Learning to dive, 1970 style

by B. N. Sullivan

From the moment I first put on a dive mask at the age of 10, I was hooked on seeing whatever there was to see under the surface of oceans and lakes. And from the time I knew there was such a thing as scuba diving, I wanted to learn how to do it. My chance to become a scuba diver came in 1970.

American Club, GreeceI was living in Greece at the time. In those days, most Americans living in Greece belonged to the American Club, a focal point for expat activities. The club was housed in a once majestic old hotel building in Kifissia, a suburb north of Athens. Among other amenities, its facilities included restaurants; a bar; a bookshop full of the latest American newspapers, magazines, and books; meeting rooms that were let out to members for various activities; and a very nice swimming pool. Every American I knew stopped by the American Club at least once a week for one reason or another.

One day in the spring of 1970, I dropped by the American Club and saw a hand-lettered notice on a bulletin board there. It advertised an upcoming scuba diving class. I couldn't believe my eyes. I was ecstatic!

The scuba diving classes were being offered by an organization called the Marathon Diving Club (MDC). The club was founded by a couple of American men who had learned to dive in the U.S. Navy. They started the club as a means of getting together a pool of potential dive buddies in the Athens area. The only trouble was, scuba diving was quite a new sport in those days, and there were few people about who had learned how to do it. So, hoping to recruit new divers into the fold, the club's founders decided to offer diver training classes.

U.S. Navy Diving Manual-1970They ran their first class in 1969. I was in the second class, in 1970. The basic classes were held in a meeting room at the American Club. The MDC instructors had learned to dive in the Navy, and since that is what they knew, we learned to dive the U.S. Navy way.

They put together their own syllabus, and taught us the basics of underwater physics, diver physiology, principles of diver safety, and dive gear maintenance. We had no text. Instead, our instructors gave us hand-outs that were excerpts from the U.S. Navy Diving Manual. (I subsequently ordered a copy of the manual from the U.S. Government Printing Office, and I still have it on my bookshelf -- all 668 pages, not counting the index!)

When we had learned all the theoretical bits to their satisfaction, and had passed our written tests, our instructors took us into the American Club swimming pool. There we would eventually learn basic practical skills and try the equipment, but not before the instructors were satisfied that we could 'handle ourselves' in the water.

We had to demonstrate that we could swim the length of the pool underwater, without coming up for a breath. We had to retrieve heavy objects from the bottom of the deep end of the pool, after having swum there underwater from the shallow end. We had to tread water for what seemed like hours - with no fins, and with hands above the head. Only then did we get to put on a mask and a scuba tank to see how that felt.

swimming poolWe learned how to clear water from our masks and our regulator mouthpieces. Then we did an exercise called "doff and don," in which we had to go into the pool in full scuba gear, swim to the bottom of the deep end, take off all the gear, put it in a neat pile, and swim back to the shallow end without it. That was the "doff" part. For the "don" part, we had to dive back down to the bottom of the deep end and put all of the gear back on, piece by piece, and swim back to the shallow end of the pool underwater with everything on correctly, masks cleared, and breathing through the scuba regulator. We did this exercise over and over and over.

When the instructors were satisfied that we knew how to use the equipment properly, they took us to Schinias Beach on the Marathon coast so that we could repeat the exercise in the sea. The spot they selected was about 30 ft deep, with a sandy bottom. We had to suit up on the beach, swim out to a marker, dive down to the bottom, remove all of our gear, pile it up on the sandy bottom, and make a free ascent to the surface. After a few breaths of fresh air on the surface, we had to free-dive 30 ft back down to the bottom, put all of our gear back on, and then make a controlled ascent to the surface.

For those who managed to survive the dreaded doff and don exercise in the Aegean Sea, the final phase of training consisted of diver harassment. Yes, that's right -- harassment. Remember, these instructors were Navy divers, so they taught us much like they had been taught themselves. Hey, if it was good enough for U.S. Navy divers, it was good enough for us!

As the students swam around underwater on their first dives, happy as all get out to be diving in the sea on scuba at last, the instructors would sneak up from behind and turn off a diver's air, or suddenly pull off his/her mask (and other such indignities). The rationale was that a diver had to be ready for any emergency or irregularity, and be able to solve the problem in place. We were supposed to be able to cope, without panicking. In short, we had to know how to rescue ourselves.

This brand of diver training was not for wimps, to be sure, but the upshot was that the MDC instructors turned out a lot of very competent -- and confident -- divers over the years. I did not realize how good my initial diver training had been until, years later, I undertook several more advanced training courses. For example, I remember noting that most of the emergency procedures and 'advanced' self-rescue principles that were taught during my Rescue Diver course were a mere review for me. I had been required to learn most of that in my initial course, so many years before.

Next, I'll begin telling our readers about some of the amazing adventures the members of the Marathon Diving Club had together, way back when. First, I'd like to say thanks to an old friend, "Big Jer," my first dive instructor. We chatted at length on the phone yesterday, reviewing how the MDC and its diver training course came to be. I wanted to be sure I had all the details right, before I set forth the story here for all the world to read. (By the way, Big Jer still dives!)

