Fifty-five feet beneath the surface of the St. Lawrence River, the wreck of The Robert Gaskin looms into being like a nebulous shadow. Twenty feet off the bow, it’s no more than a dark mass wavering to life in the wash of current. As we follow the mooring line ever closer, it solidifies—forlorn, but not forgotten. Larger than a grown man, its anchor angles away from the prow like an iron finger pointing toward shore. Her hold gapes like an invitation, as it has for the last 133 years. The hull trails off down the shoal—113 feet long—into the dark of the river. It’s one of the greatest sights I have ever experienced.
And I owe it all to Mike.
We swim alongside the iron-masted barge on the leeward edge, protected from the current. Next to us the wooden planking appears like a lizard’s skin—horny where it has worn back from the knots, and clustered with zebra mussels. Mike appears to be levitating ahead of me, his hands calmly crossed beneath his chest, parallel to the river bottom. From somewhere unidentifiable the thrum of a passing tanker echoes around us.
At one time in its brief history as a sailing vessel, the Gaskin ran grain and stone between Prescott, Ontario and the Great Lake port of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But less than a decade into her service she ran aground on a shoal and sank. We enter her stern, which lies in just over 60 feet of water, by way of a hole smashed through her hull. Small bit of debris flow past us. Visibility is much better on the inside. Light enters uninterrupted through the collapsed decking. The floor is littered with timber, a collection of steel drums. Mike points to things we’ll discuss later. Gives me the okay sign, which I return. He asks about my air consumption. I show him on my fingers. Halfway up the innards of the ship, we exit for a chance to swim across a more intact area of the deck. The current hits me in the chest. We frog kick our way along and re-enter, descending into the bow.
After the Gaskin was salvaged and returned to usage as a barge, she was called upon to rescue the William Armstrong ferry which, itself, had sunk less than 2500 meters from the Brockville Pier in 1889. Using steam filled pontoons, installed by divers, the crew of the Gaskin attempted to raise the Armstrong. When one of the pontoons slipped free, it surfaced like a torpedo and blasted a hole in the Gaskin so large, it sank immediately.
Our dive on the Gaskin lasts thirty-six minutes. That includes a 3-minute safety stop along the mooring line five meters below the surface. But what a thirty-six minutes.
Mike Fowler is as stoic British ex-pat with a sardonic sense of wit. He was also my diving instructor this past summer. Prior to our four days together in the water, it had been twenty years since he last taught the Open Water course. “I’d forgotten how much fun it was,” he tells me weeks later, near the end of September. We are talking over pints at Brockville’s Thousand Islands Brewery.
During that twenty-year hiatus, I guess you could say that Mike had bigger fish to fry.
Whether it be tutoring Rolex “Our World Under Water” Scholarship winners on the finer points of closed-circuit rebreathers or running the North American dealer and marketing operations for Silent Diving—a distributor of AP Rebreathers—Mike manages to fill the time. In fact, there are few recreational diving instructor certifications that he doesn’t hold: technical diving, mixed gases, cave diving, closed circuit rebreathing, decompression diving… In short, he’s the guy who trains trainers how to train.
So, why was he holding my hand in the Open Water course this past summer? He was helping out a friend, Helen, who runs the Dive Brockville Adventure Centre, a local diving shop.
In other words, I got lucky.
Mike joined the British Army 41 years ago and was posted to a regiment that had just returned from active service in Gibraltar. Among his new mates were a number of divers who told him stories about swimming with sharks and turtles. Having always been a natural swimmer, Mike took advantage of the military’s Adventurous Training program to explore the world of recreational diving, himself. During the mid to late 80s, the Army paid for Mike to receive his early certifications as part of that organization’s effort to broaden the skill set of its soldiers.
Since that time, Mike has spent the last twenty-eight years of his life in the diving industry. After over 3000 hours on rebreathers and more than 5000 dives, if you ask him about it, he’ll tell you, “Yeah. I dive a bit.”
When pressed on the issue, Mike says, “Cave diving is my go-to.” Even as he explored his first wrecks, he recalls looking for ways to get inside them and explore. “I still remember my first cave dive—which wasn’t a cave at all, really. It was a flooded asbestos mine. I can remember thinking as I was swimming down a corridor, ‘Wow. I am a long way from the surface.’” Cave diving—and overhead wreck diving—can be among the most dangerous underwater experiences. However, Mike is quick to point out, if you are taking all the right precautions, it can be more dangerous to cross the road than it is to undertake a 3000-foot cave penetration.
Among the thousands of dives Mike has performed over years, his favourite is The Britannic wreck he visited in 2006. The Britannic—sister ship to the famous Titanic—sunk in the Kea Channel off the coast of Greece in 1916. The luxury ship was requisitioned by the British Navy to act as a hospital vessel during the First World War and while on its way to pick up wounded soldiers, the craft struck a mine. It was Jacques Cousteau who later discovered the wreck in 1976. Lying 400 feet below the surface, The Britannic is a technical diver’s dream.
Other memorable moments include Mike’s trips to Ascension Island, where he first swam with reef sharks, and the Galapagos where the schools of hammerheads “were like an impenetrable wall.”
