Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Letters to the dead: Tom

My friend Ren has a blog where she collects letters to the dead. I've sent one for my friend Rich and one for my sister Marjorie. I have a couple half done, and occasionally worked on, for my mom and dad which I'll finish and send one of these days. This last coupla weeks, I've worked out my own sorrow about Tom by writing one of these letters to him. I'm not yet ready to put the whole thing up but I think I wanna share this part.


Tom was graced with a gaggle of granddaughters, so he naturally called ‘em his “boys.” “C’mon, boys, we’re going crabbing.” “You boys help get that stuff ready if we’re going waterskiing and tubing.” Etc. Naturally, they ate it up. Papa was Papa and could do no wrong. Our older daughter, MJ, and her close-in-age cousin Chelsea were Papa’s oldest granddaughters and his go-to boys. When he got a bit older, they’d go out with Papa to drop the crab pots, retrieve the crab-pots, and measure and sort the catch for him. Crab for dinner tonight! They were his clamming buddies, going for their limit and anxious to return home for some fresh seafood.

The bond between Papa and his boys was a wondrous, thick chain of links forged from love, unbreakable, unyielding, and untouchable. Their sadness is profound. I have had many a shirt soaked through with tears over the last couple of days and Papa hasn’t even died yet. Tom has had a long life and a good one. I desperately wish I could make these last days better for him but all that can be done is being done and I guess that has to count as enough. [Clearly, this part was written before Tom died.] It breaks my heart so terribly that I am unable to ameliorate the emotional suffering of our poor, sweet gang of “Papa’s boys.” Their sorrow is vast. Their grief inconsolable. And I am bereft of healing balm for their wounds. This train does not pass through Gilead.

I will not extoll Tom’s virtues here like a grocery list; I would find that demeaning somehow. They are best summed up in the simple sentence: Papa Tom was a good man. Really, when you strip away the chaff, the fluff, the frippery, if you can say that about someone, you’ve said everything that needs to be said.


Tom and some of his "boys"

I love you, Tom.

Tom's obituary is posted here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

VirginSSUDs2011 Trip Report - Day 12

Fly Away Home

This is the end, beautiful friends. I never did like The Doors very much; I really don’t like them now.

We stroll down to the restaurant/bar for some breakfast. It’s another perfect Caribbean morning, comforting and supportive, promising an eternity of delights sufficient to satisfy even a Lotus-eater. We order some food and try to drink in a few final sense-memories. Unfortunately, writing this now, a coupla weeks later, that morning melds into all the others, which is perhaps not a bad thing. The one thing that stands out is the brainflash I had when I first tasted the watery orange juice which came with my breakfast.

Remember the Three Stooges sketch when they make chicken soup by pouring hot water over a chicken which they’re holding above the pot. That’s what my OJ tastes like, like they poured some water over an uncut orange into a glass and served it to me for a mere $3.95 or whatever. Oh well, I’m already melancholy, some watery OJ can’t make it much worse. So, that’s what’s stuck in my brain about that morning, a Three Stooges sketch, and I’m not even a Stooges fan.

Jon and I had a morning flight scheduled. Ben’s wasn’t until later in the afternoon but he thought he’d accompany us to the airport and see if he could talk ‘em into an earlier flight; so the three of us shouldered our burdens and trudged to the terminal. Jon and I checked in and said farewell and good luck to Ben, then we headed to the security station. This time it was Jon’s turn to have a role in Kabuki Security Theater.

When we caught our crack-of-dawn flight from SEA, they pulled me aside and swiped my hands (for explosives?). Made me wish I’d recently taken a dump without washing my hands after wiping. Rant! Now, leaving STT, they paw through Jon’s stuff, searching perhaps for some self-awareness. They are unsuccessful in their quest and release him to proceed with me to the gate. We settle in for a long day of flights punctuated by airport layovers. A protracted stay at the horrid and detestable SJU was long but uneventful.

Meanwhile, Ben uneventfully makes his way to his home. Good-bye, dear friend. It was magnificent.

A long flight to ORD with a decent layover is followed by a final flight to good, old SEA. Hooray! Ronnie and Chloe meet us at the airport as midnight Pacific Time approaches. We get to the house and crash hard. The next morning, I drop Jon at the Amtrak station in Seattle for his trip to his ultimate destination in Corvallis and the VirginSSUDs2011 adventure is completed, disbanded, and finished. For now.

In perpetuum, fratres, vale atque ave ab hinc iter nobis, olim futurumque.
(Brothers, goodbye and hello forever from here on for our continuing journey.) Fratres/brothers = Ben Lovejoy and Jon Gold

Do I have thoughts, feelings, concepts, action items, etc. which I distilled from this trip? Yes. Yes, I do. And perhaps I’ll share them as I distill them in my own mind into something tangible. For now, I’m content to hold them close and nurture them unspecified, undefined, undifferentiated, and undiluted. Meanwhile, I thank you, Dear Reader, for persevering. I thank the biosphere for sharing its incredible diversity with me. I thank Panthalassa for being and for breeding life. And I thank my incomparable friends for sharing themselves and this adventure with me. You inspire me to be a better person. You are marvels beyond compare. I love you.

VirginSSUDs2011 Trip Report - Day 11

When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Squall, y’all!

Huh? Whazzat? Wow!

I wake in darkness as rain pelts me through the open hatch above my head. Big rain composed of gravid drops, not just a polite, short-lived, featherweight cooling drizzle. Lightning strobes the darkness and thunder follows. Iupiter Elicius bestrides our world in full command of his powers, revelling in their use. Aeolus is clearly off duty in deference to Iupiter as powerful, impatient storm gusts wring cries from our rigging and cause Kokomo to rear against her mooring ball like a frightened mare pulling against the post where her reins are tied. I hear Jon and Ben both up and about so I join them in the saloon. We are about to experience the full power of a classic Caribbean squall.

And, yes, I had been hoping the entire trip that we’d get one good squall so I could use that Shakespeare quote. Nature decided to cooperate on the perfect day at the perfect time.

After dogging all the hatches and ports, the three of us sat on the oval settee in the saloon enjoying the storm. We left the slider open to the cockpit, which was somewhat protected by the bimini, and that allowed us to smell the cool dampness and sharp ozone of the squall. Lightning cracked and strobed, followed by the boom of thunder in decreasing intervals as the heart of the storm blew closer, until the lightning and thunder were simultaneous and the glass ports and fiberglass hull rattled and vibrated sympathetically.


We could see the other boats nearby in the bay, their crews all up and observing, just like us. There were several of those sad Sail Caribbean (or whatever their name is) monohulls crammed full of teens, bursting at the seams like overstuffed sausages, and one of the idiot counselor/leader types took the dink from one to the other. In this weather? Really? You just hadda go yourself, a VHF or phone call wouldn’t do when lightning is striking right here in the anchorage?

Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the timing between the lightning and thunder lengthens as the storm passes over us on its way to Tortola. The full, roiling blackness and heavy rain ameliorates to a light grey and sprinkly drizzle quite familiar to this Northwest boy. Of course, this grey drizzle is about 20 degrees warmer than any Northwest sprinkle.

We’re all awake and this is our day to return Kokomo so we agree to just get started now. We slip our mooing and point Kokomo toward Roadtown. I sit at the helm in just a pair of shorts as the gentle rain caresses my skin and the overcast eliminates the need for sunglasses. Heading in.

About a half-hour out, we call Conch on the VHF and inform them of our position. They ask for us to call again when we’re in the road. Will do. As we enter the road we call again and they send a dink out with a “harbor pilot” to drive Kokomo to the fuel dock. It’s kinda interesting that they don’t trust their customers to dock/undock from their own marina but allow them to run free around the rest of the islands. Whatever.

As we head for the fuel dock we see a monohull which has grounded itself in the sand by being a bit too casual about the channel. By the time we’ve fuelled up, they have managed to free themselves and are now sticking to the middle of the channel, other traffic be damned. Happily, our fuel bill is only sixty-something dollars. I had expected to pay at least twice that, if not thrice, because we were not penurious in our fuel usage. Hooray for that. Paperwork checkin and we are set until our ferry at 1430. We leave our bags at the Conch office and go shopping in downtown Roadtown.

