It is hard to believe that it has been a little more than a year since we completed the GUE Fundamentals course. So much has changed in and out of the water. Gear-related, I am now diving doubles. Honestly, I cannot remember what it was like to dive a single tank. Not gear-related, we moved to Florida to be closer to the things we love most. After Fundies it didn’t take long for Andy and I to start kicking around the idea of taking our diving to the next level. It seemed a logistical nightmare to try to coordinate a training trip to Florida while living in Texas. So here we are, bonafide residents of the Sunshine State, about to embark on a new dive adventure.
Since Fundamentals, I have added 60 dives to my log. Unfortunately, they weren’t challenging dives. Diving in Texas doesn’t give you a whole lot of variability. But, Andy and I made the most of what we had at the time. Every other week we would make the nearly seven-hour trek to Spring Lake to volunteer as Scientific Divers. Spring Lake is definitely beautiful, but at~20 feet considered shallow. When diving our more local spots, we focused on refinement of skills. Sometimes our dives would be 90 minutes of working on kicks, valve drills, and buoyancy control. Although dull by some standards the work paid off in the end.
I began my Technical Upgrade in the same place where my GUE training began, in High Springs, Florida. I was more than a little anxious due to the fact that I had to manage our four-legged children AND train without Andy who was off on travel for work. I would have two days, or what ended up being almost seven hours dive time, with a new team that I had never before met. Little did I know at the time, the added complexity of the new team would make for some of the best dives of my life. Not to mention, I would be in charge of making sure all of my gear was packed appropriately. Immediately I was made aware that I rely too much on Andy. Add another layer to the onion.
The fur-babies and I decided to drive to High Springs the night before training actually began. We got to the house we would be calling home for the next 48 hours and got settled in. So many things were going through my mind at the time. Did I pack all of my gear? Did I remember all of the steps for the drills I would need to be proficient with for my upgrade? Did I pack enough food for meals? Did I remember the kid’s meds? Why was I doing this without my dive buddy? Thanks to the over-night thunderstorm and a frightened 85-lb Golden Retriever, not a lot of sleep was had in preparation for the big day.
Four o’clock came very early. I wanted to make sure that I had time to get the fur-babies settled for the morning with meds, breakfast, potty breaks, and walks. In addition, I knew I would need some time to unwind, eat breakfast, and prep my she-pee. It takes about 30 minutes from start to finish to clean any residual oil from the she-pee device and apply the Uro-bond to allow drying to a nice tackiness. I would be meeting my Instructor and new teammates at the first dive site, Glue Grotto, at 9:00, so I had plenty of time. The only hiccup of the morning came when I realized that in addition to the occasional extra large spiders we would also be sharing space with a few scorpions. I soon found out that much like their arachnid brethren, scorpions can be trapped under a water glass and easily coerced inside with a piece of paper for a quick release outdoors. First challenge accepted.
I got to Blue Grotto an hour early. I wanted to experience the beauty of the crystal clear water all to myself. After check-in, I was able to enjoy a cup of coffee sitting by the cool water. The only thing stirring around was Miss Virgil the resident celebrity turtle. Walking back up the stairs I heard other divers pulling into the graveled lot. So with a deep breath and a “you got this,” I was off to say hello to my new team.
Among the many reasons I love GUE, I like that all divers are on the same page for a specific skill level. Having never met the two gentlemen before, I already knew that we would be similar divers with identical gear. These two points take the guesswork out of what I could expect. I was greeted with handshakes and smiles. Soon we would be discussing our plan for the days training. We each had strengths and weaknesses that we wanted to work on. We knew the skill refinement we needed to possess for the coveted upgrade. So we suited up and headed to the water.
The first training day was a review of the old sprinkled with some new. My team worked on propulsion techniques, accent/decent drills, valve-drills, and gas sharing drills all the while working in tight formation. In addition, we learned how to rescue an unconscious diver. For me working with a new team made be step-up my situational awareness and communication skills immensely. Task –loading would allow each member to assume new roles under changing circumstances. I was able to show my skill set to my instructor with a degree of confidence that I never thought I would have underwater. Tired and hungry we stowed our gear and headed back to Extreme Exposure for tank fills and debrief. This just might not be as scary as I initially thought.
