Monday, July 04, 2011

VirginSSUDs2011 Trip Report - Day 5

Started Hummin’ a Song from 1962,
Workin’ on our Night Dive!
In the Summertime,
In the Sweet, Sweet Summertime.
Night Dive!

It was a day like any other day, assuming, that is, that your “any other day” is one where you’re on a large cruising catamaran in the British Virgin Islands with two other unschooling dads who are pretty much the most fabulous companions you could imagine for such an adventure.

No? Yours wasn't?

Well then, my day was not like your day. Neener-neener. Not that I’m gloating or anything but, well, yes, yes, I am. Sorry. Let’s move on and you'll get a little payback on me for gloating as today's story unfolds.

Because we had our big, exciting night dive planned for the evening, we left our day open, casual, and lazy. After an indolent breakfast, we decided to grab the dink and zip over to the bar to get some ice. Remember the whole ice thing from the previous afternoon where they didn’t have any available but maybe would this morning? Yeah.

So we jump in the dink and fire it up, back away from Kokomo, then, when we shift into forward gear, the engine gently expires. Ten million pulls later (Yes, I did count them and it was ten million at least. Ok?), we still had no power, so we paddled back to Kokomo and I put on my dinghy-engine-repair face. It looks something like this.

Here’s where you get your payback, O Gentle Reader.

Imagine Your Humble Narrator sitting in a dink in the merciless, tropical sun, with an inadequate box of tools, and the top off a small outboard which has been spray-painted flat black at some time in the past, apparently at least a coupla decades ago. Intellectually, we all know that an engine only needs three things to run: air, fuel, and spark. Realistically, we know intuitively that Voodoo is an unspecified but crucial component. I didn’t seem to have my mojo working that morning. With a coupla breaks in the shade of the cockpit with a cool drink, I did ultimately find a bad clog in the fuel line from the tank bulb to the engine connector. After clearing out whatever crud was in there, I continued up the fuel feed, clearing the line all the way to the carburetor. I also managed to remove the sparkplug and saw that it was a bit oily but not too bad. I tried to determine if I was getting a spark but that sun was so bright, I simply couldn’t see a spark if one was there. With the fuel line clear and the sparkplug replaced, I tried a coupla more pulls. With no joy from that, I elected to give up and call the base.

As it turned out, Jon had already called while I was out there messing around and we were expecting a callback from one of their shop dudes. Ok by me. Time for some shade and cool beverage. Phew.

Some time later with no callback, Jon called again and this time the message actually got through. So, with me in the dink with both hands free to play with the motor, and Jon on the phone talking to the shop guy, we began a three-way diagnosis/repair effort. Emergency stop lanyard in place. Check. Fuel bulb squeezed. Check with explanation of cleaning the fuel lines and checking the sparkplug. Give it a try. Ok. Nothing. Nothing. Sputter. Sputter. Start. Running rough but running. There’s my Voodoo. Scientifically, I’m gonna say it was the crap in the fuel line that clogged things up originally and the rest the carburetor got after I cleaned the lines and waited for their callback is what allowed the motor to run again.

You and I know it was really the Voodoo.

And your payback for my earlier neener-neener comes in the form of all that PITA time I spent messing with the dink motor under that merciless Apollonian glare, getting a splotchy, directional sunburn for my efforts. Ack! Oh well, we once again had a working dink motor. Hooray for that.

This is best photo I have of the dink, with Jon and Ben in the shot, and featuring that beautiful, clear, blue water.

But a newspaper person would say I’m burying the lead. This is the day of our night dive. That’s the significant part of today’s narrative, so let’s get to it.

The timing for this dive was to drop into the water as the sun was setting so that we still had some daylight while we geared up and listened to Divemaster Boed (Yes, we were with Boed again.) explain the dive plan. The diveboat arrived at Kokomo around 1800 and we joined a small group of intrepid souls for our adventure into the Stygian realm. A fast ride later, we tied to the dive buoy over the Rhone and geared up while Boed explained how things would go. We were the only boat there. We’d have the Rhone all to ourselves this evening.

As the last glow of orange and red tinged the darkening sky, we all turned on our divelights and dropped in. With everyone in the water and assembled at the descent/ascent line, Boed gave the signal and we dumped positive buoyancy from our BCs, descending into the India ink which had earlier been that lovely, clear cerulean blue we cherished during our daytime experiences.

Floating down into an abyssal darkness which is punctuated by insignificant cones of illumination from the individual lights of your small group of fellow divers, waiting for something other than the descent line to appear in your field of vision, is a deliciously tingly experience. Even an old Bertrand Russell hard-headed pragmatist verging toward an Amazing Randi style cynic like me feels that frisson of alert anticipation when embracing something this outré.

And now for one of my (in)famous brief asides.