(Jon Photo)

Roadtown is not Charlotte Amalie (the duty-free shopping mecca of the USVI). We wander a bit, finding a few interesting shops. After a while, we stop for lunch at Pusser’s. Yes, I think I will have a painkiller with my food, thank you very much. Eventually, we head back to Conch, grab a taxi to the ferry dock, and do the ferry thing. This time we remember to try the upper deck in preference to the horrid steambath of the lower. Of course, this trip the upper deck is like a meat locker and we retreat to the comfortable lower deck for our return to US waters.

US paperwork done, we grab a cab to our Best Western Carib Beach Hotel with thoughts of long, aggressively-scrubbed hot showers dancing in our heads. We hafta wait a bit before our room is ready, then we discover that the hot water in the shower is random and brief; but it’s the tropics and a tepid shower is ok. Not what I hoped for but ok. So we’re back in the US of A. Hamburgers are mentioned as a dinner possibility and we ask about a nearby good burger place. The front desk has some suggestions but when we run the numbers, it’s gonna cost us about $50 each to get a hamburger because of taxi prices and we can go eat at the upscale sister Best Western hotel’s nouvelle Italian restaurant for less. Ok, we take the free shuttle to the good Best Western (where the rooms are at least twice as much), and settle in for some al fresco nouvelle Italian.

Maybe we shoulda sprung for the expensive burgers.

All in all, it’s a fine evening, with lots of lovely reminiscences and we eventually return to our room for a good night’s sleep in an actual bed. Me, I missed having Kokomo rock me to sleep.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

VirginSSUDs2011 Trip Report - Day 10

I don’t want nobody to give me nothin’.
Open up the door, I’ll get it myself!

I love James Brown. Jon supplied most of our music from his player on this trip and there was a good bit of James in the mix. Good Gawd! Today we would embody the message of this song. With no openings available with any of the dive operators, we’d simply hafta take care of diving on our own. We don’t need anybody to hold our hands, just rent us some gear and we’ll take ourselves diving.

Yeeee-oooowww! Take me to the bridge!

Or the dive site. Whichever.

The three of us discussed our desires for our last two dives of the trip and consulted the dive guide for possibilities. The one that floated to the top for me was Carval Rock. This is an exposed seamount which breaks the surface as a small islet between Ginger and Cooper islands. It is on the Caribbean Sea side of the islands and is deep and exposed. Perfect for visiting pelagics which makes it a good possibility for us. Unfortunately, the SDC folks informed us that the dive balls had gone missing and had not been replaced. Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence.

There’s one dive site called Vanishing Rock. The author of the dive guide we’re using personally calls it Vanishing Boat because on one dive there he came up to find his boat a good way off. He swam hurriedly to the boat and when he reached it he discovered that the entire mooring system was still attached to the boat, having come free from the seabed.

Cross off Carval Rock.

We eventually settle on a site called Ginger Steps. This is a site on the Caribbean Sea side of Ginger Island. It’s a series of rock ledges and sand canyons starting at about 35’, where the mooring ball is, and descending to 100’ at the bottom of the last wall (“step”) whose top is at about 65’. It’s deep and it’s exposed. The potential for pelagic visitors is pretty good. We untie from our mooring and power up Kokomo’s mighty twin diesels, heading for exciting, new adventures. Alone.

It takes some careful looking but we eventually spot the ball for Ginger Steps and tie up. Yep. This site is definitely exposed. Even on our big, stable, wide-body catamaran, we are doing some rocking and rolling. We gear up and I take my role as Divemaster seriously for this experience. These are my wonderful friends whom I love. I do NOT want to lead them into trouble or danger or allow them to fall into danger because of my inattention or incompetence. This will be our deepest dive and we are responsible for our own dive plan and navigation. Safety and responsibility are my bywords for the day. Well, and fun. Fun is ALWAYS a consideration.

We tie a float to the end of a long dockline and stream it from the stern of the dink, which we allow to float at the end of its line from the stern of Kokomo. Now we have a nice, long connection downcurrent. If things get dicey and somebody gets caught downcurrent from the boat, too tired to make the swim on his own all the way back to Kokomo, he can grab the float line or the dink line and pull himself to Kokomo’s sugarscoop. Or in the case of extreme exhaustion, he can just hang on while we pull him in.

The navigation and dive plan are fairly straightforward. We drop down the mooring line and head West down the ledges/steps. When we hit the bottom of the last one at 100’ we turn South and follow the wall until we reach our limit on time or air, whichever comes first. Then we turn East and ascend back up the ledges/steps until we hit the ledge at the 35-40’ mark. Turn North and follow this one back to the mooring. A nice, simple rectangle.

Before the advent of dive computers, divers used “the tables.” These were originally bottom-time tables developed by the Navy which were later converted to something a bit simpler for sport divers. The PADI tables allow a total bottom time of 25 minutes for a 100’ dive. Take an extra 5 minutes and you must do a decompression stop of 3 minutes at 10’. The old-time tables are more merciless than modern dive computers. When you use the tables, you calculate your time for the absolute deepest you’ve been, even if you were only there for a brief moment and the rest of your dive was much shallower. For example, the tables allow 100 minutes at 50’ but if your dive is a mix of 100’ and 50’, you must calculate it as a 100’ dive. For the purposes of simplicity and safety, we were doing a table-style 100’ dive.

Gearing up in the chop required some care and effort but we helped each other and ultimately did giant stride entries from Kokomo’s sugarscoop transom. No backrolls today, folks. At the mooring ball we all agreed that we were ready so I started timing and we descended Ginger Steps. At the bottom of the mooring line, I switched my watch to compass mode and headed West down the steps. We crossed the first sand gully at 60ish’ and saw ray track but no rays. Dropped over the final wall and found the sandy seafloor at 100’. Time to turn South.

(Jon photo)

We cruised along the wall, enjoying the usual reef life but searching and hoping for some big pelagics to cruise by. There. Who’s that? A large, beautiful Queen triggerfish. Ahhhh, lovely. That’s a treat. Now what other unusual sightings will we have?

(Jon photo)

One unusual experience here is the random swirling cold current which occasionally flows over us. As we’ve coasted along this wall we’ve been hit several times with a chilly burst, varying significantly from the basic 85ish-degree embrace we’re used to. Felt like it was in the mid-70s. Brrrr! I looked especially carefully for pelagics when we were in the chillier flow but no luck.

Checking my watch for time and compass heading I discover that it has died. Well, shit. I catch up to Ben who’s near me and ask him to check his watch, indicating that mine is dead and he’s now our official timekeeper. I check air status on all three of us and figure it’s about time to turn East up the steps, now just an approximation because of my dead compass.

Ginger Steps decides to grace us with a fond farewell. A large spotted eagle ray comes cruising from the distance and flows up the wall not far from us. Magnificent. My breath catches in my throat.

(Jon photo)

Now we’re climbing the steps back to the 35’ level. When my depth gauge tells me we’re there, I turn us (approximately) North toward the mooring. As we cruise along this reef, I again check with Ben for time and both guys for air levels. Jon looks at me and cups his hands together which is SCUBA sign-language for “Where’s the boat, dude?” I shrug and indicate that my watch/compass died. We contour along the 35’ reef in a generally Northward direction. Eventually, we do come back to the boat and board successfully despite the chop.

(Jon photo)

We strip out of our gear and have a freshwater rinse. Phew. Time for some hydration and a nice surface interval rest before our second dive. The chop and surge here is not conducive to a pleasant experience, so we free ourselves from the mooring and head for a more-protected spot.

There’s a dive site called Alice’s Wonderland which is not very far from us and it looks calmer there. We motor on over in that direction. There are a coupla dive balls in the approximate area. We tie to the one in shallower, more-protected water and settle down to relax and enjoy our required surface interval.

