More on 18,000 ft Penetration Dive (George Irvine)
DIVING TO 18 GRAND (Part 2 of 2)
by George Irvine
……starting back where we “left the bottles at 6500″…
And before that…..
As we neared Cherokee Sink on the way out, I started looking for the old end of the line , hoping to spot the loop. I did not, but I noticed on my timer that we were at four hours of bottom time already, and that my two dive partners’ lights were fading. We were 11,000 feet from home. We bobbled back and forth trying to get our speeds more closely matched, huddling together to be better able to see each other and the line. I got hung up in JJ. On the way in, I had gotten hung up in Brent and had to flash him to stop. He immediately tried to turn around to face me , thinking he needed to help me, but I grabbed him by the leg and pushed him forwards, giving him the “go forward” light signal while unhooking my rebreather gas block from his stage bottle – when we stay together, we stay together. We are a team.
I turned my light into my face to guage its strength, and it blinded me. I ran into the roof. I reached back and checked my valves – everything was there. This was going to be a long ride. Six hours of scootering in 68 degree water in giant black tunnel may not seem like much when you read this, but it is about the time it takes to drive from Palm Beach to Tallahassee. Staying alert is critical. There are T’s everywhere, and a wrong turn could really set you back, not to mention put you out of the path of the safeties. All three of us are navigating, usually I am in the back. I illuminate my compass every few minutes so I can constantly watch it, along with the clock. Knowing exactly where you are is at all times is critical : if something were to go really wrong, you have to be able to make the best decision on how to proceed.
Right near the end of the old line I felt like my scooter was slowing down. I signalled JJ that I was going to make the switch, and he did the same. The temptation to turn the scooter all the way up is overwhelming sometimes, and we had been gradually easing ours on up , hoping for more speed – we got less. In our thinking, the scooters are the most critical gear, and in our immagination, they are always a little suspicious. Both of us have switched scooters only to discover that the one we were riding was at full power.
A few dives ago, JJ had Brent and I hold at the beginning of the dive and he went back to our escort divers. He came back with both of their scooters, plus all of his own. I recognized them – both were ocean scooters I had built for time , not speed. I tried to take the one away from him, he kept it. As we passed each safety scooter on the floor, he switched, picking up speed, but somehow ended up all the way out at the J Tunnel with FOUR scooters on him. We laughed about that for a while. This time we switched, we were not laughing, and started the calculation on that scooter. I did not like what I came up with at all, but let’s keep moving, we are 10,000 out, the clock is running, we are at 300 feet.
At about 9,500 feet we came into our previous scooters and drive bottles. JJ and Brent had hung theirs from a ledge in the ceiling, clipped to the line. I had set mine on the floor eighty feet away , holding the line down . Here there is the illusion of mounds of silt, but it is only four intches deep to the hard rock below. The ceiling is at 270, the floor at 300 right here. I dropped down and hovered, putting away my other scooter. I went to switch my drive bottles, and lost my double ender. No problem, being really anal, I had left a spare one on the line just in case. I dropped it. I could see the outline of both of them in the silt. Expecting to reach into endlessness, I was suprised to recover both of them only four inches down. Glad I dropped them. Glad I was breathing helium, able to hover inches above the floor with three scooters, two drive botles, four safeties, and pick two clips up out of the silt without even puffing it while wearing a rebreather with twim 160’s attached to it. I was remembering what Parker Turner told me, “It is the basics that keep you alive”. I was thinking, “This is my basic lobster-catching buoyancy control at work”. I was also thinking, “how am I doing this with a rebreather?”. It is a good thing I do not teach it, as I have no idea how I do it. I thought about the first question on my rebreather exam, “What kills the most rebreather divers”. I had answered, “Rule Number One”, Jack Kellon got pissed , he said “Task loading”. He told me Tom Mount had answered that question correctly, and he failed me and Bill Mee. We laughed until we cried, “Task Loading”. Bill Mee and I are the only guys who ever failed the rebreather test. However, Mount and Jack were correct – turn your back on the rebreather snake and it bites you.
My dad had a German Shepherd named “Lucky”. If you turned and walked away from Lucky, he bit you in the ass. He bit eveyone but me and my dad. My brother was his favorite bite. The secret was to pet Lucky before you turned your back, and to display no fear of him. Everyone who did not “pet the pony”, or was “scared” inside, got bit. Some things never change.
We passed a lead we had started a few dives ago. I looked down it with my light momentarily, and then turned away. Normally we do everything we can in each dive, but this one was over. I automaticly checked for my reel – it was there, loaded. I later dropped it at 6500 feet to reduce drag , and the temptation ( to JJ).
At about 8,000 feet out we were slow, we were loaded down, Brent and JJ were on backup lights, we pulled up to a safety bottle depot to pick them up, did it too fast, hit the trigger, and lost the line. It was broken and gone in the silt way between tie offs in a section of tunnel on a corner that is 120 feet wide, fifty feet high, and does not have a good reference to check the compass course. JJ and Brent were in front and I was behind. I yelled in my rebreather, ” I have no ——- idea where the line is, and gave them the “lost the line light signal”. They immediately froze still in place. Seeing that, I continued the signal and turned back , looking for my own smoke trail. Even in giant cave with a rebreather, there is the moving particle water trail that is your signature. I flipped on my powerful nicad light and illuminated my compass, held it back in front of me, spotted the “smoke”, and dove to the floor. Even in Tallhassee Tanic Cave, if the line has been in the silt, it will stay white. There would be no way to spot the suspended line, so I shrimp trawled for the line running a course perpendicular to what I knew the survey to be ( you have to ignore the walls since they present the illusion of a four-way tunnel every time with no reference point). I did not need to plant and run a line, since I had the two best dive partners in diving – they held like a rock where they were. This is the kind of situation when Rule Number One means life or death. You could search for days in Wakulla for the line and never find it. This is why I dive with these two guys – they know what to do, when to do it, and they execute it perfectly every time no matter what else is going on – they are truely the best in the business.
