Monday, March 18, 2013

Memoir Monday: Swimming with the Fishes

It's that time of the week again!  Instead of continuing with chapters from my forthcoming memoir chronologically, I've decided this week to just throw up a little anecdote from time I spent living on a friend's sailboat on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.  So without further ado, here we go!

Bill was reserved and stoic on the outside.  His wacky, goofball sense of humor only came out once you knew him. Bill worked as a submarine captain for a company that took tourists diving to artificial reefs off the coast.  The subs were about forty feet long and held 60 tourists, who peered out of giant bubble portholes at sunken airplanes and shipwrecks strategically arranged on the seafloor.
“You should come out and dive the main wreck one day and I’ll cruise by in the sub,” Bill told me.  “You can wave to all of the tourists and make their day.”

“Right,” I said.  “That wreck is what, a mile out to sea and 100 feet deep?”
“You can do it,” said Bill.  “You can borrow my gear and go out in my zodiac.”
“By myself?” I said.
“Sure,” answered Bill.
Now I had been diving for a long time.  One of the first things they teach you in an open water certification class is that you should always dive with a buddy.  Diving by yourself is dangerous.  Diving by yourself over mile out to sea in 100 feet of water is foolhardy.  It was especially foolhardy to do it in a place I had never been.  Let alone that I had never even dove that deep before in my life.
“It’s easy,” Bill continued.  “We attach a buoy to the main wreck.  Just tie up the dinghy to the buoy and follow the line down.”
“How do I find the buoy?” I asked.
“You’ll see our support boat out there nearby.  The buoy will be about 100 yards away.”
I thought this over.  It was risky and reckless.  It also sounded like a whole lot of fun.  I was in.  On my next day off, Bill was out with the sub already when I woke up.  After breakfast I gathered together his dive gear and loaded the dinghy.  I climbed in and headed out from Waikiki’s Ala Wai Yacht Harbor, passing surfers riding the famous Ala Moana Bowl as I steered through the channel.  I made my way past the breakers and spotted the small outline of the support boat a mile down the coast.  I pointed the dinghy’s nose at the tug and revved up the throttle.
As I bounced over undulating swells, alone on the open sea, a pod of dolphins joined me, skipping along across my bow.  A mother seemed to teach her calf how to ride a wake and I saw the little guy’s tail as he jumped clear out of the water.  I felt like I was living an episode of the old TV show Flipper.
When I got to the tug, I cut back the throttle and the dolphins darted off below me.  I tied up and climbed aboard the support ship, where Bill was the only one aboard.  He and another skipper took turns on the sub, and this was Bill’s turn up top.  They communicated over a sonar intercom.  Sound waves traveled through the water from the sub to a microphone on the tug and came out of speakers in the pilot house.  From below us we heard the squeaks and chirps of the dolphins swimming around underneath the boat.
Bill pointed out the buoy 100 yards away.  From this buoy, a line led down to the bridge of the sunken wreck.  It was now 11 a.m.  Bill would be taking the next group of tourists past the wreck at 11:30. 
Everything seemed fairly straightforward.  According to my dive calculator, at that depth I could only stay down for about 20 minutes, so I had to time it just right.  I also had to take a 2-3 minute decompression stop on the way up.  To err on the side of caution, I knew I shouldn’t stay at depth more than about 15 minutes.
I climbed back into the dinghy and zipped over to the buoy, tied the boat off, and got into my gear.  By the time I flipped over the side and into the water I had a little less than ten minutes until submarine ETA.  I grabbed hold of the buoy line and slowly sank toward the dark outline of the shipwreck beneath me.
The wreck was a small cargo ship, or perhaps fishing vessel, about 100 feet long.  I landed on the flying bridge like an astronaut landing on the moon.  I stood for a moment to survey the ship beneath me, imagining the captain in this spot on better days.  I swam down to the deck and around to the side of the hull.  Large sections were cut out to allow divers access, and I swam through into the interior.  Brightly colored fish darted about in all directions.  I made my way through various cabins, around corroded bulkheads and into a large hold.  I swam out the other side and followed the outline of the ship, constantly keeping an eye on my dive calculator.
By the time 11:30 came around, I had five minutes of dive time left.  Still no sight of the sub.  I ducked back into the wreck for some more exploring.  When I came back out it was 11:35.  Time for me to go back up.  But I had to see the sub.  Where was Bill?  I’d give it a few minutes more.  11:36.  11:37.  I really had to leave.  I looked around 360 degrees and saw no sub.  Just as I was about to head for the surface, I heard the faint hum of electric motors.  I gazed into the depths trying to see where the noise was coming from.  Suddenly, the image of the 40-foot white sub appeared before me, gliding out of the gloom like a scene straight out of a James Bond movie.  The closer it came, the more defined it was. 
By the time the sub was 30 feet away, I could see a big clear Plexiglas bubble on the front.  Inside sat Bill in his captain’s uniform with a joystick in one hand.  He raised his other hand and gave me a wave.  I waved back and watched as he maneuvered the sub straight past me.  Through the rows of over-sized bubble windows, I saw a crowd of excited Japanese tourists pointing, shouting and jumping around.  All of them rushed to the starboard side and waved, pressing themselves against the glass.  Out came the cameras and the flashes started popping.  I stayed where I was, waving the length of the sub, making sure everyone got their money’s worth.  Then I swam back to the bridge, grabbed hold of the buoy line and ascended to a depth of 20 feet.
After a few minutes more I surfaced, climbed back into the dinghy and took off my gear.  It was a beautiful day, with the sea softly rising and falling beneath me.  Up above, stunning white clouds hovered in the sky.  I relaxed for a few moments, exultant to be alive, and then started up the engine and zipped on in toward the island.

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