Thursday, 19 June 2008

Team Advil Take A Trip To The Mother Ship - Florida 2008

Back The Truck Up Buddy

Di With THAT Truck

The week started well with me being upgraded to Premium Economy on the top deck of the 747 for the journey out to Orlando. Dianne, Duchess Of Norfolk (aka Madfish), who was travelling with me, remained down in cattle class with several hundred screaming children on their way to Disneyland for the half term holiday. There was no trouble telling her apart from a ray of sunshine when she ventured up stairs to find me stretched out sitting next to John Grogan quaffing Champagne and discussing his deco strategy (“I like to get things bubbling before the gas switches” – no sh*t!)

I offered her my huge reclining seat right next to the emergency exit (even more legroom than usual) and got her a glass of bubbly in an attempt to stem her plans for mass infanticide downstairs. I contemplated offering to swap seats with her, but a quick check down below revealed that she was sitting next to a honeymooning couple who were like something out of a Harry Enfield sketch and the kids had turned the entire lower deck into the opening scene from Gladiator, so I popped back upstairs and hoofed her out of my seat pronto.

Ginnie Springs - The Devils Ear Sits Under The Buoy By The Boat

Things didn’t improve when we arrived and Dollar car rental only offered us an 8 seater people carrier which she instantly dismissed as being far too small. Several more vehicles including a Mack truck and one of those things they use for towing Space Shuttles were all dismissed out of hand and we finally settled on a Ford F150 minibus which was so huge that the bonnet was in a different time zone to the tailgate. By the end of the week – even I had to concede it had been a great call as it became our second home as we drove all round northern Florida to the various dive sites. The truck promptly pulled to the right every time we drove past a petrol station and on its first visit to the pumps when it was still only 2/3rds empty – it took 27 gallons to fill it up!

Two hours of driving north from Orlando found us in High Springs – home of GUE and Extreme Exposure - we had arrived at the Mother Ship.

Selection Of DIR Approved Snorkels At EE

Northern Florida is a big surprise – not at all what I was expecting: green, lush rolling hills and farmland – a bit like the New Forest

We checked into the Country Inn which is 5 minutes down the road from EE and was to be our base for the week. It’s a bit like staying in your Nan’s spare bedroom with more chintz than you could poke a stick at but at £10 each a night all in, split between The Duchess, myself and David Martin - you really couldn’t complain. Your money goes a long way out there just now.

Bryce At The EE Gas Station

The following morning – we were all up early with jetlag and piled next door into Winn Dixie which is a sort of redneck Asda. Di was somewhat disappointed they didn’t have a Waitrose, but promptly did her usual “Supermarket Sweep” and emptied the entire drugs aisle into a trolley and Team Advil (American Nurofen) was born.

Me Kitting Up At Jackson Blue

The B*ttplugs Of Madison County
On the Monday – Corey has arranged for us to travel a couple of hours north to dive the magnificent Madison Blue. Di insists on driving and every time we reached a stop sign we all peel our noses off the dashboard and remove the set of 104’s that were now imbedded in the back of our heads. I felt that a little driving lesson would be in order and helpfully explain that good braking should be like taking a sh*t. A gentle squeeze to get things going followed by a long even push and then finish with a gentle taper at the end. I explain that the desired shape we are looking for is like a cigar not a wedge of cheese. I helpfully speculate that when Di is enjoying a “motion” – her arse must snap shut at the end like a jail door. She gratefully thanks me for the driving lesson and declares a filth “time out” for five minutes as the truck had now descended into total hysterics and we are completely lost. Five minutes pass and she breaks her own “Filth Amnesty” with a discussion about whether if Halcyon made b*ttplugs – would they be Delrin with a NiMh battery? I tell her that she’s a dirty girl and just sharing a truck with her makes me feel soiled. By this stage we’ve seen every single bridge in Madison County and a few besides and we're hopelessly lost again. I suggest that perhaps Clint Eastwood’s next film should be called “The B*ttplugs Of Madison County”? He can have that one on me – I don’t expect any royalties. We decide to lay down some ground rules for general truck banter: we only stop if someone cries: the banter not the truck that is...

