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Friday, August 23, 2019
“A Leap of Faith,” by Sheena Whitworth
It started when I got into a relationship with a scuba diver who encouraged me to join him in the sport, unaware of one of my biggest fears. I was terrified of putting my head under water.
Having decided to give it a go or at least go through the motions, I knew my first big challenge would be the required giant stride to get into the water. YouTube came to my rescue. Watching it over and over again in both regular and slow motion, I realized that it could be done and astonishingly enough, people even resurfaced. At least they did on YouTube.
My fear was that I wouldn’t step out far enough, my tank would catch on the side of the pool, the force of which would cause my head to slam back against the unforgiving concrete, causing a concussion or even sudden death. I had never jumped into any body of water before.
Rather than getting wet, I started my scuba training by studying for the written part and spent many a sleepless night visualizing myself over and over again doing this giant stride. Thank goodness for Mark, my mentor, supporter, encourager, fear-slayer, teacher, and experienced diver. His patience in preparing me for the test knew no limits, much like my fear!
I couldn’t put off the practical side of diving forever, and when I finally showed up for my lesson, I made sure to be first in line to grab a cold, damp wetsuit so I could head off to a corner to try and squeeze myself into it, unwitnessed. I pulled and yanked, did a bit of a shimmy, got it to my waist, struggled to get my arms in and proudly zipped it up. Mission accomplished.
“Hey Sheena,” yelled the instructor from the other side of the pool, bringing all eyes to me, “Looks great but the zipper goes up the back.”
Why don’t they tell you these things? I had to peel it off which turned out to be almost as difficult as getting into it and start again. Whoever invented the back zipper may have had good reason for it, but it’s not easy without wrenching a shoulder out of its socket trying to zip it up.
“Okay, everyone line up at side of the pool, look below to make sure it is clear on the count of three and take a giant stride” were the instructions.
Everyone took that giant stride and resurfaced. Except me. I stayed put. All eyes were on me again. My knees shook and my heart raced as I wobbled back and forth on my fins. I tried to remain perfectly still and upright, worrying that if I leaned slightly forward I might accidentally just tip in, but if I leaned back even slightly, the weight of the tank strapped to my back would pull me over backwards. Paralyzed with fear, I absolutely could not take that one simple step into the water.
“Push me,” I whispered to an instructor behind me. He didn’t seem to understand my very simple request so I repeated it more clearly and with authority. He pushed and I was in. It wasn’t elegant and I think I tipped more than I strode, but I was in the water.
If I had only known that wouldn’t be the last embarrassment, I think I would have just called it quits, said, “Thanks but no thanks, this is not for me”.
There were some positives. The air was actually getting from that tank into my lungs, and if I could only stop hyperventilating, I would be feeling pretty confident.
Always two steps behind the rest of the class, I realized there were no heads still above water. The rest of them were at the bottom of the pool, mastering the art of buoyancy control. How the hell was I going to get down there to join them? I had missed the instructions whilst I was in ecstasy realizing I could breathe.
I recalled some kind of button I could push which would empty my BCD (buoyancy compensation device) of air, which theoretically would lead me to descend slowly enough to allow me to equalize the pressure in my ears. I pushed it. Nothing happened. I was too buoyant. Maybe they hadn’t given me enough weights? The unpleasant thought popped into my head that the reason I was so buoyant wasn’t because I was so light, but because I was too flabby.
I pushed my BCD button again and kept my finger on it till all the air hissed out. Do not try this in the ocean. I sank like a stone. Also, with all my hyperventilating, the air in my tank was going down rapidly.
Another thing I had missed was being assigned a buddy. I looked around and counted. There were an uneven number of participants and, arriving late to the party, I was the odd one out. I was told to make a threesome with two lovely young girls. I could have been their mother. They took pity on me instantly, probably glad their own mothers were safely holed up at home drinking tea and watching soap operas. I grew to love those two girls.
I had mastered nothing so far and we were already moving on to how to deal with a situation where our regulators were knocked out of our mouths either by a rogue shark deep below the ocean or another diver’s flailing fins.
We were to begin by taking as deep a breath as possible to fill our lungs with air. Then we were to remove the regulator from our mouths and fling it behind us without a care in the world that our only source of life-sustaining air was God knows where.
The other divers were able to calmly reach behind, grab their regulators and resume breathing. Not me. In my panic, I couldn’t find the damn thing. The more I reached behind me and turned towards it, the more it floated teasingly away from me. It always remained the same distance away from my desperate fingers. One lungful of air doesn’t last very long.
