Regular Scuba H2O Adventures contributor James Lapenta has shared his column, “Basic Skills” with our readership for nearly two years, in addition to regular pieces throughout the magazine’s past iterations. An avid scuba explorer, teacher, and wordsmith, James has applied his experiences to multiple presentations, two books, and another, his first work of fiction, nearing completion. This is his story: from Mike Nelson devotee to scuba diver to instructor to writer.
Article by John Tapley; photos courtesy James Lapenta
James’s lifelong passion for scuba diving took root in his adolescence during the early ‘60s. Alongside his grandfather, James’s imagination explored Sea Hunt, the Undersea World, and National Geographic. These experiences largely shaped his devotion to all things ocean in later life.
“I had my first genuine mask, snorkel, and fin when I was about six years old,” he recalls. “My grandfather was ex-Navy and taught me to swim. I always loved the water – loved being under the water – and I always wanted to dive; but life happens and things go on.”
Forty years later, now a man with time and resources living in southwestern Pennsylvania, James reignited his interest in scuba diving. He engaged with a local dive center and shortly after enjoyed a cruise to tropical Cozumel. While snorkeling in this scuba mecca, he had an epiphany: to return to the dive shop and learn scuba. Upon his return, he discovered the dive shop had closed down. Undeterred, he continued his quest to become a scuba diver, and eventually discovered an area dive center that fit his needs. James earned his scuba certification in June of 2004 and joined his local dive community.
“You wouldn’t think of southwest Pennsylvania as any kind of diving mecca but there are a lot in this area,” he explains. “Everything from basic open water divers who dive on vacation to technical divers like myself – I dive shipwrecks so I explore the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence [Seaway]. We’ve actually got a fair number of cave divers in this area that go to Florida on a regular basis.”
Now certified, James continued his training and in two weeks earned his advanced certification, then followed it with courses in underwater navigation, and shipwreck diving. By the time summer of 2005 rolled around, James had earned his status as a divemaster and enjoyed the sport every other weekend. Over time this hobby became routine and he yearned for the next stage in his scuba journey.
“After around three years of being certified, I reached a point where we were diving so much, and I was doing so much as a divemaster, that I wasn’t diving for the fun and it stopped being fun,” he explains. “I almost quit.”
Per the suggestion of a friendly instructor, James started training for technical diving; the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie, became his school yard, and he performed around 70 dives there. Reinvigorated by technical diving and the support of his fellow area divers, James was invited to assist during an open water class.
“It was the first time I had seen an open water class taught, neutrally buoyant and horizontal from the very first pool session,” he says. “It rekindled my interest in teaching. I did a cross-over divemaster/assistant instructor with this shop, and was having a lot of fun. At one point, he asked me if I wanted to become an instructor, and if I wanted to go with NAUI or the YMCA.”
In May of 2008, James opted for YMCA Silver Instructor and took his exam three weeks afterwards. By then, he had helped certify around 70 divers, and applied his accumulated wisdom to the exam, which he passed with flying colors. Unfortunately, the YMCA canceled the YScuba program just a few months later. Soon after, he signed up for a cross-over into certification agency, Scuba Educators International (SEI), which was formed in response to the YScuba closing. Continuing his career as a scuba instructor, James crossed over to certification agency SDI/TDI in 2012.
“SDI/TDI would permit me to teach more of the courses my students were looking for, specifically sidemount, solo diving, and I was interested in becoming a technical instructor as well.”
James taught via SEI and SDI/TDI until 2016, then shifted his focus again: his motivation squarely on teaching.
“It just got to the point where I wasn’t doing a whole lot of open water stuff: I was doing more specialties, technical, and continuing education,” he explains. “It didn’t make sense to pay dues to two separate agencies. I went inactive with SEI and now exclusively teach with SDI/TDI.”
“I enjoy teaching. I enjoy exposing people to not what I consider a new activity but a new lifestyle. I’m different than some instructors I’ve met in that I’m not interested in putting as many people in the water as I can. I’m interested in putting people in the water who are safe, skilled, competent, eager to learn, and are looking for more than just another bucket list activity.
