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Tech Profile: Richard Kohler
For deep wreck diver Richard Kohler, failure is not an option. Joe Cocozza talks to a man on a mission – to make us better and safer divers
Richard Kohler is a tough-as-.nails New York wreck diver. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and is a Harley-Davidson-driving, classic-rock-listening, blue-collar guy of German/Italian heritage. As a young kid he would spend time on his Dad’s boat fishing in the Upper New York Bay. At nine years old he took his first scuba class and was hooked.
Rich’s passion for maritime history led him to dive some of the deepest and most dangerous shipwrecks in the world. This included multiple explorations on the Andrea Doria. But even with hundreds of deep wreck dives, it would be with the identification of an unknown German U-boat that Rich would make his mark in the tech dive community. It took six years, from the discovery of the unidentified U-boat 70 miles off the coast of New Jersey, to uncover evidence that conclusively identified the submarine as U-869. At 230ft deep (71m), in a nasty patch of water, the U-boat did not give up its secrets easily. Three divers died in the process.
Despite these losses and even after other divers had quit, Rich and his dive buddy John Chatterton continued to dive to the limits of scuba technology. In 1997, in a team effort with John Chatterton, John Yurga and Pat Rooney, the unidentified U-boat was conclusively identified as U-869. The details of the discovery and identification of the U-boat were documented in a two-hour film, Hitler’s Lost Sub.
It was this film that launched Rich and his dive buddy John Chatterton into careers as television stars and scuba celebrities. They hosted the History Channel series, Deep Sea Detectives, and their story was detailed in the New York Times best-selling book, Shadow Divers. The book is scheduled to be made into a major motion picture by 20th Century Fox, directed and produced by Peter Weir, scheduled for release in 2013.
Today Rich, 49, is a recognised expert on deep wreck diving and diver safety. In his long career in deep tech diving he has seen the evolution from deep air to trimix, and the improvement and reliability of rebreathers for deep diving. He has become an staunch advocate for diver safety.
Rich, we both cut our teeth in scuba by diving the rusting hulks of shipwrecks in the dark, green and cold waters of the New York Bight. Did you ever think that would lead you to be the host of TV show about diving shipwrecks?
RK: You know, it’s funny – when we look forward, we can’t really see our life path clearly and know what direction it is going. It is only when we look backward that we see all the crazy twists and turns that life has taken to get you to this place. After identifying that submarine, things moved forwards quickly and all of a sudden we [Rich and John Chatterton] were contacted by the development group at A&E Networks who said they saw the documentary Hitler’s Lost Sub and wanted to produce a TV show about shipwreck diving. At the same time, the book Shadow Divers was about to released. So we were given the opportunity to host the new TV show Deep Sea Detectives. Now, I was never a guy who liked theatre or drama, I did not even like public speaking. But I like diving. And I sure like it when someone else is willing to pay me to go diving. I had no idea about the TV biz, even so, the the show became a huge success.Over four seasons we did 56 episodes. We dove shipwrecks, airplane wrecks and even caves. I travelled, quite literally, around the world.
You even got cave certified.
RK: That is correct, I always wanted to get cave certified. But living and working [in the family glass business] in the New York Metro area. I only had so many days off – when I got the time, I went wreck diving. But now, all of a sudden, I was working full-time in diving and I wanted to become certified and advanced in every area of technical diving that I could.
In the New York wreck diving community, you used to have the reputation as a sort of tech-diving Luddite. You were never the first person to adopt new technologies. For example, I remember back in the day when you thought trimix was ‘voodoo gas’.
RK: In the beginning (the late 1980s) when we were diving Andrea Doria, those deep dives were made using deep-air. And at the same time that we were working on the U-boat, trimix came into vogue. Although it had been used in commercial and military diving, it had not been used in sport diving.
So you are right – I am slow for change. My attitude is 'if ain’t broke don’t fix it' and for years air kept me alive in deep water. I was reluctant to change. Over the years I have seen so many people in deep diving take something that was working, try to build a better mouse trap and then watch it blow up in their face. I am very happy to sit back and watch other people experiment, let them be the test pilot. And when I see that the technology works, that it is reliable, that it is dependable, that is when I adopt it for my diving.
Another thing, when it comes to new technology, I need to be able to grasp it before I dive it. Like the rebreather – it took me a long time to grasp how this thing reallyworked, so it was not this ‘mystery box’.Once I understood it and grasped it clearly, and I saw that manufacturing standards were in place, then I adopted the technology. Unlike my dive and business partner John Chatterton… I could tell you stories about his early rebreather dives…
Yeah, John loves beta-testing dive gear at extreme depths.
RK: Mr Chatterton thrives on being the first to try new stuff, to find a better way. Me, I don’t care if I am first over the finish line, I just want to finish. So I change very slowly and when I do, a lot of thought goes into it.
Well, eventually you did embrace rebreathers and became a rebreather instructor; in fact you were my rebreather instructor.
RK: Yes, I went from standing on a soapbox, pounding my fist in my hand, saying ‘I will never dive a CCR till it says ‘SEARS-Craftsman’ on the side’.
Now I am not only a CCR diver but a CCR instructor. And as an instructor, I feel that while people are now given these wonderful tools, there is a lot more potential for human error, and I get to pass on a message that I think is important – ‘Failure is not an option’.
Speaking of CCR dives, tell us about your deepest CCR dive.
RK: My deepest CCR dive was actually on a Russian rebreather. Not commonly available on the market. It is actually installed aboard the MIR submersible. I made two dives in the MIR submarine to 2.5 miles deep [3,786m] to the bottom of the Atlantic to dive the wreck of the Titanic. People have asked me what it's like, diving in a submersible. You know me and that I have always been a big fan of NASA. So putting on a Nomex suit with the American Flag on your left shoulder and your name embroidered across your chest, climbing down that aluminium ladder, having the crew pull the ladder out and seal the hatch. It so reminded me of the space program. In fact, it is inner space. So you are in a capsule where the outside alien environment is doing its best to kill you. But unlike diving, you were not wet.
Well you could have peed in your pants. There are no bathroom facilities onboard the MIR.
RK: No, you get a little bottle. However, you were not supposed to use it. According to our Russian MIR pilot, the measure of a man is if he can hold his pee for 11 hours.
Recently you spoke at Rebreather Forum 3. What was the title of your lecture?
RK: Failure is Not an Option – the importance of a pre-dive checklist. This is based on my personal mission as an educator in technical diving. And although my lecture was geared towards CCRs, the lessons are applicable to any kind of technical diving. The bottom line is that we have to educate new technical divers not to take this lightly. It is human error where 90 per cent of the problems occur. It is not that the equipment fails, we fail the equipment. Either we fail to maintain it, we fail to monitor it or to be trained properly on it. The equipment WORKS!
So on almost all of the tragic incidents that occur (and even the near misses) that cause almost always circles back to the operator. If we start looking at tech diving the way pilots look at flight, pilots don’t operate an aircraft until they go over the checklist. When in flight they have checklists for every contingency. And they follow that checklist religiously. When it comes to training, pilots have to qualify on different aircraft, take refresher courses, log air and simulator hours. We need to adopt these attitudes when it comes to tech diving.
So, my role as explorer and tech diving educator is first to live to the example and then to share my experiences. And I have made mistakes and I have had near misses. I try to learn from them and, hopefully, they can be lessons that others can learn from as well. The one thing we cannot make a mistake on is being responsible for ourselves and our equipment before we get in the water. And the best way to do that is with a pre-dive safety check.