2000-04 The Best Laid Schemes O’ Mice and Men

By Karl Shreeves

Two (hundred) forty (feet) off the SoCal coast, Grant Graves and I settle on barren, featureless sand. We pause, peering fore and aft. Ahead the bottom continues, near-level, uninterrupted by so much as a pebble. Behind, it rises in a gentle incline.

We review our dive plan, double-check our dive tables and, in unison, raise single finger salutes to the ocean in general and the sand in particular. Why bird the bottom? Because for this particular proficiency trimix jump, we’d planned a run to 300 feet. But the sea inconsiderately ignored our depth finder (an instrument that upon surfacing, we nearly convert into a small artificial reef for this sandy void) by dumping sixty feet of sand on our hoped-for profile. Insult to injury, the shallowest table we have is 270, with 90 minutes deco for the privilege of gandering at diddly.

Take two. Cannonball Spring cave, Ozark Mountains, Missouri. Jason Weisacosky, Tom O’Connor and I pass 280, with the end of the line and virgin territory tantalizingly close on the other side of a restriction, 50 feet ahead, 40 feet deeper. We park our scooters and check our gas before pushing on. Thirds? No, no, no! I can’t be at turnaround pressure already. Oh, man, this can’t be happening. Glance to Tom and Jason, and I feel slightly better that I’m not alone. Three thumbs jerk upward and we turn back the way we came.

Shh. It happens. The outflow was about twice what we expected going in, so it took more time. More effort. Which equals more gas. Deco two hours and some change for, once again, nothing. Or maybe not for nothing. For some reason, I recall these dives quite vividly. If these had been recreational dives rather than tek, I’d drag the memories to my mental trash can, but rather, these come to mind quite often. We spent a good bit of time and money, and we didn’t accomplish what we set out to do, but in retrospect, they were rewarding experiences—something far less likely in recreational diving under similar circumstances.

Why? It’s the nature of tek diving. Tek diving pushes the envelope and challenges you; if success in reaching your objective was a sure thing, it wouldn’t be very rewarding. The entire process challenges you. Both dives took just as much planning, coordination and attention to detail in their execution as if we’d accomplished what we’d hoped. And we accomplished our primary objective: i.e., we survived.

Legend has it that in developing the light bulb, Thomas Edison tried more than 200 substances as the filament before hitting upon one that worked. In the middle of this, a reporter commented that the inventor wasn’t making much progress. Edison replied, “I’m making great progress. Now I know 200 things that won’t work.” Like Edison’s 200 unsuccessful filaments, both dives eliminated techniques that didn’t work, laying the foundation for finding those that would bring success on subsequent dives. For example, Grant and I upgraded to a depth finder that actually finds the depth. We’ve had other dive plans go awry since then, but at least we don’t find the depth at the wrong depth any more.

In Cannonball, the Ozark Cave Diving Alliance developed new gas management and scootering techniques to account for the cave’s flow and topography. This past summer, OCDA divers (including Tom) laid line more than a hundred feet deeper than and several hundred feet past the point where we turned back. Diving in general—but especially tek diving—is a developmental process. You broaden your experience, test your mettle and extend your limits while staying within the systems and procedures that (hopefully) keep you alive and unhurt. You progress into new territory, one step after another, developing and refining your exploration methodology so you go farther and discover more while staying within the stay-alive-and-unhurt envelope.

Apply the Edison POV and you have no unsuccessful dives. You may still have dives where you don’t accomplish what you hoped, but each contributes to reaching your goal by showing you what to modify, innovate or eliminate in your methodology. In this process, surviving the dive is always your first goal. The trick is learning to reach a bit farther each time, push beyond where you went before, but not forgetting what Robert Burns reminds us in his Scottish dialect poem, “To a Mouse”:

Or put another way in diver dialect: Plan thou dive with care an thought/An the backup plans an gear thou ought. So even if thou fail at what ye plan/Thou still comest home when the fit hits the shan.

Karl Shreeves is vp, technical development for PADI and DSAT and an avid technical diver. We’ve just retired him as a poet.