June 13, 2012 - Mike's Top Ten: No. 1 - Where It Began

June 13, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

A Few Words First

      For those of you who have been following my blog series, Mike's Top 10 Dives, I have finally gotten around to finishing it up in this issue with my no. 1 most memorable dive. Some of you may have been thinking, it must be an exotic dive on one of the wrecks of Truk Lagoon or a deep dive on the SS President Coolidge or a encounter with a ferocious shark in North Carolina. The reality is the dive that takes the no. 1 position for me is muchmore modest than that.
     This dive takes me back to where it all started; my open water check out dive off the beaches of Riverhead, New York in the Long Island Sound. I did not know at the time what diving and the ocean would mean to me in the future. I only knew that I loved diving. At the age of 13 that was all that mattered. Life was simpler back then and I didn't analyze the experience; I just reveled in it. 
     Enjoy this piece and thank you again for following.
Happy Diving!
-Mike Gerken
"Open Water Check Out Dive" - Northville, Long Island, NY
Here I am posing for a shot after completing
my check out dives for my
open water certification. July, 1981.

     My parents, grandparents and their parents before them have been vacationing on the eastern shores of Long Island, known as the North Fork, since the 1920's. Back then, the region was dominated by sprawling farm communities specializing in growing potato's. The owners of these farms had built beach bungalows along the north shore adjacent to their farm land in a hamlet called, Northville. They would use these modest homes for their own personal use in the summer months and as rentals for those who would venture out to the country from New York City to escape the oppressive heat. My great grandparents were such people. Swimming, fishing, boating and sun bathing on the beach were all favorite past times for the entire extended family.

     My grandparents eventually purchased one of the beach houses in Northville and introduced this life style to my father and in turn introduced it to my mother and myself as well as my siblings. My most memorable times growing up were those spent at the Gerken beach house where, like my ancestors before me, I would explore the waters of the Long Island Sound. From sun up till sun down I could be mostly found in the water, afloat on top of the water or at the waters edge engaged in some activity such as fishing, boating, swimming, snorkeling, water skiing and much later on, SCUBA diving.
     At the age of thirteen, my parents decided to enroll me in a scuba course at the 7- Z's dive center in Riverhead, NY. Since I had been an avid free diver and snorkeler since before I could remember, Mom and Dad believed that dive training would be the next logical step for their son, the 'water rat'. I was a very lucky child to have parents that encouraged me to try new things and to keep me stimulated and active. I might not have appreciated this at the time, but as an adult I certainly reflect back on this with gratitude.

Setting up my gear for the big dive off the beach in Northville
with my instructor. July 1981.

     After arriving at the 7-Z's I remember the excitement of seeing the dive equipment hanging on the walls. Mind you, this dive shop was not like the flash operations you see today with the numerous selections of gear displayed on the custom made displays. Nearly everything was black and you had a choice of two masks and two styles of fins. Pink wetsuits were definitely not an option. 

     My folks enrolled me in the course and handed me the text book and set up the schedule. I was to come two nights per week for the next three weeks to do the training.

     I remember having a grand time with the in water training skills in the on site pool. Back then we were required to do skills that have been long banned from training schools. One such skill was a breath hold circuit under water. Wearing only a weight belt, mask and fins we would swim from one scuba unit to another along the bottom of the pool. At each station we would take a breath or two and then swim to the next station to repeat the process. This would go on for a few revolutions until we all mastered it. Another notorious skill was called the 'ditch & don'. Standing at the foot of the pool at the deep end we would toss all of our gear in to the pool in a pile 10 feet beneath us. Wearing nothing but our swim shorts we would jump in, free swim to the bottom and start donning the gear. First the regulator in the mouth, then the weight belt, then the dive tank and backpack, then the mask and fins and then the buoyancy compensation device (BCD). Once all was secure we would do a controlled ascent to the surface. If a dive school was to perform such a drill today their lawyers would flip out. At some point years later, 'ditch and don' was gone for liability reasons I'm sure.
Setting up the equipment as my father
takes a few snapshots.

     Mastering the in water skills had proven to be much easier than the classroom training. Most of the material was easy enough, but the physics and dive tables proved to be trying on me and required a little extra attention. My dive instructors were very nice guys who were patient and knowledgeable. They helped me through it all and got me to pass my written exam. All that was left now was the open water check out dives; the moment of truth.

