You would think that after 24 years of diving and 7500 dives I would not need courage to jump in the water. Yet February 20th, 2010 was a scary day for me. Was I diving with man eating sharks or in a 10 knot current or to 400 feet? No, I was about to dive in the protected shallows of Alki Beach in West Seattle, a place where novices take the plunge for the first time. But, I was about to finally take my first dive in a dry suit….and I was very nervous.
The Difference between Wet and Dry
A dry suit is made for cold water diving and has some significant differences from diving in a wet suit. A wet suit, made of crushed neoprene keeps a diver warm by trapping a layer of water between the suit and the skin, allowing the body’s natural 98.6 degree temperature to warm the water and keep the diver comfortable. However, once the water dips below temperatures in the 60’s many divers simply can’t stay warm. A dry suit, made from fully blown neoprene or a latex shell, contains tight seals at the neck and wrists to keep all water out and usually boots built into the suit to keep the feet dry. You actually wear “underwear”, some kind of polar tech or fuzzy jumpsuit to give you warmth inside the dry suit. It’s a cozy and warm way to dive.
For me, self proclaimed cold water whimp, anything below 80 is like jumping in the deep freeze. So a dry suit is a natural progression for me, except for one thing. I have a severe case of claustrophobia and the idea of “sealing” myself into a suit is so frightening it has kept me out of cold water for 24 years. When you consider how much of the diveable waters of our planet are below 60 degrees, you can see the limitations I had placed on myself.
This all began as a child. I was born with a thyroid disease which at a young age caused me to have an enlarged neck. Not anything noticeable to the average person but I always hated wearing turtleneck sweaters, they choked me. Everything always seemed tight around my neck. This led me to fear small, enclosed spaces…anything tight. Miraculously, I had no issues wearing a wetsuit or diving in general but a dry suit was as scary as being rolled in a blanket or locked in a closet.
Mark Twain once said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear”. I had completely let fear lead the course of my diving for over two decades and keep me out of some of the most interesting waters in the world.
As the calendar turned to 2010 I decided it was time to face this fear. One of my dreams is to dive in Antarctica and that was only going to happen in a dry suit. Time to get over the fear, get in the suit and get in the water.
Off to Seattle
We arrived in Seattle on a Friday afternoon, after a 9 hour drive from our home in Montana. The dive shop had requested we come and try on the dry suits before the Saturday dives. I had informed that shop of my claustrophobia and told them to give me the most “friendly” suit available for my fears. I felt rather stupid walking into a dive shop nervous to do something I had done 7500 dives….diving was my life, my career and my greatest passion….this was just plain dumb. It was time to resist and master the fear.
They had everything laid out for me and I joked around, to relieve the tension, and crawled into the undergarments and then quickly pulled the bottom of the dry suit over my feet and up to the waist. So far so good, breathe deeply and slowly…this was the easy part for me. The difficulty comes when having to pull the suit over my head through a horizontal back zipper that runs across the shoulders. Someone has to help you get in and out and zip and unzip the suit. There was no quick exit here and being “stuck” in the suit was my nightmare. The saving grace was that there was not a hood attached to the suit so once my head was through the tight neck seal, as long as someone was near to help me out of it I felt I would be okay. (note* there are self-donning dry suits now but I wanted to be able to dive in either kind)
My brief training in Aikido came in handy here. I learned to ground myself, calm my fears and center my mind and body. This exercise has been essential to me in fearful situations. I took a moment, grounded and centered and pulled my head through. Whew, head through, neck seal tight but manageable…but wait…I was now in the suit and if I wanted out I would need help…..I felt a rising panic but persevered through it and calmed myself. This was ridiculous. I wanted to dive in cold water…I just needed to get through it once. Finally I was able to be relaxed a bit in the suit and I took the opportunity to focus my efforts on helping my husband get into his suit and off my situation. The longer I could remain in the suit the better I would feel and the easier it would be to dive the next day.
When it came to removing the suit over the head, it took a couple of tries and another few moments of rising panic that I would be stuck and then it was off. And I was fine. Taking this step was critical and now that I knew I could be in the suit and not panic, I was excited for Saturday.
Dive Day- 45 Degree Water
The next morning, we cheerfully drove to the shop, gathered our equipment and headed for the beach. Diving dry, while warm and cozy takes effort. Where I normally use only a few pounds of lead weight to help me drop below the surface, in a dry suit, I was hefting 26lbs plus a steel tank and ankle weights into the water. The bulk of the suit and equipment make it harder to locate and operate the functions of your gear and wearing heavy gloves inhibits dexterity. It takes practice.
Dry suit diving actually requires a certification and a training course. The main reason is because the dry suit is an air space and when you descend into the water, the pressure squeezes the air space. It then becomes necessary to add air to the suit to compensate and keep the suit from squeezing you. There is a hose attached to the suit and your air tank. By pressing the inflator button, air is added to the dry suit. Underwater, this changes your buoyancy and ability to remain at a constant depth. It’s not difficult, it just takes practice. The first time I pushed the button to add air to my suit it was the coolest feeling and I felt giddy. The only way I can really describe it is like being inside a balloon and someone blows it up, all of the sudden you feel like you have all kinds of space in the suit. It was so cool I just sat in the shallow waters and played with the button and laughed hysterically into my regulator.
In the end I happily and warmly made two dives in 45 degree water and received my dry suit certification. Over the next year or so I will continue to dive and practice in the dry suit until it becomes as natural as a wet suit and I feel comfortable enough to tackle the challenges of 28 degree water at the southern tip of the planet. Amazing things await me in a place only few on earth have been.
And yes, there is a lesson here, a serious one. At forty seven years old I am finally able to begin to explore what I could have been exploring a quarter century ago had I not let the fear rule me and keep me from something I wanted. And in the end, it was not hard, only a little scary and easily overcome. Think about what you want in life, your dreams and passions and what holds you back from what you want most. It really is no more than just making the decision and pushing through the fear. Then you will say, like I did, “wow, I can’t believe I waited 24 years to do this…what was the big deal?….and why did I wait?”.
I decided in the beginning of 2010 what fears I would overcome this year. Once I decided to do my dry suit training I simply picked up the phone, called the dive shop and booked it. Three weeks later it was done! Before the year is complete, I will train to dive with a re-breather and complete my 2010 diving education goals. You know what? It feels fantastic! So….get out there, get off the couch, resist and then master the fear and live the life that you desire.