This all started with a late November warm front in Michigan. Craig decided that it would be fun to grab his red 32 foot Scarab and a bunch of his dive buddies and dive the Straits of Macinac over the Thanksgiving weekend. Four of us were stupid enough to join him: me, Jan, Steve Blodgett, and Craig Jones. We found ourselves launching the boat in the deserted Municipal Marina in Mackinaw City Friday morning. The place looked like the aftermath of the apocalypse. It was eerily quiet! The wreck we were diving was a lot closer to Cheboygan than Mackinaw City; but Craig wanted to make a fifty mile run of it, because, as he was always telling us: he had a fast boat. The day went really great until late in the afternoon when we were three miles into the trip back from the wreck. That’s when the boat broke. A bearing packed up in the outdrive on one of the engines. Craig had to shut that engine down, and he found that with the remaining engine speed dropped from fifty to seven miles per hour. At this point the brilliance of the whole plan became pretty apparent:
1) The sun was setting and it was getting real cold!
2) We had almost 7 hours of running back to Mackinaw City. Or to put it another way: we would get back at 2AM.
It was pretty clear that a 2 1/2-hour trip to Cheboygan was the only way to go. We made Cheboygan harbor cold and tired about two hours after sunset.
Craig and I had a Plan: Jan, Steve and Jones would stay with the boat, and Craig and I would hike to a phone, call a cab, and get the cars twenty miles up the road in Mackinaw City. As we hiked to a gas station a half mile into town it occurred to me that we looked pretty strange. Both of us were still wearing the underwear we used with the diving drysuits. It was the warmest stuff we had with us. I was wearing all black bicycle pants with a black shell. Craig had his Viking underwear, kind of a little blue “bunny” suit. The “bunny suit” was topped off with a stocking cap, and both of us had pulled on running shoes just like the homeless always seem to have. I knew I looked a little strange, but I was comforted with the thought that no one would notice as long as I stayed close to Craig.
We got up to the gas station, Craig borrows the phone book and can’t find a listing for a cab. He asks the woman behind the counter:
“Do you know where we can find a cab?”
And she says: “You guys are not from around here, are you!”
After a little meeting we decide to go to plan B: bum a ride into Mackinaw City.
At this point I hang back, as the whole scene unfolds before me. It’s late November. People are returning from holiday shopping, filling their cars with gasoline. This guy in blue pajamas and black stocking cap is walking up to them and saying:
“Excuse me! My boat is broke down at the marina, and I need a ride!”
This goes on for a little while. Craig is getting desperate. I hear him say—
“Lady, I’ll ride in the bed of your pickup!”
The lady drives off like she is about to be raped.
We are getting nowhere. I decide to work the door to the station while Craig continues at the pumps. Everyone ignores me until finally one man with his young son asks:
“Tell me something! Do you have a job?”
“Yeah, I have a job,” I reply, “I’m an electrical engineer.”
“You’re an electrical engineer!
This breaks the ice. We start talking. Yup, he’s going back to Mackinaw City. Okay, he will give us ride. Craig pays for his gas. We are riding back to Mackinaw, Craig and me in the back seat, when his kid says:
“Dad! I left my Boy Scout knife in the back seat!”
I reach under me, find the knife, and hand it up to the boy. He looks at his dad amazed that they will live.
All the way back the dad keeps saying:
“You want to go to the marina right?”
We keep assuring him we did.
Finally Dad pulls in to the dark parking lot of the Mackinaw City Municipal Marina. His headlights shine on a white Suburban with a big silver trailer behind it. The man shakes his head. The crazy guys in his back seat were telling the truth!
When asked on our second date if I’d like to learn scuba diving, I said “Sure!” to my future husband, Bob, without mentioning my lifelong fear of water. It felt like a daring move, but during the borderline abusive training by old-school macho men, culminating in a chilly November checkout dive in a small lake so murky I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open, I wondered if my survival instincts were functioning. Still, I was proud of my hard-won success.
had no idea how obsessed with diving my new love was when I agreed to join him. Specifically, he was obsessed with diving on Great Lakes shipwrecks, which are the most compelling reason for enduring the risk and discomfort of chilly deep water. I went along on a dive charter as a newlywed, not yet certified, and was persuaded, in spite of my terror, to jump in on the shallowest wreck. I broke the surface and terror turned to delight with the otherworldly beauty of the lost world preserved on the bottom. Shipwreck diving with my husband’s highly experienced buddies never failed to challenge me, but the pleasure of gliding weightlessly through a dreamlike world made it worth the effort to me.
Fast forward a few decades: I’ve lost count of the times I’ve prepared for exactly this diving vacation, journeying 350 miles north to camp on the Tahquamenon River, pulling a boat loaded with dive gear behind a minivan equipped with an air compressor. I liked to prepare thoughtfully before leaving modern conveniences behind and braving highly variable weather. Besides dive gear, I was packing a couple of tents, food box, folding chairs, bedding (lots of bedding), and then the all-important carefully considered personal things, including a wardrobe suitable for nine days spanning up to three seasons of living outdoors, and all the little personal things that kept me reasonably comfortable and sane in the constant company of my hyperactive-kid spouse. I demanded that Bob give me half an hour’s warning when he left work, before swooping in to hastily jam everything into the boat and van in a confused mass.
I had just finished with the camping gear and was starting the most critical part, my personal stuff, when I heard a door slam, followed by “I got out early! Throw your stuff in the van, we’re meeting the guys!”
Oh, hell no. “You are going to shut up and give me half an hour to finish packing.”
