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Underwater racers compete in Third Annual Vandenberg Grand Prix

(DiverWire) Happy Anniversary Vandenberg! The 3rd Annual Vandenberg Grand Prix proved to be an exuberant start to season three for Formula H2O and the Wreck Racing League. Each year race fever continues to build momentum. Pit crews emerged and have proven to be a valuable asset. Also, race teams are forming (hopefully a growing trend). At every competition, there were new participants who want to experience the thrill and past contenders circling back with a more competitive spirit than ever.

The Key West weekend started with engines revving at the Rum Barrel, where fans, sponsors and racers gathered Friday evening. After a warm welcome from owner Pat Croce, the crowd was treated to a presentation by Dr. Sally Bauer on the latest events at the History of Diving Museum. Everyone was in awe as Sally described a few of the early breathing helmets including what in creditable feats early pioneers endured in an effort to explore the ocean floor. She told us about the new research library and was happy to celebrate that the museum recently won Florida Monthly‘s 2011 Best of Florida Awards. The crowd was invited to make a pit stop at mile marker 83 on the way home, to see the fascinating exhibits for themselves. After the race, it would be a good way to break up the drive north, back to reality and the mainland.

On Saturday, participants gathered at Florida Keys Community College Lagoon. The morning was centered on training new racers for their DPV (Diver Propulsion Vehicle) certification as well as giving all divers an opportunity to test scooters made by different manufacturers. What’s more, the water time gave racers a chance to work kinks out by doing inspections and assessments of their own gear. Racer and Underwater Speed Record holder, Kelly Friend commented, “It’s important to invest time and energy to ensure everything is working correctly, connected properly, and the configuration is as streamline as possible with all safety measures taken into consideration.” The last thing a racer needs is a surprise on race day, like a loose safe second trailing behind and free-flowing as they move towards the finish line.

After the morning essentials were worked out, it was time to play. The lagoon is home to curious sea turtles, goliath groupers, horseshoe crabs, and various juvenile schooling fish. Novelty items have been place around the area to give research students objects to catalog and identify. There are standards like a sunken boat and large anchors, but also some more exotic entities such as a Key West Maxi-Taxi van and an old airplane prop. However, what was most impressive was swimming over 400 year old Atocha timbers, recovered from a 30’ by 20’ section of the ship’s lower hull structure. The timbers were discovered in 1986 after 15 years of searching by Mel Fisher’s Treasure Salvage group. They were preserved and then donated to FKCC’s Marine Archaeology program. What an unexpected Atocha experience that entices you to want to see more of the 1622 fleet!

As the diving wrapped up, excitement bubbled about the race the next day. Participants shared stories and bantered about jockeying for positions at the start line. Racers, fans, and sponsors gathered at the host dive shop, SEAduction Key West Dive Center for a scrumptious backyard-style BBQ in preparation for the following morning’s big event.

Come race day, competitors had their game face on. This is when practice and training pay off and, as with NASCAR, having a skilled pit crew is essential. They assist with last minute equipment issues, are an extra pair of hands and eyes during set up, a buddy to descend and ascend with, and someone to count on underwater. Boats were loaded, and then we headed six miles out to the Vandenberg, a 523’ vessel made into an artificial reef that sits in 140’ of water. Formula H2O officials dropped down first to set the race track around the upper deck structures in the 60’ to 70’ range. After both boat and race briefings, it was time to jump in and burn some air!

For the racer, your mind instantly begins to multi-task, making your way to the start/finish line, waiting for the buzzer, steering the race course, assessing visibility and current, watching for buoy markers, keeping a visual on the wreck while navigating turns, other racers, and staying out of prop wash all while counting laps, checking instruments, passing the camera trap and hoping the checkered flag was for you. Once the race is done, adrenaline subsides, the heart rate works back to the normal pace, the body falls into a relaxed comfort zone and it’s time to head back to the buoy line for a slow assent.

Like NASCAR, the unexpected can happen at anytime. The same is true for NASCOOTER. The race track is a volatile and exciting place. Racers can have unforeseen mechanical problems, go off course, get caught in marker lines, or have other situations that may disqualify them, like missing the camera trap. The racers don’t really know the outcome until WRL official’s surface to conference, and review video of racer performance to determine winners in each division. Congratulations to Rick Iossi for his second overall Grand Champion win riding an Apollo, I was lucky with another first place in Expedition B using a Pegasus Thruster and in an upset, new comer Pat Gaughan got first place in the Recreation Class using a Torpedo 2500.

What’s next? On your mark, get wet, go to Pompano. . . for the Gold Coast Underwater Grand Prix held June 15th-17th . If you are interested in joining us for an event-filled weekend plus a blast on the water, visit the Wreck Racing League website and check out the details. There’s an itemized section with tips for racers and a list of rules and regulations. Get some dive buddies, put together a pit crew, form a team, race against each other or in different divisions. If that doesn’t suit you, come out as a spectator and watch the battle for the finish line. What are you waiting for? Sea you on pit road.