Tag Archives: Diving

“Grade D” precedes a F(ail)

I’ve been SCUBA diving since I was 13. (Somewhere there is a picture of me in a double hose rig with an old 38 cu. ft. tank.) I have enjoyed it all but a very few times. But working around a boat hull with a tank and buoyancy compensator isn’t much fun — don’t bang the hull, don’t snag the BC, don’t get bottom paint on the gear.

not the way to do it

One Breath at a Time, Not the Way to Do It!

So a few years ago, I bought what could be called hookah gear. Basically, it was a hose that allowed me to leave my tank on the boat or in the dinghy while I swam unencumbered as deeply as 60 feet (not that deep was the objective). The limitation was tank capacity. Cleaning a boat bottom can really burn through the air supply,* and I really don’t want to be hauling two 80 cuft tanks around just to make sure one is full.

So, I decided to add an air compressor to the boat. I have friends who use them, and just about every commercial boat diver I have encountered uses them. With our solar panels, running one off the inverter is no problem (neither is running the genset later to make up a deficit on a cloudy day). Pressure output and reserve tank capacity are issues, but the smallest of the “pancake” compressors out there is adequate for diving to the depth of the keel — really all I want. Diving deeper on an anchor would be nice, but now we are talking higher pressure and larger reserve, and space is at a premium. I looked at commercial hookah systems and the prices are outrageous for something I might use twice a year.  Actually at ~$1000 – $5000. they are just outrageous, period…

PancakeSo, for ~$40, I bought an oilless compressor (a widely used one for boat maintenance hookah) planning to add a NIOSH Grade-D (see below) breathing air filter to the output side using inline couplings.


Such filtration for a single line 24 CFM system was available for ~$75 just a few years ago. That number is now between $400-800. Why? A principal material used in these filters was declared carcinogenic. It isn’t, if it’s is properly processed and packaged, but the government… The higher price tag is because Grade-D air must now be delivered via a much more complex (and very retro) filtration system — just the replacement cartridges cost as much as the entire filters used to. It doesn’t help that most of these filters support multiple lines and have bells and whistles that aren’t necessary in a fresh air supplied hookah system using electric power. So now I know why so many of the commercial units have no downstream filtration at all or claim Grade-D performance using components that can’t meet that standard.

Why does it matter? Lungs are hard to replace and once degraded they stay that way.  I was part of Texas A&M’s Hyperbaric Physiology program as a student and a lab rat (in the parlance of the time a lab rat was an experimental subject or a student who worked in a lab — I qualified on both counts). Dr. Bill Fife led the program, and I learned pretty much all there was to know in those days. It was a world of lots of experimental and anecdotal data and not a lot of underlying science yet. But many of the old surface-supplied divers of the world suffered through their post diving years with either the effects of overstaying their underwater welcome (decompression sickness) or breathing bad air. After a few autopsy photos of such diver’s lungs, I developed a real fondness for clean air. NIOSH Grade-D is a high standard. C and above are medical grade and higher. The standard is described in ANSI/Compressed Gas Association Commodity Specification for Air, G-7.1-1989.

So setting up the hookah I wanted became a case of go big (bucks, weight, volume) or go home — to properly filtered, tank supplied air.

I’m looking at where to put the tank.

*Resting respiration at the surface is 5-8 liters per minute. This can burn through a tank in about four hours at the surface. When work is being performed at the surface (scrubbing and position maintenance) this can drop to 80 minutes. When depth is considered (5.5 foot draft) a tank will be good for about 70 minutes. If one is in good condition this can be quite a bit longer ~120 minutes. In any case one bottom cleaning is going to require a tank fill

Snorkelin’, Eatin’ and Meanderin’

We tried to go out snorkeling  last week, and for a week the winds have made the reefs off Guana undiveable. The best dive operators have either been cleaning gear or taking folks sightseeing. Finally, today we made it out to Fowl Cays National Park. It was us, two SCUBA divers and the Guide and Captain from Froggies.

When we arrived the swell had gone, but there was an annoying little chop. We dove on Tombstone Reef, and are glad we did. We have seen more populous reefs and more colorful, but it was just nice to be diving again among barracuda, rays, turtles, tangs, surgeon fish, French grunt, etc, etc, etc… we are very happy with our new gear, though the new masks are so new they are still hard to anti-fog.

We followed up with an excellent lunch at Nippers where we ran into folks we had shared the dock with in Marsh Harbour. It was sad walking past Pirates Cove, knowing Co-Owner Jerry had passed away there while closing up on Easter. It appears his wife, Chorene, is going to keep the place going.  From there, we growled over to Man-O-War on Froggies’ Cuban built dive boat.

A Tap on the Shoulder from Days Gone By

MemoriesNight before last, as I was walking around the deck inspecting before going below; a couple walked by. We said hello and they asked about the Courtesy Ensign and customs process for boats. They had flown their Mooney over from the US and had a different experience. This led to that.

