turns walking us through each piece of gear. When that was done we assembled our gear, jumped in the water and donned our gear in the water. Nathan took over the remainder of the training. With crisp military precision, he walked us through the agenda. We would practice breathing, switching between snorkel and scuba mask on the fly. We would learn to drain the water out of our scuba mask WHILE UNDERWATER (like James Bond did in Operation Thunderball). We would learn what to do if we ran out of air, how to manage our equipment, etc.
So step one, breathing underwater. I put the scuba mask on and immediately realized how much I missed breathing through my nose. Scuba masks cover the eyes and nose in an airtight seal. Thus when I tried to inhale like normal, I got nothing. Two seconds later I relearned how to breathe (because nothing motivates like a deadline) and crouched on my knees under the water. It took some practice getting the regulator to do what I wanted, but eventually we came to an understanding. I didn’t have as much luck with my weight belt.
Here’s something you may not know. The human body, plus an air tank, plus a buoyancy control device (BCD) make divers very light. So they wear lead weights to help them submerge. The weights must be measured carefully. Too much and the diver can’t surface. Not enough weight or poorly balanced weights give you my situation. Our second drill involved lying belly down on the surface of the pool. I went to crouch down and my feet lifted off the pool floor. I tried again. The same thing happened. Nathan gave me two additional five pound weights and told me to exhale thereby reducing my buoyancy. Okay, no problem.
Floating on the water’s surface, I exhaled deeply and slowly submerged three feet to the bottom of the pool. But I inhaled and immediately started to rise. So I exhaled. I hovered for a second then sank back down, just as out of breath as before. I inhaled and started ascending again. My predicament was amusing for all of two seconds before another problem arose. I started listing to one side.
Here’s something else you may not know. Tall guys, as a rule, are not graceful creatures. Give us incredibly long footwear, confine us in a close space and our sense of balance goes out the window. Back to the situation at hand, I’m tilting to one side. My natural reaction is to get my feet under me and try again, but I can’t. The tips of my fins are striking bottom and my ankle won’t flex because it’s stuck in the stupid flipper! Natural reaction number two is to thrash wildly. The theory is that something will give, and I’ll wind up in a different situation than I am in right now. Even odds it’s a better one. At the very least, thrashing might help control my spin. But I can’t. The pool wall is directly to my left. My dive buddy Brandon is in front of me and there are three instructors within arms length of me who would get smacked as I tried to right myself. That and the 3,000psi air tanks strapped to each of our backs encouraged me to move slowly. My listing to port capsized me when I reached the surface. I spun my arms and kick my legs a couple times finally righting myself as I coughed and sputtered. Nathan came up from the bottom. “Okay, let’s try this again and this time, try to stay level.”
One try later, Sam and Carl start stuffing my BCD’s pockets with lead weights anywhere they can hide them. I finally submerge. Ha ha! The rest of the afternoon passes without incident and we actually have some fun. At the end of the day I pack up my bought and borrowed gear and head to my hotel. The forward facing wetsuit peeled off almost easily this time. I drove to my hotel room and after three trips to and from the car, all the scuba equipment was rinsed and drying in the shower. I opted for a bowl bath by the sink and tried to tell myself I’m only giving up my bathroom this one time. I also started to rethink my suitcase strategy for the upcoming trip to Indonesia.
For tomorrow’s pool dive we’ll be in the deep end. I’m looking forward to it. Partly because this diving thing may actually be fun some day! I’m not doing the diving world any favors just now, but I can start to see why people enjoy the sport. Mostly though, I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s class because every diving class I complete, every necessary piece of equipment I buy, brings me one step closer to her, my mermaid.