Cave Diving, Cave Exploration and Cave Mapping in Yucatan, Mexico
Rebreather Diver at Chac Mool Cavern, Mexico

Category — Rebreathers

Getting Stuck at Vaca Ha!

Wow, the last time I wrote about diving was on December 23.  That feels like a long time ago.  Well, the reason I haven’t written is the diving I am doing hasn’t provided much that I can write about.  I am involved in a resurvey project; Alain and I are collaborating with 2 other fine gentlemen, I am sure you would recognize both of their names if I mentioned them.  Most of my diving has been in the same system laying line and surveying it.  So far we have surveyed 2400ft of cave with an error of about .75%.   We are very pleased with our progress.  Eventually, I will write about in detail.  Now that you have been updated, we can move on to the new dive site I visited today, Vaca Ha.

Patrick and I have been talking about making some CCR dives at Vaca Ha and Tortuga for almost a year.  It seems like the perfect site, good depth and big cave.  Every time we had the time to go, we decided to go somewhere else like The Pit.  Well, I needed to dive somewhere new after a month on the aforementioned project and I decided to hit Vaca Ha.

On Friday night I assembled the breather.  It had been a couple of months since I used it.  Actually, it had been since Patrick’s accident.   It needed a good once over and when I fired it up I found number 2 cell was completely dead.  Luckily, I have a bunch of cells on hand and I made a quick swap.  Everything else checked out.

Since I hadn’t been to Vaca Ha before I needed to get some information on how to access the site and what I should expect.  I called Steve Bogaerts and Bil Philips.  Between the two of them I got the information I needed.  It ends up that Bil Philips mapped Vaca Ha, so I called the right guy.

Vaca Ha Cenote and a Team from Cave Heaven

Entrance to the site is 80 Pesos and the key can be picked up from the land owner, Latacia, in Tulum.  With Bil’s directions getting the key was easy as can be. Vaca Ha is about 5 miles out of Tulum on Coba Road.  Once through the gate drive straight back, don’t take the road to the left, it goes to Tortuga.  The Cenote is a small pool at the edge of a swamp.  It is just big enough for 4-5 people to float around in and do bubble checks.  The guideline starts in open water under the rock overhang.  The pool drops down to 10ft then a smallish cave drops down to 20ft and you enter a minor restriction.  After some tight passage the cave opens up into a beautiful chamber at about 35ft.  Vaca Ha is on the deeper side, my max depth was 76ft and most of my dive was below 50ft.

My first cave dive was up the main line for 35 minutes.  At the 25 minute mark I came to a T.  I took the T left and then came to another T.  I took the T to the right and it ended in a couple of hundred feet.  I turned and checked the other branch; it was going and big enough though I had reached my distance limit for my bailout.  I returned to the first T and checked the other branch, that tunnel was going though it was getting smaller.  I believe it goes to the Strip Tease Restriction and then is too small for CCR after that.  On the way back I checked a couple of the other jumps to the left.  It was an excellent dive.  If you removed the stalactites and stalagmites this cave reminded me of Orange Grove.   Vaca Ha has smooth walls and keyhole shaped passages, very reminiscent.  Maybe it has been a long time since I had been to OG or maybe they are similar.  My first dive ended with out any deco.  It was really satisfying to be on the rebreather again.

On my surface interval I took a 1 hour nap and ate some tuna and an orange.  Not the best tasting combination, but it was food.

Recently, I added half-inch tall d-rings (Manufactured by Steve Bogaerts) to the font of my waist strap in an attempt to get my tanks to ride more level and tighter to the body.  This is a very similar setup to the adjustable rings I use on my sidemount harness for when the tanks get light.  In any event, I used the new d-ring location on the first dive and it really made a difference in the water, I was much more comfortable and I felt more streamlined.  I found the band too low on my tank, so I adjusted up to try and make it ride more smoothly.  It worked well, though I am going to try it even higher on the tank tomorrow.  Moving the clip from the butt plate mounted d-rings to the front of the hips made a world of difference.

On my surface interval I was contemplating where to go next, luckily Adam Korytko from CaveHeaven.com was there guiding.  I asked him and he replied that there is a jump about 13 minutes down the main line to the right and down.  It is marked with a red arrow.  He said it is a beautiful dive and there is a tight restriction.  He wasn’t sure I could pass with the rebreather.  I looked at the team that had just passed it and figured that if they could make it, I could.  I kitted up and hit the water.

Right on schedule I got to the jump.  The jump is down into the halocline and into a short silty passage, so buoyancy has to be the first order of business.  I have to admit that making the requisite adjustments on the CCR and running the spool without a Goodman handle was a little complicated.  I made the jump clean and didn’t add any new damage to the floor.  About 10-15 minutes up the line it doubles back on itself and enters the restriction.  When I arrived I checked my gases and PO2.  I hovered for a minute or two examining the restriction.  It is sort of peanut shaped.  That is if you bend a peanut in the middle and put the concave side down and rock it so it is sitting on the right lobe.  The restriction makes a slight right turn, so unless you enter inverted you have to arch your back to make the turn.  It was deceiving small and a real bender.  After examining it for a minute and taking into account the team that had passed it, I decided I could make it.

I entered the restriction and immediately made contact with the lid of the canister.  Still convinced I could make it, I wigged in a bit more waiting to pop through.  Before I knew it, I was in the middle and couldn’t go forward or back.  The restriction is more then body length and I was committed.  My chest was on the floor and my canister was key-holed.   I slight wave of fear poured over me.  I struggled for a minute.  It was a shock how much larger I was in my rebreather then in sidemount.

I stopped everything and decided to take inventory of my situation.  I checked my access to my bailout regulator and then dumped all the air out of my wing.  It was time to make myself smaller.  The more I squeezed in, the more my counter lungs were compressed.  I held my breath for a minute to listen for bubbles, one of my fears was tearing the loop and being stuck on bailout.  I started to work my way through again moving left and right looking for the biggest spot.  I twisted a bit to try and unhook the canister.  Still stuck I stopped again and decided to think and breathe for a couple of minutes.  I wanted to make my chest smaller and I wanted to confirm the machine was working correctly.  It is easy to loose track of the machine if you are struggling with something else.

I started to list my options: remove my bailout tank to make some more room, remove the rebreather or work on passing the restriction in my kit.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure I could remove either piece of kit and the idea of removing the breather and possibly loosing control of the bailout tank scared the hell out of me.  That would be the last resort.

Another minute or two passed and I decided to give it a go again.  I wiggled and then decided to push my chest down and put my face in the floor to try and point the lid down.  POP!  I was out on the other side.  On the other side I hovered for a minute or two to collect myself.  I checked the machine over and decided to exit.  I had had enough excitement for one day!

As you can imagine the exit was no joy.  I got stuck again, however not as bad.  I found a better path through and was able to make myself a bit smaller.  Having passed it once, I was sure I could make it again.

On the exit side, I decided to pass the restriction again to determine the best approach.  As I checked over the machine, I saw one of the 02 sensors was more then a .20 low and stayed that way.  I did a 02 spike to confirm the cell was current limited and it didn’t rise at all.  I held my thumb out, called the dive, lowered my set point to put the cell back in range and did a hearty loop flush to confirm my electronics.  Luckily, the change didn’t negatively impact my deco obligation.  I was relieved I had the cell failure and I didn’t go back through the restriction.  Getting stuck the first time was scary.  The cell failure was worth paying attention too, though not a crisis.  The rest of the trip home was uneventful.

