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.
I 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.
They 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.
We 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!)