While we rest, I’ll tell you about Alice’s Wonderland. At one time it was arguably the loveliest reef in the BVI. Sadly, the coral bleaching in recent years has turned this reef into a skeleton of its past glory. Word is that it’s still worth seeing and we’re here so this will be our second dive.

The depth sounder indicates only 25’ and the shallowest parts of Alice’s are listed at 35-40 so maybe we’re way off the tail end of Alice’s or on a different site altogether. Formulating a rigorous dive plan is impractical. We agree to just drop down and look around, staying together and monitoring our air and bottom time. Gearing up is easier in the calmer water and we’re soon all assembled at the mooring line. Down we go for our last SCUBA adventure of the trip.

We soon discover that this is a shallow reef and it’s clearly in sad decline. There are some clusters of living coral and their associated ecosystems but there are lots of dead areas. We peek and poke around, seeing the usual suspects. Then, a pleasant surprise. A large hogfish is cruising for snacks and he doesn’t mind if we tag along.

(Jon photo)

Jon and I swim with him for quite a while before I get tired of the pace. Sad, sad, injured ass. I call my gargantuan fins “turtle-catchers” but in this reduced state I can barely keep up with a grazing hogfish. Oh well, it is what it is and he was very sweet. Finally, it’s time to call it a dive and a day. We return to Kokomo, tired but satisfied.

Now it’s time to head back to the mooring field at Cooper Island to return all this rented dive gear and prepare ourselves for the following morning when we must return Kokomo to the good folks at Conch Charters and depart this island paradise. Thanks, SDC, you’ve provided us with a memorable final day of diving.

The Hesperides come softly, summoning their parents, Erebus and Nyx. With them comes Hypnos and, under his care, we float away on the river Lethe.

Friday, July 08, 2011

VirginSSUDs2011 Trip Report - Day 9

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

I’m sure some of my dreams were sea-born as I rested sea-borne in my cabin, floating on that sea bourn. I woke slowly and languorously to another idyllic Caribbean morning. No AM diveboat today, an indulgent morning followed by an afternoon dive to the enticingly-named Wreck Alley. As we woke and became part of the day, Ben and Jon thought they might enjoy a snorkel in the area of Cistern Point, just South of our location. I was, again, more in the mood to rest my still-sore butt so I’d have sufficient energy for our afternoon dive and our two-dive adventure the next day; therefore I chose to stay on board and have a lazy morning.

The fellas geared up and hopped in the dink for a run over to Cistern Point. I told ‘em to look for the blue dinghy tie-up ball and waved them off on their adventure. Being a little bit in mother-hen mode, I watched them as they sped away, hoping to see them successfully tie up the dink and drop in for their snorkelling adventure. I saw them speed over the shallows between Cooper Island and Cistern Point. Too far, guys, the dink ball is on this side of Cistern Rock. But here they come, back toward where the dink ball lives. Then, they’re stopping. Ok. Guess they’ve found a spot they like and are happy to drop in there. Then they’re paddling. And paddling back toward Kokomo. Oh oh.

When I’m certain they are indeed distinctly paddling back toward Kokomo rather than some nearby spot to leave the dink while they snorkel, I power up Kokomo’s mighty, twin, three-cylinder diesels and head toward them. When we meet, they explain that the dink prop hit a rock and they now have no propulsion from the dink motor. Oops.

A brief examination confirms that the prop is only a bit deformed but it spins freely on the driveshaft. Clearly some sacrificial shear-pin or its equivalent has broken internally to save the transmission from damage in such an event and we are reduced to rowing or paddling the dink. An indulgent brunch would be a nice substitute for a snorkel, right? We move Kokomo to the mooring ball closest to the dive shop dock to reduce our rowing efforts for the coming afternoon and settle into a comfortable midday. Wreck Alley will be our deepest dive so far, being down at a consistent 85-90 feet as opposed to the maximum Rhone depth of 80ish, shallowing from there to 60 and less.

Lemme tell ya about Martini’s Law. Unlike Boyle’s Law, Charles’ Law, Gay-Lussac’s Law, and Avogadro’s Law, which are actual, scientific laws regarding gasses and pressure, Martini’s Law is more of a homiletic concerning the effects of Henry’s Law, describing the effect of partial pressure of gasses. Without going into the boring details about why, Martini’s Law warns the diver that every atmosphere of increased pressure, approximately every 33 feet, is like drinking a(nother) martini. So, at 33 feet, you’ve had the equivalent of 1 martini, 66 feet equals 2 martinis, etc. The actual effect is from nitrogen, in the form of nitrogen narcosis, aka "rapture of the deep." At the 90+-foot level, you’ve had the equivalent of 3 martinis. Just like alcohol, the effect is subjective. Some people seem to exhibit no impairment. Others seem clearly impaired. A person who experienced negligible effects one day might show significant effects another day. This information will be useful later in this narrative. (wink)

Ok, I’m back. I took a midday break to go to REI with Ronnie. She wound up with a pair of blue Vibram Komodos. (She’s partial to the periwinkle!) They’ve very cool; I think I want some. Anyway, back to the Caribbean.

So in the middle of the afternoon, the SCD boat pulls up to their dock and we row the dink over to meet them. Wonderfully, it will be a dive with just the three of us. A couple of other people tentatively signed up but then dropped out. How sweet is that? Our private guided dive of Wreck Alley. We had read up on this site in the dive guide I purchased at the shop. Our divemaster for this dive, Ria O’Hagen, was the illustrator of the guide and the cover is a depiction of the Beata, which was added to the site in 2000. Cool.

The three of us head over to the site of Wreck Alley in the SCD diveboat with the lovely Ria and her trusty assistant whose name I forget so he’ll be Igor for the purposes of this narrative. [N.B. I have been reliably informed by Ria on 1/24/14 that "Igor" was really Kit Arton. Sorry, Kit. You were cool and it was a great day with you.] We arrive and tie to the dive mooring. As Kit gets us geared up (careful individual attention – nice), Ria gives us the dive briefing. She’ll be monitoring our air carefully because this is a consistently deep dive on multiple wrecks. Rate of air consumption is the key this afternoon. We all notice the excellent level of professionalism during this period. I don’t wanna denigrate BWD but their level of professionalism was a lot more casual than what Ria and Kit are showing us. For instance, Kit drops a long hooka airhose over the side; this is a very nice safety backup if someone runs short of air but still needs to do a longish decompression stop before final ascent to the surface.

I’m liking Ria and SCD very much. And the trusty Kit, too, of course.

Now comes the piece de resistance, the icing on the cake, the sine qua non, as Ria dons her Riasaur dive cap. OMFG! I needs me one of those!

(Jon photo)

Then we’re off to the bottom of the sea to explore four separate wrecks, from the 90-foot Marie L. to the much larger, multiply-named Island Seal/Joey D. The dive mooring is on a reef which sits at about 50’. We descend to the reef then drop over the edge of its wall down to the bare sand bottom at 90ish’, where we encounter the Pat and the Marie L. lying together. After some exploration of these two and the life they support, we swim North parallel to the wall, across an eel garden, to come to the tug Beata.

As we’re exploring the Beata, Ria asks us for our air status. We started with 3000psi. Ben signals that he’s at about 2200psi by flashing 2 fingers, then 2 again. I flash 2 then 1 for 2100psi, Jon signals 1 and 1.

Wow! Really? Jon has been good on air all week; I’ve usually been the low air guy, fighting against the debilitation of my twisted left knee and my damaged right buttock, but now Jon is signaling only 1100psi while Ben and I are still above 2K. Ria takes careful note and, as she confided to us on our return to the diveboat, she picks up the pace a bit to be sure we get done and back to the ascent line in a safe timeframe.

Done with our exploration of the Beata, we swim toward the Island Seal/Joey D. As we survey the length of this sunken barge we notice that she sank upside down and there’s a gap of maybe three feet between the deck, which is the downside of the wreck, and the smooth sand bottom. A bit past midway along the length of this wreck, Ria heads under it crosswise, a distance of about 60’. Oh my! Ben was first in line behind her and later confessed that he hesitated a moment (or two), imagining the possibility of a strong current or undersea quake shifting the wreck and eliminating that 3-foot gap while he was under the boat.