Concentration spoiled, I tried to focus in spite of fury. During the six-hour trip north, the silence was punctuated only by dive plans discussed with loud enthusiasm by cell phone. I reflected bitterly that some people take vacations to relax and loathed myself for once again deferring to plans about which I was not consulted.
Apparently, the weather conditions on Whitefish Bay were ideal for diving, and with an unfavorable change on the way, this day would be the only opportunity to dive while “the guys”, Jeff, Carl and Jon, were still on their northern vacation. Hence the unseemly rush. So, I tried very hard to be a good sport.
On arriving at the launch where the guys were waiting with the other boat, it was decided that the calm conditions justified heading to the farthest target out: the Samuel Mather, 20 miles away, almost in Canadian waters. It was going to be a long haul. And I had mixed feelings. I had been diving on the Mather numerous times, and will never forget the first time I descended down one of its majestic standing masts. However, I hadn’t been diving frequently enough that season to feel confident in my skills and gear and would have much preferred to start out with a less demanding dive alone with Bob. I kept my misgivings to myself on the long trip out.
I felt relief when we were unable to locate a mooring on the wreck. We didn’t usually try to hook the wreck ourselves when diving way out here, and I was surprised that Bob persisted in trying to put a flimsy, insecure line on it now. He started gearing up and told me to do the same. I tried to calm myself with the orderly ritual of donning my suit, fins, mask, tank, gloves, light, wrist computer...and then Bob insisted on adding a new component: a medium-sized tank that I would need to detach on the way down, leaving it at 30 feet for decompression on the way up. I told Bob to forget it. I needed review with familiar things, not task loading with new gear and steps I hadn’t taken before. He insisted that he would be there with me and I wouldn’t even have to think about it. He hurriedly attached my usual small bailout bottle to my harness and I tumbled in. Then, after he entered the water beside me, he produced a new bottle he had just rigged up, and demanded that I attach it to his harness while suspended in the water. The clasp was very tight and I had to give up the struggle after several air-wasting attempts. Irritable and impatient, Bob asked Jeff, who swam over from the other boat to join us for the first dive while Jon and Carl waited on the surface, to fasten it, and with considerable effort, he managed it.
I headed down the line first, allowing Bob to remove the extra bottle and hang it on the descent line, then dropping into increasing dimness and cold. My eyes failed to resolve any detail in the failing light as I felt the lake bottom under my fins: I settled down and tried to read my wrist computer. To my surprise, the big number where depth was displayed read “204”. My numbed mind said, “Well, they didn’t hook the shipwreck, but that’s the deepest you’ve ever been. Good enough for today!” I began to go back up the line. Then I felt the hook below me being moved by another diver, who was swimming forward and upward toward a huge dark mass: the hull of the Samuel Mather. Hanging on, I was drawn up over the side, where Jeff secured the hook. Through sign language, he and Bob indicated that they were going below decks for Bob to take photos of the engine room, and I could explore the main deck alone while waiting for them to go back up with me.
I looked again at my computer and it now read “208”. Vaguely puzzled, I was far calmer than I should be. I found myself slightly depressed and disappointed in the Mather, the water murky and dull, and drifting alone was giving me a blankly desolate feeling. Feeling no desire to explore, I decided it might be nice to locate the ascent line. Relieved that I found it readily, I followed an impulse to start making my way back to the surface. I was still vaguely disturbed about my computer, but more time at depth would only compound the troubles a dysfunction might cause. I ascended slowly, deliberately, calmly counting out one foot per second.
I was also slightly disturbed that I hadn’t been able to see my air pressure gauge because of the way it was fastened to my harness. I was surprisingly sanguine about my air supply as I kept heading up. I knew from personal experience that panic increased consumption and wondered what brought about the miracle of detachment. I reached the bottle that was left hanging at 30 feet, which, ideally, should have provided a generous margin for error if I could figure out on my own how to access it. I had long ago overcome my initial fear of swapping regulators underwater and I confidently tried a breath. Nothing. If there was something else I needed to do, perhaps an unfamiliar valve to struggle with, I had no desire to spend my remaining air figuring it out.
My computer switched into emergency decompression mode at 20 feet, to my relief. I paused for the indicated couple of minutes and moved up to the 10-foot stop. This is where I tried to access my bailout bottle, to be ready with an air supply just in case. I was unable to release the regulator, as it was also not attached to me properly in the haste to get in the water. I made a concentrated attempt to reach my pressure gauge when I had four minutes of decompression to go, and as I yanked it into my field of vision, just as I registered that the gauge needle was pegged in the red, I took my last breath.
Years’ worth of old-school macho-man yarns flooded my mind: accounts of hardcore commercial divers surfacing to grab their own deco bottles before dropping back down the line to finish their time. “All right,” said my oddly calm inner voice, “that’s what we’ll do here.” I surfaced and breathed air while sorting out the bailout bottle regulator and then popped it into my mouth to drop down and finish decompressing. I tried not to dwell too much on the many worse situations I could be in, without the aid of an unfamiliar mysterious calm. Only later did it come to haunt me, how nearly I allowed myself to live, or die, my worst fears, in the course of going along with the guys.
As for Bob, he wasted his own time and air struggling with his poorly configured new gear, ascending too late to have been any help to me. Chastised by all his buddies for leaving me at risk alone, he acknowledged that I had a valid point regarding the folly of untested gear under critical conditions, as well as haste in gearing up. It remains to be seen if he listens next time. If there is a next time.