The Long Path To Trimix Diving, Part 1

A Life UnderwaterAt some point after a person gets certified to scuba dive they come to a line in the road. The line is the choice – is that diver a recreational diver or is that diver an adventurer, a technical diver? More to the point – is that diver satisfied with just recreational diving? This is usually very early on for most people who get certified. Those that approach early are the people that learned to dive “just because,” thought it was fun, check it off their bucket list and always mention that they are certified over drinks at a bar if the topic ever comes up. Those people have no concept of technical diving. Then there are those avid recreational divers that are happy just diving. For the rest it is a gradual approach reached only after having studied the physics and physiology of diving. After they have become a dive master and an instructor. For those, understanding diving is not enough. They read about diving. They talk about it. They dream about it. For those that approach the line like this have no doubt that they will cross it despite all the dangers that technical diving poses.

Tec traing at Blue Grotto.
Tec training at Blue Grotto.

From April 4-7, 2013, I achieved a goal three years in the making. I became certified to decompression dive to 185 feet on air and to 200 feet on trimix. This saga began back in 2010 before I had even completed my instructor course. I was one of those divers that after open water certification became hooked. I was one of those divers that read every dive book I could get my hands on including “Shadow Divers” which peaked my interest in technical diving. It was back in January 2010 that I froze in Lake Denton practicing s-drills for the first time. Later I would spend days diving in 40 Fathom Grotto and Hudson Grotto practicing decompression procedures and being tested. I acquired my tec setup piece by piece. I was told of a canister light on sale for under $500 and I’d grab it, a double bladder wing reduced and it was mine. A friend sold me his doubles and another gave me his backplate and harness. I needed a drysuit and was offered one used but in great shape. Along the way I met a cast of characters that only the scuba world could have. It was a three year journey. A microcosm of life itself. It was a journey like all journeys where the path to the goal was as much fun and interesting (if not more so) than achieving the goal itself.

I learned to dive after my divorce. I asked a friend if he was interested and he said yes. So I found a dive shop, found out the dates and told my friend. He dragged his feet. I signed up. At first I was hesitant. I had problems removing my mask and was not very confident that I really wanted to dive. I pushed on anyway at the behest of a new friend I had met in class. I began to be comfortable underwater. I signed up for a Labor Day weekend trip to the Florida Keys and it was there that I was hooked.

Carl Pennick

PADI Staff Instructor, TDI Extended Range and Trimix.

Carl stowing gear.
Carl stowing gear.

I originally met Carl Pennick right after I got certified in 2007. He had been certified for about a year. We began diving together regularly after the Labor Day trip that year. We had been to every Labor Day Trip to the Keys since until they ended after the 2011 season. We often would plan trips to West Palm Beach or Jupiter to go dive on the weekends. Carl, was like me, hooked on diving. We would say we were never doing TEC then do it. Carl had lived in Orlando when we first met but in 2010, Carl decided to move to the Ft Lauderdale area.

We (a crew of divers that had become friends) decided that Carl’s new home could be a staging point for future dives. That’s how we rationalized it anyway. Honestly, I think we all thought that we would lose touch and go our separate ways. Fortunately, if you ever meet Carl, he is one character you never want to let fade into the past (nor will he allow that) and we were bound and determined to keep strong ties to him and his prime location.

Carl and I had begun our tec training in January of that year in the sub-50 degree waters of Lake Denton. He had a dry suit, I had a farmer-john 5mm wetsuit. We both became certified Tec 40 that Spring. On July 4th I was able to get my Tec 45 card at 40 Fathom Grotto. Carl, because of his move, could not make that trip and it ended up being just me and Jerry Henkins (instructor). This was back when we could dive 40 Fathom for a small fee and spend the night there in its housing and utilize all the conveniences the commercial diving school offered. I think I met Hal Watts on that trip but it would not be until recently, while reading Sheck Exley’s “Caverns Measureless to Man” that I would understand who he was.

Training slowed down after that. Carl had trouble making to North Florida for a day of diving and our tec dreams seemed to wander for a while. In April of 2011 the dream seemed to come to an end. Carl had finally made it up and we were going to do our Tec 50 skills at 40 Fathom. Carl still needed one deep dive to finish off Tec 45. It was Tim Vann, Jerry Henkins, Carl and myself. I remember it as a sunny pleasant day, early morning. The first thing we were going to do was drop down the 145 foot line and get Carl’s last dive out of the way.

Jerry Henkins and Tim Vann

Jerry and Tim – Master instructors, Tecnical Instructor (Jerry only), advanced trimix.

Jerry Henkins on a cold day at Blue Grotto.
Jerry Henkins on a cold day at Blue Grotto.

Tim and Jerry were already trimix certified at that time. Jerry was instructing us. I had known both Jerry and Tim since I was certified. Each has over 20-years of diving experience. Both are master trainers, tec certified for deep trimix. Tim is cave certified and Jerry is training in caves as this is being written. I consider both top notch instructors.

