#46 – Water, Water Everywhere

Photo: Ellen Sanpere It’s an inescapable fact of cruising: we live surrounded by water.

Often deep water.

A landlubber might assume that everyone who chooses the cruising lifestyle has a natural affinity for water. But this is not automatically so.

Sure, there are plenty of us who plan for snorkeling and diving to be a big part of our experience. But there are others who look over the side with trepidation.

4 landlocked generationsSometimes, trepidation is a matter of unfamiliarity. If you were raised in an Iowa cornfield, around cold lakes or muddy ponds, the idea of immersing yourself in the vast, shifting, briny ocean may not come readily.

Sometimes trepidation is an heirloom of your ancestors: your grandmother didn’t swim, your mother didn’t swim, so you and water never were introduced. And sometimes trepidation results from a traumatic experience: a bully at the public pool, an all-too-vivid drowning story, a slip in the tub as a child.

Jaws movie Plus, we all saw Jaws.

The original novel by Peter Benchley and the blockbuster thriller by Steven Spielberg have given a whole generation nightmares of monsters from the deep.

Jaws probably did more to estrange people from the ocean than anything before or since.

Jacques Cousteau Fortunately, there was also Jacques Cousteau, sons Philippe and Jean Michel, and now their children, to provide some balance.

Not only was Cousteau Sr. co-developer of the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus that enabled the whole sport of scuba diving, he was a founding father of marine conservation.

Many if not most of us who have pursued scuba certifications were motivated by a desire to experience for ourselves the real wonders that the Cousteau documentaries revealed.

gwen teaching diving Having been a scuba instructor for over twenty years – in pools in New York City, on a dive cruise ship, on my own charter boat, and on remote beaches while cruising, I have taught lots of different kinds of people to snorkel and dive.

To some it comes easily and naturally.

To others, bold and super-confident, the course hits them as a reality-check that scuba is not something you just pick up and do; there’s classroom stuff you need to know.

But most rewarding have been the students, timid by nature or fearful of water in particular, for whom certification has taken time and hand-holding. Making it happen for these people has usually added up to more than just going underwater and coming up without incident. Often, success has built a huge bridge over a constricting outlook on life.

With respect to water in particular, I have always thought that its surface from above seems a two dimensional barrier.

hppscan6Rarely can you see much below it without getting in with a mask.

Recreational swimmers try to keep their heads above water, unknowingly starting a tiring battle between their heavy (in the air) head and their weightless (buoyed by water) body.

Without a mask and snorkel choppy water can splash in eyes and mouth, and without fins currents can overpower. This is how trouble starts. I’ve rarely jumped off the back of my boat without mask, snorkel and fins!

With them and with some basic skills in how to use them correctly, clumsy humans are transformed into competent marine visitors. For most of us the struggle against sinking stops when we relax with our faces immersed. The surface chop disappears, our legs stop pumping, and our breathing through the snorkel slows. It is truly miraculous!

gwen diving bora bora Once relaxed with our face in the water, we realize we have permeated that surface barrier. We can see sunlight streaming through, the crud growing on our boat’s bottom, the fishing line wound around the prop shaft, a few fish darting past and, finally, below, the whole panorama of the underwater marine world.

If you’re in an area of tropical reefs, this is quite a kingdom, but personally I’ve been happily entertained by the doings on a plain sand bottom.

Photo: Sherry McCampbell, Soggy Paws You quickly become more comfortable with marine critters when you watch them awhile and get a sense of their actual behaviors.

Snorkeling is the biggest step, and it fits well with our lifestyle choice of traveling and seeing how others live.

Free or breath-hold diving comes next, bringing closer looks and the gratifying ability to spearfish or collect shellfish. The addition of scuba gear to this merely allows us to get closer, watch longer, and move with less restriction in this third dimension, instead of being pinned to the underside of the surface barrier like an upside-down water bug!

Kathleen Watt took a scuba class to feel comfortable in the water Kathleen Watt, formerly of Renaissance, is a cruiser for whom scuba was a bridge over fear. “I was absolutely terrified of deep water, not a strong swimmer, didn’t know how to sail, and got seasick. But, Brian wanted to do this circumnavigation, and I wasn’t going to sit home because I was afraid. 

So, I figured I would confront this problem like I do any other—by jumping into the deep end, so to speak: I took a scuba course.  Guess it worked, because four years, 40,000 miles, and 37 countries later, we’ve dived in lots of wonderful places, including on an old military wreck 100 feet down in Vanuatu.”

Sherry McCampbell of sv Soggy Paws diving Utila, Honduras Seven of my Admirals and their partners – Lisa and Dennis of Lady Galadriel (currently in British Columbia), Sherry and Dave of Soggy Paws (Easter Island), Robin and Rick of Endangered Species (Fiji), Bette Lee and Tom of Quantum Leap (New Zealand), and Rachel and Elizabeth of Ventana (Indonesia) – are, like us, active scuba divers with complete sets of gear aboard, tanks and even compressors.

Having your own compressor means you can dive in the remotest of locations where you feel like no one may have been before you. It’s a heady feeling!

gwen diving from dinghySheri and Randy of Procyon (Australia) and Suzanne and John of Zeelander (Curaçao) are also active divers, but don’t carry a compressor. This means they can only do as many dives on their own as they have tanks before looking for a shore-based fill station. But it’s a decent compromise, allowing them the freedom to make a few dives from their boat or dinghy plus the security of being able clean the bottom, change zincs, or unfoul an anchor from coral heads.

Others, like Kathy of Hale Kai are certified, but dive only occasionally with resort dive boats using rentals or with other cruisers who have spare equipment. These divers are typically cruising on smaller boats without space to stow tanks and gear, or their partner doesn’t dive leaving them without a buddy. Diving so rarely, they report, means they feel their skills grow rusty, so they would rather dive with supervision.

Even cruisers who have their own dive gear aboard and who like the option to dive on their own often choose to go with the pros. “When we’re somewhere dive trips are available,” says Sherry of Soggy Paws, “we’ll assess the risk/trouble/cost issue of how easy it is to visit the dive sites in our own dinghy. Sometimes it just makes sense to pay someone to take you there. Especially when it’s not too expensive.”

gwen diving with humpback whales “We cannot imagine having done this trip without diving/snorkeling,” says Procyon’s Sheri. “It has greatly added to our enjoyment and was a good way to meet other people, both cruisers and locals.

Some of our best memories are of the fabulous dive sites we’ve been able to go to. The fish and coral through the South Pacific, the warm tropical water with great visibility, swimming with sharks and Manta rays… it’s all been just amazing!”

Many cruisers ask me what’s involved in preparing themselves and their boat for independent scuba diving. We’ll take a look this question in the next column.

This article was published in the May 2010 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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