Raised in an evangelical household, I heard this phrase repeatedly while growing up. To put it more plainly, when in a life threatening situation, everyone resorts to prayer. It is their contention that everyone believes in god in the last moments of his or her life.
In my personal journey from my evangelical upbringing to my current status of born again agnostic, I have never experienced a life threatening experience until today. Today, without any advance planning on my part, I had an opportunity to put this theory to the test.
I do not lead a sheltered life. I, and two of our daughters and their husbands, recently climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. Irene and I travel to dive in some of the most incredible reefs in the world. Put simply, I live a life that challenges me beyond what few ever dare. Diving has always been a relaxing and fascinating part of our lives. Fortunately, most of our children are eager to join me on these adventures.
Today’s dive was a tourist dive in Looe Key, in the Florida Keys. Irene and I have spent winters here for the past six years and it always includes a beautiful dive here two or three times for each visit. The water is clear, the dive is very safe with a maximum depth of 20-30 ft. and there are still some wonderful corals, a great variety of fishes, lots of Barracuda, a variety of sharks, and often some Sea Turtles. This, to me, is an ideal dive. Today was different.
As a single diver, I was paired up with another single, a lovely woman from Iowa, named Mona. Mona let me know that she initially may have an anxiety issue, which is common upon first entry into the ocean. We talked about a gradual acclimation to the water, and a very slow pace to observe as much on these reefs as possible in our short time in the water.
She also told me that she is very good about conserving oxygen. Very good to know as I am moderate in that category, meaning that I will most likely need to surface before she does.
About 25 minutes into the dive, approximately halfway from normal oxygen use, Mona let me know that she had lost one of her weights, which meant that she wasn’t able to descend. However, she had plenty of oxygen and we were quite a distance from the boat. She said she would stay on the surface while I dove beneath her as we worked our way back to the boat. I checked my oxygen levels on my dive computer which indicated a level over 1700, well above the warning level of 600.
The sound of exhaling while diving is very relaxing. Easy breath in, releasing a stream of bubbles out and watching them float to the surface is awesome. As I watched a couple of blue parrot fish feed on the bottom I heard a large bubble release from behind me. I knew that Mona was slightly behind and on the surface and I assumed she was adjusting her buoyancy compensator, or BC. My fascination with the beautiful fish distracted me enough to continue.
I immediately caught a glimpse of a shark to my left, and my instinct told me to follow this amazing creature. Sharks and turtles are my weakness – I need to follow them. This time, it nearly cost me.
As I turned to follow the shark, I began to realize I was not drawing oxygen in through my regulator. There was nothing. I looked at my wrist dive computer and it was flashing a message: “failure.” I didn’t have time to ask what was failing, and acted immediately.
Fortunately, I was very near the surface, fewer than twenty feet. I swam to the surface and took in a welcomed inhalation of oxygen. My first instinct was to try to inflate my BC vest, however, there was no response. The oxygen tank, which supplied my oxygen to breathe, was also the tank that filled my vest to allow me to float on the surface. It was empty. I was now over two hundred yards from the boat into the strong current, with a steel tank on my back, weights in my vest, and four foot waves crashing into me as I explained the situation to my dive partner Mona. Mona was great; she immediately understood the situation and we both decided to swim as fast as possible back to the boat. I immediately regretted the decision to leave my snorkel back on the boat, it could have made this process much easier.
I began kicking as hard as I could while trying to keep my head above water with the waves and current fighting me. I sensed that I was losing this battle, as the effort to keep my head above water was equal to the energy used to try to propel myself forward. The downside to losing 15 lbs and building more body muscle for the Kili climb was that I was much less buoyant than before, which was not helping at this time. At this point, my training kicked in. The best option is to immediately let go of your weight pockets. I fill my pockets with 14 lbs. of weight to make me sink in the salt water with a full tank of oxygen. These weight pockets are relatively expensive, but I had no problem letting them go. A note to the diver that finds them, “You’re welcome.”
I continued to kick as hard as possible as I inched back toward the boat, but I began to realize that making it back to the boat was an incredible challenge with my current status. I was nearly exhausted, my legs were starting to cramp and I still at least a hundred yards to get to the boat.
Mona began to yell for help and I was giving the distress diver signal during my pauses from swimming. Even with all of these obstacles I was still swimming much faster that she was and even with her arriving to help, I’m not sure how much she would have helped my cause. Her yelling did bring about the desired response and I thank her for this.
I was ready to jettison my BC vest, which I had relied on for many dives, and the tank to make me much more buoyant, when a crewmember arrived with a flotation device to help me get back to the boat. Arriving at the boat, the rather simple task of taking off my fins became a challenge as I was literally drained.
For a period of about 25 minutes, drowning was a very real possibility. I thought about many things during this time.
First, I thought about what I had to live for. Irene was foremost in my mind. I couldn’t stand the thought of being without her for one moment, let alone forever. I could not quit. She is the driving force in my life, and I love it. Even as I write this, my body aches from the strain I have put on my back, stomach, arms and legs to get back to the boat, back to Irene.
Secondly, I thought about my training. Charles Larsen, you taught me well. I went through the checkpoints you taught me, and it saved my life.
As I relaxed in the pool at our rental home in Summerland Key, it struck me. As an agnostic, or as I like to say, Born Again Agnostic, I never pray. Here I was, clearly not facing bullets from enemy fire but facing the very real possibility of drowning, prayer was never on my mind.
Sorry Pastor Demorest, you were wrong again. For those of you who pray, I understand that it may bring you comfort and solace. As for me, I’ll continue to revert to knowledge, training and determination with a goal.