CQ…Clark Here

Thoughts and opinions. LOTS of opinions.

It Was a Good Day to Dive

Beth and I have been jointly dealing with difficult circumstances affecting our lives for quite a while. Little spots of joy here and there, but gloom and woe for the most part.

But yesterday. Yesterday was the best day we have had in a very long time. We talk frequently about our individual and joint love of scuba diving, and how we are really taken with the sport. In addition to other factors (and at least partly because of them) this year has been rough for diving, and I think we have less than a dozen dives each for the year. That is a pretty low number for us. In comparison, I had twenty-nine dives at this time last year.

Earlier this year, we had scheduled the only dive vacation we will be able to take in 2014, and were looking forward to the trip to North Carolina to dive with Olympus Dive Center in Morehead City (http://www.olympusdiving.com/). We first dived there last July, and really anticipated going back this year. All of the dives are shipwrecks, with several being sunk in World War II. I think two of those ships were sunk by German U-boats, and one actually is a U-boat (the U-352) sunk by a Coast Guard Cutter. Nearly all of the Olympus dives are around one-hundred feet deep, and in preparation this year, Beth and I felt we needed to get in a few dives beforehand. We planned to dive several times the week before we were to leave, but a kidney stone sidelined me. Beth buddied up with other divers, and got a couple in, so at least she was a bit prepared. Also in preparation, we had chartered a two-tank dive on Lake Erie just a few days before the North Carolina trip, but Lake Erie waves forced the Captain to call the dive (good call on his part). We travelled to North Carolina, and had a great time, but the previously chartered Lake Erie dives had not been realized. Yesterday was the makeup date.

We chartered with Lake Erie Adventure Charters, under Capt. Pete Schaefer (http://scubaerie.com/page/charters) and his crewman, Michael Moulton. They make a good team, running charters on Lake Erie through most of the summer. In addition to being able seamen, both are also NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors) Divemasters, certified through Diver’s World in Erie, PA (http://scubaerie.com/). Beth and I have known them for several years, and we share a deep and abiding love for the underwater world.

Matt Mead is a NAUI Instructor for Diver’s World, and Beth and I are NAUI Training Assistants that work with Matt, and Tuesday night we finished up the latest basic Scuba Diver class at Diver’s World. Regarding the charter, what this meant was that there was no way any of the three of us could get to bed early, (Matt was assigned to work the charter by Diver’s World) and so we three found ourselves somewhat deprived of sleep for the planned Wednesday charter. No worries, that’s what coffee is for. And coffee up I did.

Earlier weather reports were not promising, but the day turned out to be very pleasant, if a bit cool. Having loaded up the car on Tuesday, Beth and I staggered out of bed and got breakfast, coffee, and about a gallon of water (remember the kidney stones I mentioned earlier? Water is my friend, both to prevent the stupid little calcium oxalate rocks that plague me, and to hydrate from scuba) to go. We jumped in the car and got on the road around 7:00 AM, arrived at Lampe Marina in Erie, PA and downloaded the car. Five of us were there for the charter; myself, Beth, Matt Mead, Steve W., and Tom K. After we met up with Capt. Pete, we all loaded our gear on Pete’s boat, the For Pete’s Sake, and got on the lake, heading for the day’s diving.

As with many lake and ocean dives, weather and water conditions are often deciding factors on what sites and wrecks one can dive. Yesterday, the conditions were great, so we headed out to dive the Dean Richmond and the Indiana, both extremely cool (but relatively deep) wrecks.

Although an Advanced Diver Certification gives the basic knowledge needed for recreational deep diving, I would personally recommend that folks interested in deep diving also seek a NAUI Deep Specialty certification. Honestly, the “danger factor” isn’t that much greater at depth, but the skill set and knowledge gained from a Deep Specialty certification are invaluable. And although the deep wrecks off the North Carolina coast are in relatively warm water (in the mid-70 degrees), Lake Erie wrecks are not. Understanding how to dive deep, and how to anticipate the diving conditions and equipment needed can make all the difference in the world.

We arrived at the first dive site of the day, and assembled our gear as quickly as we could. In cold waters, Beth wears a “semi-dry” 7mm wetsuit with attached hood, 7 mm gloves, wool socks and 7mm boots. I wear a 7mm one-piece wetsuit, 7mm core warmer (front zip, sleeveless, covers from mid-thigh up) with attached hood, 7mm gloves, wool socks, and 7mm boots. This effectively gives me 14 mm of neoprene over my trunk, and believe me, this is highly welcome in cold water. After getting into our thermal protection, we finished gearing up and got into the water. Swimming to the anchor line, we vented the air from our buoyancy compensators and dropped under the water.

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, and the waters are usually relatively warm. At least on the surface. As we followed the anchor line down, I watched the temps; 73 degrees on the surface, 54 degrees in the thermocline, and 41 degrees on the bottom. The thermocline, by the way, is kind of a dividing layer of water, separating the warmer surface waters from the colder bottom waters. The warmer waters are usually pretty cloudy, and visibility (known to divers as “viz”) relatively poor. Yesterday the viz was probably ten to twelve feet or so higher in the water column, which is fairly standard. Beth and I are comfortable and confident in viz like this, so it was hardly even noticeable. But when we entered the thermocline, it caught my attention, and it was pretty neat. The thermocline is often kind of “shimmery,” like looking into the distance on a hot summer day. Plus the water temp takes a sharp downturn.

We dropped through the thermocline into 41 degree water, and it took my breath away. Not because of the water temps, although that was a bit of a wake up, but because of this dive’s first glimpse of the Dean Richmond.