But, ultimately, how could he hesitate when a mere slip of a girl led the way under without hesitation? (grin) Ben took a deep breath and kicked his way into the narrow gap, following the rare Riasaur into the dark, constrained unknown.

Safely and successfully surviving our under-wreck passage, Ria queries our air status. Ben signals 1 and 5, 1500psi. Ok. I signal 1 and 3, 1300psi. Fine. Jon signals 1 and 2, 1200psi. Huh? Ria swims over to personally look at his SPG (submersible pressure gauge). How could Jon have gained air when the rest of us were sucking down an additional 700-800 from over 2K to mid-to-low 1K values? Jon’s gauge does indeed register 1200psi and Ria leads us back up onto the reef for some lifeform siteseeing after all our wreck experiences.

Finally, we make our way back to the ascent line, do a safety decompression stop, then clamber back aboard the diveboat, assisted by the enthusiastic Kit. As we chat about all aspects of the dive, Jon’s air reporting is the significant one. Remember Martini’s Law? Jon informs us that the first time Ria asked for air levels, Jon actually had 1900psi but was too narced to think of how to convey 1 and 9 and he just wound up raising his fingers in the 1 and 1 that he reported, rather than the 1 and 9 he intended to report. That was clearly the laugh of the day.

Unlike the cheap beer offered us post-dive by BWD, our hostess and host today offer us slices of homemade cake as we strip off dive gear and ready ourselves for the ride home. How very civilized. Back to the SDC dock and the friendly and customer-oriented staff agree to drop the 6 tanks right at Kokomo, rather than making us try to fit all that in the dink and then row it all back to Kokomo. With 6 tanks and assorted other gear aboard, we are ready for the next day and we wave goodbye to the SDC crewboat as they head back to Tortola for the night.

Thanks, y’all. It was a lovely and exciting dive. Tomorrow, we’re on our own.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

VirginSSUDs2011 Trip Report - Day 8

Once more unto the breach, dear friends...

Morning has broken, like the first morning. So sayeth Cat Stevens or whatever the fuck his name is now. We’re back to our regular morning dive routine. Wake, breakfast, prep gear, and wait for the radio call from the diveboat. Today we’ll be heading back to the Rhone; it’ll be fascinating for the guys to experience this wreck in the daylight after diving on it at night, a completely different experience. A voice from the ether calls out to us, “Kokomo, Kokomo, Kokomo…” and we’re once again welcoming the diveboat alongside for a journey of discovery.

This morning in the crisp light of day the translucent water beckons in a way its nighttime occult version never could. We are not the only seekers summoned here by Apollo’s chariot. There are a couple of other diveboats on the other moorings, all readying divers for their plunge into otherness. We’ll begin our morning with an exploration of the deeper bow section.

Backroll in and dump buoyancy from the BC, descending like a slow-motion skydiver, spread-eagle and eager with anticipation, losing color with depth in rainbow order (Remember ROY G. BIV?) until we exist in a blue world, only lightly tinged with hints of green and perhaps a bit of yellow-ish. If you cut yourself at this depth, the blood looks like green smoke. I recommend against trying it; the ‘cudas are watching closely.

The night shift entities we visited on our previous Rhone dive are somnolent and the day shift is out and about in the Babylonian hurly-burly of the morning. We ghost along the exterior for a while, then come to a point where we can penetrate the wreck. Single-file, we enter the mausoleum of those who perished here a century and a half ago.

Winding back and forth between the ribs and debris, all softened by a century and a half of marine growth, there is a small sense of claustrophobia which is mostly obscured by the intensity of the experience. Mostly. We spend a considerable amount of time enclosed in this sunken tomb before emerging again into the open water. Fascinating. Moving. Intense. All too soon, especially at this depth, our time is up and Boet gives us the signal to head up for a brief decompression stop before surfacing. We hang on or near the mooring line, looking down at where we’ve been, thinking private thoughts, and feeling private feelings.

Then it’s time to surface, climb the gravity ladder (Are you sure we’re not on Jupiter? Ack!), and rest, drink, and recuperate during our surface interval before our second dive. During the interval, our divemasters try to tell the story of the Rhone. They do their best but, bluntly, they are shallow and callow twenty-somethings and they stumble through it like unwilling actors in a high-school play, chewing and expectorating their lines without feeling or meaning. But it’s alright. I have my own internal narrative and apprehension of what transpired those long years ago and what it means in my greater scheme of things now.

Time flows away, moved along by the relentless current of the Great Temporal River, and we prepare for our second dive. This will be to the same sections we visited on our night dive so the comparison will be direct and specific. From their humble beginnings as newly-certified divers on their first actual dives, Jon and Ben are now old hands, after their week of living aboard a boat, snorkelling and diving. We gear up like pros and drop in.

Here now, revealed by the stark light of day, are the sights which were previously alternately obscured by darkness or harshly illuminated by divelight specificity. A large condenser. An immense boiler. Oversize steamfitter wrenches. A waterpump surrounded by dismembered grating. The aft mast and the long prop shaft. The remains of a once-proud mistress of the waves, now lying beneath that surface, broken and dead, her internals strewn over the seafloor, bow and stern sections akimbo, all the harsh lines, angles, and surfaces of a violent death softened and muted by lush, colorful sealife, extravagant in its promiscuous beauty. Wanton life, bred from death, not to be denied.

Once again, we’ve reached the limit of our stay in this realm. We ascend to the mundane surface world, divest ourselves of our survival gear, and Boed speeds us back to Kokomo, delighting in his post-dive beer.

Feel free, O Gentle Reader, to ignore my tone in these last paragraphs. It’s grey and rainy here after several perfectly lovely days and I’m feeling melancholy. It will pass. Diving the Rhone is a magnificent experience and one which can reflect and amplify whatever you bring to it.

A full rinsing of ourselves and our gear with the cockpit shower and we relaxed into a pleasant lunch aboard Kokomo. With only two more days available for diving, we decided to see what we could organize with BWD, hopefully something on the outside of the islands where we might have a better chance to see the big pelagics. Yeah, that mostly means sharks but it does not preclude rays, turtles, etc. Turns out the BWD is booked solid for Day 9 and only doing some shallow reefs on Day 10. Hmmmm. We’ll hafta think about that. There’s a dive shop right here on Cooper. Let’s talk to them.

I hereby confess, I’m still not completely sure who we talked to and wound up diving with. The dive shop proclaimed boldly "DIVE BVI" but the boats were all labeled "Sail Caribbean Divers." I think we were dealing with Sail Caribbean Divers, so I’m gonna call them SCD. Like everyone else, SCD was booked for the morning of Day 9, however, they were willing to talk about an afternoon dive that day and were not opposed to the idea of diving someplace more interesting, like Wreck Alley, for $80 each. Day 10 was no joy with them either, however (again) they would rent us gear for two dives for $30 each as long as we returned it before 1900 on Day 10.

I believe we have a deal.

And with that, we eased into the evening of Day8, tired but satisfied.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

VirginSSUDs2011 Trip Report - Day 7

Going to the Dogs

A traditionally-cultured person might say that three guys on a sailboat marauding wandering around the BVI for days on end uncontrolled and unrestrained by the ameliorating effects of any female presence would be a prime example of the phrase “going to the dogs” so we decided make it official. There’s a small grouping of uninhabited islands between Tortola and Virgin Gorda called generally “the dogs.” Ya got Great Dog, West Dog, George Dog (possibly named by George Foreman, I’ll hafta research that), West Seal Dog, East Seal Dog, and (You explain it cuz I can’t.) Cockroach Island.

So, with the coming of another perfect, soft morning, we slipped the bonds of our mooring, waved adieu to Marina Cay, and went to the dogs.