This got me to thinking.  What were my viable options once I was stuck?  I know I had the option to not enter the restriction, so set that one aside.  How could I have made myself smaller or change my shape?  The first thought that came to mind was to try and unclip the lungs and swing them out in front of my so I could push my chest into the ground, though I have never tried this while staying on the loop.  This seemed the least problematic.

The next thought was trying to swim out of the breather.  I wasn’t sure how I could accomplish that and maintain control of the bailout and the rebreather.  There was a drop off after the restriction so there was no place to rest the tank.  And after removing the unit I would be stuck holding a tank and a rebreather in 60ft of water.  I would have to push the rebreather back though the restriction and don it again.  I thought about that for a while and decided I would need a no mount harness to clip the tank to once I was out of the CCR.  I would also need to be able to reach my waist to unclip my harness.  Plus, my weight is on the back plate so I would be positive as soon as I was out of the rig.  That seemed like the least pleasant option short of drowning.

What other options exist?  What have you done in this situation?

I think it is worth while to point out that failures and problems come in clusters! Not only did I get stuck but I had a cell failure.  The cell failure is to be expected, they are at the end of their life span.  I wonder how long the cell had been current limited?  Was it the whole time I was dealing with being stuck and did I just miss it, or did it really happen after I exited?  Remember, “Murphy is a cave diver.”

I am going to give this some more thought and try some exercises under the watchful eye of a buddy.  I am interested to know my options and how they will play out.  I am sure this isn’t my last time being stuck.  If I come up with any good results, I will let you know.

January 18, 2009   8 Comments

Getting Bent, How could this happen?

Mhhh…I wish I could entitle this one: “How Not to Get Bent” but unfortunately, that is not what this article is about. I did get bent and this article is just one way for me to analyze what happened and try to find some clues on what I can do different next time.

Most of my personal deep diving experience comes from mixed gas diving in the Egyptian Red Sea. The workload before the dive was minimal since we used a boat to reach the dive site. I usually sat down at the end of the platform with all my stage tanks at arms length. The dive itself was mostly cruising a long a reef wall or wreck at depth, sometimes for pleasure and sometimes for collecting data. Most of the dives were easy swimming since elevating your breathing at depth using Open Circuit Scuba is not really something you want to do. Occasionally, heavy currents made it difficult to hold precise deco stops or forced me to hang on a shot line like a flag in a heavy wind.  Profiles were square shaped sometimes with a single bottom depth and ascent, sometimes a multilevel dive going from deck to deck of a shipwreck for example. Bottom times where typically limited by gas volume and my RMV. Since my resources were very limited in Egypt (80cf tanks only) and I had decided to never make a dive with less then 10min bottom time my depth was automatically limited to about 120m (400ft).

At first I used GAP and later Z-Planner for my custom cut tables.  When I look back on those dives them seem somewhat aggressive, not by choice but by lack of experience and knowledge.  However, I can’t really recall a single time when I felt different after a dive then at the beginning of the dive. Usually, I felt even better because I had spent some time breathing O2.

Doing deep cave dives with extended bottom times requiring long horizontal distances turned out to be way different from doing them in the ocean. These circumstances often force us to do things which can have a very negative impact on our decompression, such as:

  1. Strenuous work before the dive, which includes getting to the site, setting up etc
  2. Strenuous work during the dive, meaning traveling with bigger amounts of equipment long horizontal distances as fast/efficient as possible.
  3. Possible ups and downs as our profile is dictated by the cave which can lead to bounce dives and therefore a higher risk of DCS.
  4. Extended bottom times leading to hours of in water decompression.
  5. Strenuous work post dive, which includes getting all your gear back together and leaving the dive site.

As I reported in the article Three More Trips to The Pit, I believe that our three days at The Pit and my inability to listen to myself, contributed to my accident. Our analysis of the execution of the dive didn’t reveal any of the standard causes, there was no: rapid ascent, dehydration, violation of decompression profile, or ceiling violations.   From an execution perspective, the dive went very smoothly and according plan until the first symptom manifested itself.

Therefore, I have to look for other possibilities to understand the possible cause (if there is such a thing) for my accident or at least identify the contributing factors. Looking at the three days, I believe that I have found a pattern that gradually resulted in me lying in a recompression chamber.  The pattern was driven by the 5 aforementioned points as well as by ego and commercial interests.

Our objectives for the first day were to install a system for evacuating an unconscious diver and execute a dive to Wakulla Room.  During the dive I would fine tune new equipment and bailout at depth to check RMV under realistic circumstances. It took us more time, effort, concentration, work, etc. to install the system then anticipated, therefore we called the dive. For some unexplainable reason, I felt that I lost an opportunity and was behind schedule.  I felt slightly defeated when I left The Pit.

Three days later, we returned with the goal of perfecting the system and executing the first dive of the project. AGAIN, it took way more time, effort, etc. then planned to rig the lift system, however this time I didn’t call the dive. Why? I even thought about it.

I usually tell my students during their training that if they think about calling a dive, the dive is already called and they simply have to inform their team. I didn’t call the dive because I wanted to dive, because of all the effort I had put in, because I had already “lost” one day there, because other people were there to support my dive, because I wanted to know if everything works so I could make further plans, because I have to get this done, because I need to know if my configuration is better, because, because, because a thousand different reasons of which not one has any value compared to the outcome.

Looking back it is all so obvious and clear.  However, it wasn’t back then, I thought I would be just fine. My Ego needed adjustment and it got it!

We entered the water super late; this threw my focus off target, instead of relaxing and visualizing the dive, I focused on the late start.  I did my bailout exercise and finished my dive running a VPM B algorithm which I padded by about 20 minutes divided on the last stops to account for the pre-dive work as well as the workload and higher breathing rate during my fast exit. When I surfaced felt a slight pain in my left shoulder and the right ankle which I explained by the pre-dive work (lowering the tanks with my left arm), heavy kicking on the way out swimming at 60ft a minute in full gear with bailout tanks and the probability of a very minor Type 1 DCS hit. The pain disappeared in less then 10 minutes and I had no other symptoms.

Usually at the end of the dive we rest and eat on the platform, close to the water, for at least 2 hours to give our bodies time to recover before climbing up and evacuating the gear.  However, this time we omitted the rest period because it was getting dark which would have made the drive out more difficult and increased the risk to the vehicles. So, I climbed up and helped the support diver hoist the equipment out as fast as possible.

On the way back to Playa del Carmen, I got a phone call from Alain who happily announced that he had taken the next day off to support us. “Great!” I thought.  Since we had agreed to only dive there with support, every member of our support team is a working dive instructor with very limited time, and with the high season coming in fast, I feared it would be impossible to get enough people together. Maybe that is the reason I felt so pressured to dive.

Back in Playa, we went to Protec to blend for the next day and after a lot of work I finally arrived home at 22:00h. When I cut tables for the following day, I decide to go with the more conservative VPM B/E algorithm.  I took this step to add conservatism in consideration of the pain, all the work and two days of back to back deep diving.  The change to VPM B/E gave me 40 minutes more decompression then the previous dive, Pit Revisited, which had the same profile and longer bottom time.  I considered this more then an ample amount of decompression time.