Finally we arrive and Bryce has been there for nearly two hours already, bored out of his brains waiting for us. He pretends it’s OK and says he’s been sorting kit. This basically consisted of unwinding and rewinding his safety spool, line by line about a hundred times. Madison Blue was worth the wait, I’m not sure Bryce could say the same for us.

Paul On The Boat At Merritts Millpond

GUE HQ & Extreme Exposure
We were calling in twice a day at Extreme Exposure to pick up and drop off our tanks. EE is the base for all of GUE’s teaching and the WKPP’s diving activities and forms a focal point for all the visiting DIR divers to meet: Think the best dive shop you’ve ever seen with a huge gas station to one side and GUE’s offices in the building next door and you get the picture. EE is run by Doug Mudry who epitomises the expression “nothing is too much trouble” and bent over backwards to make our week go as smoothly as possible, whilst all the time giving his students 110% on the Fundies class he was running at the same time. It’s not unusual for him and the guys to be working into the early hours filling tanks and sorting out equipment. This is at its worst during the weeks when the WKPP are diving and around 300 bottles need filling!

Team Mudry as they are known are Doug’s staff : Paul, Bryce, Kevin and Andrew: All super fit, super enthusiastic and mostly Cave 2 with either Jarrod or David – they live to cave dive and most of them are to be found buried in a wet hole somewhere in cave country at every available opportunity. They also provide shallow water support for the big WKPP dives. Paul was sporting the remnants of two black eyes – I speculated he’d been caught exploring wet holes that didn’t belong to him and warmed to him immediately.

The EE Gas Station

Paul, Kevin and Bryce provided guiding for us on most of the days and proved to be great fun and worked tirelessly to enable us to get the most out of the week. I asked Paul to debrief us after one of the dives and provide some constructive criticism. The feedback he gave us was insightful and revealing and I told him I thought he would make a great GUE Cave Instructor. He replied that when you looked at the existing GUE Cave Instructors like Rhea and Messersmith – they are still absolutely at the top of the game even now despite being in their late 50’s. He described them as “life divers” and his respect and admiration was obvious. He said that at 24 he wanted to gain experience first but someday he hoped someday to follow in their footsteps. I was touched by the thoughtfulness of his reply and felt it vindicated my original judgement. The quality of GUE’s next generation of Cave Instructors is not in doubt in my opinion. In the meantime Kevin and Paul both teach Recreational diving for EE. Reckon you'd get a damn good open water course with these guys!

Which brings us on to Team Bifocal! So called with irreverent affection by Team Mudry because they have a collective age of about 786 and most of them have bifocal lenses in the bottom of their masks

These guys are the GUE Jedi Council: people like Mark Messersmith, John Rose, Bob Sherwood and the Team Bifocal “Poster Boy” himself: David Rhea: Many of them have been cave diving for longer than some of us have been alive. They still run rings round people half their age and provide the deep support for the WKPP. They look like they’ve been carved out of the limestone Karst itself – stand them all next to each other and you'd have the Mount Rushmore of cave diving.

Matty G & Osama

As I struggle to get through the flow into the Devils Ear at Ginnie Springs for the first time on the Wednesday – Mark Messersmith was coming out With Chris, Ed and Pieter who were all doing Cave 1. As I bounce around like a frog in a liquidiser chewing through gas in what is basically a 20’x3’ fire hydrant, he hovers motionless in the flow barely moving an inch. Several things became apparent about Team Bifocal from observing one of these DIR “Big Beasts” close at hand in their natural habitat: Firstly – they have evolved to the extent that they now breathe underwater without the use of scuba. The twinset, regs etc are there purely for decoration. Secondly communication underwater has been pared down from crude hand signals to just the occasional disdainful glance at a student and Jedi Mind Tricks. He looks me straight in the eye: “Difficult are the ways of the force; practice, often you must; pies less must you eat”

40 minutes later we resurface, Ginnie hands me my arse on a plate – not for the last time that week either.

