The Pan-American Spearfishing Championship took place in Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina, a small oil town way down south where the penguins live. This year, Team USA consisted of Kevin Sakuda, Ryan Moore, and myself. Cameron Kirkconnell served as captain and Joe Fernandez as Delegate. Planning for this one was tough as it seemed like Kevin and I had just gotten back from the World Championships in Greece. Also, none of us were excited for the expected conditions. My competitions always start with a phone call to Warren Bird, the big cheese over at Hecs Aquatic. I needed a seven millimeter (mm) suit for the 55 degree water. I had only once before donned a five mm in New Zealand and immediately took it off in favor of being cold. I thought adjusting to the seven mm was going to be my biggest challenge but I was wrong.
Leaving from Kona it took me multiple days and countless flights to make it to the southern tip of the world. After leaving the airport, I was immediately bombarded by the wind. My hat was ripped off of my head and I ran across the parking lot chasing after it. Javier explained that these were good conditions. It was about noon but Javier asked if I wanted to go to the club. I thought it was a bit early but I was down for anything. Turned out the “club” was just their base of operations. It’s a marina/kitchen/boathouse type thing with the craziest launch ramp and the friendliest people. I picked out my boat and made arrangements to dive the next day. In typical Ryan Myers fashion I made zero reservations so Javier drove me around so I could scout out the cheapest hotel. After dropping my stuff off Javier took me out to my first Argentinian meal. The quality of the meats and Javier's hospitality was something that would be repeated nearly every night over the next two weeks.
Arriving in a new place, especially for a tournament, I usually pester anyone who will listen about the conditions, fish, and expectations for the winning catch. I take notes in my phone and just keep asking until they tell me to stop or walk away. Javier never stopped. From the moment we got there till the day we left we never felt like we were at an international level tournament, one that would decide who got to go to Portugal for Worlds the following year. Javier and the rest of the locals happily told us anything we wanted to know, took us diving, showed us the good spots and even gave us tips on how to modify our gear. I have only been to three of these international events but I can tell you that this wasn't how it was usually done.
Our first day offshore Ryan Moore and I tried to scout but really had no idea what to look for. It was difficult to communicate in the water or even to keep track of each other in the 25 kt winds. The winds there prevail from the west so the nearshore stuff is protected and for some reason this wind also brings in the clear water. After an hour or so in the tournament area we decided we needed to kill something to help get us in the zone. We ran south a bit and found refuge behind a large jetty. We each shot a few fish and started to get to know what 500 grams (the minimum size for this competition) looked like. We came in early with about 15 escrofolo and felt like kings. Day one was a success.
Over the next few days we started scouting more and got in the rhythm of diving and marking spots. At these tournaments a really complicated fish list is always included. Usually three to four groups of species, each with minimum weights and maximum bag limits. I've found it impossible to memorize them beforehand and I usually just show up and figure out what lives there. Oftentimes, 50% of the fish even the locals have never seen. In Argentina it was 99%. We quickly found out we were looking for two fish: the escrofolo and the sapo. There were one or two more that could show up but we never saw them. The escrofolo was super common and we were allowed ten. Everyone was expected to easily collect that group. The other fish, the sapo, a type of frogfish, was much trickier to find. The sapo lived DEEP inside of cracks. Like, 6-8 feet deep. We were looking for these long, horizontal cracks on the sides of big ledges that hopefully held a sapo. So every scouting day became a hunt for the sapo.
There were two tournament zones and after four days of hard diving Ryan Moore and I each had a couple sapos marked per zone. We were feeling pretty hot knowing we were there early and had put so much work in we would be tough to beat. The best sapo areas were shallow, 6-25 feet. Giant five foot high ledges, kelp and a strong surge made it really difficult to drag a line but it was the only way to accurately dive again on where we left off. We had a 30 foot line with a two pound weight on one side and a float and our GPS on the other. We both spent more time untangling this from kelp than actually diving. On the fourth day we were on a particularly great streak. I found a couple of sapos and Ryan did as well. We had also checked on some we found the days before and were pleased to see them right where we left them. It already felt like a long day when my watch read 160 dives but it was not about to be over soon. It was late, about seven o'clock, when I heard Ryan scream “WTF”.
