Diving right into the business

Business profile Columbia Scuba

January 10, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Ryan Cook, wearing brightly patterned surf shorts on a January day, was spending his Sunday morning learning to scuba dive because "I always wanted to do it," he said.

The Columbia resident was one of three students at Columbia Scuba that day, learning about the tanks, respirators and weight belts before heading to Fairland Aquatics Center in Laurel for the second half of his lesson.

"I'm looking to get certified," Cook said. "It's something I've always wanted to try."

If all goes according to plan, in five sessions he will be ready for his "open water test," which he can take either at a local quarry in the spring or on a sun-splashed vacation in the Caribbean, Florida or someplace else. Then he will be a certified scuba diver.

Columbia Scuba, off Dobbin Road in Columbia, has been helping people learn to dive for about 20 years, ever since insurance executive Bruce Farmer, now 58, opened the shop in July 1986 with his brother, Fred.

Within a year, Farmer and his wife, JoAnn, had bought out Fred. Farmer continued working in the insurance business until he turned 50, then he retired from that job and began to focus more on the scuba store, he said.

Until 1994, the store was at a different Columbia location, near Howard Community College. He moved to Dobbin Road because the new store is larger and more visible, Farmer said.

The store sells everything a person needs to take the underwater plunge, from wetsuits, masks and flippers to duffel bags, and guide books, sunglasses and dive lights. But mostly what the Farmers sell is knowledge.

Farmer and his staff of about 10 instructors give lessons at every level, from novices who have never put on a mask to instructor training for people who are ready to teach. They also offer specialty classes in such topics as underwater photography and diving at night.

Students get a book and digital video disc, and the classes are divided between time sitting behind a desk and time in the pool. The five-week course costs $275 and can be taken on weekends or in the evenings.

Participants usually buy five pieces of equipment, Farmer said: a mask, snorkel, boots, fins and weight belt. Everything else, including the air tanks and the weights for the belt, can be rented at the site of a dive.

Holly Williams of Columbia was taking her first private lesson with instructor Chuck Thompson on Sunday because she was leaving the next week for a vacation in Hawaii.

She'd gone "snorkel diving" two years earlier in Aruba, she said, meaning she wore a respirator but the air tanks were floating on a raft on the water's surface. She could dive about 20 feet, the length of the air lines.

"Since then, I wanted to get certified for scuba," she said. Since her lessons were private, Thompson, an instructor with Columbia Scuba for about seven years, was planning to tailor his instruction to her learning ability. "I want to get as much done as she can absorb," he said.

Williams, who paid $450 for the private classes, had arrived at 8:30 in the morning, and would probably stay until 12:45 p.m. or later, a time frame that would include about an hour and a half in the pool.

During weekday lessons, Columbia Scuba uses Columbia Association pools. But on weekends, the lessons are held in Laurel.

On Sunday, Farmer helped Cook and another student, Dave Putnam of Ellicott City, find the right equipment. As they tried on wet suits from the store's supply of rental suits, he made sure everything fit correctly.

As one might expect, Farmer opened the business because he came to love the sport himself after his brother introduced him to diving in the Florida Keys and the Caribbean.

As part of his business, he hosts dive trips to Bonaire and other locations.

Columbia Scuba is at 6695-C Dobbin Road in Columbia. The phone is 410-381-1994.

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