As you know by now from following this narrative, anchoring is restricted in the BVI to reduce damage to reefs. There are a few day-mooring balls on a couple of the dogs and a couple of diveboat balls, and that’s it. We saw an empty ball at Great Dog with just a couple of other boats there so we grabbed it. This little bay is lovely and I wish it were suitable for an overnight stay. Alas, it is not; day use only. Therefore, we put our best effort into using it fully.

As always, Jon prepped his camera while Ben and I simply put on our snorkelling personae and became bold, skindiving men. Aaaaarrr! We were getting good at this. As you may have noticed, we did not use SCUBA yesterday or today. I was tired from all the dives I did, and even the uninjured Ben and Jon decided that they wouldn’t mind a break from the hectic pace of two dives every morning. Therefore, days 6 and 7 were nondiving days, with a healthy substitute dose of shore activities and lots of snorkeling.

The three of us eased from Kokomo’s dual sugarscoops into the amniotic-seeming welcome of the Caribbean Sea.

Snorkelling the Indians was lovely, a magnificent introduction to what’s below the surface of the Caribbean for my newly-certified friends. The bay at Fallen Jerusalem was a delightful surprise package of abundant life, rich with photo opportunities for Jon and simple viewing pleasure for Ben and me. But Great Dog… Ah, Great Dog proved the saying, “Don’t mess with the big dog!”

The three of us scattered over the extensive reef system in pursuit of our own individual visions. Large schools of tangs, sergeant-majors, and yellowtails hovered off the deep side of the reef. Fat, silvery balls of baitfish shimmered in the shallows. Ever nook and cranny teemed with wrasses and basslets, bright and gaudy as anything from a child’s coloring book. Even better, a lovely special surprise awaited, which heightened things to a new level. As we met up at some point during our explorations, Jon said that he’d seen a couple of squid “over there” and they were just hanging out. Cool! I headed to squidtown.

Sure enough, when I got to the area, there were eight squid hovering in a group in midwater. They backed away a bit when I first arrived but then relaxed as I stayed quiet. We faced each other from a distance of just five feet or so. They hung there, cycling through several color changes, while I just floated and breathed, admiring their beauty, supported by my ancestral home, Panthalassa. Wanna feel connected? Snorkel Great Dog and commune with the squid. I believe there are secrets they know, which they’d love to share, if only we’d listen carefully enough.

I am, sadly, too civilized and too cynical. I left without hearing the Secrets of the Squid. It felt like a profound loss. Then again, what do some dumbass, less-than-a-foot-long cephalopods know?

Meanwhile, in the other direction, Jon was communing with a juvenile Great barracuda. He got some wonderful photos, both of the ‘cuda and of the other denizens of the Great Dog reef system, including a couple of shots of the squid. They may have been doing higher math or discussing philosophy but I suspect they were really just hanging around, shooting the shit, and looking for cute female squid.

After a long morning enjoying the pleasures of snorkelling Great Dog, we rinsed ourselves with the freshwater shower and settled in for some lunch in that delightful spot.

Having had our two-day break from diving, we were ready to do some more SCUBA on the following day, so we got on the radio and arranged another rendezvous dive with BWD for the next morning. Then we set sail on a delightful broad reach. We were headed back to Cooper Island with no expectation of getting ice but looking forward to being picked up the next morning by our little Dutch divemaster. On the morrow we’d be returning to the Rhone for some daytime exploration of the areas we’d seen on our night dive.

A very pleasant sail later, we dropped all our canvas and motored to a mooring ball at now-familiar Cooper Island. And at the end of the seventh day, we rested.

Monday, July 04, 2011

VirginSSUDs2011 Trip Report - Day 6

Fallen Jerusalem
He beheld the city, and wept over it, saying... and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another.

On the far Southwestern end of Virgin Gorda there is one of those must-visit areas called “The Baths.” It’s called that because it’s a batholitic formation, although people usually mistake the etymology of the name for its many pools and watery nooks among the boulders. The trouble with The Baths is that it is a popular, must-see spot. It is heavily visited and the tourist load is increasingly larger every year.

The first time I visited the BVI, there were no park service balls, you had to anchor off, which is no longer allowed (You must use a ball.), and dinghy ashore. That, too, is no longer allowed. There is one little bay at the farthest end of the area where you could fit one boat with bow and stern anchors to keep you from swinging and make it your own private hideaway for a few daylight hours. The Baths is not a place to anchor overnight, too exposed.

But, as I said, it’s too crowded, too busy, and too controlled for those sorts of hijinks these days. Nonetheless, The Baths are a must-see so ya gotta go see ‘em and simply endure the madding crowd. Except…

The formation which constitutes The Baths continues above and below the water from Virgin Gorda to a separate small islet called Fallen Jerusalem. It is the same as The Baths but less accessible, except that the park service has put two, and only two, mooring balls at Fallen Jerusalem, making this site a lot like The Baths was 30 years ago, except perhaps even better in the sense that only two boats can ever be there at one time.

As we proceeded from Cooper Island (Good riddance, you ice miser bastards!) toward The Baths we could see, even from a distance, that the site was already crowded with boats. But what’s this? Despite the density at The Baths, I believe I see the bay at Fallen Jerusalem empty of boats, completely so, with no other boats on course for that area, and two beautiful mooring balls just waiting for us to choose the better one. Well, happy day!

We slipped quietly into Fallen Jerusalem’s Lee Bay and reveled in our private site. We loaded our snorkel gear and some drinking water into the dink and went ashore. Jon unlimbered his camera and we all set out to explore the fascinating boulder field in that transition zone between water and land. Alone.

After we tired of land exploration, we headed out to snorkel the area. It turned out to be magnificent. The Baths have had so much traffic over the decades that the small reef systems around them have been significantly damaged and degraded. Not so the reefs of Fallen Jerusalem. We saw a lovely variety and plenitude of reef life. We’d been there quite a while and were nearly done when another boat finally took the remaining ball, forcing us to share the area with four other people. Oh, woe! It was a terrible hardship but we held up like men.

We eventually decided we were satisfied with our exploration of Fallen Jerusalem and returned to Kokomo to zip into Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor, and Spanishtown, to reprovision and maybe get some ice. We passed along the length of The Baths as we proceeded to Spanishtown and eyeballed the dozens of boats moored like cattle in a slaughterhouse holding pen. See ya, suckers! Tied up at Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor and bought some water, $12 worth. We also spent $2 to dump our garbage with them, then took ourselves ashore to make some groceries, as they say in New Orleans.

A mostly successful shopping trip and grocery storage on board completed, we decided to pay for an extra hour at the dock to do some shopping and maybe eat a meal there. I had to stop by the chandlery to buy a new dinghy lock because I’d thrown the supplied one overboard. Oops. We all enjoyed shopping at the dive store. Jon found the ice cream shop I remembered from my trip with Ronnie and the girls in 2001. Hunger made its claim on our souls and we sat in the al fresco restaurant/bar to order a meal. Whaddaya know? It’s two-for-one painkiller time. Well, well, well. Happy hour indeed. Painkillers all around. Oh, and maybe some food.

Later, with bellies full and whistles wetted (and pain successfully killed) we left the upscale, soulless haven of the marina for something more elemental. The hour dictated that we should probably head to Marina Cay for the night. So we did. A mooring ball just inside the protecting reef and we were safe and snug for the night.

Tomorrow would bring new adventures but for now it would be the night and the stars and the companionship of good friends on a yare craft. Not bad. Not bad at all.

VirginSSUDs2011 Trip Report - Day 5

Started Hummin’ a Song from 1962,
Workin’ on our Night Dive!
In the Summertime,
In the Sweet, Sweet Summertime.
Night Dive!

It was a day like any other day, assuming, that is, that your “any other day” is one where you’re on a large cruising catamaran in the British Virgin Islands with two other unschooling dads who are pretty much the most fabulous companions you could imagine for such an adventure.

No? Yours wasn't?

Well then, my day was not like your day. Neener-neener. Not that I’m gloating or anything but, well, yes, yes, I am. Sorry. Let’s move on and you'll get a little payback on me for gloating as today's story unfolds.