The “Dean” is a 238′ wooden steamer, located about eleven and a half miles off shore, nearly due north of Harborcreek, PA (see its location here on Google Maps). On October 15, 1893, she sank in a bad storm, taking eighteen men and one woman to their watery grave. She rests today, upside down, in 110′ of water. One screw was removed by salvagers in 1983, but the second screw is still attached to the shaft. To Beth and me, the Dean inspires awe each time we visit.

This is our third dive on the Dean, first diving her in 2011, and each time we go back it is the same. When I touch the thick planks, I realize I am touching history. Very few similar ships exist today, and the few that do are usually museums or memorials. To see such a sight, and to touch her is amazing. I have only found a few places that in my experience feel the same.

Have you ever visited Gettysburg? Or perhaps another similar war memorial? Or simply think of a cemetery. For me, visiting underwater wrecks is like standing on hallowed ground. I think of the purpose of the ship. Men and women sailed on her. Cargo was loaded on, in anticipation of profits from the selling at the port of destination. Perhaps folks booked passage, looking for a new life or continued business at the other end. In our dives in the Atlantic Ocean, some of the wrecks were crewed by men caught up in a global struggle, seeking the enemy to sink or destroy. Some are purposely sunk as artificial reefs in an effort to create a man-made habitat for marine life, including corals, fish, and invertebrates. However, in each case, I have the opportunity to physically touch a piece of history that probably 99 percent of the world’s population have no way of ever seeing. As I said, awe-inspiring. I count it as a privilege each and every dive, and it is not one that I take lightly.

We spent about twenty minutes on the Dean, swimming from stern to bow and back. As I do on each wreck dive, I found a convenient spot, and brushed away the algae and muck from one of the thick planks and touched her. Simply touched her. This ship sailed the Great Lakes with hopes and dreams, cargo and people. And those people were lost in a storm in 1893. I thought of the grim determination of those sailors on that cold October Sunday, the desperation, and ultimately the despair and terror as they realized they would never see their homes and families again. I wondered at their stories, what they could tell me of the lives they had led, their triumphs and dreams, their regrets, their loves.

Beth and I returned to the anchor line, and began our ascent. Having descended to about 96′, we stopped at the half-way point at around 45′ for our first safety stop (safety stops are necessary to “off-gas,” allowing accumulated nitrogen to dissipate out of our tissues and blood to prevent the “bends.”). After we hovered for four or five minutes, we again began ascending, stopping for our second safety stop at fifteen feet for 3-5 minutes. At both stops, I thought about the dive, and what an amazing time that was. And I looked at Beth, and just watched her eyes for a while. Those eyes. They captivated me when we met at Behrend College, and they captivate me still.

After our fifteen foot stop, we ascended to the surface, boarded the boat, and shed our gear. Capt. Pete and Mike raised anchor, and we travelled to our second dive site, the Indiana.

The Indiana is a 137′ three-masted wooden sailing ship (technically a barkentine), located just a short distance west of the Dean (see its location here on Google maps). Carrying paving stones from Buffalo, NY, she encountered a storm and sunk in 90′ of water on September 24, 1870. Fortunately, the crew had enough notice that they were able to abandon ship prior to her sinking at 10:00 PM. No hands were lost. She rests right-side up, with her holds open.

After a Surface Interval (also needed to prevent nitrogen-caused injury) of a bit over an hour, Beth and I again geared up, stepped off the dive deck, and into Lake Erie. We swam to the anchor line, repeating our descent of a couple of hours earlier. We again dropped through the thermocline, and onto the Indiana. What a beautiful wreck. I simply cannot describe the beauty of touching such an amazing vessel. Her fore and aft mast heads are still intact, with the masts lying across her decks, or in the sand. We were both a bit saddened at the deterioration evidenced since our last dive on her, probably due to storms and ice. She has collapsed some, and many of the paving stones have broken. But still beautiful. I again cleared the algae and muck from one of her deck planks and just touched her. Rigging was clearly visible, as were belaying pins, deadeyes (block and tackle for raising the sails), and railing. As on the Dean, the viz was astounding, and the dive unbelievable.

Unfortunately, one of the downsides of diving cold water in wetsuits is that the cold just seeps in and doesn’t dissipate as quickly as one would wish. After diving the Dean, Beth and I chilled faster on the Indiana, and only spent about sixteen minutes on her. Fortunately she is a bit smaller, so we actually made two circuits on her, stern to bow and back twice. We got to the anchor line and did an ascent pretty much identical to our earlier ascent (again those eyes!), and boarded our charter. Side note: it’s amazing how nice 58 degree water feels after just a few minutes in 41 degree water. My hands were kind of numb, and I needed the able assistance of Mike to unhook my pony bottle (a separate, redundant air supply taken on deep dives in the event the diver carrying it or a fellow diver has unwelcome complications with their primary air tank) and gearing down, but elation! What amazing dives. The seven of us stripped off our dive gear (Beth was much more modest than the rest of us, changing in the head while the males just mostly ripped off our wetsuits (or drysuit, as the case might be) without regard to anyone else’s sensibilities, dried off and got into our “regular” clothes.

As Capt. Pete motored back to Lampe, the conversation never stopped, all of us excitedly talking about the day’s dives, and throwing the occasional insult at each other, laughing and loving every minute of the day. Beth and I could not have been more pleased with our time on the For Pete’s Sake, and underwater on the Dean and the Indiana. Best dive day we have had, beginning to end, in a very long time. Camaraderie, excellent weather, and amazing dives. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Special thanks to:  Diver’s World of Erie, PA; Lake Erie Adventure Charters; Erie Wrecks East by Georgann and Michael Wachter.

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