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Chicken of the Sea

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Every sailor knows what she can and cannot do. And she should know what she wants to do and does not want to do. These taut lines occasionally get slack, and something slips through.

My friend, Gwen Hamlin, has a theory, that lying just outside your comfort zone, is a thrill zone. Face the unknown with a bit of bravado. Try something that makes you uneasy. You may experience something exciting.

The need for a bit of bravado surfaced when we were in Papua New Guinea. My husband, Jim, and I, along with Dylan, our first mate, had just spent three months cruising in the remote and scattered islands that lie southeast of mainland PNG on our 84’Palmer Johnson ketch, Firebird. We had not seen another cruising boat since leaving the Solomon Islands three months before. Arriving on the north coast of New Britain, at Walindi, was a welcome change.

A world-famous dive resort, Walindi Plantation Resort sits on the western edge of Kimbe Bay, with the rainforest slopes of the dormant Gabuna volcano behind it. Serious divers and professional photographers have voted this location “the best diving from a resort”.

I was tying off our lines at the fuel dock, when Annie appeared at my side. She had been one of our dinner guests aboard Firebird the previous evening. Everyone except me was an avid diver, and the conversation was lively. Annie, sensing that I was feeling left out, asked me about my diving experiences. “I’m not really a water person. I grew up in the Midwest. But I always admired the pretty mermaid on the Chicken of the Sea tuna can.”

She replied, “You should try it, Vicki. You’ll love it!”

Now she said, “I talked to Pippa and you’re all set. You are scheduled to meet her at the pool at 4 p.m. for your first lesson.” I was taken aback. A plan had been set in motion. I would be too embarrassed to refuse now. Trying to disguise my chagrin, I replied “Wow, that’s great! Thank you so much, girlfriend.”

I had been signed up for PADI Open Water Diver’s Course, which would involve five skill modules, all to take place in “confined water”, which is normally a swimming pool, but can also be a “swimming-pool-like environment”, followed by two open water dives. I was on the fast track, with a private instructor and three days to get it done.

This is me, fussy Vicki, who has a little towel hanging in the corner of the shower because she can’t stand to have her face wet! Little Vicki, who did not learn to swim till she was ten. Oklahoma Vicki, who did not taste salt water till she was twenty.

Arriving at the appointed time, I found Annie, Jim, Dylan, and several other friends waiting for me, all there to give me moral support. Pippa, a slip of a girl with a British accent, began the lesson. I simply had to do exactly what she told me to do. Most of it was merely awkward: getting into all the gear, learning what was what and where to stick it, stepping into a small pool (with a greatest depth of four feet), and going under water to kneel for the skills.

The skills, however, required me to use my will to overcome my instincts. Take the regulator (air source) out of my mouth? Flood my mask? In retrospect, these were minor challenges, compared to what was to come. Feeling brave, I did each skill in the thrill zone. My fan club applauded. Hot tea awaited me as I climbed out and shed my gear.

The next day we met on the boat dock, suited up, and hefted the gear onto our bodies. Pippa briefed me. We got into the water. The surface was oily. The bottom was mud. The visibility was “not”. We submerged and swam out of the channel, skirting the shipwreck that lay on the shelf jutting out from the beach. We were in only three feet of water. Couldn’t we just walk? Or maybe snorkel? I snaked along, stirring up the sand as I scurried to keep her yellow fins in sight without getting pummeled by them.

Pippa found a spot for us, about seven feet deep with a silt bottom. A troubling chop ruffled the surface, and a shore current kept pushing us down toward some coral patches. The visibility was two feet, not very swimming-pool-like, but we proceeded with the skills. I learned how to clear my regulator with the purge button. I removed my mask completely, opened my eyes, breathed without the mask for one very long minute, then replaced the mask fully flooded, and cleared it with a giant exhale through my nose. The next skill required me to once again remove the regulator from my mouth, and this time toss it away. I quickly learned how to fumble around and return it to my mouth.

We surfaced and Pippa exclaimed “You get an A+.” My great relief was accompanied by mild exultation. She began talking about the skills for Modules 3, 4 and 5. We were going to spend the rest of the day in this shifting murk? My exultation muted into serious dread.

“Mmm, Pippa, it’s really hard to see you down there. Is there any way that we could maybe go back to the pool for some of these skills?” She reluctantly agreed and led the way back through the cloudy water, around the wreck and to the boat dock. I climbed up onto the dock, removed all of the apparatus from my head and body, and inhaled the air. I was back inside my comfort zone, and I was thrilled.