The next morning, we got out of Playa a little late.  And as Hans was setting up his gear he had an equipment failure and called his dive.  I started my dive alone and felt great.  I found the alternate line into Jills Chamber and was super excited.  The dive was going really smoothly until I experienced a strong pain in my left shoulder on the 12m (40ft) stop while moving my arms. (The hyperbaric physician stated later that excess motion could have triggered bubble formation). Within minutes, the pain pretty much disappeared and so I went through the rest of my decompression padding my stops further due to the unexplained pain.

As I ascended through the last 3m (9ft) the pain in my left shoulder returned and I got a new pain in my both my ankles, the pain was significant. As I contemplated what to do I stayed on O2 breathing from the loop.  After 10-15 minutes, I hauled myself up on the platform doffed my gear and started breathing Open Circuit O2.  I stayed on the O2 until I decided that it wasn’t changing any of my symptoms.  Once off the O2 I started to feel better and better and after 30minutes I was free of pain or any other sign or symptom of DCS.  At this point, I was a bit confused and I scanned my body rigorously for any remote signs. We left the jungle and I felt great! First, my dive was awesome.  Second, I thought I had very closely escaped a chamber ride…Boy was I wrong.

After dropping people and gear I came home and since it was late I ate something and went to bed, still without pain or any other symptom.   The next day I woke up with sore muscles in my left shoulder. Nothing unusual after challenging day in the jungle, however, given the episode I was worried and cautious. As the day passed the pain didn’t change but I had no other symptoms which drove me mad. Here is what I thought,

“If I go to the chamber and tell them the kind of diving I did, they will put me in no matter what and I will not be allowed to dive for at least 6 weeks. Given that diving is my only income and that in the past 6 years the longest brake I took was about 3 weeks that thought was unbearable. It did not help that my work calendar was filled with bookings.”

So, I decided to breathe oxygen to see if that would make any difference, which it didn’t.  Next, a friend came over, who is working a hyperbaric chamber operator, to give me a neurological exam, which came out totally ok. However, I was still very unsure what to do. After some talking, I decided to go to the chamber and see the physician. He gave me the same exam which came out clean, again.  However, as anticipated he sent me to the chamber for a table 6 treatment.

My shoulder pain didn’t change during the treatment, however my right ankle started to hurt on decent and then stopped. Five hours later I exited the chamber in the same condition I entered, except I was more tired and my lungs were burned. The next day I returned with the same issues and so I went back in for a table 5 treatment which I exited unchanged again.  After 5 treatments and no changes they switched the plan to table 9 and I did two more treatments to a total of 7. The last two days I had some relief in the shoulder in the evenings but the pain pretty much came and went and alternated between my ankle and the shoulder.

It was a very difficult time with a lot of emotional episodes. Blaming God and the world for what happened to me and questioning what went wrong over and over again with endless discussions and the opinions of every diver that crossed my path. (Some of which where helpful).

After that my treatment was suspended due to the fact that it seemed not to change anything. I was prescribed anti-inflammatory medication for two weeks and another doctor visit in two weeks. After 5 Days on medication the pain started to fade and now it is sometimes on, sometimes off, sometimes strong, sometimes week. But generally it seems to fade.

I asked the question, “When can I return to diving?” And no one knows. Five different doctors give me 6 different answers ranging from 5 days after pain dissolved up to 3 months. It continues to be a difficult time, I have many questions and there is nobody there to answers them.

Summing up, I think my accident (if you can call it that way) was an accumulation of many things. I believe that the mix of hard work, repetitive long deep dives,  pre-existing injuries caused by the dive the day before and all the other stuff contributed to situation I find myself right now.  Do I regret it? Yes, of course. Will I stop this kind of diving? Of course not! But I definitely learned a lesson or 7.

Safe Diving,
Patrick

I want to thank DAN and the local chamber for doing an excellent job, Hans, Alain, Matt, Steve, Nando, Etienne, Alex, Santiago, Maura, Victor, Allie, and many more for their moral support. I also want to apologize to my family and my girlfriend for putting them through this.

December 30, 2008   9 Comments

Quick Update: The Pit, Bailing Out and Unconscious Diver Lift

I wanted to give you a quick update on current events.  First, I didn’t pass my multi-stage course last week.  I completely blundered the last dive.  I was diving sidemount with two stages and a scooter.  Each tank had a different starting pressure and I was exhausted.  I was in over my head and it really showed.  Steve told me to go and practice and come back for one more day.  I am writing a detailed article, however, we have been working on our Pit Project and I just haven’t had the time or the energy to complete it.  It should be a good laugh for you.

Now about our Pit Project, Patrick and I have started to assemble a deep diving team.  We recruited two divers for intermediate and surface support, Etienne Rousseau and Alain Pocobelli.  We had our first team meeting on Saturday night.  Patrick and I laid out our plans, the rules/expectations, and roles.  They both agreed.  So now we have the makings of a team.

On Sunday, the four of us went to The Pit.  The first task was to setup and test a method to lift an unconscious diver from the water.  We spent six hours rigging and testing.  I was lifted twice and Alain once.  It was a painful experience and we learned a lot.  By the time we got through rigging, Patrick and I called our dive.  Alain and Etienne went for a dive to 155ft to check out the site and find the start of the main deep line.  Both were diving air and were seriously narked.  It was kind of funny.  After finding the line they returned on schedule.  We cleaned up and left a little disappointed but overall satisfied.  We really wanted to make our dives.  However, the day was a success; now we know how to lift someone.

Today, Patrick, Chris and I went back to The Pit.  Chris is a Polish cave rescue expert.  He came out to help us rig our diver lift system.  His advice was invaluable!  We were about 80% there with our system.  Chris landed us a home run.  It isn’t perfect, but it is better.  We need to collect additional climbing gear to perfect the system.

When we were done, Patrick and I staged our tanks on the down line and we left for my first dive into the Wakulla Room.  We had two objectives for the dive:

  1. It was my deepest dive and I wanted to reach Wakulla and check all my swim times.  At this level I need to know how much time it will take to transit and how much gas to plan for.  What I discovered is that I am slower then Patrick, no surprise there.  We planned 7 minutes to the turn at 220ft and 7 minutes swimming in at 280ft.  It took me 9 minutes to reach the turn and I will need another 5 or 10 minutes in the Wakulla Room to traverse it.
  2. Patrick and I both agreed we should bailout from the Wakulla Room to confirm gas consumption and for practice.  Today was his chance.  We were just a couple of minutes from the By-Pass and Patrick gave me the bailout sign.  He switched over to open circuit and started to exit.  This experiment confirmed our estimates for his gas consumption and provided some good lessons for the both of us.  Two hundred eighty feet is really deep.  And in a cave, it is deeper.  As a side note, I bailed to my BOV a couple of times and watched the SPG.  It dropped with each breadth, wild!  19cuft tanks are pretty small.

Tomorrow, we are going to The Pit with Alain and it will be my turn to bailout.  I am looking forward to the exercise!  I think it is going to be a lot of fun and educational.   Patrick’s objective is to check the alternate restriction into Jill’s Chamber.  We are looking for an easier route for passing a scooter through.

