In the week between the first and second weekends of pool and open-water training, I’m working with some new advantages and disadvantages alike.
As for the advantages, the fear of the unknown is somewhat diminished. And I now have a certain faith in the power of the anti-motion-sickness drug, Bonine, plus the knowledge of how and when to take it for maximum effectiveness.
As for the disadvantages, I’ve seen how badly some people fared on the first trip out. I’ve seen a bunch of green faces, borderline hypothermia cases, and even a perforated eardrum.
Further, I’ve always wondered when would be the day I’d finally bite it on the treacherous railroad-tie steps while hiking Runyon Canyon. Turns out, after tons of erosion from recent rains, my time comes on Friday, just before our second weekend of scuba. I tear up my right arm pretty good, and all I can think about at the time is, “This is going to feel great compressed under a seven-millimeter wetsuit.”
Saturday it’s back in the Hawthorne pool. At least the air is a lot warmer this week, in the 60s. I decide to do the pool training without my wetsuit, thinking I’d prefer a couple hours of being chilled in a heated pool (followed by a hot shower at home) to the distinct displeasure of putting on a still-wet wetsuit on a frigid dive boat. I think it’s the right choice.
Saturday is lovely indeed (granted perhaps more lovely for a day at the farmers market in a light scarf than for an extended swim in a community pool), but I’m watching Sunday’s weather like a hawk. And as Murphy’s Law would dictate, the expected temps fall to a high of about 55 degrees — and rain dominates the forecast.
I don’t sleep well, and beat the 5 a.m. alarm by a full hour so I’m staring owl-eyed at the ceiling from 4 a.m. We head down to San Pedro again, in the rain. This time, our boat seems smaller. I don’t love the configuration. While husband is inside the galley bromancing the strongest diver in our group (he’ll deny), I stake my claim alone, in the front of the boat, to stare into the horizon in an effort to combat seasickness. There’s zero visibility, fog all around the harbor. It’s downright serene, actually, like the sound-absorbing blanket formed by new, unsullied snow in New York — and also like that pretty layer of city snow, the fog belies certain incivilities. Traveling by boat under these weather conditions will not be ideal.
And on this boat, the trip will be 2.5 hours each way, considerably longer than on our first trip out. We see tons of dolphins, at least a dozen, all swimming along for the boost our boat gives them out to Catalina.
When we arrive for the first dive, I am pleased to put on a dry wetsuit. We have much larger tanks this time, and our dives can be close to an hour apiece, versus less than half that on the first go. We practice some basic skills underwater, and then do a little sightseeing jaunt. I’m the only one in our group to spot a ray, and I want to be like, “HEY GUYS!” but underwater you can’t do that.
On the ascent, I start to feel the palpable sense of relief that comes with knowing you’re almost there. One dive to go to be certified.
After the first dive, I can’t feel my feet. It’s not pleasant. I run some hot water on them from the shower (pause to note that there are actually two showers on this boat, but at least one of the bathrooms that contains a shower is out of order almost from jump street) and that turns the numbness into a certain ice pick stabby feeling.
Let me also note here that several experienced people on our boat are diving in what’s known as “dry suits,” or what you wear in waters that are too cold to dive in even the thickest wetsuits. Think space suit with pee valve. It’s futuristic, and I’m jealous.
It’s raining when we go back into the water for the second dive — this one will be my last before I’m certified if all goes well. The first skill I practice in the water is the emergency, out-of-air ascent (exhaling steadily with no inhaling on the way up, and then manually inflating your buoyancy compensator, or “BC,” at the top). I do fine, but I’m winded from this exercise off the bat.
Next comes removing the BC vest in open water and replacing it. No problem. Now I need to demonstrate that I can remove the weight package from the BC and replace it. For some reason, I struggle with this one. I pull the weight out but can’t find the pocket to reinsert it and I fumble around for minutes — maybe five or eight — while I’m getting more and more tired. I finally get it, but I’m both winded and frustrated. Whatever, it’s done — you don’t get points for grace in scuba certification anyway.