Di had the Team Bifocal experience two weeks previously when she did Cave 1 with David Rhea. From her description it sounds like she had to exchange her very soul for a Cave 1 card. “The nicest thing he said to me on the whole course was when he bubbled my left post and I refused to shut it down because I was breathing it and he told me afterwards: Girl: that’s the least retarded thing you’ve done all week” I reply that he sounds like a complete hard arse: “Oh no – he’s a lovely man” More Jedi mind tricks...

The Headspring At Little River

I go diving with her for the first time in a year and she’s transformed from being a solid diver to having that GUE “Tech Magic” in the water. She shows me her Cave 1 card like it’s a nugget of pure gold. Its sits with plenty of other cards in her purse which will buy practically anything – but the one that buys nothing and can’t be bought at any price sits closest to her heart...

The Halcyon Factory Tour

Ginnie has bent me over and given me a good spanking again so we pack up and make our way over to the Halcyon factory for a tour organised by Jarrod’s sister: Corey. Corey is like Gareth Lock – she organises everyone with great humour and gets the job done while the boys are out playing! For the week we were there – she had arranged packed lunches, breakfast at EE, cool boxes a great diving itinerary, a two day trip to Merritt’s Millpond in the North, a BBQ one evening and countless other little nice refinements that really made it a memorable week, all very much appreciated.

Halcyon is based on a small industrial estate just on the edge of High Springs. Casey comes out to greet us and reminds me that I’m supposed to be going diving with him later that week. We’d chatted when he and JJ came over for the dive show the year before and he kindly offered back then. Part of me was hoping he’d forgotten, part of me couldn’t wait. I have about 10 cave dives to my name at this stage – so no pressure there then! We arrange to meet up on the Friday.

Di's Cave 1 Buddy Dima - Top Man

Casey hands over to the Production Manager: Steve, who has been with the company practically from the start, like many of the staff, and he shows us round. Casey accompanies us for the whole tour – but he got Steve to do the talking which was a nice touch and his pride in the company and their products was evident throughout.

Halcyon is a huge surprise. I expected it to be more of an assembly plant – but they make everything from scratch. The attention to detail and quality is superb. Wings are made with ballistic nylon bladders rather than urethane for greater strength and puncture resistance; they even make their own hoses. Each and every item: wings, hoses lights etc are all tested to several times beyond their working pressure before being considered “Halcyon Worthy” and dispatched off to retailers. The concept of “Halcyon Worthy” sounds cheesy and American to an English audience – but if you visit the factory – you’ll understand.

Turkey Vultures Hoping We Screw It Up At Jackson Blue

Steve explains that because they make everything in house – they can produce working prototypes within weeks and play around with ideas in a way that a lot of manufacturers would find difficult. I had previously thought of Halcyon as being slightly behind the curve when it comes to newer technologies like Li Ion – but the truth is they look carefully at all the new technologies as them become available but won’t implement them until they are 100% happy that they can get the quality and reliability consistent and right. It makes sense.

We finish the tour and Matt says he feels embarrassed about moaning about recent price increases now, not least because Corey Smith the Tech Services Manager has sorted out some issues with his 18w HID, including changing the bulb, all while we waited in about 10 seconds flat. In an attempt to carry the unified team thing through to the manufacturing – everyone at Halcyon is called Corey – quite how they tell each other apart heaven knows? It’s like turning up at a mafia funeral and shouting “Tony”

Joe Hesketh & Myself Kit Up For A Dive At Little River - It's 105 Degrees!

Di and I go night diving at Ginnie later in the week with Corey Bell: Halcyon’s Product Development Manager: Night diving is one of the lovely surprises with cave diving – clearly when you’re underground, whether it’s day or night makes no odds. Emerging back into the cavern zone and swimming across the Santa Fe river by twilight listening to the bullfrogs croaking and distant Alligators barking is a truly beautiful and surreal experience. Much like surfacing through the thin film of dumped aviation fuel at Wraysbury on a Wednesday evening and catching the faint aroma of the old chemical toilets. Corey had been rubbing himself all round the walls of Ginnie like a dog with an itch. When we get out I ask what he was doing and he explains that they are doing some abrasion testing on the Cordura outer covers of their wings. Just another example of the lengths they go to. He’ll be coming over to the UK in September to see how the company’s products work in an ocean environment both off the South Coast and up in Scapa Flow – I look forward to diving with him again then.

