It’s scary. You’re diving. You’re 210 feet below the surface. You’re inside a 210 meter ship at the stern. And you’re alone. All alone. Once upon a time there were five of you. Five happy divers: two guides and three sailors, all ready to do the immortalized stern dive on the President Coolidge, in Vanuatu. But now there’s just one of you inside the ship. You. All alone…and super lost. At least I was. And that’s when panic kicked in.
My heartbeat picked up immediately, only I didn’t register it at first. I could feel it pulsating against my BCD. I thought I could see waves through the water pushing away from my chest. My mind was narc’d watching itself begin the stages of freaking out under water. When my brain realized that was happening, my lungs started hyperventilating through my regulator. I was at 2200psi when entering the ship,1800 when I became solo, and in the next five minutes I would drop to 1100psi. I was eating up air rapidly. I did the simple math in my head. At that rate, I wouldn’t have long. With proper decompression stops, I wasn’t going to make it. It was either the bends if I could get out of the ship or drowning. I was in deep trouble. I was dead.
“Everyone ready? Ok lets go!” Sedi say’s and psshhh goes the sound of air escaping your BCD as it leaves and you descend onto the deepest dive of your life. For the past five days or so, the Delos crew, minus Josje–because she’s not certified– had been working our way to the stern of the famous President Coolidge ship. Allan Power diving gets you accustomed to the depth of the ship in interval levels, so that you don’t get yourself narc’d and die being a hero. We had worked our way through the levels of the ship and were now ready to see the stern with the big Coolidge lettering.
“140 feet,” I thought to my self under water. “Just a walk in the park depth for us nowadays on this bad boy.”
“165. Now we’re getting places.” I felt good and relaxed, while the ship started to appear through the clear deep water.
At 180 we landed on the top of the starboard aft side of the ship. Our dive guide Sedi, gave us the ok sign and Delos hit him back with the ok gesture. I looked back at David, our rear guide who was just tagging along for the dive, we both agreed it was all good. Time to hit the ocean floor sand. We swam to the stern and down towards the propeller. At about 200 feet the hooting and hollering started.
“AHHHHH!” I heard someone scream while I was in a daze. Then again. “AAAHHHH!” I’m not sure if it was Sedi, Brian or Brady who screamed but when we realized we were still descending past 220 feet we all looked at each other and screamed. Not for fear, but for joy. We screamed and cock-trusted the gayest joy imaginable at one another. Each one of us smiling that deep pure happy narc’d smile you get once diving below 200 feet. 200 feet below sea level is a pretty bad ass thing to say you’ve done. Not many have that notch on their diving belts. PADI wont let them. But Delos didn’t come down here for just 200 feet. We came to party. And party we would.
We wanted to go all the way to the sea floor, where it was nice and comfy. Where you could take a nap or dig your depth gage deep in the sand like you were making a hole to the other side of the world. Two hundred and twenty six feet is what my gage said at the sea floor. The air at that depth taste more crisp and fresh then any air has ever before in my life. Breathing was ecstasy. We were footloose and fancy free. We were home. Scratch that, we were really narc’d.
After I was done playing grab ass with the sand and stern anchor, I looked up at the huge ship that lay in front of me. “PRESIDENT COOLIDGE” the big sign on the back sounded in my head like a stoned teenager. I swam over and dusted off an O. Then I promptly kissed it. I don’t know why. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
Not much clear thinking happens at that depth. You’re a bit buzzy and light headed from the nitrogen. Every thing feels like its floating; it is, but not for that reason. Then the feeling sort of goes benign. It’s still there hidden, floating around your body, tingling your senses. Yet, you get used to the sensation and leave it in the back of your mind. After all, we still had a whole 210m of ship to swim through.
Around the deck of the stern we went in a row like little ducklings following momma. Sedi, Brian, Brady, Myself and David all at perfect distances apart from each other. We learned early on that space is important when diving through the wreck. It’s no fun banging into one another trying to see everything Sedi points out. You end up jockeying for alpha position and miss the pleasure of the dive.
A quick stop to look at the huge guns on the back deck and through locker #7 we penetrated. This was to be no ordinary assault on the Coolidge. It was to be a deep, tight, and long penetration. Pun Intended. “Sedi’s special tour,” he called it. He said we’d work our way from the back, all the way to the front, never leaving the inside. “All on one tank,” he winked at us before the dive. That special wink too. The one where Sedi’s eyebrows go up and down and then winks right after. All in a split second. It’s a special wink all Ni-vat’s can do, which signals they know something you don’t. Then they laugh loudly afterwards like little kids. Leaving you laughing, then confused all at the same time. But we’ve already done Sedi’s Friday tour, so we’re not worried about said wink.
