Dive Leader Caroline swam up to us in the dark. She did a roll call to make sure all five missing divers were within range. We’d gotten caught in a current during the safety stop on a night dive, and were surprised to find ourselves at least a quarter of a mile from the boat when we surfaced.
Once she was assured that we were all there, she said: “Everyone ok? Do you need assistance? That’s what I’m here for, so let me know if you need anything!”
A few feet away in the dark, there was a laugh, followed by “How about a couple of legs?”
His were blown off in December, 2011. An Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) specialist for the Marines, Dusty ran to assist a fellow soldier who had just stepped on an improvised explosive device, and tripped a secondary device – bombs designed to kill those aiding victims of the primary bomb.
About the last thing i expected on my trip last week was a double amputee diver in our group. When you have a dozen divers living in very close quarters for a week on a small island in the Atlantic Ocean, connections happen with lightning speed. i quickly learned that there was more to him than his disability.
The sun came up Saturday morning, and we put our dive gear out for collection by the crew by 0730. Dusty brought out his “sea legs” – designed for use in salt water – and put them with the flippers and vests alongside the hotel.
Saba is a tiny island – only five square miles of volcanic rock. The airport hosts the world’s shortest commercial runway. The harbor isn’t much bigger. Getting on the damn boat, as it rocked and rolled against the dock, presented a challenge. i was a bit tentative as i grabbed the boat rail, timed my step to match the pitch of the boat and held onto a member of the crew for stability. Dusty passed his gear to the crew, and stepped on board. Crew and divers looked on quietly. No one complained about the difficult entry.
He was nervous about the diving because it had been about two years since his last dive – not because of the prosthetics. One leg was a bit heavy, so he rigged a ‘water wing’ to see if it would help with buoyancy. It was worth a try, but didn’t really help.
The final day of the trip was spent farting around on the island. We hosted a ‘happy hour’ by the hotel pool, and invited our dive boat crew to join us. Reuben, one of our crew, told me how amazed he was by Dusty. “We noticed that NO ONE on the boat, crew or divers, complained about anything all week long! And it was because of THAT guy!”
We did the night dive on Tuesday. As the sun set, ten of us dropped into the water. i’m not overly fond of night dives – one friend describes them as “underwater drug raids” as you see floodlights carried by your dive mates sweep wildly through the dark waters. i decided to go along since the reefs of Saba are loaded with amazing coral and a metric shit-ton of fish.
The dive went as briefed – down to about 40-50’, standard night signals at ‘half tank’, watch for the strobes on the boat, keep dive time to about 45 minutes. We chased one octopus around for five minutes, found a gargantuan lobster and then went off to look for other critters.
When it was time to ascend, Studley and i caught up with three others – Dusty, his father-in-law Ron, and Rick (our dive instructor). Even at the relatively shallow depth for the dive, a three minute ‘safety stop’ at 15-18 feet is required. The current had picked up a bit, so we stayed in a close group as we hovered in the dark water.
Studley and i had lost the boat while concentrating on our depth gauges, but figured one of the others knew the location. When we bobbed to the surface, we realized that none of us had any damn idea where the boat was. We saw some lights a good distance away. If not our boat, a boat. Good enough.
Low on air, we filled our buoyancy control devices (BCDs) and prepared for a long surface swim – roll on your back and start kicking. Maintain verbal contact with your buddies. Periodic roll call and heading check. After about five minutes, i turned to look for the boat. Didn’t seem to have made much progress, but we could now see two sets of lights – our boat and another.
Good enough. Roll and kick. Repeat every few minutes.
Eventually, we heard Caroline’s voice from the dark. Relieved that we’d been located, we continued to kick toward the boat. Another heading check? The current was too strong, even when we tried cutting directly toward shore.
Caroline suggested we circle up, and wait for the boat to come to us. Within a few minutes, we could see the boat turn and move toward us. Snagging the current line behind as it came alongside, we all waited to climb up the ladder.
Relaxing a bit, i felt my thighs screaming from 30 minutes of surface swim against an unyielding current. i watched Dusty leave the water first – climbing the dive ladder, his prosthetic sea legs outlined sharply by the floodlights on the boat.
Once we’d shed our gear, and the boat was headed back to the dock, we did post-dive forensics to sort out what went wrong – and how the situation could have been avoided. No finger-pointing, just an ‘after-action report’. The subject soon changed to the barbecue and chilled keg of beer awaiting us at the hotel.
No one complained. Everything we did? Dusty had done without his fucking legs.
This young man – without saying a single word – collected my license to bitch. i may let him keep it…