image002I originally wrote this as an article in August 2004 for Etobicoke Underwater Club’s newsletter Fins Below.  This was just after finding the club and realizing what it could do to improve my (to date) failing scuba diving career.  I thought this might be a fun first post, though the writing style feels a little immature to look back on it, I decided to preserve it more or less for posterity.

Pausing at a safety stop on the Niagara II
– Photo Gillian Ord

I was excited. My first real dive trip was just beginning and with great conditions promised by our weather friends, I piled all the camp and dive gear I own into my RAV4 and headed out of town.

It was with visions of timbers, ballast and boilers dancing in my head that I made my way up Highway 10 from Brampton, through Orangeville, Shelburne and Owen Sound.

Finally as dusk was falling I arrived at Tobermory. Happy Hearts Campground was a welcome sight. I hadn’t made reservations for the weekend, and had only given a verbal (and foolhardy) “I’ll go!” to the club, so it was with just a touch of trepidation that I went to register, half expecting to be turned away. Well I was pointed to the overflow field across from Art and Mary and all was well.

By 9:30 I had my tent pitched and home away from home was established. Shortly after, Mike our “Cruise Director” swung by and insisted that I get ready for a night dive.

“But I don’t have a light!” I protested, not wanting to expose my lack of training in nocturnal aquatics.

“No problem, I’ll find one for you.”

With that he tore off to his camp expecting me to follow in the RAV, and so I did dutifully. A light was scrounged, and Mike, Sue, Lori, Art, Fred and I caravanned in a variety of vehicles to the Tugs just off Tobermory harbor. We tooled around the periphery of Tobermory for 7 or 8 minutes until we arrived at a parking lot that shows by the single row of spaces is very near a shoreline. Most of us were loaned filled bottles from a stash that Art kept in his van so we weren’t eating into tomorrow’s provisions.

We geared up and following Art, we scrambled down a slippery dirt path and out onto the boulders lining the shore. By this time it was as dark as it gets, and the flashlights were already coming in handy.

Art gave a briefing detailing the path we would be following, down the shore to the right, to the point roughly halfway between the waterline and the markers, then out into open water, and back to the left continuing along the rock face and eventually up to the shore in front of the fishing dock.

Glow-sticks were handed out and secured to tanks, everyone’s gear was double checked, and with that we stumbled and waddled over the rocks on the shore, and eventually sagged into the water. I felt that familiar sense of confining freedom releasing me from the weight of all the gear, but stuck bobbing on the surface while I struggled to strap on my fins.

Once we were all in the water, gear in place, the “Ok” was passed around. We were on our way.

the-city-of-clevland2I was paired with Art at the lead of the excursion and can think of no place I’d rather have been. He has a curious and fun, play-filled style about him that encourages exploration and sets a newer diver at ease immediately. We headed for the first tug, and he found some mechanism left over from the engine and swung the steel contraption to show that it still moved freely (no doubt helped by Art on previous expeditions). He then swam around to an opening in some timbers, and swam through. Upon his exit, Art motioned for me to follow the same path he’d taken. I had conditioned myself to avoid ANY overhead obstacles until I’d gained a reasonable amount of experience, so the prospect of even a couple of two by fours blocking my direct ascent was a small, but not insignificant challenge to my ego.

Sensing Art’s desire to encourage exploration but not endanger his charges, I sucked up my courage (and a lungful of air), and followed suit. I can honestly say that after the apprehension I’d felt, it was a small rush, and a sense of accomplishment that greeted me on the other side. This was a theme to be repeated later on the Niagara II but on a grander scale.

Art also demonstrated the angle of a rusted pipe laying on the bottom that had several perforations formed along the upper surface. Before I realized what he was doing, he’d removed his secondary and placed it in the mouth of this 14″ pipe and pressed the purge… lo and behold bubbles trickled out along the length of the pipe. Basic physics, but one of a diver’s equivalent to playing with a campfire.

The most memorable moment of the dive came about 10 minutes later as the six of us hovered in a group along a rock wall face. Art had us extinguish all our dive lights… and we sat bathed in weak light from a moon that was nearly full, in about 25′ of water… Magical.

