Practice Makes Perfect
So long as I am living in Eugene, I have resigned myself to scuba diving in Woahink Lake: a quiet, green lake in Florence, Oregon. Woahink isn’t just the go-to dive spot for dive shop training courses, and UO scuba training, it’s also our back-up option for coastal dive sites that haven’t panned out for the day, and the local “rinse dive” hot spot. It is after all only a few miles from the ocean.
Today, unless you have something you need to practice, diving in Woahink can be pretty boring. Barring newts, there isn’t much life; viz (scuba speak for visibility) is not great: 0-6 feet; and where we dive you’re only going to get 3o feet deep max. Of course, if you’ve never dived Woahink before you’d probably find it good fun as over the years, a number of boats and other items have been placed in the lake. My friend and I aren’t sure whether it’s to scare new students (Mary 18, our local great white could do that to you), or to make diving more fun. Either way, that I can feel “bored” by a Woahink dive is testament to the progress one makes by simply logging more dives.
In August 2016, when I took my Open Water scuba certification with ESDS, Woahink terrified me. And though many people never seem to want to admit to that terrifying, almost claustrophobic awareness of being 30 feet underwater, the truth is, unless you’re completely devoid of feeling, or just an adrenaline junkie, you’re going to feel a little unhinged. It’s only natural and is partly to do with the fact that all of your training until then takes place in a swimming pool. A crystal clear swimming pool where the max depth is something like 12 feet. And it’s also partly due to the fact that visibility is just not good.
Woahink is one of two things: green, or brown. Not much inbetween. Ideally you want to keep it green.
I still remember my first Woahink Dive. Dropping down into cool, green water, struggling at first to get down, fins kicking up mud in every direction. And of course, ascending almost immediately because for whatever reason, I could not seem to equalize worth a damn. Although I don’t have problems equalizing today, those first few dives were really difficult. It always seemed to be the one ear that just refused to clear. Needless to say, half of my first dive was spent trying to equalize as I descended. Once we were all down, the next big challenge was staying off the bottom. Woahink is one of two things: green, or brown. Not much inbetween. Ideally you want to keep it green. For newbies trying to master buoyancy, this is often more than you can ask for, so, for most of the dive, Steph and I clung to our terribly patient instructor, grateful for the bright floodlight she carried. One of the things she had a real talent for was distracting us. She pointed out cool things, picked up rocks and shells and took us to see some of Woahink’s many attractions: a submarine, a couple of boats, Mary 18, a mini Clash concert and other assorted miscellany. This was a fantastic way to distract us and therefore to keep us calm, and eventually to get us to enjoy the dive.
In addition to the struggle I had with equalizing my ears, was clearing my mask, a skill that came naturally in the swimming pool, but that my brain seemed incapable of recalling in the lake. For most of my dive I had not realized how fogged up my mask had become, and so I got more and more stressed, thinking it was the lake’s visibility. When I finally cleared it and realized it was the mask and not the lake. I then had trouble keeping water out of it. Every time I cleared it and pressed it back to my face, water began seeping in. Part of this had do with it not sitting tight against my skin, but rather against part of my hood, and the other part had to do with breaking it in. New masks are notoriously troublesome and no amount of spit or defogging spray seemed to do the trick. It was only after my instructor mentioned Baby Shampoo that my problems vanished. That stuff is a miracle. If Johnsons knew we all used it as extensively as we do, they’d be making a killing in the diving world, with diver-branded baby shampoo.
When you’re doing your theory, they tell you a lot of things: “Swim slowly,” “Stay calm,” “Never hold your breath.” What they don’t tell you, is how you might feel to begin with, what that very first dive will do to the rational part of your mind, and how you can counteract it. For me, it was a constant mantra, “Stay calm. You cannot rush to the surface without injuring yourself, and you do not want to without your guide.” To this day I wish someone had taught me breathing techniques to begin with, and taught me more of the theory behind why you do everything slowly underwater. I’m one of those people that needs to understand the why behind something before I can appreciate the rule. I have mitigated this lack of technical teaching (PADI seems to want to make scuba diving seem super easy and so leaves much of this out) by reading voraciously.
