Sunday, December 16, 2012

Revenge of the USS John Penn

The USS John Penn was an attack transport commissioned by the Navy on January 8, 1942.  On August 13, 1943 the ship was a cargo of ammunition to Guadalcanal when it was attacked by torpedo planes.  The crew was able to shoot one of the attacking planes out of the sky, which unfortunately crashed into the ship.  Following a secondary hit, the ship sank, taking with it 98 sailors and stevedores.  It now lies off the coast of Honiara in about 160 feet of water.  
And the old bastard almost claimed a few more a few weeks ago.  (Okay, that is a bit melodramatic – but this was about as close as I need to come to dying in a dive accident.)  It is a deep and at times technical dive.  I went out on a boat with a captain and four other dives, but no official guide (the other divers had done the wreck a few times before).  The first dive was incredible – crystal clear water and no current.  We can up doing the multi-stop required decompression – and got back on the boat totally pumped. 

And here is where we start doing dumb things.  The plan had been to go to another site – a much shallower site – to do the second dive.  But we were already here and the first dive had been so epic – how could we possibly leave without doing a second dive on the wreck?  But the tide would change soon – killing the viz and kicking up the current – so we cut our surface interval a bit shorter than would normally be recommended.  And the crap dive shop had given us two light filled tanks – despite me asking them (twice) if they had checked the air.  So as the lightest breather of the bunch – I got the lightest tank.  And we should have had tanks hanging to assist in the decompression – but we didn’t do that either (though we did bring a spare tank down).  In short – dumb.


But no one ever really gets hurt right?  So we go down.  And the worst happens.  We hit the wreck in almost no visibility and heavy current.  And we lose a diver.  What is worse is that the diver we lost was my friend, my dive buddy that I am supposed to be keeping an eye on, and the guy that I talked into doing the dive even though it was deep and possibly technical.  At that moment – hanging on the anchor line – forced to come up slowly to prevent the bends – I was officially the worst human being on the planet.  
So I skipped the last step in my decompression – a 55 minute at 3 meter stop – to alert the captain that we had a lost diver.  And then I pace around on deck for awhile until we spot him.  And then I am so relieved that I grab my mask and a buoy and start swimming Baywatch style over to make sure he isn’t dead.  Only once all of that is done and I am back on the boat do I realize that my hands are tingling.  That is an early symptom of decompression sickness (the bends).  So I jump back in the water to do an emergency in-water re-compression – which of course none of us know how to do correctly so we just wing it.  And then make an uncomfortable phone call to a dive doctor in Australia where I had to list off all the stupid things I had done in the previous two hours.  And then spent the night sucking oxygen with my dive mask on (to prevent me from breathing air).  And that last bit sounds terrible until I add that I still went to the dinner party to which I was invited – carrying my oxygen tank and sitting in the corner – taking breaks from the oxygen to eat babaghanoush.  

In short – I looked every bit the jackass that I felt.  But – like an 8 pm sitcom – I learned a valuable lesson.  Bad things do happen to dumb divers – and not to be an idiot in the future.  But I avoided the decompression chamber and still made my plane the next day back to DC – with basically no other symptoms of the bends.  That’s got to be worth something right?

I have added some of my wreck diving pictures here – even though most of them are from boats other than the John Penn (mostly Japanese transport ships as they were nice enough to crash closer to shore and in shallower water).  They are in black and white because they look better that way (you can never really get all the blue out of deep water pictures).  And the two that you don’t know what are are torpedo exit wounds. 

Feel free to leave comments saying I am an idiot – in today’s interconnected world, confessions are held public on the blogosphere. 


Anonymous said...

man, that was dumb. you're such an idiot! be safer next time.

Anonymous said...

Hey, we ALL make errors that we are sorry for. You made it out, so did he and, next time you will know that shit happens when you least expect it. You continue to be a wonderful woman.

Elin Grimes said...

Better work out all those kinks before you decide to teach Ada to scuba.

Kristen Himelein said...

Elin - it is too late for me to work out the kinks before I *decide* to teach Ada to scuba, but maybe I can get my act together before I actually start to teach her. If Tante Kris has her way, you will one day be the proud parent of a marine biologist.