Corey Bell With Di At Little River

Merritts Millpond

On the Wednesday – we head north to Merritts Millpond, a dammed river formed by the Jackson Blue headspring. We are staying overnight at Hole In The Wall House and we have a boat to visit the various caves along the Millpond itself. A more idyllic setting you couldn’t hope to find and home to some of Florida’s finest cave dives: Jackson Blue, Hole In The Wall and Twin. For many people: Downstream Hole In The Wall is the best cave dive in the whole of Florida.

Hole In The Wall House At Merritts Millpond

The house sits on the edge of the millpond and has it’s own jetty for mooring up the boat. Complete with it’s own pool table and huge living room – it’s the perfect party house and we waste no time filling the fridge with beer and settling in.

The Headspring At Jackson Blue - Cave Entrance Is Right Under The Diving Board!

After an excellent meal in Marianna just up the road we return with fireworks and the banter and a beers go late into the night.

The Cypress Trees Looking Out Onto The Lake

Hole In The Wall and Jackson Blue are just mindblowing – the highlight of the trip – I can’t wait to return. The variety of the caves in Florida is really surprising - they all have their own distict "personalities"

The Boats Moored At The Jetty By The House

Friday arrives all too soon and I arrange to meet Casey at Ginnie late in the afternoon. He arrives in a truck that gives ours a run for its money accompanied by John Rose, one of the WKPP’s longest serving divers. John turns out to be what’s known around those parts as “A Southern Gentleman” and he instantly puts me at ease whilst chatting as he assembles his RB80. He’s there to square away a few issues prior to the following weekend’s WKPP push dive.

We kit up and I have a good rummage around McKinlay's kit to find that he basically dives stock Halcyon everything with almost no mods at all. We hit the water and some smartarse chucks me snorkel. I consider a BWRAF check but we settle for a bubble check instead and then descend through the Devil's Ear. I don’t really do nerves, but it takes me about double normal time to tie into the primary line and I’m diving like a Korean housewife. I settle into the dive and about 50 minutes later we return. I'm struck that regardless of experience: the DIR system just works from the bottom to the top – everything feels familiar and instinctive – just as it had when diving with so many other GUE trained divers that week. I can’t talk too much about that dive other than to say that it was the absolute highlight of my three year journey through DIR / GUE and it will stay with me for a long time. Anyone who things “Gillette is the best a man can get” hasn’t been diving with Casey McKinlay…

From The Left: John Rose, Me Looking After Casey's Snorkel, Casey McKinlay

We head back for dinner at High Springs and join some of the rest of our group at “The Great Outdoors”. David Rhea is holding court over in the corner, the ever present toothpick hanging out of the mouth. Di is fawning over him like a schoolgirl with a crush. He certainly fills a room. Think Johnny Cash with fins and a bit more gravitas – you get the picture. We sit down for dinner and the conversation turns to the age of George Irvine. Apparently he’s in his late fifties which I would never have guessed, but no one’s sure. I suggest cutting him in half and counting the rings. Jarrod and Casey give David a bit of friendly stick about being an old fart as well and he gives it right back to them with “extreme prejudice” as GI3 used to say. It feels like having dinner with the chimps back home. All sarcasm is a team resource.

What A Week

One of the best holidays we’ve ever had – everyone agreed. The diving, the fantastic social: meeting Chris, Ed and Pieter and seeing them pass Cave 1, Dima from Russia who was with Di on Cave 1 and had us in stitches all week, meeting Os for the first time. So many great people

Kevin On One Of The Boats

GUE has truly grown into the “Global” part of it’s name and one of the great pleasures of diving this way for me is meeting cool people from all over the world and going diving together with almost no planning or prior preparation needed. Even with complex dives – you’re all on the same page which leaves more time for having fun and the diving itself.

Huge thanks to Clare and Corey who put so much work in behind the scenes in order to make the trip run seamlessly and so successfully and to Jarrod and Casey who, in spite of a packed schedule – spent loads of time with us all week.

And finally to Doug and the guys who showed us that “Doing It Right” isn’t just an in water thing – see you all soon and thank you all