I popped my head out of the water to see Ryan pointing to the rocks and our upside down boat and captain beside it. It took us both a second to understand what had happened but then we both started hauling ass that way. We each had quite a bit of time to think on that swim. My first thoughts were that we would be fine, the sandbar connected back to shore and we weren't in any immediate danger. Then, a mental checklist of everything that was in the boat. All of my important dive gear was on me except for my gun. Then I thought of my underwater camera set up which made me swim a lot faster. We got to the boat and quickly realized it couldn't be righted by us. We swam around collecting gear and were super stoked to find both of our GPS’s, a dry bag with my camera and Ryans phone, we even stepped on my gun in the surf and recovered that.
The sun was getting lower and oddly enough the tide was rising, rapidly. There are 16 foot tidal swings in Argentina. We were standing on a sandbar 3/4 of a mile offshore and we were dry. I was unconcerned. We made some calls on Ryan’s phone. In the time it took to make a few calls our feet were wet. We now understood the urgency as we looked at the 50 foot cliff faces that the waves would soon be crashing against. By the time we made it to the cliffs the water was up to our knees. We ran along the cliffs as far as we could before putting our gear back on to swim the rest of the way. The cavalry showed up just as the sun was setting and plans were made to retrieve the boat that night. Apparently the boat only had a five gallon gas can. After the can was exhausted, you refueled it with the smaller spare can. The explanation we got was that the captain misjudged the time it would take him to do this and the speed of the wind drift and before he could get the can connected again was blown into the breaking surf.
Comodoro Rivadavia is pretty quiet so news of our accident traveled fast. Unfortunately, the owner of the boat couldn’t drive during the week so one of the other guys was standing in as our boat captain. I'm not sure exactly how this would have gone down at home but I'm betting it would have been different from how they handled it here. Everyone really came together consoling the captain and they all agreed the club would do everything they could to repair the boat. All this while the poor guys boat was being dragged a mile over rough terrain upside down. We went in a convoy of three trucks at three am that morning after the tide had fallen to begin searching for the boat. We found it pushed against the cliff about a mile from where we left it. It was in bad shape. Tomorrow we would need a new boat.
We got back to diving again but the weather had changed. The wind shifted to out of the east and sent some pretty big swells. I was happy to have gotten a few days off but when we got back out there the 6-10 foot vis had gone to 6-10 inches. Everyone was pretty dismal about conditions for the tournament. The swell was expected to continue and even get worse for the Pan-American Championships. The whole game plan changed from sapo hunting to simply marking the exact holes for escrofolo. Expectations for the winning catch went from 15-20 fish to a fish or two. We kept at it searching for areas with at least a foot of vis. We tried deeper stuff but it was just completely black on the bottom.
Over the next few days the weather got worse which gave all of us a great excuse for more wine and BBQs. The Thursday night first official competition dinner was absolutely unbelievable. The club started roasting lambs early in the morning and had five of them and two sides of beef all roasting on a massive circular fire pit. That night we all feasted like kings. The mound of bones between Ryan and I was astounding. All week talk had been about nothing but the weather and what would happen if it stayed rough. Lots of ideas were thrown around and a few rules were changed to make it easier for someone to kill something. On Saturday morning everyone got together to discuss options. Lots of good ideas were floated but in the end the Navy shut down the port as the final blow for day one. Everyone went home and slept. The weather was supposed to be much better the next day. It wasn't. We knew it was bad when all the locals were taking pics of the waves crashing into the public pier. Everyone brought their gear and went to the club to await the announcement. Again, the Argentinian Navy showed up and the elders had a conference. Canceling the event was the right move. Conditions were downright unsafe. There was talk of diving from shore but even that would have been very risky.
The mood was incredibly somber that day everyone felt terrible for the Argentinian team who put countless hours into organizing everything. This was the first CMAS event that had been completely canceled in 60 years. After the announcement the drinking and cooking started again. There was much talk about creating land based competitions to solve the question of champion. In the end the best we could do was a very drunk soccer game. Luckily, before anyone was seriously hurt, Ryan Moore kicked the ball in the ocean and we all watched as the waves carried it out to sea.