By Zach Maxwell
For the Fort bend star
In the scuba diving world, having a buddy is priceless. A Richmond man’s story shows that having numerous buddies is even more valuable.
Kevin Smith was an offshore oil industry worker until a motorcycle accident left him with paraplegia. One of the passions he refused to part with in this life transition was recreational diving.
Enter the Dive Pirates Foundation. This group helps folks like Kevin – the disabled, injured military veterans – link up with dive instructors to get certified and get into the water. The otherworldly environment beneath the waves is a welcome respite.
So there’s one buddy; now bring in brothers Russell and Sigmund Potocki, scuba diver instructors who give of their time to help folks like Kevin. And the final link in the chain, Divetech Dolphin Travel, a Heights dive shop that offered time at its specialized indoor pool to get Kevin trained and ready for certification.
Smith recently met up with the brothers at Divetech for his final pool training session before obtaining his Open Water Certification earlier this month. The goal: Getting out of the wheelchair and into the reefs around Cayman Brac in June.
“These guys give of their time and talents and volunteer, make all of this accessible, and to me it’s just amazing,” Smith said. “I couldn’t say enough about them and what they do for veterans or people like myself. These guys here get all the credit for doing this.”
Divetech is considered a chapter of the Dive Pirates Foundation, a Houston area non-profit that provides gear, training, and a trip for people with mobile disabilities to enjoy the freedom of diving. It’s all part of what divers call their “Pirate Code” of looking out for each other.
“I did have a diving background and I’ve always enjoyed it. So after the accident, you’re not always aware of what you can and can’t do. You wouldn’t think that you’d be able to go do anything recreational,” he said. “You think, ‘It’s a drastic change, your life is over, things will never be the same.’ But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
This effort has numerous challenges specific to his paraplegic condition. The spinal injury Smith sustained left him with no use of his legs, no way to feel injuries below the injury (critical when falling into water with several pounds of gear strapped to your back) and limited diaphragm usage.
To get the wetsuit on, he has to rely on his upper body strength and his buddies. His dive buddies then help him with his tanks and flotation device, and easily roll him into the water. It was not so easy at a lake south of Houston, but Smith said he enjoyed facing the challenges on a platform beneath 20 feet of water – real world conditions similar to what he will encounter in the Caribbean.
“This is where it all starts, you have to get your certifications, you have to get comfortable. From there, there are no limitations.
“Once you’re in the water, then its effortless. You don’t even know (the equipment) is there. It’s surprisingly relaxing,” he said. “When you’re in the water, it all goes away.”
For more information about Dive Pirates, visit www.divepirates.org.