I got lucky, “scoring” on the first pass. I turned into the survey and signalled them that I “had the line there, you go ahead and find it forward “. They did, we moved on. No reason to reapir the line, we would be the only people who ever get that far anyway. That was a heart-stopper. We were already late, and Murphy says that when you get lost off the line, that is when your rebreather SHOULD fail, or your scooter should stick on, or your light go out. Murphy can’t hang with us for 18 grand – ( in other words, we got lucky this time, Murphy missed his chance, but that is because he had a much better one waiting for us).
We unloaded our cargo at 6500, now ready to “fly” out of the cave. We hit a junction where you can go out two or three difference routes at 6,000 feet. The safeties are in the main tunnel, but we have another tunnel that we like to ride for the scenic beauty, and because it is usually clearer. We had ridden it on the way in , and it was in good shape. However, it is a backflowing syphon on the roof, ingoing spring on the floor. The line is on the roof, but we know the tunnel and can ride the floor, but that , we discovered, is IF we have one thing – lights.
We checked our gas supplies and looked at each other , deciding on the scenic route out. We took that turn, expecting to burst into clear water any minute, and it never came. The tunnel was hosed, and had gone down in the five hours we had been diving past it. I figured out what had happened as I passed a familiar tie off point, but we were committed now .. I was thinking ,as I saw the line holding stiff in the current, “This thing has sucked the tanic out of A Tunnel all the way down here – it must have rained like hell out there”.
Now Murphy got going. My light died, and so did the second lights of Brent and JJ – we were all on backup lights. I could see that Brent and JJ had the Rat Light, I had some other piece that was out of focus, but I did not want to go away from the working backup to pull a Rat light. I started thinking that the light must have water in it to be out of focus, so it is getting ready to fail. I went to check my nicad light to see how much power had built back up, turned it to my face and flipped the switch just as I passed through 306 feet – the test tube broke and it filled with water . I turned it off immediately – I would now REALLY need this if I had to signal, and it should work in the relatively non-conducting water. What next?
We came up on some really neat rock formations, poking our way long the ceiling with our little lights, and sure enough, there goes my scooter. I flipped on the crippled nicad light, signalled JJ, and he and I both went for the rocks to switch scooters. I did a quick calculation – I had about twenty minutes in my other scotoer ( maybe), my big boy should have about five of rejuvinated life, and my nicad scooter was 1000 feet ahead on the floor with an hour left on it. How bullet proof was that scooter now? There were four safeties each between there and the door – not enough to swim out.
We crossed through a nasty spot and blind jumped back to the A Tunnel line . I had done this twenty times before, but now it was abolutely critical to get it right and get to the scooters. As we pulled up to them, the other scooters began to fade. This was now a one shot deal. We sorted out the gear, got rid of eveything that was not full or charged, checked our gas, and started out from 3500. My guage read 2000 on my back gas – I had ditched my drive bottles and was plugged into it. I started thinking, ” That guage has said 2,000 psi for the last two hours” – I dove down and grabbed a safety bottle.
Now the line is deep, and on the floor, and the vis has dropped. We usully just follow the cave in and out, but that was not in the cards now. We stayed on the line . This took us deeper and longer, but Murphy had given up on us, and everything went smoothly. What we did not know is that our support team had become so concerned that Dawn had sent Scott Landon and Steve Straatsma 3500 feet into the cave to look for us, and they had waited for us for twenty minutes at the 3500 T, and had had to turn back , not knowing which route we were on. Rat , Cole , and Werner were gearing back up ( they had just done 80 minutes smoking B Tunnel, but still had FULL HUNDREDS left over from their dive. Werner left his leaning up against the tree and came back later to do the cleanup dive to 3500 with Cole and Rat. The Tough Guys of WKPP.
Later, when I got out and drove home, I was curious as to whether it was my head or my gear that was getting tired. I immediatley took the scooters out of the van, ran throgh the checks and burn tested them – they all had tons of time left. It had been my immagination that told me the scooters were weak. I checked my guages – my back gas guage was perfect. I had only started with 3000 . I had switched to back gas from a drive bottle that I thought was out – it was full , the stage bottle guage had stuck on zero due to the depth, so I did not use the bottle, thinking it was empty without questioning how it could be, but with the way that arrangement works, the rebreatehr does not like funky intermediate pressures, and I wuld take no chances of blowing an OPV to get the last of the gas out. I went to rebuild my nicad light only to find that the tube had a flaw all along, and that there was nothing else wrong. I checked the backup light, and it was perfect. I took my rebreather to Jerry to check. I had thought it was different. He said he had left my original ratio alone on the last rebuild. It was me, worrying too much . I had done my homework, my gear was perfect, and we pulled it off, despite the head and the best of Murphy.
What is it like diving to 18 grand? Well, it is like diving to 18 grand, and I think now we have shown that we are the correct team to explore cave in the WKP, and until you can say, “been there , done that”, this story says it all – not as easy as we make it look, but a lot easier for us than for anyone else, and it has always been that way. And the good news is that we have just now discoverd where all of the really good cave is, we now have access to every last little bit of it for the long term, and are gearing up to go explore it.
Somebody out there think they have “better technology”, better skill, maybe “do longer bottom times”, maybe “tripple our distance”. Step on up and pet Lucky, and see if he bites you . When Lucky spots a battleship mouth, he goes straight for that rowboat ass.