However, on the top of Mike’s bucket list is Chuuk Lagoon. “That’s the Japanese fleet’s version of Pearl Harbour,” says Mike. Chuuk Lagoon is in the Pacific Ocean, 1800 kilometers northeast of New Guinea and now part of the Federated States of Micronesia. Protected by a reef, the lagoon was once the main naval base for the South Pacific staging point of the Japanese Navy. During Operation Hailstone in 1944, and Operation Inmate in 1945, numerous Japanese warships were cornered and sunk there. “That’s where I’d like to go,” says Mike.
Knowing that only 1% of the world’s population has ever dived, I asked Mike how he might convince someone to take the plunge. He told me, “More people have gone to outer space than have explored the deepest areas of our planet. If you want to experience weightlessness, go diving. And breathing under water for the first time is mind-blowing.” I have to agree.
Speaking of breathing, through his experience and his work with Silent Diving, Mike has become a big proponent of CCR—or closed-circuit rebreathers. He tells me, “That 80cu/ft cylinder you used on the Gaskin might last 80 minutes at the surface. But go down 10 meters, and it will last only 40 minutes. Go down 20 meters, and you’ll get no more than 26 minutes…” The advantage of a close-circuit system is that the gas is recycled. “We breath in 20% oxygen but breathe out 17% of that. The rebreather filters out the 4% of carbon dioxide we also exhale and sends you back the oxygen only.” The small tank Mike used on our dives will last 600 minutes regardless of depth. Using a rebreather with Nitrox (mixed gases) is even more advantageous, as the rebreathing system will optimize gas levels at all depths, shortening decompression stops and surface intervals. “Today’s dive computers are designed to calculate all that,” says Mike, holding out his wrist.
Mike’s watch is the Garmin Descent MK2i. “It’s like taking a fitness tracker and a smart watch and combining it with a dive computer,” he says. “I charge it on my nightstand and otherwise it goes everywhere with me.” Unlike a traditional dive computer, the Garmin Descent runs a gamut of resources and capabilities for both in and out of the water. Of course, it connects with your phone and offers Smart Notifications. You can play music, plan workouts, plot trips and routes. It has the full range of ABC sensors—as well as a library of topographical maps—and it will also track your vitals, suggest animated workouts, and offer performance feedback when you are through. But where it really differentiates itself from other smart watches is in its dive capabilities. “It tracks single gas, multi-gas, CCR with air or with trimix. It handles dive planning. It has a log. It can show you tide tables in real time…navigation, maps…there is nothing on here it cannot track or provide,” says Mike. “It can also track air integration on up to five sensors. So as long as someone is within ten meters of me, I can keep tabs on the gas volume that they’ve got. As an instructor I could track up to four students at a time along with myself.”
The Garmin Descent MK2i is also astonishingly wearable—where most dive computers are most assuredly not. At 52mm in diameter and 52 mm lug to lug, the watch is big…but no bigger than a decent sized Flieger. It’s stainless steel and comes with a sapphire crystal. And even with all that functionality, it has a battery life of up to sixteen days on a single charge.
Prior to the age of dive computers and smart watches, Mike remembers diving with Casios and Citizens. In conjunction with an analog depth gauge and dive tables, he plotted out and executed those early dives the hard way. However, dive computers have become so ubiquitous within the industry that using dive tables has now become an optional module in the PADI Open Water course—rather than an essential skill.
For Mike, who could have settled anywhere in North America—or the world, for that matter—Brockville and the Thousand Islands region seemed as good a place as any…at least as far as the diving is concerned. “Here, in Brockville, most people do not know that just beneath the surface there are wrecks that look more or less as they did 145 years ago when they first sank,” says Mike. “The Robert Gaskin is tied to the history of Canada’s oldest railway tunnel [a premier tourist attraction in Brockville], as it came to be here while rescuing the Armstrong—which ferried railcars back and forth from the US.” He has explored many of the plentiful wrecks in the UK, “but they are more wreckage, broken pieces of rusty steel that resemble little of their historic past”
The St. Lawrence is unique in that the wrecks here lie in fresh water. The iron-base metals used in the construction of ships corrode much faster in salt water. However, many local wrecks are largely intact, like The Lillie Parsons, which lies upside down in only 50 feet of water. Or the Robert Gaskin described at length above. It should also be noted that the St. Lawrence River has no thermocline either, meaning that the temperature at the surface is more or less the same at the bottom. Visibility, most of the year, is also high.
During our conversation, Mike’s Garmin tells him that he will be teaching another class of divers this coming Saturday. I say, lucky students. My brief acquaintance with Mike has convinced me that I have learned from the best. Observing his serenity under water, but also his respect—for diving as a pursuit, for my education as his charge, and for the preservation of the wreck we were exploring—instilled me with confidence and gave me something to aspire to.
Of course, he unwittingly also gave me a shopping list…at the top of which is a decent dive computer.
About the author
Brent Robillard is a writer, educator, craftsman, and watch enthusiast. He is the author of four novels. You can follow him on Instagram.
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2 thoughts on “Other Watchy Bits: Meet Mike…and his Garmin Descent MK2i”
Wonderful read Robi,
Makes me wish I could Dive again… Chuuk Lagoon Sounds amazing… You have a real serious Master Diver as a Dive Partner, Mike has a massive amount of time under pressure…. 😂 Been waiting for these fantastic shots‼️
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So glad you like the article. Thanks for the kind words, Todd. I look forward to many more dive opportunities like this…photography, too.