Then, we descend, practice a bit of compass navigation, and it’s mostly a pleasure dive after that. Somewhere on the bottom of the sea where we are diving, I find someone else’s weight pack — evidently someone else didn’t reinsert it successfully at all. In an unnecessary show-offy gesture, I grab the weights and swim them up to our instructor. I am proud, but tired.
Our instructor finds a little abalone shell and hands it to me. I put it in my weight pocket to add to my collection of shells from around the world. I’m proud of this one.
After nearly a full hour, we ascend. Husband is among a group to be officially certified at that moment, but I have one more skill to practice: the tired-diver tow. Meaning, I am supposed to tow my six-foot-two husband back to the boat — when I am in fact a tired diver myself. Gracelessly, I do it.
And that’s it. We’re both certified. We look up to see a full arcing rainbow spanning the sea. I don’t know if you believe in omens, but…
I change out of my wetsuit and opt out of the third and optional dive. I’m ready to get warm and relax. Husband opts out too. We’re good. High fives. Out of the eight people with whom we started out in the group, five become certified. I’m the only woman. Snaps.
With both bathrooms now apparently out of order, I forgo a hot shower, and go down into the bunk room for minimal privacy to change into dry clothes. The boat is lurching pretty wildly, but I have a lot of layers to put on. It takes a while, and I’m a little green by the time I come up.
Let’s see, what meal is on offer in the galley kitchen around that time? I believe it might be chili. Chili, people. One of five (five!) meals offered on our 12-hour day at sea. No thanks. I opt only for a Power Bar and PB&J sandwich I’d brought.
Let me recap the meals offered on the violently pitching boat that day: eggs with sausage (OMG), chili (seriously?), hot dogs (the vegetarian option: cheese and crackers), spaghetti — and evidently I blocked out the fifth one from my mind’s eye.
At close to 4 p.m., all divers are back on board, and we set off for the harbor. By then, the boat is tossing turbulently. It’s like the Deadliest Catch up in there. But it’s too cold and wet to try to ride it out outside. I put my head down on my bag on the table, first to sleep, and then just to try to keep the motion sickness at bay. I see my mom is blowing up my phone, probably trying to confirm our safety as it’s after dark now. Sorry, mom, can’t talk now: focusing on trying not to smell any food and not make any demands of my delicate equilibrium. Bonine, bless its heart, can only do so much.
I do open my eyes to tell husband, “When we get back to land, I may have to high tail it off this boat and walk around the parking lot for a few minutes. I’ll keep my phone on me.”
Turns out, I’m OK when we arrive, long after dark. We pack up our gear, collect high fives from our instructor (who, it might be noted, is exactly the type I would have crushed on in college — crazy curly hair a couple more dives away from dreadlocks, free spirited, wry and self deprecating, wide eyed. To be a 23-year-old recent Berkeley grad again!). At last we’re in the car. Seat heaters: full blast.
On the way home, we pick up giant bowls of veggie pho and eat it as we’re falling asleep on the sofa at 7:30. I’m joking I should still be wearing my regulator so I won’t drown in case I fall asleep in my soup.
And that’s all she wrote, y’all. Lifetime certified.
Let me say this to wrap up: Back in Berkeley, my sister and I were both in a little rock-climbing phase. The first time she went up the wall in the climbing gym, she thought she’d just give it a go. After a good climb, she signaled to the person belaying her that she was ready to come down. Instead, the holder of the ropes said, why don’t you go ahead to the top? You can do it! And she did it. She got there and touched that marker way up top. And it felt kind of amazing, even though she didn’t even know she’d wanted it.
I think about that anecdote a lot.
Sometimes you don’t even think you want something real bad, but when you achieve it — through overcoming physical and mental obstacles — you feel like a million bucks. You learn about what you’re capable of if you try.
I think scuba certification in wintertime conditions for me is like that. It shall be a thing I can always look back on when I’m facing fears and challenges. It’s that POV I’ll now have forever in my tool box, the thing that proves, “Yes, girl. You CAN do that.”