Locker #7 leads to a massive cargo hold with all sorts of military machines left behind. Jeeps, tanks and other military paraphernalia littered all over the place. Upside down or on their side, military crap has been laying there since it sank during WWII. Not because of enemy fire. The cruise liner turned military transporter ran into a friendly sea-mine–two of them actually–upon entering port Santo, and promptly sank an hour and a half later. How many people died is confusing. It’s thought the initial mine killed one person. Two are believed to have gone down with the ship after that. In the madness of getting 5,440 troops off the sinking ship, orders were left to leave all gear behind. Then, with the ship slipping from the reef it was ran up on too, snuck back under water and rested on her port side to where she is now. Leaving a diving gold mine behind as her watery grave. This is why military equipment has been left everywhere. Why the boat’s ceiling, is your port; the boat’s floor, your starboard.
Flickers of light cascading through cracks and holes in the rusted ship give off plenty of light down at that depth. Even at such a depth, the water is amazingly transparent allowing this to happen. Only when you get deeper inside the ship and the light gets fragmented, do you need a torch for viewing assistance.This is where the fantastic five were headed. Down deep inside.
Over and under some beams we dove playing around in the cargo hold. Through a gap on our left we went up a level on the ship’s blueprint still inside. Five little ducklings all in a spaced out row. The gap lead to what was a large holding room converted for standing navy or marines probably during voyage. “Nothing much to see in here,” I thought. Just four walls and some portholes leading to two doors at either widths of the ship. Sedi had taken us up through the top one.
Up to the doorway, I pushed through it and peered down a smaller hallway. Just enough time to see Brady’s fins go through door number two, twenty feet below where I was. We were doing another up over and down maneuver. My favorites because you can control your ascent and decent with your breath.
The hallway, now vertical, I had entered was considerably smaller and lead down to two doors ten feet apart from what I could see. It was a connector room. Could be sealed off if needed but basically a walk through. A useless room, it seemed. The ship was gradually turning darker inside.
I had a peek around and behind me with my torch, while breathing out to descend down to door number two. “Nothing.” It was an empty room. A seemingly worthless room on a ship full interesting rooms, I thought. There were no toilets on the floor at my right. No medicine cabinets or game tables. No military helmets or gas masks I could swim with on my head. Just a military grey hallway that has no purpose. Too tight for anything of value. Not big enough to have held anything of worth. Down I went in slow motion. Turning around I caught the tail end of door number one. A darkly abyss and ghostly corridor. Pitch black with what looked like no exit. Just emptiness. I took a quick look at my air: 1800psi.
“Here we are, door way number two,” I said in my head and put my hands on the hallway door. Only there was nothing down corridor number two. Just that same empty dark blackness from door number one staring back at me. Not a single soul in site looked as if it had been down that hallway for quite some time. I started to recall my memory in an instance. “Swim through, look down, Brady goes through the lower of the two doors. Door number two. Yep that was it. That was exactly what I saw. Or was it door number one and I’m playing games with myself? They are kind of close to one another. Sort of. Two…one…two? I swear I saw him swim through door number two. The lower one for sure.” In my mind I was reasoning through what I had seen 30 seconds before. Only nothing seemed certain–narcosis has a way of doing that too you.
There wasn’t any light being cast about down the hallway. Not a single torch was lit and looking around at old war memorabilia. Not even a kick up of silt from three divers swimming through. I lit my torch again and cast it down the hallway and still couldn’t see anything but the endless black abyss. After six or seven feet I couldn’t even tell if the walls gave way to other entrances or not. I wasn’t about to enter the twilight zone. Then I started to think more. “Why can’t I see his fins? I can always see his blue fins!”
It’s an eerie feeling to know your buddy just went through that door and now you can’t see a trace of him. As if magic made him disappear. “Ok no problem,” I thought, “I’ll just turn around and ask David behind me which way.” Only David wasn’t there anymore. All that was behind me was the grey wall. And above me a hallway leading back up to a small walk-through door where we had come from. David who had been bringing up the rear was gone. “Where did he go?” I should have known right then and there that this was not going my way early. But I didn’t. All I knew was that I was in a small hallway, suddenly by myself.
My mind started to race. “Where had they gone? What are the signs to look for? Do you even know how you got into this room?” etc. My memory wasn’t gone, it was just unsure of itself. My head was racing in a slowed narcosis state trying to sift through information. Problem was, I wasn’t trusting anything I had seen one minute before this time. Everything seemed like magic. Brady was there and then he wasn’t. David was behind me but now he isn’t. Everything seemed possible and impossible all at once. I was mystified and slowed into a dunce trance. Then panic started to seethe its way into my body. Through my blood stream like a snake it slithered around and into my chest. Ripples began radiating off my chest through the water. I was consciously unaware that my heart rate had elevated, while I was playing mind games with myself. I was a sitting duck. I was lost.
