It's about diving. And cats.

Me diving

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Curse of the SW Loop

Matt had Phil on Saturday, so he asked if Rob and I wanted to join him for a dive, which of course we did. After mulling our options, we planned to do one of our usual Massively Multi-Level Dives (TM) with 15/55 and 3 deco gases. The forecast was for small swell and a bit of wind. But when we got there, there really wasn't much wind. So we decided to head for our first choice site, the southwest loop at Mount Chamberlin. I don't think Matt had ever been there before. The tide was quite low; in fact, it was so low, that when we were launching the boat, one of Phil's trailer tires went over the edge of the ramp. Everything was fine, and then I hopped out of the boat to get my Hero-cam out of the car (which I had forgotten), and when I came back, the boat was leaning at a very strange angle. I was a bit worried about the stability of the boat when I was climbing back in, but I didn't manage to put the other tire over the edge. Phil was able to get the trailer up the ramp without a problem and reported that he has always been afraid of that happening, and not that it happened and wasn't a problem, he's not so afraid of it. Once we got going, the conditions were quite nice, though it was overcast. It was a pretty good day to be gearing up in the RIB, from the swell and wind perspective, but we expected the wind to get worse later on. We rolled into the water to find just a little bit of current. We had agreed to a slightly extended stop at 20' for the usual bubble checks plus a moment for our ears. We were greeted by green chunky viz at 20', and we did bubble checks around. I looked at the line and back at the team and I saw that Rob was putting his backup gauge on his wrist. He asked Matt to help him pack some of the stuff back into his pocket, so I looked back toward the line to make sure we didn't lose it. As I looked forward, I noticed my light had died. Hmph. Two failures and we hadn't even made it past 20'.

We continued down the line, and it got darker and darker as we went. By the time we hit the reef at around 170' or so, it was nearly night-dive dark. I deployed my backup light, or perhaps it would be more fair to say that I attempted to deploy my backup light. My backup lights both lack the bezel cover thing on the part that you turn -- good ol' Halcyon manufacturing :) After falling off and having Frank glue them back on a few times, I eventually gave up. Anyhoo, I don't know if it was the cold, or my gloves or the need for a little more lube on that o-ring, but my hand just kept sliding around on the bezel and I was totally incapable of turning the light on. So I unclipped it (while it was turned off, gasp... Rob was horrified by this), tried yet again to turn it on and finally handed it off to Rob and he got it on :) Hehe. Once that was dealt with, we headed down to the deeper part of the wall. As we were scootering down into the depths, I started to feel like I was huffing and puffing and out of breath. I started to doodle with the adjustment on my second stage, but it was all the way open. I started wondering if I was stressed out by something... it was awfully dark and I was on my little scout light, but, well, the darkness really isn't usually scary to me. By the time we got to our destination, a sort of nook or vertical crack along the wall, I felt like I couldn't catch my breath. I signaled Rob (which was not terribly effective with my little scout light up against his primary light), and told him my reg was being wonky and switched to my backup. I breathed on that for a minute and felt better. This didn't seem very conclusive though, since just hanging out doing nothing for a minute may have helped. So I switched back onto my primary briefly (which momentarily caused my backup to free-flow), just long enough to realize that breathing off of it was like sucking concrete through a straw.

I went back to my backup and we agreed to head up to our first switch. We got just a bit above 190' and for one reason or another, we stopped. There was some sort of miscommunication, and I thought we were going onto our 190 bottles (since we were, after all, at 190' :P). I wanted to see how my reg breathed at this depth, to see if it would be reasonable to continue the shallower segment of the dive, so I switched back onto it. In the meantime, my backup reg started free-flowing once again, and I couldn't get it to stop. Rob came over and tried to help me with it and he couldn't either, so I went to shut down the post. Before I got it more than a few turns, Rob managed to get it to stop. I opened it back up and signaled to continue up the reef. Rob stopped me and started fiddling with my valves... I assumed he thought I hadn't re-opened my left post (and started to doubt that I had). It turns out, he thought the bubbling had stopped when I shut the post down, so he went in to "debug" it. He realized this wasn't the case when he found the valve completely open (but I didn't know this until we discussed it post-dive... I assumed -- and was rather horrified -- that I had actually forgotten to re-open the post and then sheepishly did a flow check after he finished). We continued up to about 160', and in the intervening time, I found my primary regulator to be breathable but not great. But it was definitely better than it was deeper.

