It’s the Little Things

It was a beautiful, placid day on the Straits of Mackinac — a rare state of affairs at the convergence of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron in Michigan. Holly was a relatively new diver but had taken to the sport like a fish. After completing her open-water course the year before, she had been eager to gain experience at every opportunity.

This dive was to be a crowning achievement. We were set to descend onto a 600-foot-long shipwreck resting on its side in 100 feet of water. The Cedarville, like many Great Lakes shipwrecks, has something of an undeserved bad reputation. Sure, these wrecks can be challenging to dive due to cold water and frequently unpredictable currents and surface conditions. But in the past 30 years the lakes' invasive zebra mussels have dramatically increased visibility — from an average of 10 feet to about 80 feet. The ability to see what you're getting yourself into can make a dive much more benign. Based on Holly's father's own experiences 30 or 40 years earlier, however, he believed the wreck to be rather dangerous and had told her so on several occasions.

We suited up and splashed near the stern mooring; this provided easy access to cabins as shallow as 60 feet. Everyone was having a great time as we swam along, casually inspecting the hulk's features: freshwater tanks on the aft cabin roof, the skylight to the engine room, the smoke stack and the coal bunker. I was leading the dive and often swam backward to keep an eye on my flock.

Forward of the coal bunker, the wreck is basically one gargantuan cargo hatch after another all the way to the bow, so this was as good a turning point as any. Before we headed back, however, I wanted to make a brief foray into the mammoth, cathedral-like cargo hold. I motioned for the gang to follow and finned ahead, gliding through the hatch like a Volkswagen entering a commercial aircraft hangar. Like any "cavern," the hold is dark, especially at first. After a minute or two, once your eyes have adjusted to the low light, you realize that getting out of the current has caused the visibility to improve. Through the gloom you can see more than 100 feet, and the row of enormous cargo hatches letting in beams of blue-green light is a sight to behold. (It's not unlike the famous black-and-white photo of Grand Central Station.)

Seemingly minor problems can amount to bigger ones underwater. Predive
anxiety and a fogged mask compounded to nearly trigger a state of panic in
this diver.
When I turned around I was surprised to see that none of the group had followed. Was the hold really that intimidating? The opening is so huge that it hardly counts as a cavern. But they were still outside, so I headed back out to join them. Outside the hold, I sized up a whole new situation. Holly was no longer swimming casually in a prone position. She was now vertical, fins aflutter. I recognized her intent immediately and made haste to arrest what was about to become an emergency ascent. The rapid egress of bubbles from her regulator told me she was breathing just fine. I took her hand to physically maintain our proximity in the water column and further assessed the situation. She returned an OK sign, but she clearly wasn't feeling it. She gave a second, much more insistent sign: ascend.

I [could just barely see Holly's wide, panicked eyes through the fog in her mask, so I motioned to her to clear it, which she did. Within three frantic breaths, it was again fully fogged up. I now understood what was going on. I led her back to the mooring line, and we all made a normal ascent and safety stop and exited the water.

Amid the excitement of the upcoming dive and the thrill of buying new gear, no one had explained to Holly that her brand new mask first needed to be thoroughly scrubbed out before a defogging agent could effectively do its job. Her entire experience of the Cedarville had unfortunately been consistent with her father's recollections and stern warnings. Though I was merely 10 feet away when I swam into the cargo hold, from her perspective I completely disappeared into utter blackness.

That was the final straw: A state of panic began to take hold then and impair her judgment. Despite her brother and another instructor being right there, she began swimming for the surface, which threatened to create numerous problems: separating the group, getting divers swept away in the current and, worst of all, risking injury with an out-of-control ascent.

Looking back, this incident was a classic example of a situation snowballing. Little things matter, and they can quickly accumulate. A dab of toothpaste in Holly's new mask or improved awareness of the anxiety she was feeling about the dive might have prevented this near miss, which fortunately ended well.

Holly is a formidable spirit and has since returned to the wreck several times — conquering her nemesis, as she put it. I've seen problems no bigger than these snowball into dive fatalities. It's easy to say, "It's just a little mask (or snorkel or fin strap), what could go wrong?" but every new piece of equipment should be tested on a shallow, controlled dive — and every feeling of concern or discomfort should be heeded.

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2017