“Ok maybe they did go through door number one. Maybe I am seeing things,” I thought. Only I wasn’t seeing things. I was narc’d and doubting myself. I pushed up to the higher door immediately. I grabbed the outside and looked down the hallway. Empty! Pitch black, just as it had looked the first time. One way in…no way out. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”
That’s when the first real answer came to me. “No. I had no idea how I got into this room.” My minds uncertainty was now deemed untrustworthy of any answers it was producing. Everything I had known up till this point seemed like it was false. The only thing I knew was for certain: I was lost. And for more than a minute now.
Panics second level kicked in: heavy quick breaths. “I need to get out.” I turned around and propelled myself from the dark grey connector room, back up and through the door way summersaulting back into the big room with four walls. Only I didn’t recognize it. I was looking at it from a different angle. As if from the bow now. Nothing was familiar. All I could see was military grey and some light entering in through portholes. My mind complete with being untrustworthy had now slipped into being disorientated as well. I began to feel really lost while I sat there floating around, trying to figure out how I had gotten into this room the first time.
After scanning the room for a little while, I noticed I was drifting up slowly towards my (starboard side) ceiling–the curse of heavy deep breathing. Looking for cracks or ways out on both sides, I could see slivers of the ocean to my right here and there. Nothing was opening up on my left. I was in a big grey rectangle of four walls with portholes in the roof.
Arriving at my ceiling, there had been no outs. I had now been left alone, lost for about 3 minutes. My air was down from 1800psi to 1300psi. I was breathing at a rapid pace. I knew I was panicking. For the first time in my life I felt claustrophobic. I was trapped in a large grey rectangle. Walls appeared to be moving in and out at me coinciding with the beating of my chest. The way we had come in–back towards the cargo hold–was below me about 40 feet. It was marked by some light coming in through the gap. “Why hadn’t I seen that the first time? Where is my head?”
In my agitated state, going all the way down and back out did not seem like a viable option now for me. In an instance, my uncertain brain processed the depth, time and air of swimming down and back into another questionable room. “Not a good idea,” I reckoned. Plus, I wasn’t even certain I knew where I’d be going. My disorientation saw an all time high when I had travelled up and looked back down at my grey rectangle of death. “Vertigo. Sweet.”
With walls pulsating around and the port side floor hole not seeming like an option. I felt trapped. I was trapped. I was going down with the ship. Only the ship was already down. Drowning became a reality. Scenes from my life shot through my head at light speed as I was floating just under the starboard side.
I began to muse myself in a slower state of mindfulness, “Ya done son. This is it. The way you go out. Drowning while diving. Idiot. Good news is, they say it’s really euphoric drowning; so that’s nice. And It’s sort of cool going out this deep under water.”
And then I had a moment of comic relief in all the tenseness. “Ah shit, my mum is going to think I’m an idiot.” I could hear her voice,
“You were down how deep? What were you thinking?”
“I was just hanging out…diving.”
Over four minutes lost in a ship under water and that’s what I think to myself?! That can’t be normal. It sure didn’t seem normal with death knocking on my door step.
Just then a cooler head prevailed. “Hey idiot, its a ship. It has to have plenty of ways out. Just calm down. Slow your breathing down. And think.”–Easier said then done, I’ll say that. I pushed off from my hovering spot below the ceiling portholes and began to look again. Left, right, in front, and behind me I scrutinized the walls around as I descended about fifteen feet. Nothing. I really was trapped. Grey on all sides. Below was still not an option to me. It just didn’t seem viable with the deco stops and having to go back down under 200 feet. So I looked up again towards the sky.
There they were. Those same portholes. “Maybe,” I thought to myself. Last time up there, I hadn’t given them a real serious look. Still hyperventilating, I studied the holes from below. They seemed tight. Form-fitting. Too small almost. But they were a opening. And, with my life on the line, maybe it was a porthole I could use my Navy Seal training on. By training I mean, I’ve seen enough movies with such extreme acts that of course I could do such things in real life. Right…?
I shot back up to the ceiling. Just as I had suspected they were small. Runway model small. Skintight circular holes that had coral growth and rusted edges. I found the most feasible one.
With my hand on the starboard side ceiling, I looked at the diameter of the hole. About 2 feet across. I then turned my head side to side eyeballing my shoulder length. “About 2 feet.” I surveyed the the hole and then my shoulders again. “Yep, this could work. Only not with a scuba tank on my back.” The tank would not make it through a slim-fitting hole with me. It’d be like a pregnant girl trying to wear a size two dress. It was going to have to come off.