At about 160', we switched onto our bottles, and after a brief discussion, we agreed to do a dive in the 150' range on the bottles. I'd say we did about 25 minutes or so on the bottles. It seemed much brighter at this depth, though I think that's mostly because my eyes had adjusted to the darkness deeper -- on the way down, 150' was super dark. The original plan had been to cut up the big canyon that runs perpendicular to the south wall and leads to K2. We more or less did that, except that we cut across the top of the mount instead of running along the south wall. We eventually hit a canyon, though I think it was the next one to the west of the "big canyon". We meandered in there for a bit. We found this little "cave" well really more of an underpass in the reef, which I saw Rob poking his head into. I am pretty sure Kevin has attempted to go through here before... I don't think it worked out that well, though I do think he made it through. Rob eventually decided not to go for it. One notable thing we saw right around there was a gigantor vermilion. Vermilion-zilla, I'd say. Rob got his camera out to take a picture, but in the time that that took, the fish swam off. So Matt and I tried to pose a bit up the reef from Rob and he took a few shots. But he declared after the dive that he "didn't get anything" (not sure he even looked at the pics) because it was too dark. Hence the lack of pictures in this post.

After a bit of time there, we continued in, and before you know it, there were the tell-tale signs of K2 -- you know those sad little kelplets on the barren side. And then we were at K2. I was quite impressed that Rob got us there, first because the viz sucked and second because we had not taken the usual path. So when we got there, I tried to tell him "good job on the navigation". After my first attempt, Rob looked really concerned like he thought something was wrong. No, I'm just flapping around excitedly that we found K2! On the second try, he got it (I think). After meandering around there for a few minutes we started the ascent. The only thing I can really report on from K2 was a bunch of Dotos, which I forced Matt to look at :P We started the ascent and once we were all on our 70 bottles, we held a conference on the deco plan. Obviously this was not the dive we had planned for. I had an idea in my mind of what the deco should be, and then Rob whipped out his very handy dandy multi-level dive table in his wetnotes. In this depth range, the table does not account for a 21/35 bottle -- it assumes backgas to 70 feet (this is something we've talked about fixing on numerous occasions, but haven't gotten around to doing that), but it still gives us an idea of the upper bound on the deco. After passing it around, we agreed to the deco profile I had in mind. Woohoo.

By that point, the stop was nearly over, so Rob rotated his bottles but Matt and I waited until 60'. My bottle rotation was unimpressive but got the job done. A moment into it, Rob started gesticulating wildly at me to come up. I looked at my gauge and it said 61 feet. I didn't see how that warranted such wild gesticulations. Much later on the deco, Rob realized his gauge was reading deeper than ours... because it was calibrated for freshwater (Rob isn't as gear savvy as me, or he would have realized that right away). But after the dive, Rob told me that my bottle rotation was "going downhill long before that". So, unimpressive I guess. When we got to 40', Rob asked me if he could test breathe my right post regulator. Setting aside the fact that donating your primary reg when you are breathing from a bottle is a bit of a tangle of hoses, I didn't really see the value since well, it was like 200' or so shallower than it had been when I couldn't breathe it. He took it, breathed a couple breaths and gave me the shrug. I read the shrug as "nothing wrong with it" which was highly annoying. Rob had some sort of convoluted explanation of how he wasn't really being a jackass, which did have some merit.

From 30' up, we were greeted by a menagerie of jelly animals. In addition to the usual assortment of jelly animals, we saw some cool new-to-me tiny jellies. There was one kind that we saw a ton of, which looked like a pea (you know, the small green vegetable) with wings. It was clear with a purple-ish tinge. There were a zillion of those, and I was quite intrigued to watch them flutter their tiny little wings to move around. There was another tiny one that I found that looked, to me, like a tiny transparent bird, but instead of a beak it had two little horns. And tiny little wings that it flapped to move. Between those two, I was quite transfixed throughout deco. But there were lots of other mysterious jelly critters too. I have to say that critter-wise, I think the deco was a lot more impressive than the dive! We surfaced to slightly snottier conditions with some whitecaps, but nothing too bad. Well, it may have been bad for Phil. But the ride home was fine.