Caroline RoseThe rest of the weekend was an incredible experience totaling 7 dives for me (doubling my log book in the process). With W.A. Spears and the Teak Bay chartered, there was ample room for all (we were a little short of divers actually). We dove on The King, The Caroline Rose, and at the Grotto on Saturday, then made the long trek to The City of Cleveland and finally The Minch on Sunday. The weather throughout was outstanding, allowing ample opportunities for sunning on the ships decks, games while the boats relocated, reading and for me unfortunately, responding to pager messages from the office (by the way for all wondering, GSM coverage works very well for the Tobermory area… including up to The City of Cleveland).

the-city-of-clevland-engine-2One of the biggest positives about the weekend is the people involved with the EUC. While (as of this writing) I still have to convince them to accept my membership fees, I was accepted from my arrival as one of the group, and was being continually checked on to find out if I was in fact enjoying myself. While sucking bottled air was the reason for being there, the group definitely made my weekend.

My last dive of the weekend was on The Niagara II, which you all know was sunk by the club on May 15th, 1999. That happened to be my 26th birthday, and a full year almost to the day before I was certified. This was a birthday present worth waiting for.

Craig, Gillian and myself departed from the beach at Little Cove carried by Art in his zodiac. We managed to quickly navigate our way PAST the Niagara, and on to the Caroline Rose. Oops! We backtracked and found that the markers had been obscured by… uuuhh another dive boat. Perhaps fueled by too many James Bond and military movies I’ve decided that the zodiac is my personal favorite mode of diver transportation on the surface.

caroline-rose-carvingOnce tied off, briefed and assisted by Art into our gear we made a slow descent along the bow line. I had to take the descent slower than usual as my left ear wasn’t clearing easily. We landed on the bow of the ship where Craig immediately found a winch control panel with buttons and levers still in place and movable. We proceeded aft along the starboard side pausing at a sticker commemorating the day of the sinking proclaiming it to be “A Titanic Event!” We crossed over to port just before the wheelhouse and explored a bit until Craig maneuvered up to the wheelhouse and finned his way in. I followed and there with Craig at the wheel and myself standing at the window we mugged for Gill’s camera, playing Exxon Valdez with a glass beer stein that appeared to have been left there for just that purpose.

It was then that the bane of photographers everywhere struck made all the more frustrating in 80′ of water with limited bottom time… the film ran out. I had taken Gillian’s shiny new digital camera and she was posing… and no matter how hard I pushed the button… no clicky… no flashy. What a downer. Shrugging, we moved on though I felt terrible that I had failed at this simple mission. Through the rest of the dive Gill managed to salvage a few more keepsake photos by deleting a couple of the less desirable shots from previous dives, but that moment was lost.

What followed was what I had alluded to earlier during our night dive with Art. While briefing us for this dive, Art let us know about a penetration route that gave me a moment or two of anxiety at the outset, but I quickly found that by not rushing myself faster than I was comfortable, I was able to move on with reasonable comfort and a level of mental clarity that allowed me to thoroughly enjoy the experience.

We ascended to the top of the smoke stack and then in order of Craig, Gill and finally me, we descended down feet first. I had some difficulty seeing where I was going due to the two other’s bubbles, but eventually made it down, and we bottomed out our dive in the engine room at 85′. Following the other two out into the larger engine space, I hovered and watched as they playfully finned up a staircase and out a side corridor to the starboard of the ship. We paused there and collected ourselves again, flashing a big “Ok” to each other as well as a grin or two.

On the stern of the ship we spotted the blue-grey form of the Canadian Flag as it only appears at 75′, hanging in soggy, half-hearted gravity. We checked our gauges and almost sadly but with that familiar thrill of discovery we started the slow ascent along the stern line from the 42o depths. The last submerged memory of that dive was that of Gillian waving me off the line a few feet so she could snap my picture on this my deepest and coldest dive to date.

So after a weekend of worship at watery altars, and 7 baptisms emerging renewed very time, I called an end to the weekend with some sadness. I loaded up everything that I’d brought, and headed back home with the RAV up to the gunwales with gear.

Text – Scott Holmes
Photos – Gillian Ord