A special note about Drysuits… Get one. The sooner the better. We have a short season here in the Northeast, get yourself a drysuit if you haven’t done so already and dive as much as possible. Save up, sell somethings on ebay, the sooner you invest in a drysuit, you will be mad at yourself for not doing it sooner. You can get a quality suit for under $1500.
So, you want to be a Wreck diver… Great! A Northeast wreck diver? Even better! The more divers interested in our local waters the better for everyone. Better for the dive boats, dive community, dive shops and instructors alike.
You got your Open water certification and your instructor couldn’t stop talking about diving the USS San Diego or the Oregon. Now you want to see what the fuss is all about it. You can’t just call up your local dive boat and hop right on the next trip, you are not ready for it just yet and most boats won’t or shouldn’t let a brand new diver on these trips just yet.
Make sure you got some dives under your belt after your Open water check out weekend. Preferably with an experienced buddy. May I suggest Ponquoque Bridge, Beach 8th street or the Bayville Barge for you first couple of dives? Get comfortable with just diving.
Make sure your buoyancy, weighting and finning are all in order. Also, 3 hours away from the dock on a pitching boat is not where you want to familiarize yourself with your own gear.
Once this is all squared away, get in touch with your instructor of choice. You need to do your due diligence here. You don’t have to go back to the same dive shop that certified you. It’s your life and the training you get at this point can either prepare you to enjoy this sport or merely survive it. Read reviews, ask for recommendations. Not all courses are created equal. Ask your potential instructor qualifying questions. When was their last wreck dive? Do they ever dive for fun? Are they doing the types of dives you want to be doing?
Your Advanced open water course should include a wreck dive. A real one. Dutch springs or any other local quarry is great for training and there is nothing wrong with getting a lot of dives there. But if you want to be a Northeast wreck diver you have to dive Northeast wrecks. I love diving the Helicopter as much as the next guy, (Though the surface swim sucks!) But it’s no substitution for the Iberia or Lizzy D.
Your AOW course should also discuss and you should physically practice diving with a pony bottle. Either a 19cf or 40cf Aluminum bottle. The former should be strapped to your main tank and the latter slung like a decompression bottle. Pony bottles are part of the Deep and wreck diver chapters in the PADI AOW Manual. So, insist that you are shown how to dive them in your courses. If your instructor refuses, or makes up some excuse that it’s not part of the course, move onto another instructor.
There is no such thing as a Pony bottle course or pony bottle diver certification, but you should get plenty of practice diving one with an instructor or mentor prior to using it on your pinnacle dives. You need to build up muscle memory and the confidence and trust in the bottle in order for it to be useful on a real dive, in a real emergency.
Your AOW course is done and you got your first two dives on the San Diego or the Lizzy D… Congrats! I told you it would be awesome. Now you want to see more of it? Great. You got your nitrox certification like I told you to do before? Great.
A quick word on tanks. At this stage in the game you don’t need the biggest tanks you can carry. Learn to do more with less. An aluminum 80 or a steel 100 can get you plenty of time on the wrecks if you learn to reduce your SAC/RMV rate. At this stage in the game you need to learn to relax in the water. Once your SAC is under control and you are starting to push the limits of the smaller tanks (That should keep you busy for awhile), then go bigger if need be, or go to doubles either side mounted or backmounted. Even a single LP120s or 130s are huge water heater tanks and a brand new diver may struggle ever becoming comfortable with them in the water keeping your SAC rate artificially high.
Just to prove my point, overfilling LP50s and diving them doubled provides 136cf of gas and is lighter, more manageable and trim better than a single 130.
Now you got a few dives under your belt, your SAC is good and you are extremely comfortable in the water and are ready for a new challenge.
The PADI Wreck diver course and Deep (as I think they should be taught together as they compliment each other very well and there isn’t a lot of good wrecks around here that are shallow) is an excellent BASIC Wreck diver course. Only if it’s taught by a good Wreck diver though. It can be an absolute waste of time and money or it can be as good as any basic cavern diver training course. You don’t have to penetrate the wreck during the course. But you should absolutely learn how to, even if you don’t plan to ever enter a wreck.
Your buoyancy should be superb after this course. You should have a solid anti-silting fin kick down cold. The helicopter turn and back kick should be well on their way to being mastered. You should learn to run a reel like the best of the cave explorers in Florida (I know this is a huge point of debate). SMB Deployments should be cake and you should leave the course with a great appreciation of the dangers present in wreck diving and some solid local diving knowledge.
If you take your entire Wreck diver and/or Deep diver course in Dutch Springs, you are getting cheated. Sadly, I see and hear about this happening all too often.
At this point you should just dive as much as possible. Maybe even the rescue diver course would be great at this time. At a certain point you might find yourself not getting the length of dives you want or maybe there is a wreck that is just out of the 130ft range that you absolutely want to visit. You will probably start considering taking technical diving courses.
Before taking an intro to tech or Advanced Nitrox/Deco-Procedures course or PADI Tec 40 – 50, Decide now what dive configuration do you want to do it in? Are you happy in back mount? Have you heard or seen sidemount being used on the boats and now you are really curious?
If Sidemount Diving has piqued your interest and you have weighed all the pros and cons and have decided that Sidemount is the best choice for you, learn to do it as early as possible in your diving career and well before taking or finishing your Tech training. Tech training has a lot to do with building and learning muscle memory and it’s better to develop it on the configuration you actually plan on using in your diving. What’s the point of spending tons of money on back mount gear just to take your Tec training to abandon it once you are done to learn sidemount?
Like with all training and things in life, you pay for what you get in Sidemount training. If you want to learn to sidemount dive off of the northeast wreck boats, don’t take your sidemount training in the tropics. There is a difference between learning and diving sidemount between Florida, Mexico, Europe and the Northeast. There are some amazing instructors in each of those regions, and I have personally taken courses with a few of them on my own sidemount cave diving, but they lack local knowledge and techniques that have been worked out by much trial and error here in our local waters by the very few Northeast sidemount divers.