The next day our dive site would be the infamous Troy Springs. Don’t get me wrong Troy Springs is beautiful. Instead of the cool blue water we had at Blue Grotto, Troy is a pale emerald green. However, this site is a bit unforgiving. The flow is unique in that there are places throughout the water column that are calm and then there are places that make you feel as though you are in a washing machine. Troy is a wonderful place to train, and eat some humble pie. At a depth of 60-ish feet from bottom to surface, it is also a great place to shoot an SMB and work on assent/decent drills. In addition, the flow makes it challenging for maintaining buoyancy and good form with kicks.
The day started out the same as the previous with a briefing and a plan. Here we would work on running SMBs and gas sharing in a more challenging environment. Keeping the safety of our team first and foremost, as well as good communication to know when to change roles as needed, i.e. calling deco, would be the theme of the day. Each of my teammates and myself were preparing for more complex training within the next six to eight months. Good communication with your buddy/team is a must.
Much like I remembered from Fundies, Troy did not disappoint. Skills that seemed easy in the low flow at Blue Grotto were definitely more challenging. More than a few times I got caught in the washing machine. Shooting an SMB while being caught in a miniature underwater tornado helps drive home the importance of being in control of managing gas in your suit and wing at all times. Fine-tuning body position is a necessity if you are going to maintain your buoyancy within the water column. You learn that sometimes you literally go with the flow, while others requires a forceful frog or back kick to get right. After more than 90 minutes in the water with a maximum depth of 60 feet, I was exhausted. Although Troy served up lesson after lesson in an environment that is more ocean-like than fresh water, I felt accomplished; having never felt out of control. At times I was the team leader, others I followed the command of another. I was extremely proud of my teammates and myself; three people that up until 48 hours ago were complete strangers.
As we surfaced, we were greeted by an absolute downpour; the kind of rain that required a mask to see what was in front of you. After the long haul up the hill of switchbacks, I finally made it back to the truck. Feeling helpless to the rain, I removed my gear and sat on the tailgate in my dry suit eating my favorite candy bar, a Zero. I have to say that was the best candy bar I can ever remember eating. I bought it on my way down to High Springs two days earlier. I promised myself I could eat it once I completed the course. Although I hadn’t gotten the official “congratulations, you passed” from my instructor, I felt that a celebration was in order. At this point, the completion of two days in the water was so much more than earning a Technical Upgrade. Let us not forget that less than a year and a half ago I could not swim. I had almost no comfortability in water. I could not put my gear together without help. The thought of diving without Andy would have never crossed my mind. However, here I was, in High Springs, by myself. In the pelting rain, having just completed all my skills at a level required to pursue an advanced diving certification. Hard work with a shade of crazy truly pays off in the end.
After 30 minutes the rain broke. I packed up my gear and headed back to Extreme Exposure for my final debrief. There would be a quiz covering dive planning and gas calculations; some skills that got rusty from shallow Texas diving. After a brief discussion and video analysis of skills, my instructor shook my hand and said “Congratulations.” I could hardly believe that this is where I am as a diver. Before taking Fundies I struggled with the littlest of tasks. I panicked if I had to remove my mask or regulator underwater despite being a certified diver for 12 years prior. Yet here I was, preparing for Cave 1 training in five months.
The drive back to the house to pick up the fur-babies was surreal. I couldn’t wait to tell Andy what I had accomplished. I missed my dive buddy like crazy, but in the end, diving without him would make me better for him. I was able to dive with two incredible new teammates, in two of the most remarkable dive sites in the country, with the most amazing instructor on the planet. I feel like Meredith handed me the keys to the underwater kingdom. With each new training experience, a new door gets opened, into a room with endless possibilities.