Spear Catalina

As the possibility of another boat dive looms in the near future, I look back on my first boat dive with amusement and a desire to learn from my mistakes.  Had my fellow divers not been such graceful people (or so focused on catching fish), it could have been very embarrassing.  Some of you may learn a few things, and all are welcome to have a chuckle.  There is plenty for all.

The dive was part of a package deal which included a spearfishing clinic and gear-buying free-for-all at the Riffe factory in San Clemente.  The mild-mannered divers became predatory, prowling, eyeing spearguns, fins, boots, socks, and gloves intensely.  They fell upon the fins, putting them on and flopping their feet about.   At least two ended up with spearguns that towered over their new owners.  Eventually, I waded into the mix and ended up with a set of fin keepers and a pair of gloves.  Just as people are lucky to survive shark attacks, I was lucky to escape with a cent to my name.

Lesson One

Don’t bring your credit card to the speargun factory. 

My classmates and I dined at a restaurant at the Long BeachHarbor.  It became apparent at that time that I would be sharing the bunk room with seven men.  Between hilarious stories, the other divers noted my pensive demeanor.  They quickly guessed the issue and brought it out into the open.

“Have you stayed in a room with a bunch of men before?” 

I admitted that I had not.

“Well, you’re going to hear lots of strange noises.” 

Unbidden, the image came to mind of California’s Elephant Seals.  These creatures love to lie about on the beach, snorting, sneezing, and scooping sand upon themselves and their neighbors.    

It wasn’t much different in the bunks.

Lesson Two

It is preferable to choose a bunk that is as close to the back as possible.  This is because the front of the boat moves up and down, while the back stays relatively still.  The bunk room may be mixed company.

Lesson Three

Make sure your gear is in as few bags as possible.  Pack minimally – you probably won’t need three changes of clothes for an overnight trip.  Don’t bring the special new luggage you got for Christmas.  Sturdy duffel bags are good, purpose-made dive bags are better, and a dive bag with a set of wheels is best.  You will be toting your heavy gear all around, so don’t make it more difficult than necessary.

Sleeping on a boat can be pretty easy, but there are some distractions that can make it more of a challenge.  The boat took on additional passengers who descended on the bunk room before sunrise.  As there were not enough beds, they demanded to share with those of us who were ensconced behind the privacy curtains.  This was a most unwelcome surprise to all of us, including the dive shop owner.  He was suffering from a particularly nasty respiratory infection, and as a result had the disposition of a bear awakened from hibernation too early.  Thankfully, I did not have to share.

Lesson Four

Take note that sometimes you might be asked to share your bunk with a stranger.  Ask about sleeping arrangements beforehand.  Or, keep your speargun handy.   

The sun shone brightly in the sky when we arrived at Catalina.  I emerged from the lower level, stretched luxuriously, and tried to walk around.  I focused on making it from one end of the boat to the other, using tables and walls for support.    Things made sense again until I realized that the boat seemed to be holding still, while the rest of the world tilted and heaved.  I gratefully accepted an anti-nausea pill before I did likewise.

Lesson Five

Begin a course of anti-nausea pills in advance, or at least have some good ones on hand if you have a tendency toward nausea.  Some lucky people do not.  They are unspeakably fortunate. 

And now, the wetsuit dance.

Donning my brand-new Omer Ocean Mimetic 5mm farmer john wetsuit was deceptively difficult.  The standard procedure is to squirt a combination of wetsuit shampoo and water into the suit, then slide right into it. 

What they don’t tell you is that you must plunge headfirst into a cold, damp wetsuit and struggle to the other side, and somehow miraculously get your arms and head through the correct holes.  Add a bit of claustrophobia into the mix and things get interesting.  My classmates bobbed about in the kelp perfecting their pike dives and getting air out of their suits while I peered suspiciously at my wetsuit.  The solution to this quandary came when they returned.  The suit was treated to a thorough dousing with the lube mixture and was rolled it into a smaller, more manageable tunnel.  That’ll teach it.  That was Lesson Six, by the way.  Don’t let those wetsuits get the best of you.

Into the water I went, rolling and tumbling, trying vainly to pull fins over socks.  Julie Riffe was very helpful; bless her willingness to assist a human float.  My pike dive was graceful (first thing that was), but I was underweighted and bobbed back to the surface despite thrashing to stay down.  Sometime during that short dive, I glimpsed a gray fish along the ocean floor.  I later learned that it was a white seabass.  Something must have been going right in spite of my best efforts.

The next dive saw me with more weight in my belt, a speargun in my hand, and a greasy hamburger in my stomach.  I don’t know if that’s standard fare, but just in case….

Lesson Seven

Bring an antacid. 

The hamburger, nausea, and diesel fumes conspired, and I got sick.  That is par for the course for my ocean dives so far.  I pressed on, hefting the gun around the water.  It is the speargun equivalent of a .45 Smith & Wesson loaded with Black Talons.  I was able to load the first two bands and convinced myself it was because of the day’s trials that the third didn’t click into place, and not upper body weakness.  By then, it didn’t matter.  I drifted into a patch of kelp and had to use my wits to get out of it.  My wits were tired, but awake enough to fully comprehend lesson seven. 

Lesson Eight

Don’t get tangled in kelp.  Plenty of people were around to help if I needed it, but it isn’t useful.

The boat began to head back to Long Beach Harbor.  I contemplated the odd squishy feeling of sitting down in a wet open-cell wetsuit and waited for the showers.

The wetsuit was just as accommodating about being removed as it had been about being donned.  After several attempts to pull it off from the bottom, I sat down on my squishy suit to gather strength to try again.  Once more, one of my friends helped out, this time by grasping the suit and pulling it off while I concentrated on keeping my feet.  There are easier ways of removing your wetsuit, but I don’t know what they are.

The shower arrangement on that boat was quite interesting.  The facilities had no separate showers, just a showerhead protruding from the wall and a drain in the bathroom floor.  It’s difficult to keep your change of clothes dry with the shower spray, wetsuit, and limited space.

Lesson Nine

The moment you step on the boat, everyone begins speaking nautical language.  There is no front or back of the boat; there is a ‘bow’ and a ‘stern’.  The kitchen is the ‘galley’.  The restroom, bathroom, or toilet becomes ‘the head’.  The boat doesn’t have a right or left side, it has a starboard side and one other that I can’t remember.  It doesn’t much matter, because ‘starboard’ gets referred to the most.  If you hear someone talking about something that isn’t a bow, stern, starboard, or galley, it’s likely the other side of the boat.  When the divemaster mentioned the starboard head, I had to search around surreptitiously so no one knew I was ignorant about what a starboard is.  

My first boat trip provided me with priceless information on what should and should not be done.  I enjoyed almost every minute of it.  Keeping these lessons in mind will make for a much more pleasant experience next time out.

See you in the water.