19 comments:

  1. This looks like so much fun and thanks for sharing your info on learning how to dive!

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  2. Great story, Bobbie.
    I can confirm what Bobbie says. I was in the diving class of 1971. By then it had moved to the US Navy Base on Nea Makri, Greece. That is located over the mountain from Kifissia and right on the water. We used the Base swimming pool for our training. The training hadn't changed. I just assumed everyone who was a diver had the same type of training...including the harrasment. That early training served me well when I continued PADI training when I returned to the US.
    When I went for my 'deep diver' training I realized I had already done all of what was required. 'Big Jer' had taken me on a dive to 110 feet on my second dive. I was tagging along while he went spear fishing.
    I do miss those days of diving in the Aegean.
    Keep up the good work, Bobbie.

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  3. Now, you got me hooked to your diver's stories!

    When I did my license as a swimming instructor on the Big Island, I was several times gasping for air. Can't imagine what you and all your student friends felt like when doing the 30ft free dive, not to mention the 'harassment' exercises with your diving teachers.

    Those would have scared me but as you say, it was probably a perfect practice for being prepared for the unexpected emergencies.

    Looking forward to your new exciting guest post on our 'Best Hawaii Vacation Blog'. Mahalo and aloha, Pua

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  4. @ Mon@rch - It really was fun -- and challenging -- but in the best possible ways.

    @ Sally - I forgot that your class had used the pool at the U.S. Navy station. I think that was because a certain high-ranking Naval officer had joined the Marathon Diving Club by then, and he arranged it.

    Like you, I had just assumed that all beginning divers were trained like we were. What a surprise to learn otherwise later on.

    Keep reading, Sally. Some of the pictures you unearthed for me have been scanned, and will be used in forthcoming stories.

    @ Pua - I do need to comment that when we did things like free dive to 30 ft, we were all young and frisky. I don't know if I could do it today, especially with no fins on my feet! I did write a new guest post for your Best Hawaii Vacation Blog, and as soon as I find the right two photos to go with it, I will email the works to you.

    Bobbie

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  5. That sounds brutal Bobbie, if I was only 10 years younger I might be able to do half that, this is great info I really enjoy your story !!

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  6. Hi Bernie -

    Nah, not brutal. Let's leave it at "rigorous." The training served me well over the years, and I've never regretted having learned to dive that way.

    Bobbie

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  7. Hi Bobbie - How lucky you are to have this love all through your life! Can't wait to hear more - sounds like you learned from the best - can't get any better than that!

    Kathy

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  8. Hi Kathy -

    Yes, I do feel fortunate to have had the ocean and diving as a big part of my life. I can't imagine not having had all these underwater experiences. And yes, the instruction we received through that club was superb. They really were the best instructors we ever could have hoped for.

    Bobbie

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  9. Hi Bobbie,
    I too learned to dive at the American Club, probably in 1968 or 69. But it was a simple dive from the side of the pool. The lifeguard picked my feet up, and there I went diving into the pool!
    I loved your photo as I spent many days of my childhood swimming in that pool. This brought back some fond memories! Thanks!
    Lisa Kelly
    www.youdontneedadiamond.com

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  10. Hi Lisa - Thanks very much for adding your own personal story about the American Club pool. I think it's safe to say that the American Club, the pool, and the little theater behind it all figure prominently in the memories of the ex-pat families who lived in the northern suburbs of Athens during that period.

    Bobbie

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  11. P.S. My sister, Julie, was a lifeguard at the American Club pool!

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  12. Enjoyed reading about your entry into the world of diving! It was at that pool at the American Club where this, then 6 year old, learned to swim.

    Thank you for your story-- and for the lovely photos! If you have more pics of the American Club (also the AYA (a.k.a. AYC), my family and I would love to see them.

    Cheers!

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  13. Wow! I bumped into this site by accident and the pictures just blew me away. Went to American Academy 60-62, spent all my free time between Yanni's and the AYA (American Youth Ass'n) and was a life guard at the pool. We use to rent BSA's for aboout $5 a day and race up and down the mountain behind the club too! So many memories.

    I've looked for the American Club on Google Earth but it seems to be facing the wrong way (too many trips to Yanni's I suppose Hah!). Does anyone remember the Greek name for the Club or the address?

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    1. http://www.greecetravel.com/matt-blog/2008-10-07.htm

      Here You can find info about the American Club.

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    2. http://www.greecetravel.com/matt-blog/2008-10-07.htm

      Here You can find information about the American Club.

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    3. Gus: Nice blog piece about returning to what had been the American Club in the early '70s. Thanks for posting it.

      Bobbie

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    4. Hi Bobby! I am searching for someone that was in Nea Makri Navy Base in 1973. I am investigating a C-141 aircrah that happened in Spain in 1973. Only one crew member survived. I found in the place of the accident a belt with a Diving Officer insignia and I would like to find the family of that person and try to give it back to them. I have contacted the Navigator that survived,unfortunately he didn´t know who the passengers were, just that were picked up in Athens. If You could help me I would appreciate it. I don´t know if Big Jer still alive but if he is maybe You could ask him if he remembers or heard about the accident. Thank You and sorry if I bothered You in any way. Gus

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    5. Sorry I don´t know how to send You a private email. The email was only for You. You don´t need to publish on your blog. If You could contact me to my email: gustavodomenech1976@hotmail.com I would appreciate that. If You can´t help it is ok. I have contacted other friends but still didn´t receive any reply. Kokua & Ohana, Gus.

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  14. It was an amazing post to read!! good job!! I have bookmarked your page and would love to visit it soon !! Keep writing!!

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We welcome your comments and invite your questions. Dialogue is a good thing!

Bobbie & Jerry