Again, there is no need to fear.  When we are done with this series of dives, we will write detailed articles and share what we learned!

October 15, 2008   Comments Off on Quick Update: The Pit, Bailing Out and Unconscious Diver Lift

The Trimix Odyssey

Becoming a Trimix Rebreather Diver with Andrew Driver of Blue Foot Diving

On May 17, 2003, I was certified as an Advanced Open Water diver.  The following Christmas I got “The Last Dive” from my in-laws and I read it cover to cover on Christmas day.  My in-laws thought I was nuts, maybe I am.  I purchased every narrative I could find on deep diving.  Each story deepened my interest; the characters and the dives captured my imagination.  Allie noticed all the books and asked me if I was interested in diving the Andrea Doria?  She wanted to know where this was going.  I admitted was and I estimated it would take me five years to reach the that level.

When I made the decision to pursue deep diving, I had a couple of principles in mind:

  • Be safe and take it slow.
  • Maintain a positive mental attitude.
  • Be young enough to be fit to not hazard my health.
  • Do it using a rebreather.
  • Seek the best instruction possible from a range of instructors.
  • Ensure my wife understands what I was doing and the risks involved.
  • Surround myself with people who would guide me and help to pace me.

Five years later, I have executed just shy of 500 safe dives. 350 of those dives have been technical dives, either North East Wreck Diving or Cave Diving.  Eighty of those dives have been with my Megalodon rebreather.   In January, I moved to Mexico for diving. I started running 3.5 miles three times a week and going to the gym.  And I have continually sought training from some of the top instructor in the world.  All this culminated in a trip to the United States to take my Rebreather Trimix Diver course with Andrew Diver of Blue Foot Diving.

Book One.  Incomplete Normoxic Trimix.

Completing the CCR (Rebreather) Trimix course has been an odyssey.  In fall of 2007 I met Joe Z., Fabrice, Eric Goldstein and Andrew in Alexandria Bay.  Our plan was to do some DPV diving and start the Normoxic Rebreather Trimix course.  I started class with 50 hours on my Meg.  We did a handful of Normoxic Trimix dives and lots of drills: High PO2, Low PO2, Solenoid Stuck Open, and deploying a lift bag.  We had a ton of fun and laughed a lot.  We visited the Islander, the America, the Key Storm, the Vickery and the bow of the Jodrey.  Max depth on that trip was 197ffw.  Of course we got to spend time with Mo Hunt.  Mo is a local legend who has been diving for 55 years.  They were all awesome dives and I learned a ton.  Hanging around with people like Eric, Joe Z. and Fabrice is amazing.

Andrew’s style of teaching is to teach as you do.  Consequently, most of the lessons are very practical and are derived straight from experience.  He has two philosophies that really struck me, I am paraphrasing:

“People come to dive not sit in a classroom.  So, I get them out diving as fast as possible.  It gives me a chance to assess where they are at and it gives them a chance to dive.  It helps me to structure the course and helps to focus on the student’s needs.”

“If the basics are solid, the rest will follow.  With a solid grasp of the basics, situations which might have posed a substantial hazard will become second nature to identify, troubleshoot and resolve.”

These ideas are reflected in his teaching methods.  The three times I have been to Alex Bay, as the locals call it; we dived on the first day.  We hit the water, did some basic drills and started the process of getting comfortable.  I could see Andrew watching us as we did the drills; his debriefs were short and never belittling.  On the days that I looked like a spasm in the water, he told me I looked like a spasm.  We would laugh a little and then talk about what I could do better and how I could develop processes to deal with each task.  On the days I did what I was told, he didn’t tell me I look like a spasm.  I guess part of his British nature is not to celebrate when you do what you are told.   We spent a lot of time on the basics and by nailing them, the rest of the diving became easier.

Unfortunately, we didn’t plan to finish the class that weekend.  I walked away certified; which was fine, because the rest of that fall I didn’t do any diving.  Work had gotten out of control and I was preparing for my move.  I wanted to put some more medium depth dives together before moving on.

Book Two: False Starts

Before moving to Mexico, I met a fellow name Patrick Widmann.  Patrick is skinny (way skinny), a cave instructor, a deep diver, my mentor, my dive buddy and the motivating force!  Once I arrived, I learned Patrick had designs on exploring The Pit.  If you are a regular reader of this blog you will have seen his posts.  One day Patrick and I got to talking and he told me about his plans.  I thought they sounded interesting and wanted to participate.  The problem was that I was not Trimix certified and I only planned to be in Mexico for one year.  I needed a solution for both.  I went home and declared to Allie, “We need to stay for two years at minimum.  I want to explore The Pit and I estimate it would take me year to work up to it.”  Luckily, Allie agreed.

I was anxious to complete my Hypoxic Trimix Rebreather Course.  As luck would have it, there are not many instructors who are qualified to teach it on the Yucatan.  To be exact there is one, Steve Bogaerts.  Luckily, Steve is already my instructor so we scheduled the course for the end of July.  Steve did a lot of the deep exploration at The Pit on double redundant Inspiration rebreathers; I thought his practical experience made him an excellent candidate.

July started with my parents in town for 10 days.  The trip was stressful, my bed frame broke and my back went out in a BIG way.  It required acupuncture and three shots in the ass.  We elected to cancel the course because we agreed it would be a terrible idea to do deep mix diving with an inflamed back.  I guess that is where the health hazard principle comes in.  I was totally bummed, because Patrick and I had a bunch of dives to do during low season and I lost my chance to get qualified.  Luckily, Patrick and I were able to work around it and he made significant progress.

Book Three.  Don’t Change Your Configuration.

As the gods would have it, my back didn’t get better for a couple of weeks.   When we attempted to reschedule my Trimix class in September, it conflicted with the arrival of Steve’s new baby.  The next opportunity wouldn’t be until October.

I couldn’t wait any longer!  Fortunately, I had a wedding the first week in September in NJ.  I contacted Andrew and asked if he could arrange a course.  Bingo!  Andrew put a course together for three of us.  With some skepticism I packed the Megalodon in my hand luggage and a 120lbs worth of dive gear and cloths in my checked luggage and headed for the states.  Luckily, I am a frequent flier and was allowed more then one heavy bag.  I got home with zero charges or difficulties.  The only real challenge was at security in Cancun.  They closely examined the Meg, but let it pass.  Promptly, I removed the red and yellow warning labels.

When I went to my storage unit in NJ to fetch my dry suit, I discovered the neck seal had melted and the edge was dry rotted.  I put some duct tape on the seal and used it the whole week.  Amazingly, it was dry and didn’t rip.  I am eternally grateful.

When I arrived at Andrew’s house, I learned the third man had bailed out.  It was down to two of us.  Andrew loaned me some steel tanks.  I decided to invert my tanks this time.  I thought it would be easier to reach the valves, normally I dive de-inverted.  This was the first mistake, changing my gear configuration.

We went for a shore dive on the Islander.  I was super wonky!  I hadn’t been in a dry suit for more then a year and it showed.  I was over weighted and out of trim.  My feet were down and I looked like a stroke!  Luckily, I survived.  We finished the dive and my classmate quit; he hit his limit.  This was his second attempt at Hypoxic and he just didn’t have the juice.  Andrew and I did another dive and that ended day one.