Because we had our big, exciting night dive planned for the evening, we left our day open, casual, and lazy. After an indolent breakfast, we decided to grab the dink and zip over to the bar to get some ice. Remember the whole ice thing from the previous afternoon where they didn’t have any available but maybe would this morning? Yeah.

So we jump in the dink and fire it up, back away from Kokomo, then, when we shift into forward gear, the engine gently expires. Ten million pulls later (Yes, I did count them and it was ten million at least. Ok?), we still had no power, so we paddled back to Kokomo and I put on my dinghy-engine-repair face. It looks something like this.

Here’s where you get your payback, O Gentle Reader.

Imagine Your Humble Narrator sitting in a dink in the merciless, tropical sun, with an inadequate box of tools, and the top off a small outboard which has been spray-painted flat black at some time in the past, apparently at least a coupla decades ago. Intellectually, we all know that an engine only needs three things to run: air, fuel, and spark. Realistically, we know intuitively that Voodoo is an unspecified but crucial component. I didn’t seem to have my mojo working that morning. With a coupla breaks in the shade of the cockpit with a cool drink, I did ultimately find a bad clog in the fuel line from the tank bulb to the engine connector. After clearing out whatever crud was in there, I continued up the fuel feed, clearing the line all the way to the carburetor. I also managed to remove the sparkplug and saw that it was a bit oily but not too bad. I tried to determine if I was getting a spark but that sun was so bright, I simply couldn’t see a spark if one was there. With the fuel line clear and the sparkplug replaced, I tried a coupla more pulls. With no joy from that, I elected to give up and call the base.

As it turned out, Jon had already called while I was out there messing around and we were expecting a callback from one of their shop dudes. Ok by me. Time for some shade and cool beverage. Phew.

Some time later with no callback, Jon called again and this time the message actually got through. So, with me in the dink with both hands free to play with the motor, and Jon on the phone talking to the shop guy, we began a three-way diagnosis/repair effort. Emergency stop lanyard in place. Check. Fuel bulb squeezed. Check with explanation of cleaning the fuel lines and checking the sparkplug. Give it a try. Ok. Nothing. Nothing. Sputter. Sputter. Start. Running rough but running. There’s my Voodoo. Scientifically, I’m gonna say it was the crap in the fuel line that clogged things up originally and the rest the carburetor got after I cleaned the lines and waited for their callback is what allowed the motor to run again.

You and I know it was really the Voodoo.

And your payback for my earlier neener-neener comes in the form of all that PITA time I spent messing with the dink motor under that merciless Apollonian glare, getting a splotchy, directional sunburn for my efforts. Ack! Oh well, we once again had a working dink motor. Hooray for that.

This is best photo I have of the dink, with Jon and Ben in the shot, and featuring that beautiful, clear, blue water.

But a newspaper person would say I’m burying the lead. This is the day of our night dive. That’s the significant part of today’s narrative, so let’s get to it.

The timing for this dive was to drop into the water as the sun was setting so that we still had some daylight while we geared up and listened to Divemaster Boed (Yes, we were with Boed again.) explain the dive plan. The diveboat arrived at Kokomo around 1800 and we joined a small group of intrepid souls for our adventure into the Stygian realm. A fast ride later, we tied to the dive buoy over the Rhone and geared up while Boed explained how things would go. We were the only boat there. We’d have the Rhone all to ourselves this evening.

As the last glow of orange and red tinged the darkening sky, we all turned on our divelights and dropped in. With everyone in the water and assembled at the descent/ascent line, Boed gave the signal and we dumped positive buoyancy from our BCs, descending into the India ink which had earlier been that lovely, clear cerulean blue we cherished during our daytime experiences.

Floating down into an abyssal darkness which is punctuated by insignificant cones of illumination from the individual lights of your small group of fellow divers, waiting for something other than the descent line to appear in your field of vision, is a deliciously tingly experience. Even an old Bertrand Russell hard-headed pragmatist verging toward an Amazing Randi style cynic like me feels that frisson of alert anticipation when embracing something this outré.

And now for one of my (in)famous brief asides.

Built in 1865, the Royal Mail Steamer Rhone was one of the early iron-hulled ships powered by both sail and steam. At just over 300 feet with a 40-foot beam, she was one of the first ships deemed “unsinkable” by the Royal Navy. Yeah, you know what that means; the proverbial kiss of death. In October 1867 she was in Great Harbour on Peter Island when, as we nautical types say, the glass started dropping. That means that the barometric pressure was falling, which usually indicates worsening weather, or even a storm. In this case, it started dropping like the proverbial rock and the Rhone and her fellow ship the RMS Conway prepared for an unexpected late-season hurricane.

Both ships survived the first half of the hurricane by running their engines at full power to help the anchors keep them in place. When the eye reached them, both captains decided to make a break for it, the Rhone’s captain opting for deep water, which is, counterintuitively, a safer place to be during a storm. Because the Rhone was deemed the worthier craft, all passengers from the Conway were transferred to her and tied in their bunks, as was the practice at the time during storm conditions.

The Conway chose to head for the safety of Road Harbour and steamed away. She was a bit too quick to leave and was caught by the final blasts of the leading edge of the hurricane. She foundered near Tortola with the loss of all hands.

Meanwhile, the Rhone had to drop her main anchor and all its chain because it was snagged. It is now a dive site right in Great Harbour, Peter Island. Freed from her anchor at last, the Rhone steamed for the open ocean just past the cut between Salt Island and Dead Chest Island, the site mentioned in the famous chantey, “Fifteen men on…” Unfortunately, the eye was now past and the hurricane winds slammed the Rhone from the opposite direction, driving her onto the rocks at the end of Salt Island. The ship broke apart, cold water hit the raging boilers causing a massive steam explosion and the unsinkable Rhone went down quickly in two major pieces. Twenty-three crew survived. The passengers were all still tied in their bunks.

Now, the Rhone lies in essentially two sections, the stern in 30-40 feet of water and the bow at 80ish feet. Our night dive would concentrate on the shallower stern and middle section.

There are basically two types of wreck dives that SCUBA users can engage in. The first type is the derelict or defunct boat which is sunk on purpose to hopefully be a starting point for a new coral reef and a fun dive site. This kind of wreck is carefully prepared before it’s sent to the bottom in a pre-chosen spot. Clutter and debris are removed, hatches and ports are removed, access holes are cut into the hull sides, and lots of other prep is done which will make this wreck a safe and fun environment to explore. Even after such a wreck has sat for decades, attracting all sorts of interesting marine life, it is still essentially a safety-engineered divers’ playground.

The other type of wreck is the “natural” wreck. Often, a loss of life was associated with this type of wreck. It has certainly not been cleaned and prepared for divers’ safety and fun. There are damaged sections which could collapse at any time, shifting cargo or bulky material, rotting superstructure which finally drops to a lower level after decades of decay, or any of a thousand other potential deathtraps. Diving a natural wreck can be a dangerous thing. Also, as I mentioned first, when there was an associated loss of life, it has that added emotional element which a diver feels very intensely. Especially at night.

All of that runs through my mind and my emotions as I descend, first into the pure, disorienting, inky blackness and then into something recognizable as landscape as the bottom begins to appear in my divelight along with the scattered wreckage from a tragedy of a century and a half ago.

How can I describe night diving to you when you haven’t done it? Even a brightly-lit day dive feels very much like being an interstellar explorer floating in your antigravity suit over an utterly alien world, breathing your own bottled air because the aliens’ atmosphere is deadly to humans. The lifeforms are at once oddly beautiful and extremely bizarre. They do unexpected things. They burst from their camouflaged hiding place right before your eyes, startling you. Fight or flight? Oh, ok, neither. He’s just zooming away because he was startled by my appearance. I can relax. Temporarily.

Now add darkness to that experience. A profound blackness, relieved only by the small, narrow, pathetically yellowish cone of your hand-held light. Is that its natural wavelength or is it failing? Eek. No, it’s fine. I’m sure it’s fine and my fellow explorers are all close by with their (pathetic) lights if need be. And the bizarre landscapes and odd creatures begin to appear in my cone of vision.