Those lovely girls swam around behind me, smiling encouragingly, got my regulator and passed it to me. They watched as I almost choked on the water I had accidentally swallowed and demonstrated how I should have cleared my regulator of said water before greedily gasping for one more lungful of air. They gave me a thumbs up or a high five every time I accomplished something. I considered changing my will in their favour.
Those two wonderful human beings were at my side every step of the way, retrieving things for me, fixing things for me, demonstrating things and I was too polite to say, “Thank you but I really should do it myself because if we’re not all traveling on dive trips together, I’ll be in trouble.” That would be ingratitude at its highest.
We had to practice safe ascents by adding a little (I emphasize the word “little”) amounts of air into our BCDs. In my defence, I would like to say “little” is very subjective. I basically pushed on the add air button with enough force to launch a space shuttle. I shot to the surface of the pool. I was so proud of myself. I had actually accomplished this way before the others had been able to. I gave myself an imaginary pat on the back.
My instructor almost lost it. I should mention I called this particular instructor Bitch Woman. “RE YOU INSANE?” she shouted. “DO YOU KNOW HOW DANGEROUS THAT WOULD BE IF YOU ASCENDED THAT WAY FROM 100 FOOT UNDER THE OCEAN?”
She only ever spoke in capitals, at least to me. I managed to sneak off and join another instructor’s group when she wasn’t glaring at me. She tried to call me back but my ears must have been plugged.
Another challenge for me only was the endurance test. I am neither a strong swimmer nor a good swimmer. My dad had taught me. He didn’t really teach me how to swim but more how to propel myself through the water, with my head safely above it at an uncomfortable angle. This had served me well enough to this point.
The lengths we swam were counted on an honour system. I am normally an honourable person but in this case, honesty was sure as hell not going to pay off.
We had to do 15 lengths, and I knew 8 was my limit. Of course, I went at a fraction of the speed of everyone else so when they were done, I did three more to make it look legitimate. So in total, I did 5 lengths in the time everyone else did 15, and then 3 more for good measure. I was exhausted.
A lot of the other skills we covered, to be honest, are lost in a maze of humiliation. “Mask clearing” is a prime example. Even those words still send shivers up my spine and cause my stomach to churn. It sounds so simple. Let a little water seep in through the top of your mask. Press gently on the seal of the mask at the top and blow through your nose to let that very same water leave the bottom of your mask. I tried and I tried. I constantly breathed in through my nose instead of out, sending chlorinated water into my nasal passages, causing me to panic and dash to the surface of the water. I could not do it. It was absolutely impossible.
Like all slow learners, I had to stay behind class for extra help with a lovely instructor Sam. He was so encouraging I felt the tiniest bit of confidence seeping in, along with the water into my mask.
My problem is I’m a nose breather so I breathed in through my nose when I should have been breathing out through it to dispel that pesky water. I was supposed to stay under water once I cleared my mask for a count of, I don’t remember what. If it was ten, I got to three. Sam finally passed me but emphasized I should really practice this before jumping off a dive boat in the Caribbean.
The afternoon was spent on theory. I had studied so hard for the theory portion I could have taught the course myself. Nevertheless, I kept my cockiness under control, double-checked my answers and was the last to hand in my test. Sam was marking them and we had built up quite a rapport in that final mask clearing session. He looked up and sadly said, “Oh Sheena, just two points!”
My heart sank. I really had to give up and take up crocheting or bridge, anything on land.
“I failed by two points! Fuck!” I said. I couldn’t hold that last word in. I was so disappointed.
“No! Two points short of 100%!”
I wanted to marry him. I looked around the class waiting for the applause or a small medal ceremony. My two cheerleaders from the pool were just as thrilled as I was. I really should change my will.
I had made it through one day of humiliation and torture. One more day to get through.
Mark picked me up, very excited to know how I had done. I burst into tears. I was so exhausted, humiliated, disheartened, all I could do was cry.
The next day I told him I would drive myself. “Are you actually going to go?” was his response.
“No. I’m going to buy a large coffee, a box of donuts, and wait the day out in my car. Maybe get a couple of gossip magazines to pass the time. Then I will go inside to the bathroom, wet my bathing suit and towel, dunk my head under water, and head home.”
Mark tilted his head doubtfully.
In truth, I may be pretty pathetic at many things, but I don’t give up easily. Of course, I was going to my second day of training.
Sheena Whitworth is a newcomer to writing. She is drawn to humour but also has a dark side. Anticipating more free time in retirement, she’s decided to try her hand at writing. Also, she (almost) conquered her fear of water by learning to scuba dive.