October 18th, 2003

Dear Mom,

      The other day as I was leaving your house you told me to be careful with my diving. Remember me saying, “I’ll be OK as long as I never panic.”? Well later that evening, after a few beers, my neighbor asked, “When was the closest you ever came to buying it?” I never really thought about it before. My first thoughts went to a dive years ago on the Northerner wreck near Port Washington, WI. It’s a very beautiful two masted schooner that’s sitting in 130 feet of water. I had been on the wreck once before, but because I was taking a wreck diving class, I couldn’t bring my camera. After a few weeks of searching I found an evening charter to take me back there with pic1three other divers. Back then I was strictly a recreational diver and this wreck was the deepest I'd ever been on. The four of us geared up and were ready at about the same time. After the first two jumped in, my buddy and I followed.

  My dive buddy had gone down the line a ahead of me, while I took a little time to check my camera. At roughly 100 feet of depth I could just start seeing the wreck coming into view out of the gloom.  I turned on my camera lights and suddenly got a large mouth full of water. (Sloosh) My primary regulator, out of the clear blue, started giving me half air, half water! My first thought was "maybe I can at least shoot video of the bow". (Sloosh) "Nope!" I hastily started making my way back to the surface.  I had ascended to 70 feet before realizing that it would probably be easier to breathe if I were to just switch to my back up regulator. Duh! Just as I stopped to make the switch, my primary regulator cleared itself. I thought, “Great!” and of course started back down. (Sloosh) “Dang!”  As I again headed toward the surface the primary cleared itself, but this time I switched to my back up regulator anyway and continued my ascent. Once on the surface and back in the boat, with no video again, I checked over the regulator and couldn’t find anything wrong with it. After a short time my friends came to the surface spouting the obligatory, “That’s the greatest visibility I’ve ever seen, what a great wreck, you should have seen it.” “Thanks guys” I said while giving them a different hand signal. Later at home, under closer inspection, I found the mouth piece of my regulator had a very slight cut near the band attaching it to the regulator. It was so small that it had no problem keeping the water out until I added 70 plus feet of water pressure on it. With every breath of air after that, I also took in water.  I pic2replaced the mouth piece and was ready for the next weeks dive. No panic, no problem.      

I guess I wasn’t really that close to buying it on that dive, though after hearing the story, Sherrie bumped up my life insurance, so I related another much later dive to my neighbor instead. Not long ago, my buddy Chip and I were diving in an abandoned lead mine in Bonne Terre, Missouri. The lead diver’s name was Mary. She and another diver, Yoda, who also lived in the area were leading the way into a small mine shaft about the size of a doorway turned sideways. There were nine of us all together. Mary leading, with Yoda taking up the rear. We started in, single file, following some railroad tracks on the bottom. I was third from the end, camera lights on, shooting video. Suddenly we stopped as we came across an ore cart sitting on the tracks that was partially blocking the exit.

       Mary skillfully wiggled around it and while the rest of us waited, each diver in turn started to maneuver past the obstruction. As I lay there on my belly roughly 30 feet into the shaft awaiting my turn, I thought, “I should check my air.”  No problem, I had plenty. After a few moments of sitting there not moving I thought, “You know, I should check my air.” Again, no problem I had plenty. After a few more moments on my belly I thought, “I should…” Pretty soon I was lying there just staring at my air gauge with plenty of air in my tank. In the mean time as the divers ahead of me passed the abandoned ore cart, some were kicking up a bit of silt. With my camera lights on, it was like having your high beams on in a fog, all I could see ahead of me was the backscatter. I turned them off and could now easily see the light beams and tank glow sticks ahead of me. What I didn’t know was that turning off my 200 watt lights turned out to be the last straw for the diver behind me. Being already nervous inside the mine shaft my turning off my lights sent him into a full blown panic. He wanted out and he wanted out now! He, at full speed, climbed over and past me. Arms clawing and flailing at anything he could grab, he knocked off my mask and pulled the regulator out of my mouth as went by, before disappearing into the dark. Now I thought, “Ok, Rick think, you have no air, you can’t see, it’s pitch black, you’re roughly 70 feet underwater and 200 feet under solid rock. This is not good!”

   Now I will confess it actually sounds worse then it was. I calmly reached down and put in my backup regulator. At that time it was attached to the end of my B.C. power inflator hose. I thought, “Good, Now I have air so I have plenty of time”. I leaned onto my right side causing the primary regulator to cross my chest with gravity while the hose slid into the curve of my arm making it easy to find. Just like in my open water training class, I then replaced the back up reg with the primary one. I blindly felt around till I found the switch for the spotting light on my video camera and turned it on. I spotted my mask on the other side of the mine shaft and slightly behind pic3me. I picked it up, put it on and cleared it. Good to go. One of the unwritten rules of diving is: If you panic you die!! Had I panicked there is a good chance I wouldn’t be writing this now.     

      By the way, Chip told me later that he had already passed the ore cart and was heading out of the mine shaft when the diver at full speed passed him. On the surface the diver apologized to me up and down. He said he was getting more and more uncomfortable in that shaft as the seconds ticked by and when I turned off my light, he just lost it. I brought up the fact that it wasn’t a real good idea for him to run his dive with my lights. He agreed and after apologizing again said he never had a problem before and had been in a lot tighter places then that. That was the last dive of the day on a Saturday; though we still had one more the next morning before driving home. During that next dive, as we were swimming through a considerably larger mine shaft, roughly 12 feet by 12 feet, I noticed the same diver swimming very fast, passing everyone else, going out of the shaft and up to the surface. He said even in that large shaft the walls started closing in on him and that he was done. He has never returned.

     I’m very lucky that one of the character traits Dad passed on to me was patience. Hopefully I’ll stay that way.

See you soon,