The stark, broken ribs of a dead ship, illuminated in relief by another diver’s light. Immense lobsters peering from beneath a twisted bulkhead. Tools once used by a steamfitter now long-dead, whose remains are perhaps still here with us. A large dog snapper hiding near Jon and using his light to find and devour prey. Devious bastard. Sleeping parrotfish cocooned in their mucous sacs. And on and on. New visions appearing as previous ones fall behind and out of my cone of visibility, disappearing from my ken. Familiar creatures in an unfamiliar reality.

I don’t have the words to describe for you all the thoughts and feelings I experienced on this exquisite night dive. Remembering and mourning all those souls lost during this tragedy, while exulting in the infinite delights of such a wonderful, alien experience.

Go to Jon’s flickr page and look at his photos. Here, starting with the one titled, appropriately, “night dive.” There are only a few from that dive but that’s a few more than I have to show you.

After that dive, we returned to Kokomo for some dinner and a contemplative evening.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

VirginSSUDs2011 Trip Report - Day 4

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea!

Another perfect Caribbean morning with breakfast smells wafting from Jon’s labors over the propane boat stove. Today would be the second day of planned diving but I was opting out and sending the boys off on their own with the pros from BWD while I lazed indulgently on the boat. Remember when I mentioned that on Day1 I had fallen through an open hatch? Well, the fuller story on that is that I was probably lucky I didn’t actually break something. I went through the hatch with my right leg, twisting my left knee and landing hard on the hatch edge at the spot where my glutes meet my lower lumbars, mostly on the right side.

(Jon's photo)

That left knee is the one I’d damaged a coupla times in the past and finally tore the meniscus a coupla years ago, resulting in ‘scope surgery which made it lots better but not perfect. Now that poor, old thing was twisted and swollen. My buttock/lumbar area which had slammed into the hatch edge was very swollen and sore. The first coupla days, I stuck a constant stream of ice packs into the rear of my waistband and borrowed a coupla Vicodin from Jon to help me sleep. Given all that, our two snorkels on Day2 and our two dives on Day3 had really worn me out because I use all those muscles significantly when kicking with fins. In addition to the dives scheduled for this day, we were planning a night dive the following day. I decided that I’d rather skip these day dives and have some energy for the night dive rather than wear myself out so completely from three days of kick-cycles in a row that I’d be too sore to do the night dive.

Night dives are exciting and we were planning one on the wreck of the Rhone. Remember the movie The Deep with Jacqueline Bisset in a wet T-shirt? The underwater scenes for that movie were filmed on the Rhone. I didn’t wanna miss that. It’s a very cool wreck. And did I mention this would be a NIGHT dive? Oh yeah!

So, when BWD showed up, I waved to the boys from the cockpit of Kokomo as they sped off to dive without me. Sniff. They grow up so fast.

I basically spent the morning napping, icing my ass, reading a bit, and just enjoying some quiet time in a beautiful, little anchorage. From what I hear, the fellas dove Soldier’s Bay and Black Forest, famous for its dense colony of black coral, which is now endangered as a result of its popularity as jewelry. I do wish I’d gotten to see that. But as for specifics, you’ll hafta bug Jon and Ben because I wasn’t there.

I sit here now, on the morning of 3 July 2011, with a house full of still-sleeping teens, preparing for our annual Fourth of July festival at the beach, breakfasting on a miniBabyRuth, planning our food contribution for tomorrow’s extravaganza, thinking about making brunch for the gang, but nonetheless, calmly at peace within myself, revisiting that lovely, quiet morning on the water, smelling the salt air, listening to the wind whispering to the rigging and the waves caressing the hull with gentle slaps, seeing the blue of the sky, the green of the land, the blue of the ocean, and the white of the beach sand, and feeling infinite and eternal.

Now would be a good time for me to mention that Jon has blogged about the trip here and posted his photos here. I highly recommend that you visit both places.

Once the boys returned, showered off both themselves and their gear with fresh water, and had some lunch, we decided to head to Cooper Island for two reasons: 1. Little Harbour is a VERY protected anchorage, a little too protected from the cooling breeze, and 2. We needed ice and the guide books said Cooper had ice for sale. We could have obtained ice around the corner on Peter but that complex is currently owned by the Amway assholes and I didn’t wanna give them any business, even the price of a coupla bags of ice. Besides, I had really enjoyed Cooper during past cruises through the islands and was looking forward to sharing a painkiller with the guys.

So we hauled anchor, smoothly and competently I might add, and raised sails, still smooth and competent!, and headed on over to Cooper Island. A bunch of tacking later, we dropped sails and motored to the mooring field, looking for an open ball. Hmmm, pretty damned popular here today. Finally spotted the last available ball and put the pedal to the metal to beat another boat to it. Sorry! Settled in.

Cooper used to be just a beach shack kinda bar run by a coupla guys and their large Rhodesian Ridgeback; but that was a decade and more ago. Now, it’s trying hard to be an upscale resort. We ambled up to the fancy bar to pay for our mooring and buy ice. Barkeep said, “No ice. Maybe in the morning.” I’ll tell you now, out of chronological order, that there was no ice on the morrow, either. Fuckers. Therefore, we didn’t grace them with any of our dollars for their damned yuppie painkillers. We’d get some somewhere else.

Not much else to say about this day. Another lovely dinner by Jon, some pleasant alcoholic beverages, a beautiful sunset, and the coming of Mother Nox with her entourage of stars.

Tomorrow would be our night dive on the wreck of the Rhone, first ever night dive for the guys, first night dive for me on the Rhone. Something to dream about.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

VirginSSUDs2011 Trip Report - Day 3

Take Me Down, Blue Water Divers, Take Me Down

Happy Father’s Day to us! What better way to celebrate this day than on a (Virgin)SSUDs(2011) adventure? Ok, maybe with our families but we do that every year. This was the perfect nonfamily, unusual way to do Father’s Day, with my wonderful SSUDs fellows! I started the day by opening a card Chloe had included in my luggage, a lovely, hand-made one.

The morning tingled with excited tension for more than just Father’s Day. Today we’d do our first SCUBA dives of the trip. Jon and Ben had both just been certified and their only dives had been their checkout dives for their certification classes. This morning’s dives would be their first real-world dives. After another wonderful breakfast prepared by Jon, we powered up the VHF to listen for BWD’s call and began gathering our gear.

I fought my way into the lower half of my skinsuit and left the arms tied around my waist, throwing my long-sleeved white wicking shirt over my upper body, SCUBA booties on my feet, and my bejeweled CAPTAIN’s hat on my head. Mask, fins, snorkel, regulator, gloves, shortie wetsuit, and plastic laminate dive tables and fish id charts in my net bag. Towel and dry shorts ready to hand and valuables in the drybag. Ok, ready for that radio callup.

A short eternity later, we heard the radio call “Kokomo, Kokomo, Kokomo…” Once they knew to look for the catamaran with aqua sailcovers and a LARGE pirate flag flying from the spreaders, they pulled alongside and we boarded the diveboat.

We were greeted there by a disparate group of divers, hip 20-somethings, fat middle-aged guys, a skinny older guy who turned out to be from Ashland, Oregon where Chloe will soon do her Shakespeare Festival internship, and we three oddballs. The captain/divemaster hmmmed at Ben’s and Jon’s newly-minted C-cards then hmmmed again at my ragged Divemaster C-card which was (probably) older than he was. A quick ride had us tied to the diveboat mooring in the area between The Indians and Pelican Island. A short briefing in Dutch-accented English from our Divemaster, Boed (casually pronounced as “Boots”), and we started gearing up to spend an hour or so under the ocean’s deceptive surface. The silent world. The secret world. The crepuscular revealed. Yeah, baby!

Gearing up on a crowded, pitching diveboat is, let’s admit it, a pain in the ass. Eventually, you’re encumbered in what seems like a ton of gear, with awkward, long flipper-feet, and your vision obscured by the mask on your face. Then, ya gotta lean over backwards from your seat on the gunwale and trust that you’ll fall into the water uninjured, with your regulator supplying fresh air to you and your BC inflated to keep you at the surface instead of empty which would allow you to continue to plunge, backwards and upside down, to the seafloor.

