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Sep 19, 2013

Episode 176: Scratching around in the dark with John Chatterton

Doing the Advanced Wreck Penetration Course with diving legend John Chatterton, in the cold waters off the coast of New Jersey... not your everyday SCUBA training.
Photos by Pete Bucknell and Mike Rothschild

2012: I bumped into a tall dark stranger with a cheeky look in his eye on the gangway of a dive boat in New Jersey. I had no idea what John Chatterton looked like, or how well known and highly regarded he was. No possibility of being struck down by the man's reputation if you don't know when he's standing right in front of you.

He was conducting his advanced shipwreck penetration class from the boat that I was about to dive from, so I ended up spending the day in his vicinity. At the end of the day while filling tanks I found myself telling him the most off-color stories I had in my repertoire of off-color material. He passed the test by not being shocked, but amused. I could be myself around this guy.

A year later, one of my dive buddies called and asked me if I was curious about actually taking Chatterton's course this time around.
Class began a Month later.
as the silt, angered by our scraping fins, brought the visibility in the stairwell to zero, I let my camera rig drop to the deck as I began to undo the penetration line
Navigating a wreck
Chatterton took the class through the anatomy of a solo dive on the Andrea Doria (wiki) as his old log books were passed around. He talked about the multi-pronged approach to navigating inside a wreck, which, unlike an underwater cave system, needs more than just a line in to follow out again. Flashing strobes left along the way, the general direction of a compass needle can work, architecture etcetera.
Dive Boat the John Jack

Before the sun came up, the clank of tanks being brought aboard the dive boat woke us. Today we'd be training at 80 - 100 feet on the wreck of the Algol.
There wasn't much chatter on the way to the site, but on arrival the days exercises were laid out:
Dive 1: Basic drills at 80 feet on the deck of the wreck which lay upright:
-Deploy and stow each piece of gear (both lights, both knives, both reels, both bags etc.)
-Follow a penetration line into and through the wreck with your buddy.
-Repeat, but with a blackout mask (so you are blind) simulating a silt-out.
-Repeat, but your buddy is also now out of air and must breath from your tank too.
The Author in full rig
You get the picture... running lines from reels of nylon, avoiding entanglement, not getting lost... Good fun scary stuff if you haven't done it before.
The Author:Reel Practice
Five dives later, we'd covered the course requirements and then some, and we'd become acquainted with some ideas and skills that we all vowed to ourselves that we would improve upon.

Dive 6 was a 'try out your new skills' dive. My buddy and I tackled a second deck penetration which involved a flight of stairs. I was sent up the stairs first by my buddy, as I had my video camera and he wanted me to be able to shoot before the visibility went to shit. The reel was tied off to the base of the stairs and left there as I headed up, knocking loose rust and silt, clouding the way back.

It was time to turn, so with a couple of shots in the camera, headed gingerly back down the stairs into the blackness. The silt, angered by our scraping fins, brought the visibility in the stairwell to zero, I let my camera rig drop to the deck as I began to undo the penetration line. Time and air ticked down slowly. 
After what seemed like 5 minutes, but was probably only 15 seconds, I had the reel winding in the line to the exit, where I handed it back to my buddy. He struggled with undoing the primary tie-off so we cut it and headed up the mooring line, where we spent some time with our teacher and the video camera, before a boat ride to Jersey. 

An intense weekend, and I will likely never forget it.



Mats Stahlkrantz, John Chatterton, Peter Bucknell and Mike Rothschild .......... in blackout masks


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