Sunday, June 5, 2011

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Me and my Mom...!!

By now most of you know that I've jumped out of a plane. Not only did I live, but I loved it so much I've done it two more times since then. Two major victories in the world of skydiving: living and becoming a repeat customer. 

I slept horribly the Friday night before our scheduled jump. Tossing, turning, trying to wrap my brain around jumping out of the open door of an airplane at about 17,500 feet and then free falling at 130 mph for one full minute. Forget about it. There is no preparation.

Saturday morning both my mom and I woke up early.

Our conversation went a little like this:
"Are you ready for this, mom?"
"Are you kidding me, I'm 73 years old. What do you think?" 
"As if this is the craziest thing you've ever done? Yeah right! Let's go!"
"You're right, you only live once!" 

We arrived at the Warren County Airport in Lebanon, Ohio around 8:30 AM. This particular municipal airport is quite familiar to me because it is owned by my brother and located in the vicinity of where I grew up in Maineville, Ohio. I've spent much time there but until this day I never had the nerve to venture over to the skydiving operation hangar: Skydive Warren County. By all accounts it was a perfect day to *gulp* jump. A small part of me wished it wasn't - an excuse to back out would have been ok with me at that moment. Winds were calm. Sun was bright. Flatlands and corn fields in the area were breathtaking. I was oddly comforted by how many people were there to skydive that day. Kind of like there was nothing out of the ordinary about doing this. It normalized it for me... slightly.

My brother, dad, and a few friends were there to witness our jump. We signed a gazillion liability forms, none of which I read. I thought they would freak me out further with their “In the event you plunge to your death we are not responsible,” clauses. We each met our respective professional skydiver tandem partner. Talk about getting to know and trust someone uber quickly, afterall, I was entrusting him with my life! The funniest thing... my mom's partner was nicknamed "Crash" - he was a character and a half - cracking all the wrong kind of jokes, such as, "Oh boy, I forgot to take my narcolepsy medication. Hope I don't fall asleep." Ha Ha. Thank goodness my mom is a kindred spirit and found the humor in it! At this point we were briefly instructed and suited up in these amazing blue flight suits.

Before we knew it, they called our names - it was time to make our way over to the take-off / landing site. I imagined it felt a little like walking the plank towards the inevitable. My mom and I waved our goodbyes to our onlookers as my mom and I gave each other a nervous smile. Here’s the thing. If I was so scared, why do it? Because my desire to jump exceeded the fear. Because in life, you have to keep living and sometimes that means doing things even when it makes your knees tremble and you think you can’t. That's when life really happens.

We boarded the plane - it didn't have any seats, but simply, padded benches on the floor. We buckled in, deafened by the roar of the engine. There were about 7 jumpers in our plane. I had been told you should jump first to minimize the fear, but my fear was already so maximized, I didn’t think it would matter. Not that we had a choice anyway.

Half Way Up
8,750 feet. My instructor, Kip, told me to sit on his lap so he could connect us together. He proceeded to vocalize his checks and re-checks in systematic fashion as he was pulling and tapping each harness. I kept telling myself that I needed to relinquish all doubt and put my total faith in this virtual stranger who had me attached to him. There was simply no room for questioning if I was going to make the jump. My heart was beating like a phonebook in a dryer. The door opened. 17,500 feet. Go time. People started jumping out. One after another. My mom and I looked at each other and gave one another the thumbs up. I watched my mom careen out of the plane first. I was so proud of her. Now it was my turn. We shimmied toward the *dreaded* open door of the plane. Kip told me to take a deep breath. Then another. He said it would only be scary exiting the plane (I doubted that). We were now on the edge, dangling over the earth below.

Jumping Out
This was the moment. Three seconds that simultaneously flew by and lasted a lifetime. As I heard and felt the cold, strong wind and stood looking out into openness that was only sky, I took a second to look down. “F***” is the only word that came to mind. Every molecule of my being felt it was wrong to jump from the safety of the plane. But, every part of me also knew I would do it. The photographer video-taping me climbed onto the outside of the plane (WTF?), waiting for us to jump. My instructor rocked us back and forth three times, then we dove out.

Tumbled was more like it.