Day two arrived and Eric Goldstein showed up.  I was grateful to see him.  I really like diving with Eric because he is an excellent diver, very knowledgeable and funny.  We planned to go out on the boat, but with so few people it didn’t make economic sense.   We did another shore dive, this time to 140ffw.  This dive Andrew gave me two Al80’s to manage, which shouldn’t have been an issue.  I was closer to trim head to toe, but my lateral trim was shit.  Normally, I side mount my tanks balancing them.  I decided to emulate Andrew and Eric and wear them on the left.  This was the second big mistake.

I know what works for me, but I elected to do something different.  I assumed I could adapt.  That was a lapse in judgment and the dive was shit.  There was a decent current and we had to pull and glide.  My gloves had holes in them and my fingers got sliced to shreds.  I could see the blood in the water.  Plus, I was swimming with a 45 degree list.  I looked like a COMPLE STROKE.  It took me until the next dive to sort out my lateral trim.  I needed to make changes in the placement of weight and the way I clipped the tanks in.  I was still over weighted.  Luckily, I get through all the skills.

For the next two days we dove the Jodrey.  There was a lot of drilling on High PO2, Low PO2 and bailing out.  We completed a partial ascent off the loop.  I spent a lot time on my Golem BOV, and I convinced.  I didn’t notice any WOB issues on it at 220ffw. Throughout class, I tried the drills in a couple of ways: faster, slower, and blundered.  The conclusion was that I need to take my time when I perform the drills and think it through.  I had a tendency to go on autopilot and do the flush too fast.  I need to spend more time verifying the cells.

The last day was spent in the class room talking about gas selection and other technical issues.  Andrew’s lectures are factual and to the point.  As a bonus, I had examples from The Pit.  Andrew and I worked through the gas selections and the deciding factors.

The course was challenging and a lot of fun.  I learned a substantial amount and I got a chance to tune up my skills again.  Upon reflection, I would have liked to have had a day or two more in my dry suit diving before starting class.  It would have given me an opportunity to perfect my trim and buoyancy, thereby allowing me to concentrate on the skills rather then basic issues.  The expectation is buoyancy and trim should be in the bag on arrival, however, the change in environment really through me for a loop.

I should have stuck to a configuration that was similar to the one I use in Mexico; even if I had to explain it to the team.  The addition of the dry suit, the tanks on the left and the inverted tanks added a noticeable level of task loading, which robbed me of cycles to use on performing the tasks on the dives.  The lesson is, don’t change things before class! I should have learned that lesson already.  Ironically, I had a similar issue during my Advanced Sidemount Course.  I got a new 9MM wet suit the day before class and it killed my buoyancy and trim, creating a terrible problem on the first day of class.

The joy is in the journey.  The truth is that the experience of diving and spending time with friends is so much more fulfilling then getting a Trimix Card.  I am glad I passed, it is important to me to do well.  But more important is the opportunity to dive with people I like.  People I can share the joy with.  Diving is a supremely social activity for me.  I like to solo dive, but I really like to dive with a good buddy.   Luckily, I have that buddy and we have some big dives planned.  In the coming months I look forward to opportunity to put my training to use as we dive The Pit, The Blue Abyss, the cenotes near Merida and the local walls.  I will keep you in the loop.

September 24, 2008   6 Comments

Trimix class is underway.

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I finally made it into a Hypoxic CCR Trimix class! I am totally stoked. On Sunday, I went to a wedding. I got into bed around 2AM. Two and a half hours later, I got up and drove 6 hours up to Alexandria Bay, NY USA to meet with Andrew Driver and two other students. We were scheduled to start class around noon. When I arrived I found out one of the divers had already bailed. So it was down to two.

That afternoon we scheduled a dive. I hadn’t been in my dry suit in almost a year and I had to get situated. We made a dive on the Islander. It went ok.  I was completely wonky.  My trim was horrible and my weighting was out of wack.   I just didn’t account for how different it would be in my dry suit and thick underwear.  I should have known consdiering that fact that I had spent three years diving with a dry suit and thick undies.

After that dive the other student dropped out of the course. This was his second attempt at this class and he came to the reality that he just didn’t have it. So he made the right decision and walked away. So that left me alone! The sole focus of Andrew’s ever watchful eye.  Luckily,  a friend of ours, Eric Goldstien, came down from Canada to join us.  Eric is a super great guy and a fabolous diver.  He is great to take the piss out of and a lot of fun to spend time with.  So we had a team of three, Andrew, Eric and me.

As of this writing, we have made three dives on the Jodrey and one across the channel following an undersea cable.  The dives have been getting progressively better. I really strugled on the first two dives, while I looked for my trim and bouyancy.  The last two dives have been pretty good.

I think that is all I will tell you for now.  I will do a full write up when I get home.  Here are some photos for your enjoyment!

September 10, 2008   8 Comments

The Pit Revisited

A CCR DPV cave dive to the back of Jill’s Chamber by Patrick and Hans.

Since the last dive, there was nothing on my mind then that bloody restriction at the end of BMB. If you don’t believe me, then talk to anybody who spent time with me. One thing was clear, I had to go back there again, with more time to really look at it and make sure that it is too small to fit with my Meg and two stages. Hans came up with the idea to sidemount our two Megalodons, which I really like, but it will take a lot of time and effort to make that rig work and giving my work schedule at the moment, well that will have to wait a little.

With me working every day and Hans going on several trips to the states we had exactly one day to do the dive. The night before the dive, I managed to be back at the shop at about 6PM which gave us 2-3 hours to blend and rig stuff.  We got to work and finished around 8:30PM, mainly due to Hans’ effort.  He put all the stages together and bubble checked them at the pool while I assembled my Meg; going through all of the points in my checklist.

Back home it was time to run the different scenarios that we had discussed earlier through V-Planner and see what was possible. The major difference for this dive was that we added a DPV to the equation.  This enabled me to take a third stage with bottom mix.  The main idea was to have as much time as possible to check out the two chimneys in the BMB that ascend into Jill’s Chamber. I wanted to get a good picture of the two restrictions so I could make a decision on which one and how I was going to pass.

Since our last dive, I had learned that there is still a 1000ft of line waiting on the other side before I would reach virgin cave. So the keyword is contingency. I created these plans:

  • X1 fails
  • Bailout
  • DPV fail with CCR ok
  • DPV fail CCR fail
  • Entanglement
  • Etc etc etc…

After what-if-ing many scenarios and running them through V-Planner, I hit the bed at like 1:00AM.

The alarm rang at 6:00 AM, but I was already awake. After loading the truck and getting stuff to eat and drink, we were headed to Tulum. At Dos Ojos Hans helped me maneuver my truck on the primitive road towards The Pit.  We got there without once scraping the bottom of the truck, how cool is that! The day started awesome.

After we lowered the 7 80cf tanks, the 3 40cf tanks, the DPV and the two Megalodon CCRs we climbed down at the platform to get ready. Hans prepared for his first of two deep dives that day. On the first dive he placed the bailout tanks and connected the descent line to the permanent cave line.  On the second dive he will picked up my deep tanks and fetch the reel. 30 minutes after he left, I was submerged.