Just after getting certified, I started reading Simon Pridmore’s “Scuba Confidential.” It’s a fantastic book and I’d honestly pair it with the Open Water course readings if it were up to me. Actually there are a few books I’d pair with the Open Water course, but then I guess no one would ever get certified as people don’t seem to enjoy reading these days… Anyway, Pridmore’s book is pretty good because it gives you a little more insight into some of the things they don’t talk about in class.
For Woahink though, the thing you really need to know is that yeah it’s green but it’s also super shallow and if you needed to do a controlled emergency ascent to the surface you could. Much of my recent diving in Woahink has been with my good friend Gilly Elor. Gilly was certified only a few years ago and is already a certified cave diver and a rebreather diver. Actually, she got into scuba diving because she considers herself, first and foremost, a dry caver. Naturally, there’s only so far you can go in a cave before you hit a sump. And, if you can’t dive that sump, you don’t get to continue exploring. In fact, as I speak Gilly is somewhere off in Mexico cave diving.
Before she was cave certified in Florida in March this year, she and I did a number of weekend practice dives in Woahink. Not only did she need to log more hours on her rebreather (a Revo) and sort out any problems, but she needed to practice various skills like switching to her bailout tanks in the event something goes wrong with her rebreather; running a reel; and ensuring her trim is good. I’m sure that I benefited much more from her presence in these sessions with her than she did from my presence. Watching her I learned a lot about diving in good form (I can now frog kick a little better), ensuring things are easy to reach during a dive, running a reel, staying out of the silt, and, most importantly, about the necessity of swimming slowly. For some divers, speed seems to be a point of pride. The truth is it should be the opposite. Diving should be slow.
Woahink really is a good place to practice skills, especially if you’re new to diving. And I learned the necessity of doing as much pretty quickly. A few months ago I did a dive with a few friends in a nearby altitude lake. Clear Lake is beautiful and rather than feeling like you’re diving in a lake, it feels as though you’re diving in a giant swimming pool. Although I’ve only done four dives there, each time I return, I’m eager to take photos. On this trip, one of my buddies had a GoPro with him. He gestured for me to stop and pose for a photo. Now, most of the underwater photos I have feature me looking somewhat like a turtle. I figured I could adapt this look by taking my regulator out of my mouth and smiling. The thing was, I left it out too long and when I shoved it back into my mouth, forgot that I needed to purge it. I swallowed a bunch of water and began choking. One of the DMs diving nearby stopped and looked worriedly at me. Fortunately, I remembered to purge at the last second, expelling the water and giving me a breath of fresh air. My heart hammered for the next few minutes and I berated myself for forgetting something so simple. As you can imagine, the only thing on my mind after that was practicing my open water skills. And where better to do that than in the shallows at Woahink. I practiced taking my reg out and putting it back in; I practiced switching to the spare reg on my BCD; and I practiced what to do if I lost a mask. Since then I’ve begun to see the merit in carrying spares like Gilly does–backup masks, backup knives, backup flashlights to even backup the backup flashlight!
If you’re a master at skills there are a couple of other things you can do in Woahink. First, practice your nav skills. The instructor I’ve taken most of my courses with over at ESDS has setup (or in his words, “re-instated”) a fantastic navigation course off of the West Boat Ramp entrance. I know because I had to do it in my Underwater Navigator specialty. If you need to practice counting fin kicks and using your compass to navigate, there are about eight wrecks or points of interest that you can find in that area alone. Look for laminated signage with details on the number of feet to the next POI and its degree heading. You should be able to find the start of the course by simply heading out straight from the shore.
If that doesn’t float your boat, why not do what I admit I spent a couple of dives doing: look out for newts. You can find them in the grassy areas. I’m still not convinced the ones I’ve seen nearer to the West Boat Ramp are the same as the ones I’ve seen in the area the Instructors typically dive from–the typical brown and orange newts you see in Oregon. They’re different colors and the one has a much more fish-like tail and different head shape. That said, I’m happy to be proved wrong.
So, while Woahink may quickly get boring, it’s a fantastic place to go to retain your skills or find newts. Take your pick.