     For reasons I cannot recall, I was unable to attend the check out dives with my class mates and had to set up a private session with one of my instructors whose name was Carl. Carl drove out to my family beach house and conducted my training dives right in front of my home. As luck would have it, the water was calm for many days creating clear water with visibility at least 15 feet or more (this is pretty good for the LI Sound). 
     We splayed out blankets on the rocks and sand and began to set our gear up. The regulators and pressure gauge in those days did not have an alternate air source, but they did have power inflators for the BC's. A depth gauge was also not required and dive computers were in their infancy if available even at all.
Instructor Carl and I wading into the water to start our training dives.

     Carl and I then proceeded to help each other in to our gear and wade out in to the flat calm water. After a short surface swim Carl, looked at me and flashed the ok sign with his thumb and forefinger. Once I ok'ed him in return he then pointed his thumb down indicating it was time to descend. Once we got down to the bottom about 15 feet down I noticed all the same things I had seen many times before while breath hold diving; crabs, small fish, seaweed and rocks etc. This time though I did not have to he surface for air. I now had more time to explore. 

    Carl then proceeded to run me through the skills required for my certification. Out of air drills, buoyancy and mask clearing skills being but a few of them. He was very thorough and at the end of each training session we would swim off and simply have some fun. We came across a large set of rocks at one point and spotted an enormous black fish or Tautog swimming in and out of the crags. I only stood tall at about 5 foot and change in those days so I can't say for sure how big 'enormous' really was. All I can say is it was exciting. We also saw a few crabs and schools of smaller fish as well.


Exiting the water with Carl after my first SCUBA dive.
Needless to say I was pretty excited. 

     Once the first dive was complete we exited the water where Carl said, "that was a big blackfish wasn't it!" I agreed enthusiastically and by my reaction many would have thought I just saw a great white shark. In those days it did not take much to excite me.  Carl and I then changed out our tanks and repeated the process over again with a new set of skills this time. 

     The second dive was every bit as good as the first but it all came a little easier. My father all the while stood on the beach taking photos and made a point to stay out of the way and let Carl do his job. 

     Once we completed my final dive, Carl simply said, "congratulations you did a great job". I'm not sure what I said in return but I know I probably had a grin that stretched from ear to ear and then some. My Dad at this point intervened in the whole process and offered Carl a cold beer back at the house. To this day the tradition of a diver drinking a cold beer after a dive lives on strong. As an adult today, I can vouch for this. After a cold one or two and some small talk, Carl excused himself, got in his van and drove away. I never saw him again after that, but the memory of the day lives on strong. 


My PADI Junior Open Water certification card.
And yes....I had hair then.


   That week my Mom took me to the grocery store and sat me in the photo booth to get my mug shot taken for my PADI Junior Open Water certification card. A card I carried around religiously in my wallet for years and which I still possess to this day. As a young boy, I cannot stress how exciting it was to participate in scuba diving and become a member of the club. I for sure felt like the coolest kid on the block.

    Ironically, I recall making only one or two dives on scuba after my certification until the age of 24. Factors such as finding a buddy, allocating the time and of course finding the funds all came in to play and kept me away from SCUBA. I did however continue to enjoy the water and went freediving and spearfishing regularly during the summer months.
Instructor Carl after successfully training a
13 year old kid how to scuba dive.

     Eventually, after completing college and experiencing the rat race of New York City for a few years, I decided it was time to return to the ocean and seek the solitude and peace that it once offered me. 7-Z's had long gone out of business and a new operation sprang up in its place. The Hampton Dive Center, owned and operated by Randy Randazzo, went on to become one of Long Island's best dive operators. I signed up for my Open Water course with Randy in my mid twenties and got back on track. Besides returning to diving for the joy of it, I had a bigger plan to set in motion; a new career in diving. It would take seven years before I would venture out on this new path on a full time basis, but that's a story for another time.

-Mike Gerken
While writing this short story I decided to try to track down my instructor who helped me on my way to become the dive pro that I am today. After a brief search on Facebook and an email sent to Carl, he got back to me indicating I found the right guy. I merely wanted to say thanks and to let him know what diving for me had become and what it meant to me. He wrote back indicating he was pleased to have been a part of the process and to thank me for bringing back good memories of his days as a dive instructor. If your reading this Carl, "Thanks again for introducing me to diving".



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