I put the dpv in third gear and made my way down towards the start of the line.  I was carrying 3 80cf tanks with deep bail out and a 19cf with air for suit inflation. Arriving at the start of the cave line I dropped the 19cf tank and plugged one of the bail out tanks in my suit. I used this short brake to put the scooter in 5th gear and switch set point on the Meg. After that I made my way down the Cardea passage, visibility was even worse than last time so I Ok’ed the line while driving.  The whole time I was in the milky fog, I was worrying a bit about crashing into some rock. It felt like driving very fast in dense fog with the headlights on.

As I arrive at 65M (213FT) I turned down towards the bypass at 85M (278FT). Who would have thought that the Po2 could spike that fast when you scooter at depth . I quickly stopped and did a dil flush to get the Po2 back under control and checked my gauges.

I realized that I was really kind of late, so I decided to drive through the Bypass. Maybe it sounds a bit irresponsible but in 5th gear (of 9) you are really not moving so fast.  My head was ducked behind the propeller and I was cannonballing through the bedding plane at 85M (278FT).  I was loving it!  I got the feeling it was getting too tight, so I let go of the trigger.  Five seconds later the handle of my Meg hit the ceiling!  Luckily, I had slowed down enough to minimize the impact.  I smiled and took a mental note to not do that again.

Out of the bypass, now I was driving to the end of the Wakulla Room. I arrived there at minute 8 which was really super slow. Call me a coward, but it was the first time I scootered at this depth and didn’t want to go full speed.

I hooked the scooter to the line and let go. Hey, who would have thought, going with a perfectly neutral scooter to 90M (295FT) and it is positive like hell. I didn’t consider the density of the saltwater down there. It was kind of funny, I clipped the scooter off and started to remove one of my stages to leave it there with the scooter.  When I looked towards the line, the line and scooter were gone. I look up and there they are, the DPV pulling the line towards the ceiling. I attached the tank to the line and this pulled everything back in place.

Swimming down towards BMB felt different, I was way more relaxed than last time, maybe because I had more Helium in my diluent or just because I had been there before. I came to the T again where the line is touching the ceiling, this time I stopped and pulled the line down to the floor to pin it under a tiny rock which turned out to be a bad idea.  The line cut through the rock like a hot knife through butter and a nice cloud of zero visibility covered my hands. Second try with a bigger rock was more successful.

I can’t say why but again I ignored the chimney to the left thinking that I will check it out on the way back, after I had looked at the other one. Swimming back towards the other restriction I felt really confident, the dive went very well and I still had a lot of the 20 minutes I had planned at 105M (344FT). Also, I started to look around more to get a feeling for the cave and its flow rather then just following a line.

As I arrive at the restriction, where I had turned my last dive, I looked up through the chimney and thought well it looks tight but if I would be in 15M (49FT) I wouldn’t hesitate a second. I can do it. So I did. It actually went way smoother and I had less contact than anticipated but still quite a lot. The chimney ascents from 105M (344FT) to 96M (301FT) where the tight hole spits you out in yet another gigantic borehole style tunnel, Jill’s Chamber.

Huge boulders split the room in half and oh my god it felt so good to be there and see it. I forced myself not to look down where I was sure the restriction was silted out completely and that was a pretty scary thought. So I just started to swim forward into the room, first slowly looking around then a bit more confident. Coming out of the restriction, I saw another line paralleling the one I was on coming from behind me. The lines stay side by side until the moment I turned some 5 minutes after the restriction. I found the end of a line with a new line tied on to, so somebody furthered exploration from that point. I figure that it is the end of Jill’s Chamber and the beginning of the Next Generation Tunnel also due to the fact that the room starts to pinch back down into a smaller tunnel.

On the way back I was super stocked and happy enjoying every second of looking around in this marvelous place. Coming back to the restriction I noticed two things: one the tunnel actually continues and is the source of the line that is parallel and two a zero visibility cloud comes out of the restriction making it look like a volcano that blows out tons of smoke.

Just on top of the restriction I invert one hand on the line, one hand in front of my head for protection. Basically I look like a Padi Instructor demonstrating a proper 5 point ascent just instead of swimming up I swim down. Squeezing through the restriction I arrive at its bottom, now I just need to arch my back to get under the ceiling. As I read the tie off at the start of the restriction I am relieved, I made it, I am on the other side.

Swimming back I passed the T that I had put back where it belongs down on the floor and I am heading out of the BMB. Because of the tension I had created placing the line some parts of it now had disappeared in the rock. It is unbelievable how soft the rock is there.

Ascending along the line back to the scooter and my stage, I have to admit it felt good when I pulled the trigger and the thing worked. On the way back to the bypass my X1 lets me know that time to surface now is 2h20min, not so bad, thank god Jill’s chamber is shallower then the BMB.

At the bypass I thought that maybe it is smarter to push it through rather then driving which worked just fine. From the bypass coming back was easy and the very first time I ever decompressed while driving a DPV. My first stop was at 71M (232FT) driving through that white cloud back towards the ascent line.

After a couple of short stops I arrived at the start of the permanent line and the reel Hans had installed. I dropped two of the deep bailout and took the Triox that was staged prior to the dive.  I also took the 19cf air tank and hooked it to my suit. After a couple of flushes my suit was filled with nice warm air rather then cold damn Trimix which felt fantastic. (I will get a smaller suit inflation bottle when Hans comes back from his next trip to the states).

Being bored during deco I took the scooter and was driving around a bit in the huge dome admiring the intense and spiritual beauty of this place.  Finally up at the 12M (40FT) stop, I got rid of all tanks except a 40cf bailout with Nitrox. Hans came back to bring me something to drink and a second hood because my head started to get cold. When he looked at me he could read it in my eyes and immediately mimicked the: did you go through the restriction? When I nodded it was big smiles and hand shaking. What a great day.

Only some 50min of deco left which I spent swimming around to warm up, thinking about future dives, drinking and waiting for Hans who dropped back down to retrieve the tanks and the reel.

Let me say something loud and clear, there is NO WAY I would have been able to do these dives without the constant support of my friend and dive partner Hans. Thank you!  We are a true team and I am looking forward to the day where I will support his first dive to the Wakulla Room and beyond.

I also would like to thank Pro Tec Advanced Training Facility for providing us with tanks and the scooter as well as Margaret at Liquivision for some of the best customer support and a great product.

If you are waiting for the next story you need to be patient, Hans is gone and I am loaded with work but starting from mid September we should be back in business.  Next plan being two more tanks and a scooter through the restriction starting to depo gas in Jill’s chamber and maybe finding the end of the line!?!

This is my story of The Pit and it is to be continued…

Here is an awesome video that karin pointner put together of our project:

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

August 26, 2008   6 Comments

The Pit: A Personal Quest.

The story of my odyssey to making my first 350ffw cave dive.

In September 2005, I arrived on the peninsula to do my Cave Course with Matt at Protec. I will never forget the first time I entered the classroom and saw the map of The Pit. Part of Sistema Dos Ojos, The Pit is almost 400ft deep and has 1300ft of horizontal distance ending in the Next Generation Tunnel. How cool does that sound?

