Sea Leveled

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.

Getting on the boat

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.

water wings

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!”

Dusty diving

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.

nice kicks

This young man – without saying a single word – collected my license to bitch.  i may let him keep it…

24 thoughts on “Sea Leveled

    • We set out on our standard ‘fuck off, dive, eat, drink, screw’ holiday… we did all that, but this was a nice bonus. he is a delightful human! and yeah – ‘nice life’. no shit. how did i get here?

        • i am the queen of revisionist personal history – and sometimes forget that my 20’s and 30’s were exhausting. i did work pretty hard for 20 years… don’t think i had a damn vacation that didn’t involve family or a tent during those years, and i worked incredibly long hours. yeah. there was a little more than luck… thanks for the reminder.

  1. Great story… heard a similar one from my son after his second Iraq tour. The handler for the bomb sniffing dog at their checkpoint had lost one of his legs to an IED and rather than assent to being medicaled out of the Army worked himself back into the kind of physical condition to where he could still be on active duty in a war zone.

    So glad that your night dive experience turned out okay for all of you. Losing the boat has got to be one of the biggest nightmares a diver has… that or being eaten by a shark… or getting the bends… Honestly, sometimes I wonder why people dive at all…. Not really. I get it completely. It’s just so many things can go wrong so fast.

    • These young marines are a force of nature. i just wish we’d get to a place where we can stop blowing them up on a regular basis…

      Losing the boat wasn’t all that frightening – had it been just the two of us, i suspect the pucker factor would have been a little higher. The size of the group was comforting. diving with sharks doesn’t really get me jacked up either – although i’m not likely to do one of those contrived ‘dive with the sharks while we feed them’ excursions. that’s just nuts.

      the scary part is just that last bit – so many things can go wrong so fast. hold your breath at 10′ and you can blow your brains out. the reason we don’t mess around with underwater cameras is that we’re pretty focused on our gauges and trying really hard to be safe, and watch out for others…

  2. A perfect inspirational account of why we should grasp every day by the ears and make every second count without mithering or whining about life being unfair. I’m always intrigued by the sheer amount of exciting action girl stuff you get yourself involved in. No woman has ever looked as glamorous climbing out of the sea, either before or since Ursula Andress made her entrance as a Bond girl until now. I’m still thinking about you shaking out tiny granules of sand from damp, secret little places as you head up to the beachside bar. It’s left me shaken if not a little stirred.

    • you had me at ‘grasp by the ears’. oh, and i genuinely appreciate the comparison to delicious Ms. Andress, but can’t say that my doughy ass even vaguely resembles that lovely creature. sand is pesky, isn’t it? one must be extra careful when playing on the beach…

  3. There are some people who simply inspire by being there. I had a friend who studied the same IT course I did – he had severe cerebral palsy it was such hard work for him. He just smiled and got on with it.

    • Dusty also has a great sense of humor – which led to many silly excursions during the week. He’d giggle and play along when Studley would tickle his feet. He was also quite open and willing to answer any and all questions presented… As you said, he inspired just by showing up. Suspect he was pretty inspiring even before losing his legs…

    • Yep. i’ve been an uber-slug. Lots of playing, but not serious about my health… i retire in just a few short years and really want to hit it with everything i’ve got… time’s a’ wasting!

  4. Awed tears here. Though mind you, I am STILL going to continue to have my daily whinge. Just more quietly.
    Dusty rocks, and I hope he has a long and happy life, living it to the full. And feel sure he will.

    • You, my dear, are ANOTHER person who inspires me to keep my complaints to a minimum! You have dealt with one massive challenge after another and still keep finding a way to focus on the beauty around you! i would never want to deprive you of that daily whinge — sometimes letting off a little one keeps them from building up! Here’s to better days ahead!

  5. As so often, you have given us a wonderful story. I have only ever known one double leg amputee (Vietnam casualty) and he went on to become a member of both our State and then our Federal Parliaments. I still see him around and he still embarrasses us two-legged wimps with his speedy wheelchair and his enthusiasm for life and for people.

    • i’ve been working out regularly (although not with much result) since i returned from this trip… and i really do hope we can stop blowing people up. i’m sure we can find heroes through other means.

  6. Brill–I think we should share out legless people on adventure holidays and in any situation where people are inclined to moan.

    Must say, I was getting a bit worried there for a sec when you couldn’t see the boat though!

    • That’s a great idea! i will need a double amputee co-worker to get me to quit bitching at the office, i think…

      The trick to night diving? flashlights. i know it sounds obvious, but you can see a good dive light from the surface for a good distance. the people on the boat were watching us drift away – they just had to stay put until all the other divers were on board…

  7. OK, OK, I’ll quit whining about my sciatica, (it’s much better, BTW) and go use my Silver Sneakers card at the Y. As soon as I find my swimsuit in this mess. Now you kids get offa my lawn. (There are a lot worse things than being a double amputee, but I’m still impressed with his diving. The way I’m impressed with Stephen Hawking.)

    • Glad you’re feeling better! You’ve certainly had a rough year, so an occasional bout of crankiness has been earned! Dusty mentioned a few times that he felt pretty damn lucky – that there were far worse things. My aches and pains aren’t in the same ballpark, though. i’ve made it a goal to stop groaning when i stand up. A small thing, but i feel stronger when i quit it…

    • you could get back to diving, my dear! don’t postpone joy! as for Croatia? i have no idea about diving there – but they’ve got beaches. i’ve already put The Girl on notice – next summer. it’s on!

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