The first five seconds were a sensation of falling. Think roller coaster or tower of doom. Plunging to the earth. Kip tapped me which was the signal to take my hands off of my harness at my chest and put them up, kind of like making the “Y” in the YMCA song, only not quite so high. No, I did not start singing our going through the moves. Although that would’ve been funny.

Suddenly, we were floating. Flying. Although we were moving at speeds faster than most cars are capable of going, there was no sense of falling. The noise from the wind was deafening as we fell. I remember looking at the photographer, just a few feet away and giving him the thumbs up. I remember looking down. I remember my eyes watering, despite the protective goggles. I remember the force of air entering my nose and filling up my cheeks, so much so that they seemed to be flapping (not a pretty sight on the video footage. LOL) I remember thinking that one minute felt like a very long time. I remember smiling. Wide. I remember being completely and totally present.

BAM! The chute opened and we were yanked upwards. Uncomfortably so. The photographer continued falling and I watched him disappear towards the earth. Kip maneuvered us in different directions so I could take in the view. He allowed me to take the controls. When one cord in one hand was pulled down and the cord in the opposite hand was raised we'd start spinning. The sensation of verdigo or butterflies in my stomach was overwhelming. When we would just let the wind carry us, it was so peaceful and eerily quiet - a moment in time feeling as if I was on top of the world. I cherished those minutes. As the ground was approaching I saw my mom land safely and smoothly. How great!? I was right behind her - legs up - sliding into "home base" on my bum. The biggest adrenaline rush I had ever experienced swept over me.   

The Verdict
Would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I recommend it to someone else? Check. I would go so far as to say it was life-changing in some ways. It was one of the most thrilling, exhilarating, and exciting things I've ever done. Sharing the experience with my mom made it especially memorable.

My advice: if you have even the slightest inkling that you want to skydive or do anything else that fills you with fear, do it. I promise it will only make your life richer and will instill within you a sense of "yes I can" about every aspect of your life. Skydiving might not be for everyone, but what is your "thing"?

Here's a quote that I found that I think is apropos and one that I love:
"The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing and becomes nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn and feel and change and grow and love and live." - Leo Buscaglia 

Saturday, June 4, 2011


scI watched with rapt attention as the diver from Stuart Cove's carefully opened the lid of the bait box, skewered a piece of raw fish onto the end of a hand spear and slowly held it above his head. Instantly, an eight-foot reef shark swung its head sideways, turned upwards, snatched up the bait, and then swam a short distance away to enjoy its morsel. Meanwhile, a dozen other sharks swam over, around us, and even bumped into us as we knelt, motionless on the sand, among the coral heads 50 feet below the surface. The sharks appeared to be maneuvering into a favorable position as they stalked the bait box, knowing that more food was on its way.
The Bahamian Tourist Office takes every opportunity to promote the country’s pleasant climate and beautiful clear waters. There is an extraordinarily diverse amount of marine species thriving amongst the coral, caverns, and blue holes. The diving possibilities are endless. Reef sharks are prohibited from being caught and harvested in United States waters. It is also forbidden to feed sharks in the waters off the coast of Florida, so you must go to the Caribbean to participate in scuba shark-feeding dives.
You can find a shark dive in many parts of the Bahamas; however, participating in Stuart Cove's shark feeding dive is the ultimate adventure! Stuart Cove's is located on the southwest side of New Providence Island. Stuart Cove landed a job as a stunt diver in the James Bond feature film For Your Eyes Only (1981). Subsequently, he bought his first dive boat and started his own dive business, which soon grew into one of the leading dive operations on New Providence Island. In 1983, Stuart and his partner, Michelle, became underwater film production coordinators on the island during the filming of another Bond movie, Never Say Never Again. He trained Sean Connery and Kim Bassinger as certified divers, so they could complete their roles in the film. Stuart also choreographed the underwater shark wrestling. Later, the site was part of the set location for the movie Flipper, and by 2003, it had become one of the leading dive centers of the entire Caribbean. I figured that if Stuart’s operation was good enough for James Bond, it was good enough for me, so we booked the shark-dive event for a Saturday morning in October of 2006. It was to be an adventure of a lifetime - albeit a short one-day event.
We arrived early at Stuart Cove's with eager anticipation and a good amount of butterflies in our stomachs. It was about a 45-minute ride out to the dive location - a flat sandy area called the Runway and Shark Arena - near the New Providence Wall and the Tongue of the Ocean.