From that day on, I spent about 15 minutes everyday just staring at the map and planning; getting upset about how far I was from even attempting a dive like that. I did have experience doing deep, mixed gas, ocean dives in the Egyptian Red Sea, including Wreck Penetration. However, travelling this kind of distance, at such a depth, inside a cave, was an entirely different ball game.

In September 2006, I returned to the Yucatan to do a crossover course from the Inspiration CCR to the Megalodon CCR, which I just had bought, and to get certified in CCR Normoxic Trimix and CCR Cave diving. Yet again, I was fixated on the same map, planning and dreaming about how to do such a dive.

In March 2007, I finally decided that my love and passion for cave diving left me no other choice than to move to Playa del Carmen. Another five months past and it wasn’t until July that I finally saw the beauty that is The Pit. I was part of the support team for two divers who planed to dive to the end of the Wakulla Room. Being only certified as a Normoxic CCR Trimix Diver, and not having enough money to do the dive OC, I limited my dive to 50M (165ft) and immediately fell in love with the place. When you see the sun beams hitting the water surface at the small opening and firing down to the hydrogen sulfide layer at 40m (120ft) your jaw drops.

A couple of days later, I went there to join Steve Bogaerts on an exploration dive in the shallow cave passage. There is an upstream and downstream cave at about 12m (40ft). I was there to see his surveying technique and learn from one of the best. This was the last time we parked the cars about 300m (1000ft) away and carried the equipment. Now, with a lot of patience and carelessness towards our vehicles, we can actually park so close to the opening, that we could back roll from the side of the truck.

To get our rebreathers and tanks into the water, we use a rope and pulley to lower the equipment down a 4m (15ft) deep rock face to the water’s surface. Once everything is staged, we JUMP!

July 2008, the day finally arrived when I headed off to do my first deep dive in The Pit. Having passed a CCR Hypoxic Trimix class, executed some deeper CCR dives, and completed long CCR cave dives requiring multiple bailout tanks, I considered myself ready and prepared. I had also just received a Liquivision X1 computer and after test dives, I was ready to use it for its purpose! Last but not least, Hans, a driven guy who is up for everything no matter what, didn’t mind coming along and helping with the equipment load. Without him, what would I do?

Since I had very little, to no, knowledge about the lines, depths or times between levels, the first dive was to get a general idea about the place. I had one AL80 tank on either side with deep bailout and trailed a third AL80 with Triox that was staged along the way. Another AL80 was staged prior to the dive at 12m (40ft). I traversed the cavern zone, which is a huge dome, then descended the yellow polypropylene line to 34M (112ft) and deployed my primary reel to look for the main cave line. Passing by 40m (120ft), I staged the Triox and proceeded to connect the reel with the main line. After switching my set point on the Megalodon and the X1, it was cruising time. Visibility was quite limited due to what I think is bacteria. The line slowly descents from 46M (152ft) to 65M (215ft) leading through a huge tunnel called the Cardea Passage. At the end, it turns left and descends to a T at about 80M (264ft), where you can decide to either dive the shallower Bypass Tunnel (85M / 280ft) or the deeper section, which I still haven’t seen.

The Bypass Tunnel is a pretty cool place because the cave goes from a gigantic power passage to a 1M (3ft) tall & 8M (24ft) wide bedding plane. On the other side, the cave opens up again into a huge room known as the Wakulla room. There you find a second T that reconnects the two lines that had split before the Bypass, and an additional line that runs to Alpha and Skid Row at almost 400ft, the deep sections of the Wakulla Room. Swimming along the line at 85M (264ft), through the intensely huge room, my 10W HID barely managed to light up the far walls. I had already passed 2 Haloclines and due to the salinity the water had this beautiful blue reflection.

Sixteen minutes into the dive I arrived at another T at the end of the Wakulla Room. Thinking that the T to the right would lead me to the BMB passage, I didn’t hesitate to turn right. I found out that the line ends in a dead end at 92M (303ft). Feeling happy about my accomplishment and wondering what waits at the other side of that T, I decided to turn the dive after 18 minutes. I met Hans at the ascent line in 33M (100ft). We celebrated the dive during our uneventful deco. I couldn’t wait to tell him about it.

Four days later, we returned with a better plan, more tanks, and another diver, Victor. This time Hans took the role of support diver, staging the tanks and connecting the lines so I could go full throttle from the start.

Hans and Victor kicked off the dive and I impatiently waited 30 minutes for my planned departure time. When my start time arrived, I swam with a constant kick pretty much till the end of the Wakulla Room, where I stopped for a minute to calm my breathing and chill out a bit before heading further down into the BMB passage (100M/330ft). I met Victor in the Bypass as he made his way out, returning from his dive to 100M/330ft at the back of the Wakulla Room.

The BMB Passage is way smaller than the rooms before it and has quite a low ceiling and slopes slightly deeper. The stone in the BMB is really soft and the slightest contact immediately results in silting. After about 50m (150ft) there is yet another T. The line there is on the ceiling and is pretty hard to follow. The T to the left immediately ascends through a crack in the ceiling that looked really narrow, so I decided to take the T to the right. The tunnel got smaller and smaller and I was feeling confident I would soon reach the end of the line. As minute 21 arrived, I had to hurry. I thought I could see the end of the line, and I started smiling and a felt super happy about another accomplishment.

Just before I turned, I realized that the line didn’t end. Instead, it ascends through a restriction, a super narrow chimney that gave me the shivers just looking at it. I examined the restriction for a moment and turned the dive at minute 22. I was at 105M (346ft) wondering how in the world somebody managed to lay a line through there. It is really a credit to the original explorers.

The whole BMB passage was quite silty, even though I had almost no direct contact to the cave. On the way back I tried to focus, but could only think about this restriction and how horrible it will be to try and negotiate it. The swim back was uneventful. The 2.5 hour deco obligation is a small price to pay for a beautiful dive like that. I met Hans in 12M (40ft) of water where he took all my unneeded tanks and provided me with Gatorade and a Milky Way to re-hydrate and eat a little.

After the dive the three of us hung out on the platform eating lunch and talking about our experiences on the dive and the diving industry. Two hours later it was time to hoist all the equipment back up and load the trucks. The last adventure of the day was getting the Ford Rangers back to the Highway without getting stuck or scratching the bottom.

That’s my story of The Pit and it is to be continued…

August 16, 2008   8 Comments

8000 Feet, One Spool and One Total Loop Failure

A traverse from Naharon to Mayan Blue on rebreathers.

This past week has been very busy for Patrick and me.  With the arrival of “Slow Season” here in Playa Del Carmen, we have found more time and more opportunities to get ourselves into some serious dives.  We have made two trips to The Pit and one trip to Sistema Naranjal with our Megalodons.  Luckily, the dives at The Pit were relatively excitement free, other then Patrick reaching the restriction at Jill’s Chamber at 105 meters.  However, the dive at Naranjal was anything but boring.

Patrick had finished up a full cave class at Mayan Blue on Sunday.  Unfortunately, the student didn’t complete the A Tunnel / Death Arrow circuit, so we had to retrieve the remaining gear, one spool.  We decided the only reasonable way to do the clean up dive was to traverse from Cenote Cristal (Cenote Naharon) down to the Death Arrow jump, pick up the spool, and swim back.  The swim from Naharon to Mayan Blue typically takes about 2 hours.  We decided to cut the swim a little short by only going to the end of the Death Arrow passage.