Tim came along with us on this day of dive training. Tim was going to be an extra set of eyes and get a deep dive in. Since Carl had moved south I had been down 40-Fathom’s 145 foot line several times, even once when the visibility was a miraculous 50+ feet! This was Carl’s first dive down the line.

Here I need to give a short description of 40 Fathom Grotto. Located in North Florida, the Grotto is a deep spring fed hole in the ground. The surface stretches around 200 feet across. To enter it you must carry all your gear down a long flight of stairs onto a great host of floating platforms. The water it typically very dark due to the vegetation that surrounds it. At about 30 feet the day turns to night and you must have a good torch (and backup) to dive. There are several underwater platforms that are hung in different areas and at different depths, and several different descent lines. On the platforms is a decompression chamber.

We began gearing up on the platform. Tim descended first, ahead of us and alone. Carl and I would descend with Jerry. Everything went smoothly. I could see Tim’s light flickering below us. We stopped at 10 feet and did our bubble check – all good. As we reached the bottom I gave Jerry the “ok” signal. Carl did not. I saw Carl indicating the “up” signal to Jerry. I immediately thought equipment failure and began looking for leaks as Jerry gave Carl his alternate and switched to his primary. Still Carl indicated “up.” Jerry began an ascent with Carl.

I had been to that location several times with Jerry and Tim. I watched as both ascended. I could still see Tim

Tim Vann at 40 Fathom Grotto.
Tim Vann at 40 Fathom Grotto.

nearby and we each gave the other the “ok” signal. The plan was for a 15 minute bottom time so I stayed for 10. As I began my ascent I signalled to Tim my intentions. I had several planned stops and did each. On the first stop Tim had caught up with me and reminded me to switch gases. I admit I was thinking only of what had happened and had forgotten to switch. We were just using a <40% nitrox mix to accelerate our decompression times. I switched gases then could not get my computer to switch. It turned out to be very a conservative dive.

Tim stayed with me until the 10 foot stop. He had already cleared deco and I had a long way to go. We each gave the other the “ok” signal and he ascended. By the time I surfaced Tim had already exited the water and was off the platform. I saw Jerry and Carl, already out of their gear and into their dry clothes. Everyone looked okay. I swam to the platform and began the process of un-donning my equipment. I did not ask what had happened, however the training day was done. Tim and I went for one more dive. Jerry was upset about my missed gas switch. I believe the entire episode made Jerry rethink further instruction of his friends on such dangerous goals.

I have known Jerry since I began diving. He is one of the best instructors I know. He absolutely loves diving. I remember the day he returned from Lake Denton after having saved an Open Water student’s life. As he recounted the event I wondered if I would have reacted as well. For us, I guess he did not want to have to be in a situation where our lives depended on his actions and we were not just in 20 feet of water learning open water. I decided to give it some time and see what would happen. Carl and I continued to buddy up for rec dives off of West Palm Beach. In July I booked a trip to Grand Cayman for a week of relaxing recreational diving in September. My time was pleasantly occupied away from tec.

Steve Lalonde

PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer.

Steve Lalonde
Steve Lalonde

In December, Jerry was going to Lake Denton to do some tec skills for another diver wanting to be tec certified and asked if I wanted to get my Tec 50 skills done. The other diver was Steve Lalonde, an instructor I had met in the Spring of 2011. Steve was a former Navy Nuke spending his six years in the submarine fleet. He was one of those guys that could have had a well paying career at some nuclear power plant but he wanted to dive. He just followed his dreams like a dog following a scent to some really good food. He did not think about anything else. He did not let anything get in his way. It was a skill I envied.

That day I went but wearing a drysuit I could not perform the gas shutdown drills with the doubles and ended up just assisting Steve with his skills. Steve was enthusiastically just starting out in tec diving. He was a power boat with the engine wide open and I could tell he wanted to learn everything about diving that he could. No one could teach him fast enough.

Tim and I at Ginnie Springs.

On New Years Eve 2011, I was invited by Tim and Jerry to go camping with them to Ginnie Springs for an annual cave divers event. Tim was cave certified and Jerry was just getting into it. I was to pretend so that I could participate in the celebration at Ginnie Springs cavern at midnight. The secretive event was amazing. Just before midnight at least 30 divers entered the cavern. We all settled to our spots on the bottom scattered about like evenly distributed sand. At midnight, with all our lights turned off, the event occurred and all I can say is it was something I will never forget. As Tim and I were taking off our gear afterwards up walks Steve still in full drysuit regalla. In the darkness I did not see him but he had been in the cavern with us. He had been taking cave courses when he could and had driven up to Ginnie Springs that day. We all said our hellos, chatted a bit, then Tim and I headed back to the camper while Steve headed back to his tent.

Steve would soon joined Jerry and I as instructors for the Dive Station in Orlando. Jerry was the main instructor teaching just about every weekend. I filled in or helped out on the weekends when needed. Steve was going to be full time during the week. Everything seemed to be coming together again and tec certification could not be far off.

(End of Part One)

IMG_4702Story by . Follow him on Twitter @DirgaDiver.


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