The new plan was to continue my skills the next morning and then do two twenty-minute open water dives, all from a lovely beach on nearby Restorf Island. We rode along on the large dive boat with a group going to one of the many primo sites. They dropped us at the beach, saying they would be back around lunch time.

More skill modules: briefing, suiting up, buddy check, five-point descent in shallow water. We started our set-up for the fin-pivot buoyancy skill. I watched her closely as she gave me instructions. I would learn to attain neutral buoyancy, a fine state of equilibrium. Once attained, a diver can move up and down simply by inhaling and exhaling. I followed the procedure, watching her cues, making the tiny adjustments to the BCD, testing with slow inhalations. After several cycles, I had achieved the magic state. One more daunting task completed correctly.

Suddenly she pointed to a nearby rock and shook her head. She looked at me and pointed and shook her head again. The danger signal. Then the signal to ascend. Up we went.

“Did you see it? Did you see what I was pointing at? It was a stonefish!” she cried.

A stonefish has a lumpy surface and its coloration is mottled. It is a master of disguise and extremely poisonous. The Australian Aborigines perform a ritual dance to educate the village children about this creature. A dancer wades into a tide pool, pretending to search for fish. Suddenly he screams in pain. He runs from the water and writhes on the ground. He had stepped on a stonefish. The whole ritual ends sadly with a death song.

That was a close call.

We returned to the beach for a rest and a much-needed drink of fresh water. I dug out the list of skills I had made to discuss with Pippa. A fifty-foot swim underwater without a mask. Breathing from a free-flowing regulator for thirty seconds. A one minute swim doing buddy-breathing. “Oh, the buddy-breathing skill is optional. If two divers have to share a single air source, usually they both drown. I don’t teach it,” added Pippa. Great.

“Look, Pippa, I am feeling a bit shook up after that encounter with the stone fish. I don’t think I can do any more skills right now. I’m not used to just swimming around down there.”

“Okay, let’s just do a swim tour then.” That’s what she called it, but she was actually taking me on my first open water dive—twenty minutes at a depth of twenty to thirty feet. We descended along a coral sea-wall, my hand in hers. The sun was shining. The wall was encrusted with hundreds of wiggling creatures, glowing corals and dancing plants.

Unfortunately, I was too busy to enjoy the sights. My mouthpiece and mask kept flooding and I was using my one free hand to clear my ears. I tried to stay beside Pippa, but I kept floating above her. She’d signal me to release air. I’d let out air, then more air, but still I would float up. I was distracted, frustrated and fretful. I had faced the unknown with a bit of bravado and fate was conspiring to thwart me. I was not thrilled.

Finally she signaled for us to return to our starting point. At the surface she congratulated me. “Not bad, Vicki, you were under for almost fifteen minutes!” As we headed back to the beach, I began to gasp for air. I turned onto my back, and kicked in the proper direction, unable to catch my breath. My heart was beating fast and all I could think about was trying to breathe normally. Pippa, realizing that I was having a delayed panic attack, pushed me toward the shallows, trying to calm me.

I had hit the wall. All of my hopes and dreams were shattering. My fan club would be dissolving soon.
Back on the beach, my ragged gulps for air subsided into exhausted sighs. Getting out of my gear, I excused myself and slinked off around a nearby point. I was flooded with feelings of humiliation. Why had I failed? What had gone wrong?

Returning to our base, I examined my equipment with Pippa. We found that the mouth piece on my borrowed regulator was not tight, causing the flooding. And the BCD I had used today was faulty; the valve to the inflation tube was not working properly. Every time I let air out, it would just re-inflate. I knew now that my failure was not due to my lack of bravado. A few deep breaths, a tear or two, and I was once again back in my comfort zone. I had flunked, and that was okay with me.

The following week in Kavieng, New Ireland, I met Debra, a diver on a tour boat—another sea creature come to guide me. One afternoon she took me, suited up in a new set of gear, for a fun dive. We spent half an hour about fifteen feet deep, perusing the local fish and bommies just off the beach. I saw waving sea fans, delicate black coral, jewel-like fish of all sizes, sponges shaped like elephant ears and clown fish hiding in the sea anemones. I was calm, and slowly my comfort zone expanded.

I am still very hesitant and awkward underwater and I need to have my hand held. But with a little help from my friends, I am morphing from a scaredy-cat into the Chicken of the Sea mermaid, swimming into the thrill zone.

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