Worlds and Worlds

Last year I dove for a week on a live-aboard dive boat, the Caribbean Explorer. She's big and sleek, out of St. Maarten in the Netherlands Antilles, set up for luxurious diving with compressors, diving stations and a superb crew. She runs at night from dive site to dive site while the divers sleep. You eat, dive, off-gas on the sundeck, and dive again. Capitol Divers, my raffish semi-cowboy dive club out of Washington, had chartered the beast in her entirety. They're experienced, rowdy, bull-headed, addicted to outrageous practical jokes (but that's another story) and splendid company.

My motives were an assignment from Soldier of Fortune, for which I am the scuba editor, and a desire to spice up the column with far places and exotic climes. Maybe more the latter. Every time I go anywhere off the main roads of existence, readers want to know what's out there. Many seem quietly unhappy with their lives and looking for escape. Even in a rattle-trap web column. It's, if not quite sad, then poignant.

On my return I found myself talking about diving to a group of Washingtonians, nice people but sedentary by the nature of their jobs. I told them about the islands, where life is slow and hot and dominated by the ocean and people usually don't have a lot of money or much of a career, but don't seem to care.

A faraway look came into their eyes, not so much envy as longing. Gosh, they said, some of them, I've always wanted to do something like that, but . . . well, I got married, the kids came, responsibilities. They seemed to feel trapped, to suspect that a train had pulled out that maybe they didn't want to be aboard, that life somehow had promised more than it was delivering. Some of this is to be expected. Some, I think, comes from a sense of the emptiness of the remote suburbs that dominate America now.

The particulars of the undesired train differ. Many had just followed the crowd. They got out of school, took a job thinking it was just for a while, moved into a huge mortgage they found they didn't much like, bought two cars that bored them and got trapped by the retirement system. Others, less attractive, were ambitious, worked eighty hour weeks to make partner, dressing in K-Street fatigues from Brooks Brothers to claw their way onto a pinnacle that, when arrived at, seemed more a depression.

There are pinnacles and pinnacles. You have to decide which ones you want. There's a doozy in the waters somewhere off St. Maarten. I encountered it one morning somewhere off Statia, if memory serves. Everyone geared up and went overboard. The water was warm, endlessly blue, a delight. A giant stride off the dive deck, a profusion of bubbles, and you float like thistledown in another place entirely. I never get tired of it. I hung on the mooring line at fifteen feet and waited. The other divers exploded from above and buddied up. We started down.

Near 90 feet, where light begins to fail and the sea becomes chalky blue in the distance, we found the top of The Finger (I called it), an enormous rock spire dropping way deep and having no discernible reason for existence. It was just there, encrusted in the twisted growths that look grey and brown in the dying color of beginning depth.

I stayed above 110 feet to save bottom time and just drifted around the thing. I wondered why I didn't live in the islands, do this whenever I wanted. A lot of people wonder, and some of them could. A few small sharks swam by, lithe creatures of a line more ancient than ours. They were curious about the bubbling hunchbacked apparitions with huge feet but do not regard divers as being in their food chain. In the gangrenous tangle covering the spire, in cups of barrel sponges, wee crabs squatted, little mechanical monsters waving pincers.

It beat making partner.

The islands are as much an attitude as a place. The crew of the Caribbean Explorer were expats and about par for the time and place: A Canadian gal who served as hostess, dive guide, and chief underwater videoman, her French boyfriend, a South African if memory serves, and such like. They were good people-which is also par for the islands. Folk who work with their hands, who deal with the sea and with boats and with the things in the sea have something that people don't who spend their time lying, maneuvering, stroking, and backstabbing.

Back home, as Washington then was, I'd talk about the islanders and get the response: Americans could imagine themselves living on a boat, driving into the dawn with people assembling BCs and regulators on deck, salt spray chill in the air, hearing the diesels pound--something that had some flavor, that reminded them of spring in high school. Not all: Some were happy with their lives and liked what they were doing. But so many didn't. They were just waiting.

It is a mistake to think that boatmen are crude roustabouts. You don't drive a large boat with sixteen divers far from land without being very good with boats, very good at diving, and very good at keeping a boat running. It is not the nature of boats to run. They want to break. People who can fix them, who can manage night dives without losing anyone, repair gear or invent expedients, have a self-confidence that obviates the need to be disagreeable. The pettiness of minor bureaucrats springs I think from knowledge of their innecessity and a consequent desire to push people around in the only exercise of power they will ever know.

Those worlds are out there-dive boats in the islands, cabins at Prudhoe Bay, bars in Phuket. Many of those in these places had jobs they hated in the States, got fed up, bailed out, and winged it. A friend of mine, once a high-end bond dealer, pulled over his Lexus somewhere in Massachusetts and thought, "Why the hell am I doing this?" He couldn't find an answer. He has a dive shop in Manzanillo now.

Back at St. Maarten, we gravitated to an open-sided restaurant boisterous with laughter and tropical shirts and people tanned by the sun to the color of a baseman's glove. Waiters raced about with trays of beer and fish. The afternoon light slanted in over the water. Very few there knew who the Majority Whip was. Fewer would have known what he was good for, except maybe bait.

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