Monday, July 02, 2007

Diving on the Iberia

The Patriot spent this past week-end engaging in his favorite non-blogging activity; wreck diving. Yesterday morning I boarded the Jeannie II out of Sheepshead Bay for a 1.5 hour trip to the wreck of the Iberia which lies some 3 miles off the southern shore of Long Island. The Iberia was sunk in 1888 after a part of its stern was sheared off after a collision with the Cunard liner Umbria in heavy fog. She was carrying 28,000 crates of dates from the Middle East when she was sent to the bottom and the crates holding those dates are common artifacts still occasionally brought to the surface by intrepid divers. If you get a nice one, it makes a great souvenir with the name of the long gone shipping company Arnold & Cheney. Coincidentally the old address of Arnold & Cheney is 159 Water Street, right across the street from where I currently work. Unfortunately conditions were such that I was unable to do much searching for artifacts on this trip.

The Iberia is a popular dive site because of its inshore location and relatively easy depth. (About 65 feet) Visibility, however, tends to be poor, as it was yesterday, and can drop to zero if you or another diver are careless and stir up the silty bottom. We were careless and stirred up the silty bottom. Visibility was, at best, six feet. A light was essential, although for the most part completely useless. Also no matter what you were taught in your first scuba class, clearing your mask with 52 degree water is an invitation to a complete ice cream headache brain freeze freak-out. That shit is COLD.

Before embarking on the dive I was somewhat concerned about something called “task overloading.” This occurs when a diver has too much new or unfamiliar equipment to occupy their attention which leads to a loss of focus and lead the diver to make mistakes. For example, yesterday I was diving with a pony bottle for the first time (a redundant air system involving a second tank and regulator) and it was my first dive of the year in cold water in my 7mm wetsuit. My dive light was also new as was the way I had it rigged to my buoyancy compensator. This doesn’t seem too complicated on the surface but believe me it is a lot to concentrate on at once when you are actually in the water and depending on your gear for survival. Task overloading is not such a concern in the warm water of the tropics where the sun still streams brightly into the depths and you can see 100’ in every direction. However, the murky cold waters of the North Atlantic are much less forgiving; mistakes can easily be made and those mistakes can be fatal rather quickly.

Conditions for yesterday’s dive were less than ideal. The water was cold, the wreck is festooned with old fishhooks and fishing line that can easily snag a fin or tank, the visibility was atrocious and the wreck was encrusted with very sharp coral. It was also fairly dark; every time a cloud passed over the sun on the surface, it became impossible to see more than three feet without a light. I was diving with two other divers I met on my Key Largo trip; both are relatively experienced and have no real issues with their buoyancy or equipment. Unfortunately, none of us brought a wreck reel so we had to navigate along the wreck without any reference to the location of the anchor line besides our compasses which are not dependable on a metal wreck. (A wreck reel holds a spool of nylon line that you tie to the anchor line of the dive boat where it connects to the wreck. You then unspool the line as you explore the wreck, and reel it in to find your way back to the anchor line.) The absence of a reel meant that we were all a bit nervous about venturing too far from the anchor line, even though we did it anyway.

In general yesterday’s dives were a great learning experience and I am hoping to do quite a bit more wreck diving this summer. Next time I’ll bring a reel and seriously consider purchasing a dry suit to ward off the onset of hypothermia. Believe me this sport is more fun than it sounds.

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