First, they lived in the DC area very close to our digs for the last decade. Second, He had had an Air Force Career. Third, they were both Aggies. Fourth, they were SCUBA Divers, and fifth they took their certification classes there when I was teaching SCUBA. I started mentioning instructor names and they seized upon one — the guy I most frequently assisted*. I’m glad we treated the students with respect! Oh yeah, and we were both private pilots who had flown from the same field in College Station — probably in the same rental planes.

On the career side, the fellow and I had worked in similar areas through our careers, especially in the Pentagon, and were satisfied we must have been in the same meetings, or if not, we had the same sense of deja vu.

We would have liked to talk more, but they had to fly out in the morning and hadn’t had dinner. After looking on line for more information, I discovered he had worked for another friend of ours.

Interestingly, the woman had started at Baylor and finished at A&M. A visit to A&M by Jacques Cousteau, that I had played a role in setting up, had been one of the things that attracted her to the school. She lived in the same dorm as my brother.

As we go along in life, it’s common to say, “I wonder what happened to old so and so?” With the internet it is easier to find an answer these days. In this case what happened is we crossed paths. Like sailboats tacking upwind, this crossing may be the only one, but it was a singular moment on a warm Bahama evening that made me happy — they had favorable memories even if we did make them swim 1000 yards using a snorkel and carrying a brick before every dive class.

*The same guy who certified Janet after she passed the course with flying colors — under her maiden name.


Yesterday we had an encounter with Mermaid’s and a Merman. Both made for a great day.


The Mermaid’s is a reef in Pond Bay a half mile due north of us that requires just under a two mile dinghy trip to reach. We headed that way at mid-day to have the best light. Rounding Outer Point Cay we found the breeze had raised wavelets we could easily punch through, and boats had raised wakes that dumped about three gallons of water over the bow by the time we reached the reef.

It’s a small place, maybe an acre of distributed coral heads five to fifteen feet across. It is populated by a surprisingly diverse community of fish (and we think at least one lobster). The Parrotish were the most striking. A few were a powder blue it was hard to pull one’s eyes from. Some were dark green with a repeating pattern of white scales and a dark red tail. Others were a jumble of pastels. We saw a cleaning station where the parrotfish would tail-stand and allow wrasses to come out and nip parasites from them.*

We saw Cubera Snapper at least two feet long. We were  followed by a school of small ballyhoo almost the entire time. There were surgeon fish, eyespot, tiny  angelfish, striped grunt, several kinds of juveniles. It was a swim in a friendly aquarium. After 45 minutes we were getting a bit chilled even in our black lycra suits (they aren’t wet suits).

When we went to board the dinghy we discovered we had over-estimated our strength and under-estimated the freeboard. So Janet took a line, and I took another and we swam the dinghy to near the beach and clear sand and boarded it there. It was something we discussed before we went in the water, but this plan B was not the best way to get things done. We are now evaluating ladders for the dink. The trip back was downwind, and in Marsh Harbour it was only splashy when we hit a wake, but Marsh Harbour water isn’t something one really wants to be splashed with.

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As we buzzed our way back into the marina after circling the harbour margins to scope things out, we saw Brown Tip motoring into our marina. Right after we got aboard the boat, I walked to the slip where he had tied off to clean a boat bottom. I just missed catching his attention before he went into the water. I went back to the boat to clean up after the outing — SCUBA VU — the smell of salty dive gear I guess — and to listen for his hookah compressor to stop. When it did I walked back over and negotiated a rate with him to do ours later or the next day. Less than an hour later he was astern and headed into the water. He was finished in about a half hour and the boat looked great. He said only the prop shaft zinc was beginning to waste. But that’s what the zinc we hang over the side is for. We’ll change the shaft zinc in June.

When I negotiated the price ($2-3 a foot depending on effort required) he mentioned he would likely miss a performance he was scheduled to give. When I went to pay him, I asked him if he had missed his gig. He said he had and this lead to a discussion of the music business in Abaco and the degree to which bar and restaurant owners play performers off against each other to drive prices down — substitutes frequently turn into replacements at a lower price. This lead to a conversation of how the Bahamas were changing. This lead to a conversation about Aklins Island where he rode a horse on his family’s farm and fed the chickens, goats, and hogs (I can relate to the goat part, having worked on a goat farm). Janet could relate to the rest having a grandfather who was the county agricultural agent and had a large farm in East Texas. And that lead to Brown Tip (Matheson Cooper) signing us songs he is developing for a DVD and that lead to a drumming demonstration on the dinghy’s inflated hull. And we promised to send him any pictures we had of his performances and boat cleaning. It was a delightful conversation, and we hope his singing and Rake ‘n Scrape will get him out of the water here soon. It’s not something one wants to swim in.

*Photos from “Reefguide.org” Next trip we will replace our long-loved Nikonos dive camera with something digital.