Built in 1865, the Royal Mail Steamer Rhone was one of the early iron-hulled ships powered by both sail and steam. At just over 300 feet with a 40-foot beam, she was one of the first ships deemed “unsinkable” by the Royal Navy. Yeah, you know what that means; the proverbial kiss of death. In October 1867 she was in Great Harbour on Peter Island when, as we nautical types say, the glass started dropping. That means that the barometric pressure was falling, which usually indicates worsening weather, or even a storm. In this case, it started dropping like the proverbial rock and the Rhone and her fellow ship the RMS Conway prepared for an unexpected late-season hurricane.

Both ships survived the first half of the hurricane by running their engines at full power to help the anchors keep them in place. When the eye reached them, both captains decided to make a break for it, the Rhone’s captain opting for deep water, which is, counterintuitively, a safer place to be during a storm. Because the Rhone was deemed the worthier craft, all passengers from the Conway were transferred to her and tied in their bunks, as was the practice at the time during storm conditions.

The Conway chose to head for the safety of Road Harbour and steamed away. She was a bit too quick to leave and was caught by the final blasts of the leading edge of the hurricane. She foundered near Tortola with the loss of all hands.

Meanwhile, the Rhone had to drop her main anchor and all its chain because it was snagged. It is now a dive site right in Great Harbour, Peter Island. Freed from her anchor at last, the Rhone steamed for the open ocean just past the cut between Salt Island and Dead Chest Island, the site mentioned in the famous chantey, “Fifteen men on…” Unfortunately, the eye was now past and the hurricane winds slammed the Rhone from the opposite direction, driving her onto the rocks at the end of Salt Island. The ship broke apart, cold water hit the raging boilers causing a massive steam explosion and the unsinkable Rhone went down quickly in two major pieces. Twenty-three crew survived. The passengers were all still tied in their bunks.

Now, the Rhone lies in essentially two sections, the stern in 30-40 feet of water and the bow at 80ish feet. Our night dive would concentrate on the shallower stern and middle section.

There are basically two types of wreck dives that SCUBA users can engage in. The first type is the derelict or defunct boat which is sunk on purpose to hopefully be a starting point for a new coral reef and a fun dive site. This kind of wreck is carefully prepared before it’s sent to the bottom in a pre-chosen spot. Clutter and debris are removed, hatches and ports are removed, access holes are cut into the hull sides, and lots of other prep is done which will make this wreck a safe and fun environment to explore. Even after such a wreck has sat for decades, attracting all sorts of interesting marine life, it is still essentially a safety-engineered divers’ playground.

The other type of wreck is the “natural” wreck. Often, a loss of life was associated with this type of wreck. It has certainly not been cleaned and prepared for divers’ safety and fun. There are damaged sections which could collapse at any time, shifting cargo or bulky material, rotting superstructure which finally drops to a lower level after decades of decay, or any of a thousand other potential deathtraps. Diving a natural wreck can be a dangerous thing. Also, as I mentioned first, when there was an associated loss of life, it has that added emotional element which a diver feels very intensely. Especially at night.

All of that runs through my mind and my emotions as I descend, first into the pure, disorienting, inky blackness and then into something recognizable as landscape as the bottom begins to appear in my divelight along with the scattered wreckage from a tragedy of a century and a half ago.

How can I describe night diving to you when you haven’t done it? Even a brightly-lit day dive feels very much like being an interstellar explorer floating in your antigravity suit over an utterly alien world, breathing your own bottled air because the aliens’ atmosphere is deadly to humans. The lifeforms are at once oddly beautiful and extremely bizarre. They do unexpected things. They burst from their camouflaged hiding place right before your eyes, startling you. Fight or flight? Oh, ok, neither. He’s just zooming away because he was startled by my appearance. I can relax. Temporarily.

Now add darkness to that experience. A profound blackness, relieved only by the small, narrow, pathetically yellowish cone of your hand-held light. Is that its natural wavelength or is it failing? Eek. No, it’s fine. I’m sure it’s fine and my fellow explorers are all close by with their (pathetic) lights if need be. And the bizarre landscapes and odd creatures begin to appear in my cone of vision.

The stark, broken ribs of a dead ship, illuminated in relief by another diver’s light. Immense lobsters peering from beneath a twisted bulkhead. Tools once used by a steamfitter now long-dead, whose remains are perhaps still here with us. A large dog snapper hiding near Jon and using his light to find and devour prey. Devious bastard. Sleeping parrotfish cocooned in their mucous sacs. And on and on. New visions appearing as previous ones fall behind and out of my cone of visibility, disappearing from my ken. Familiar creatures in an unfamiliar reality.

I don’t have the words to describe for you all the thoughts and feelings I experienced on this exquisite night dive. Remembering and mourning all those souls lost during this tragedy, while exulting in the infinite delights of such a wonderful, alien experience.

Go to Jon’s flickr page and look at his photos. Here, starting with the one titled, appropriately, “night dive.” There are only a few from that dive but that’s a few more than I have to show you.

After that dive, we returned to Kokomo for some dinner and a contemplative evening.

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