When we were planning our bailout gas, I was worried about having enough.  I hadn’t swum this distance and I wasn’t sure of the depths.  Patrick and I agreed to take 2 Aluminum 80’s each.  We ran some calculations and it was enough to get us out if we needed it.  Patrick’s calculations showed that two 80’s would last him 4 hours at this depth.  My SAC is higher, so I didn’t have same cushion.

When it came time to decide on our gas mixes, I asked Patrick what he was taking?  He told me Air.  And then we got into a discussion about bailout.  He very sternly explained to me that the choice of bailout gas didn’t really matter.  He didn’t believe he would ever have to bailout.  However, if he did he would only be punished with deco time.  He explained that he follows a checklist and is meticulous about assembling his unit.  I told him I was going to take 32% regardless of his feelings on the topic and I was going to drop a tank of O2 in the cavern for good measure.  You really never know when something unexpected is going to happen.  Isn’t that the definition of unexpected?   We agreed, or I decided in my head, I can’t remember, that if someone bailed out, they would get the 32% and the Air would be the gas of last resort.  At this point, Patrick’s attitude really concerned me and I decided that I was going to have a sit down with him, but I was going to wait until after our dive, as to not mess with his head.

Wednesday arrived and we got on our way.  The dive was going according to plan.  We passed the restrictions heading for Mayan Blue.  At the T, I wanted to “drop” a cookie.  As I got my markers out of my pocket, I dropped my safety spool. I reached for the safety and lost control of my buoyancy and started to fall.  I reached for the inflator, but no luck!  I ended up rolling down the windows saving myself from crashing into the mud, but creating some silting.  I could hear Patrick laughing as he watched this comedy of errors.  I finally got my act together, marked the T and proceeded.  I am sure it looked hysterical, you know how things happen in super slow motion, I know I was laughing about it.

We arrived at the spool at 80 minutes.  He retrieved the spool and we rested briefly.  When we finally got going on the return trip I was in the lead.  We were singing into the DSVs and just enjoying the dive.  After about 10 minutes we settled into a decent rhythm and pace.

At about 20 minutes, I saw a quick flash of the light head of me.  I instinctively turned and started to swim to Patrick.  We were about 50feet apart.  It took me a second to process the situation.  What I saw was one of the breathing hoses from the KISS Classic just floating in the water and I saw Patrick deploying a bailout reg.  My first thought was, ‘Oh shit, what do I do?  My bailout regulators are really secured and are not quickly accessible.’  Before I was close enough to help, he got his regulator out.  I arrived and assessed the situation.  The exhale breathing hose had disconnected from the canister.  At Patrick’s request, I reattached the hose.  We thumbed the dive, changed positions and started swimming.  This is when my heart rate finally picked up and I became aware of the gravity of the situation.  This was a real live catastrophic loop failure way back in a cave.  This is the exact type of unexpected situation we train and prepare for.  I knew we had enough gas, but I still got hit with some adrenalin.  I had to stop and think about my breathing and heart rate for a second.  My heart rate really isn’t under my control sometimes.  The base of the brain just reacts.

As we swam, I stayed near to Patrick in case something else went wrong.  I checked my computer and marked the time.  We had 60 minutes of swimming up stream to exit the cave.  Patrick cleaned up his hose routing and attempted to go back on the loop.  As I watched him attempt this, I just kept thinking, “You can’t recover a KISS from a total flood.  Don’t try.”  He found out in short order it was a done deal.  Then I offered him my 32%.  He waved it off, and he started to play with his X1.  Patrick later told me he thought he would be fine on air.  However, a couple of minutes later when we reached the T, he realized he was running out of no stop time and asked me for some 32%.

He asked at the worst time for me.  I was about to pick up my cookie and had too many things going on at once.  I struggled with my tank for a minute and finally told him to start swimming.  It would be easier to make the switch underway instead of hovering.  At this point I made a mistake, I think I was a bit overloaded and my brain was fried.  Instead of doing one thing at a time, I had the tank neck out of the bungee in the left hand.  I reached down to get the cookie with my right.  Now I was swimming with both hands full trying to get my tank completely off.  Ug! What a nightmare!

I finally stopped and stowed the cookie.  Then I passed the tank to Patrick.  He reached down to pull the regulator off the tank and the mouth piece came off!  The irony is that Patrick recently told me it was stupid to put the bungee necklace under the same zip tie as the mouth piece and that the mouth piece would come off at the worst time.  I defended my choice and didn’t change my configuration.  The bungee was wrapped around the tank neck and under the single zip tie.  When he showed me the regulator without the mouth piece, I could hear his voice in my head and I laughed.  I have since changed my configuration for CCR diving.  I removed my 120 degree swivel and the necklace on the bailout regulators.  I want them to be as accessible as possible.  Now, I believe that I will need them at the worst possible time.  He replaced the mouth piece and started to enjoy the joy that is 32% EAN.

Patrick swam off and I struggled with his tank.  This dive taught me my sidemount bungees are too short to be useful in an emergency.  As I struggled with the tank, I swam into the ceiling with my rebreather.  It got a little hung up so I jerked my head down.  I immediately realized my head was way heavy and I was heading for the floor!   A huge rock had broken loose and was on its way to pinning me.  I rolled to the right and the rock fell off my head before I hit the ground.

Again, I laughed.  I couldn’t believe how many things had happened to us on a single dive.  We have been diving for seven months together and all of those dives had been incident free.  A series of walks in the park, including cave dives to 300ffw.  The type of diving that breeds complacency.

I caught up to Patrick and we continued to exit.  We decided to pull our gear.  As I pulled my spool from the jump between Southern Sacbe and Southwestern Sacbe, I created a nasty knot around the main guideline.  I ended up cutting the spool free from the guideline.  It was the last in a row of incidents.  We exited safely with a total run time of 180 minutes.  I estimate the total distance at around 8000 feet.

Patrick and I agreed that we handled all of the situations acceptably.  We did a serious review of the dive and have both made changes to our rigs and attitudes.  As I mentioned, I changed my regulators and I lengthened the sidemount bungee.  Patrick also made some changes to his regulators to ensure they are accessible.  We adjusted our bailout gas attitudes.  And we agreed to take better care to avoid team separation.

Once the stress started to pile on, it made simple tasks like a tank swap more difficult.  A task he and I normally can handle in a minute or less took a couple of minutes.  My overall awareness decreased and we got a good distance apart more then once after the main failure.

I feel it was an excellent dive!  We both returned and no one was hurt.  We tested our abilities as a team, and as individuals in a stressful situation.  We both stayed calm and controlled our breathing.  We reacted instinctively and completed the tasks at hand.  We realized our performance wasn’t perfect but it was acceptable. The whole dive confirmed to me the following idea.  Bailout is for unexpected situations and it does matter.  No matter how bullet proof you might think you are or your procedures, unexpected shit happens and it will happen at the worst time.  And these situations never happen alone, they are always compounded by other events.

Patrick used just over 2000PSI from one Aluminum 80 to exit from 60 minutes into the cave.  I hope you learn a little from this, I know I have learned a lot.

As always, your comments and criticisms are welcome here.  If you want to know more about the incident, leave a comment and one of us will respond.

July 29, 2008   13 Comments