Back to Basics

By Charlie Hudson

By the time you’ve logged a hundred dives, you’re supposed to know what you’re doing. So how do you find yourself swallowing water at 90 feet with your mask filling up and your fin slipping loose? Quite easily, but I hope it never happens again.

My husband and I spent two years in Hawaii, and that’s where our son and I got certified while my husband re-certified. We were then reassigned to the Pentagon, where our dive time became limited to vacations. Whenever we were able to arrange a trip, we scheduled a pool session to check equipment skills.

Last spring, both our jobs were particularly hectic, and I decided we couldn’t fit in a checkup session. Besides, we were headed to the Treasure Coast of Florida with some friends and didn’t know how much diving would be available. It certainly seemed like a reasonable decision at the time.

As it turned out, it was too early in the season for shore diving, but one of the local shops recommended an operation in West Palm Beach that would take us for a three-tank dive with lunch.

The day was partly cloudy with anticipated clearing and moderate temperatures. Visibility was about 40 to 45 feet. Our first site was an interesting trio of wrecks at a depth between 70 and 90 feet.

The first mistake I made was not being honest with myself about the pounds I’d put on, and therefore I entered underweighted. Naturally, I couldn’t descend, so we returned to the boat for more weight.

I was anxious to make up the minutes we’d lost despite the captain’s assurance that we had plenty of time. We reentered and I kicked hard to speed up my descent. I didn’t realize that my right fin strap had slipped, but I felt it come loose as we neared the bottom.

I am less than five feet tall, and it is difficult for me to reach my fin straps. I couldn’t get my husband’s attention because he was slightly ahead of me and didn’t see the problem. Rather than allowing myself to reach bottom to make the adjustment, I twisted around and in the process dislodged my mask. Usually, I can handle a flooded mask, but doing so while trying to grab a loose fin during a descent makes it more difficult. At this point I somehow relaxed the grip on my mouthpiece and felt water flood in.

My husband had turned to check on me, seen the slipped fin and grabbed it to stabilize me, but the water in my mouth was my main concern. I hit the purge button but forgot to hold my tongue in position and swallowed water. At this point I could hardly see, had water in my nose as well as my mouth and fleetingly thought of a rapid ascent.

A hundred dives do count for something, and I paused to regroup. My husband thought something was wrong with my regulator and was reaching for his octopus when I signaled for him to stop. By this point I’d cleared my mouth, and my husband had secured my fin. I took care of the mask and decided that another minute spent calming myself would be an excellent use of time.

Everything was back in order except that I had understandably used more air than I ordinarily would have, and we’d used our 90-foot depth time for something other than looking at the wreck. We ascended to 70 feet and continued the dive. My husband was even able to rescue a turtle tangled in fishing line. My feelings of apprehension had been replaced with chagrin.

Every single problem I’d encountered was a direct result of neglecting the basics; basics that I would have remembered if we had followed through with our pool checkout. There should be no shame in acknowledging that underwater skills are unique and require practice. A short review session, proper weighting and an appropriately slow descent are simple, basic rules that apply whether it’s dive number one or dive number 101.