“I’ve turned away people who wanted me to teach a one or two-weekend class; or not put as much into the class as I normally do, over and above the standards because they don’t want to take that much time.”
James has focused on the scuba safety and risk management aspects of scuba training. In 2009, he was inspired by an accident in Grand Cayman, in which a diver lost his life. James rigorously researched the incident, and taught a tailor-made class to the victim’s entourage; he then subsequently produced an essay, “Who Is Responsible?”, in which he covered safety, accident analysis, and risk management.
“That’s what all scuba training is: from basic open water and on, it’s all risk management.” he says.
“Who Is Responsible?” was James’s first essay related to scuba, and it evoked his interest in professional presentation and writing.
“I got a very good response to the article, and as a result, I started getting asked to do small presentations on different aspects of training and safety at a local dive show in Columbus, Ohio: ScubaFest,” he says. “I developed a dozen presentations on different aspects of training and safety, and put those presentations into short articles and essays.”
James quickly began to compile his works into a comprehensive piece, “SCUBA: A Practical Guide for the New Diver”, which was put on hold following the passing of his wife in 2010.
“I started to write again and it was a therapy for me. I happened to meet another woman and we started dating, and she turned out to be a good writer and an editor. Over the next year or so we kept revising and working, and I ended up putting the first book out, with her help, completely self-published: even printed and bound locally. I was packing them up, putting them out, and selling them through word of mouth, message boards, and Facebook. It really took off.”
Today, the second edition of “SCUBA: A Practical Guide for the New Diver” can be found on Amazon, and has been enjoyed by readers from 45 countries around the world.
“The only continent I’m not on is Antarctica,” laughs James. “For all I know there might be a downloaded copy down there!”
Following “Practical Guide for the New Diver” came “SCUBA: A Practical Guide to Advanced Level Training”, published in 2016.
James’s latest contribution to diving, “Living the Dream or How Not to Become a SCUBA Instructor”, is currently in production. Unlike his previous book, James is creating a work of fiction centered on highly detailed, proven technical details in scuba diving, accented by light satire.
“It’s a somewhat lighthearted spoof of the dive industry set in the world of what is commonly known as ‘zero-to-hero instructor training’: where you see an ad, ‘Become an instructor in 30 days or three months! Come here, spend $15,000 and you can become a scuba instructor.’” he explains.
James has based his new book on an incident that resulted in a diver visiting a decompression chamber and a resultant lawsuit. The story centers on a detective that has been hired by the victim’s attorney to evaluate the instructor’s background.
“The biggest difference between this fiction novel and other novels that have diving in them, is in this novel, even though it’s fiction, all the diving science is real and factual. You don’t have people diving with oxygen tanks. I put different lessons in there on how divers should be trained, what they should look for, what gear does, what decompression sickness is and what the risks are. Everything else is made up: agencies, regulatory bodies, trade organizations, etc. It doesn’t come off as a dry, technical-type manual.”
“Living the Dream or How Not to Become a SCUBA Instructor” is in its 19th chapter out of a planned 20 and is planned to span approximately 250 pages. The book is planned to be released in print and on Amazon as a Kindle book. James has hinted the novel will be left open for potential spin-offs based on fictional cases mentioned by characters.
“I’ve tied into an incident: a shipwreck that happened a number of years ago that could lead into something else,” he explains. “There’s a possibility it could go back to the dive agencies because right now I’ve got a loose tie to the diving industry: a certain segment doing money laundering for the Mongolian mafia. It’s pretty absurd. I just wanted to have fun with it. It’s designed to entertain and educate.”
Through his many years as a scuba diver and instructor, James has shared his wisdom and levity with scores of new water aficionados and has established long-lasting connections within his local dive community in southwestern Pennsylvania. A passionate waterman and writer, we at Scuba H2O Adventures Magazine are grateful to share his works with our readership.