You did remember to turn on your tank to allow your gear to work, especially your regulator!, and you did fill your BC before you backrolled, right?

In the same way that we laugh at penguins on land but admire their agility in the water, once you’re in the proper environment, you are, like the noble penguin, no longer awkward and limited. You are weightless, and sleek, and free in three dimensions.

Once everyone is in the water, Divemaster Boed gives us the go-ahead to descend. Everyone raises his/her left hand into the air, grasping the BC control tube, and dumps positive buoyancy. We descend into Mother Ocean, the Panthalassa of Classical Greece. All saltwater in the world is connected; once you enter saltwater you are simultaneously in your particular place but also connected to the entire world. Both comforting and a tad scary.

Floating down into the comfortable, blue world, the awkwardness of the surface disappears; you’re now a creature of the ocean, a three-dimensional being, moving freely and smoothly in a lovely, supporting medium. Fellow swimmers come to greet you, yellowtails, tangs, sergeant-majors, grunts, parrotfish, and on and on. Fans and other soft denizens sway in the gentle current. We explore this new universe, supported and embraced by our original home, Panthalassa.

A timeless time and a distanceless distance later, we’re back at the mooring line, ready to return to the world of gravity. Hand over hand, up the mooring line, following our bubbles to the silver surface. Fins off, and it’s grunt up the boarding ladder with the now-heavy gear pulling you endlessly toward the center of the earth. Resistance is temporarily successful and with gear shed and stripped back to just me in my skinsuit, I sit and breathe ambient air for the first time in an hour. And blow lots of salty snot from my nose. A quick drink of fresh water to clear the palate and I’m ready to head to our second dive.

Once everyone is back aboard, we zoom over to our second dive of the morning. We chat and Divemaster Boet gives a dive briefing while we count down our required surface interval between dives. This one is called Angelfish Reef. Boet jokes that, just as we saw no pelicans at Pelican Island, we’re not likely to see angelfish at Angelfish Reef. We do, however, expect to see a spotted drum, which is kinda rare, and, even cooler, a coupla spotted drum babies. Excellent.

Surface interval done, we once again do the gearing-up process and drop in to the welcoming blue. It feels like going home. Once again we see a wide variety of vibrant reef life and we do find the baby drums. Very cool. And then again we are suddenly out of bottom time and Boet signals us to surface. Sigh.

This time, back aboard the diveboat I strip out of my skinsuit completely and put on my dry shorts and long-sleeve wicking shirt for the ride back to Kokomo. Some fresh water to cleanse my salty palate and I can see Jon and Ben vibrating with excitement and delight. They don’t need to speak to tell me that they now know intuitively that SCUBA is truly a heart’s desire for them. Their faces say it all.

Back at Kokomo, we had some lunch and revisited/re-lived our experiences of the morning. After rinsing all our gear with the fresh-water shower on the port transom top step, we rested a bit then freed ourselves from our mooring to sail to a new overnight spot, anchored in Little Harbour (British spelling, of course) at Peter Island. A pleasant sail took us to Little Harbour which used to be watched over by Percy Chubb III from his house on the hill. He was infamous for shooting his high-powered rifle through the mainsail of people who irritated him by doing unseamanlike things, like dumping their garbage in the bay. Nowadays, his house, which formerly would have been marked on sailing charts as “conspic. white house”, is just a ruin. Tempus fugit. My crew and I completed a smooth and successful deployment of our anchor and we were settled in for the evening, ready for BWD to visit us again the next morning.

And the morning and the evening were the third day. Or fourth, depending on how you count.

Friday, July 01, 2011

VirginSSUDs2011 Trip Report - Day 2

Pirates and Indians and Cap’n Ben. Oh my!

After our first night’s sleep onboard, I woke to the smell of frying bacon. Ahhhhhh. I don’t think any of us slept well but on the boat on the water you fall into that natural rhythm and Jon was up and at the stove. Following a lovely breakfast, we decided to motor around the corner to the “treasure caves” which were located in the next bay of Norman Is.

Gold coins have been found there over the years, as recently as the 1950s. Historically, pirates used the Virgin Islands as a hangout and scouting area to prey on passing ships and many a rich cargo was kept, at least temporarily, on these islands. It’s widely reported that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island based on the caves and anchorages of Norman Is.

We untied from our mooring ball and motored around the headland to see if we could luck into a spot with the big boat because there are only a few big-boat mooring balls at the caves and they get occupied early. If we couldn’t get an open one, we’d hafta return to our mooring at the bight and dinghy back to the caves because there’s a long dinghy tie-up area where there’s always room. Happily, there was a big-boat ball open and we grabbed it.

Time now to introduce my boys to the joys of Caribbean snorkeling. Ben and I started pulling on our skinsuits. If I were a woman I would detest wearing stockings. Pulling on that damned skinsuit is a chore but I finally got it done. Jon elected to go with a shorty wetsuit and had decided to be an underwater photographer for this trip so he had to prep his camera and housing as well. I was the first to be fully suited and ready so I grabbed my mask, fins, and snorkel, and I settled down on the bottom step of our port transom.

I spit in my mask like a good Neanderthal, cuz only weenies use that fake spit from a bottle, strapped on my gigantic fins, adjusted my mask, put my snorkel in my mouth, and eased into that lovely 85-degree water. A quick scan showed me that the very first fish my pals would see on this trip would be the Great barracuda who was lurking hovering just between our hulls. I quickly raised my head out of the water and said, “Dudes, ‘cuda!” and pointed to his position. Ben was not far behind me and soon joined in, followed quickly by Jon with his camera at the ready.

Once we tired of the ‘cuda, we headed on over to the caves, doing a little fish spotting on the way and seeing the usual proliferation of Yellowtail snappers, Sergeant majors, Blue tangs (Don’t ever ask Chloe about Blue tangs!), several species of parrotfish, and all those cute little wrasses and basslets. There are several caves and all can be entered with snorkel gear. We explored them in turn, going all the way through one, and entering the total dark of another where the smell of bat guano was distinct. Finally, we exhausted the cave experience and returned to Kokomo.

Our next intended stop was a rocky coral-encrusted system just off Norman Island called The Indians. Like most of the good snorkelling/diving spots in the Virgins, it is controlled and administered by their national park service. Anchoring is prohibited, to prevent coral damage, and you must use one of their mooring balls. During busy times, there can be a wait before someone leaves and makes a ball available. We headed directly for The Indians, intending to have lunch en route and/or there. As it turned out, we did hafta circle for a while before a ball became available but when it did we grabbed it and settled in to have some lunch before going for a snorkel on this densely-populated reef.

Naturally, you’re not supposed to feed the fish but we did anyway. Feel free to lambast me. I can take it. The reef system of The Indians is very alive and features a wide variety of fish species. We snorkelled around, occasionally releasing some chopped up meat to those brave souls who swam right up to us. The sun was high and bright, the visibility was good, and the reef displayed its magnificence to us. All the usual fish species were present and most were willing to come right up close for some snackage. Jon snapped and snapped, saving memories for the future. We essentially circled The Indians and returned to Kokomo, tired but delighted.

Some rest and hydration refreshed our energy to the point that we were ready to go for a little sail. Hoisting all our canvas, we went hard on the wind on a starboard tack. Ben took the helm and kept Kokomo in the groove. After a while, I decided this crew was capable of tacking so I gave a short explanation of how it works and then Ben called the tack.

We came around smooth and easy and settled nicely onto a port tack, pretty as you please. Nicely done, boys!

After sailing around a while just for fun, we decided to head back to the bight cuz that’s where Blue Water Divers expected to find us when they arrived the next morning for our first Virgin dive. (Is that redundant? I don’t think so.) Dropped sails like pros and motored to a mooring ball. Hooked up and we were settled for the night. Lovely dinner, beautiful sunset, and some exquisite memories.

Diving tomorrow.