The event was organized as a two-tank dive. The first dive was an exploratory dive  and "free swim" with the sharks along the magnificent wall at a depth of about 40 to 50 feet. No bait was exposed on this dive so there's time to relax and get used to seeing a few sharks in their environment. It also provided an opportunity to change our minds and return to the boat if swimming with the sharks suddenly seemed too intimidating. None of us opted out.

By the time we dropped anchor, donned the dive gear, and entered the water, sharks were already swimming around at a distance, waiting for an easy lunch. The arrival of the boat and the anchor hitting the bottom must have sounded like a dinner bell to the sharks in the area.
While changing tanks for the second dive, we received careful instructions to follow during the feed. It was important not to panic or make any sudden moves, to sit still on the sand with our hands and arms tucked close to our bodies, and to avoid waving our hands or touching the sharks as they swam past. A professional underwater cameraman was present to capture this memorable event on film. The internationally recognized “buddies” safety system was enforced. We were set! 
With tanks on and masks in place, we entered the water once again and formed a semicircle on the sandy bottom about 50 feet down. The feed took place at 11 a.m. every morning. Several sharks were already starting to gather in anticipation of the next feed. Soon the Stuart Cove feeder left the boat with the bait box and slowly drifted downwards to the center of the semicircle that we had formed. The sharks saw the bait box, knew exactly what it was all about, and immediately followed the feeder to the bottom. By then, plenty of sharks were on hand and they proceeded to swim closer, passing between us, over our heads and all around, several even bumping into us. I watched a couple members of our dive group struggle to get the correct negative buoyancy that would allow them to sit comfortably on the bottom, and hoped they would not provoke an attack with all their thrashing about.
The Caribbean Reef Shark (classification: Carcharhinus perezi) is not considered a threatened species and lives in abundance in the tropical western Atlantic and the Caribbean waters, from Florida to Brazil. Generally, they inhabit shallow waters near shore, cruising along the edge of a reef or continental shelf over deep water, feeding on rays, crabs, and other small fish. The reef shark has six very keen senses to detect its prey, including smell, sight, sound, taste, and electric pulses. They are also able to pick up low-frequency sound vibrations.
When the sharks were being baited they became quite bold and hyper, creating a feeding frenzy atmosphere. The Stuart Cove feeder carefully presented the bait on the end of a two-foot long stainless steel spear in order to keep the sharks a bit further away at the critical moment when they chomp the food. Each piece was small enough to be gulped easily in one bite. The feeder never removed more food from the bait box until the previous piece had been completely consumed and the sharks settled down while waiting for the next serving. That technique controlled the pace of the feed and kept everyone safe. When the energy level of the feed became excessive and the sharks became a bit unruly, the food was withheld until the situation calmed down. It was amazing, exhilarating non-stop action during the entire dive. At any given moment looking around to see 20 or more beautiful sea creatures within touching distance was a sight to behold. 
At one point during the dive, a shark peeled away from the group, flicked its tail slowly and headed straight toward me. Its beady eyes, chipped teeth, and diabolical smile succeeded in frightening me for an instant as it passed over my head like a silent submarine. As it turned and came back toward me, the photographer caught me and the shark in a perfect pose - I momentarily held my breath so the bubbles wouldn't obscure the view. 
At the end of the feed, all the sharks quickly disappeared as if to be excused from the dinner table. We remained at depth until they had gone and then explored the area to look for the sharks’ teeth that would often fall out and settle to the bottom. Only a couple of divers were lucky enough to find one. I wasn't one of them. Finally, our group surfaced, made the way back to the boat, and eventually back to shore. At the conclusion of each day's dives it became a tradition to find the nearest pub where we could enjoy a filling lunch and a cold, locally brewed beer over conversation about our latest adventure. 
The Bahamas offer some of the best shark encounters in the world today. Most are well organized; the waters are warm and crystal-clear, and there's plenty of action. The experience exceeded my expectations! I recommend it to anyone that's an adventure junkie and thrill-seeker, such as myself. Now, I hope my next shark encounter will entail cage diving with the Great Whites off the coast of South Africa! It's on my bucket list!

For more information on the Shark Adventure dive click here