Under my ceiling of death, I stripped down to my women’s size four wet suit. In the last four months I had dropped about 15 pounds and could now say with confidence my dress size was a four. This played to my advantage. Had I tried this maneuver when Delos left New Zealand four months ago, I’m not sure my fat ass would’ve been trying this.
When I was confident this insanity was going to work, I was right in the middle of the hole. With my BCD and tank hanging low in my left hand, I took the last couple of breaths from my first stage before attempting to birth myself through a porthole. I took the stage out of my heavy breathing mouth and lowered it towards my waist. Up, up and away I wiggled.
My head and lead arm popped through first, just like a normal birth should. I could see the outside ocean. “Holy shit this is actually working. Just hope my shoulders will fit.” I squeezed them together and felt the coral and rust trying to slice open my wet suit. It was working. But my BCD had slipped from my hands slightly in the excitement of this awesome plan succeeding. Head, shoulders, knees and almost toes out, I reached down beside my fins and grabbed blindly at my BCD shoulder straps. If I was making it out of that ship, so was my air tank. First try I nabbed a strap. “Exactly where I had left ya. Neutrally buoyant. Boo-ya.” I pulled my little life line out from our womb of separation.
In actuality this all took under ten seconds and then I was outside the ship standing firmly on the starboard side. I slipped my gear back on and threw my primary stage back in my mouth. “Air! From outside the ship.” This was a serious moment of triumph. My breathing went from DEF-CON 5 hyperventilation to 3. I was now just under 200 meters from the bow of the ship, in current, and still 180 feet or so under water. I had to get to the hang tanks if this was to be a complete success.
I oriented myself for the first time and swam towards the bow. Within 30 seconds I ran into David.– I think he had been looking for me.– And in my calming state of panic, I gave him the sign that I was under half a tank. He gave me the ok sign. I gave it back even though I was still breathing heavily. Noticing this he offered me his sling tank. “I’m ok now,” I signed back.
David noticed me rising a bit to try and save oxygen. He thought I didn’t have enough weight. For some reason, he was already carrying a heavy valve seal. He passed me the valve and I looked at it. “Ok cool. More crap from the Coolidge bro. But I’m at under half a tank and I’m gonna need air soon. Can we look at stuff tomorrow?” I gave him the valve back. Our under water conversation wasn’t jiving. We weren’t on the same page. Still in a sense of astonished relief, I didn’t notice him slide the weight into my slip pocket.
Next we ran into Brady and Brian chilling half way through the ship above the Lady. Brady was breathing through a sling tank that Sedi had been carrying with him just in case. Both asked me if I was alright. “I’m ok,” I signed them. Only both could tell from my eyes and breathing that I had been through some rough shit. The four of us swam up to the bow and into our deco stops–if you’re keeping track, there should be five of us. There Brian and I shared a hang tank for a while. It took me another ten minutes and another couple of deco levels to completely get back into underwater zen status. That’s when Sedi showed up. When he saw me. He was relieved and extremely low on air. So much that he swapped tanks with another guide who had taken others out not so deep.
Apparently, when I hadn’t popped out with them at the Lady. David signaled to Sedi one is missing. From there Sedi threw the sling tank through the water to Brady who was low on air. He told both Brian and Brady to wait there and took off to locker #7, to case the ship for me.
But now we were all back. The fantastic five together at last. And all ok.
My depth had been 226ft/71m with a bottom time of 34 minutes. My deco stops took up about 28 minutes. All in all, I was in the water for just under 70 minutes. Five of those spent alone, lost and trapped inside the ship.
The first thing I did once getting out of the water and stripping out of half my women’s wet suit, was have a cigarette. Feeling the tingling deep diving gives you combined with the expansion of oxygen and nicotine; It’s a light headed-relaxed feeling. And it’s a damn good one to have after quite a scare.
After that we recounted our dives to one another waiting for Sedi to come out of the water. Because of his second round through locker #7, he had to deco about 15 more minutes then the rest of us. Apparently I’m the only person to ever swim out through a port hole. So I’ve got that going for me.
When he came out of the water walking up toward the shore, I walked down to see him. Passing the smoke to him, “My bad, I remarked. Then I gave him the Ni-vatu eyebrow raise and wink, giving him five.
Sedi and I talked that night about the dive over some Kava. The next day he and I went back down deep. The Coolidge and I, we still had unfinished business.
The President Coolidge in her new launch grandeur.
Before conversion to a troop carrier.
90 minutes after hitting the mines.
Tank smashing something.
Dishes in the galley.
Playing commando with machine gun and helmet.
The famous “White Lady” before.
The “White Lady” after.
Life saving portholes!
The deep darkness inside the Coolidge.
Sedi- AKA Spider Man- sailing on Delos.