After we got back to Lobos and de-boated, we headed to R.G. Matt gave me a ride home, since Rob was staying down until Sunday to dive again (on a boat that ended up being cancelled). Once I got back to Matt's place, I headed straight to Anywater Sports to drop my regulator off plus I had some other business to attend to. I told Frank about my regulator problem, but told him I could leave it for him to work on. But I've noticed that when I show up with a good story, Frank usually has to look it right away. I suppose it works better that way, since he asked me a variety of questions to diagnose the problem as he worked. The first question that he asked me was what was the "history" of the reg, and my answer was not the right one. Well, right in the sense that it was true, but not what Frank wanted to hear :) I told him that we had this reg, it was in the pile of stage regs, and then when my right post started going "ker-clunk ker-clunk" whenever I breathed from it, I swapped it out and used this stage reg on my right post instead. (Frank was familiar with the ker-clunk, since he had recently fixed that reg, but I had been too lazy to swap it back in.) Apparently putting a stage reg on your backgas is frowned upon. This makes sense, I suppose, since the stage regs do tend to get water in them with high frequency, but I'd always thought of all of my regs as interchangeable. So Frank thought this was insane right off the bat. He put the reg on his magic machine (which Rob tells me is called a "magnehelic") and said that if anything the reg seemed to be breathing too easily. Hmmm. By this point I was pretty convinced that I had not imagined the whole thing, so I told him this could not be so. He asked me a bit more about the problem, and I described how it was okay on the way down but just got worse as I got deeper and then was reasonably okay on the way up (at 80' and 30'). He asked me if my valve was open the whole way. Teehee. I told him yes. Then he formulated a theory about the filter being blocked in some way and not letting enough gas pass through. After popping it open, this was confirmed, as the filter was rather corroded. I must admit I was a bit relieved, since I felt like Rob doubted that there was anything wrong with my reg at all, and I just thumbed the dive because it was dark and scary (though he denies that). The entire inside of the reg was just in terrible shape, and Frank confirmed that he had not been the last person to service it (based on some things he routinely does, which had not been done).

After further thought, I realized that this reg must have been put into the stage reg rotation without ever being serviced or looked at by Frank (it was bought used, and typically the first thing we do with used regs is bring them to Frank to look at). In fact, I remember when we first got it, I never used it because I didn't think it had gone through the Frank check (it was a very crusty looking reg, so I just couldn't believe it had) but then Rob told me it was ready to use. Hmmm :) I think Frank was a bit disturbed that I was diving such a reg on my backgas on such a dive as this. There was a bit of a (well-deserved) lecture about how we need to be more on top of our gear maintenance considering the dives we are doing. Frank suggested we track our stuff on a spreadsheet (I think a relational database would be better; Rob prefers a distributed in-memory data grid). So in the end, Frank did a complete overhaul of the reg while I waited. Also while I waited, Kevin serviced the valve on my O2 bottle, and Nathan put spring straps on my jet fins. I had left my jet fins in Florida on the last trip, to be replaced with a new (used) pair that was still sporting the rubber straps (and I managed to dive with them several times without dying, if you can believe that!). So of course I had to snap a picture of the three of them all tirelessly working on my gear.

I've retold this story a number of times because, well, most people find it interesting when "interesting" things happen on dives :) Every time I tell it, I think it sounds a bit more dramatic than it really was. In fact, in the water, it didn't seem very dramatic at all. After I saw the inside of the regulator, it seemed quite a bit more dramatic. But whether it was dramatic or not, I think there are some useful lessons to be learned:
- Servicing gear is good. I think we have been a bit cavalier about servicing gear proactively in the past. We usually go with the "wait until it don't breathe good" approach to gear service. Putting a second-hand reg into use without service was just plain careless. We also frequently come back from a multi-bottle dive and after stripping all of our regs off of our bottles, we realize one was breathing badly (e.g. "the reg on my 50%"), but we have no way to identify it! So we are going to number our regs (or something) so if something is misbehaving in the water, we can remember which numbered reg it was.
- Failures do happen, but hardly ever. This is the first significant reg failure I've ever had. In fact, I think I could count on one hand the number of significant gear failures that have occurred in my team on all of my dives. (Maybe two hands if major suit floods are included.) I'm feeling a bit cursed lately with a wing failure, a team failure, and now a reg failure happening over a relatively short time period; but the truth is, failures almost never happen. Which makes it hard to know how you will actually deal with a real failure. In some sense, it's good to have a small problem every now and then, because it makes you more confident that you can deal with problems in the water -- I think this is way more useful experience than doing 100 valve drills. But considering all of the things we do to try to avoid these sorts of problems, it takes a lot of dives to gain that kind of experience. I guess that's a reason that it is good, for instance, that GUE requires a minimum number of dives between consecutive classes. Juggling regs at 240' didn't seem like that big a deal after juggling regs (e.g. on bottle switches, valve and S-drills) a few hundred or so times on other dives.
- It's never wrong to call a dive. I felt like I was being seriously judged for thumbing the dive (though I think that was in my head), and I certainly felt like after strapping all this gear on and spending all of this money on gas, etc. for the dive, I should only thumb the dive if there was really something wrong. This is silly. It would have been right to call the dive even if my reg breathing poorly had been in my head -- if you can't catch your breath, it really doesn't matter why. Someone suggested to me that if I were a guy, I wouldn't have thumbed it, and that's probably true. I like to think I bring the sanity and conservatism to the team :) (Matt's pretty sane, but with Rob and Kevin, there can definitely be a sanity void.)
- The service at Anywater Sports is awesome!

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