Originally published in Business Digest, July 1997

Total Immersion

by Kathryn Trudell

Jonathan Eddy is a businessman who has no interest in keeping his head above water. The vice president and manager of Waterfront Diving Center Inc. (WDC) is a certified scuba diver who has turned his passion into his profession. Eddy recalls Lloyd Bridges and the wildly popular TV show "Sea Hunt," which influenced a whole generation of children 30 years ago and caused a surge of interest in scuba diving. As he reminisces, a faraway look comes into his eyes. Perhaps he is reliving a diving adventure in sunny Cayman Brac, or recalling a furtive glimpse of Champ near a shipwreck in Lake Champlain's underwater historic preserve. Whatever the memories, it is clear that Eddy is totally immersed.

Waterfront Diving Center is the brainchild of co-owner and president Arthur Cohn. Cohn is the director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum at Basin Harbor in Ferrisburgh, a position he has held since the museum opened in 1986. The diving center is located in the Swift building at 214 Battery St. on the Burlington waterfront. Because Cohn's position at the museum is a full-time responsibility, he has no active, day-to-day role in the running of the diving center. That is Eddy's bailiwick.

"Art is the senior instructor and advisor/mentor for the other diving instructors on staff here," Eddy explains. "He has the most teaching experience, and has established and formulated the educational philosophy of Waterfront Diving Center. Our major focus is on safety. We train 275 to 300 divers a year, and we want them to be thinking divers, able to handle themselves in almost any situation they will ever encounter. We want people to have fun safely. That is a huge priority with us."

The "dive shop," as Eddy refers to it, is not quite like other retail businesses. It is not merely a place where scuba equipment and related underwater gear are sold. "Our dive shop is a place where people come for all kinds of diving activity, not just to buy equipment," Eddy, a 28-year diving veteran, says. "People come to us to take classes, to look for diving buddies, and to sign up for our group diving trips and Lake Champlain charters. The lake has much to offer divers --- more than people realize. Divers are always dropping by after their dives to share experiences and swap fish stories. We have two air compressors to fill scuba tanks. We repair equipment. We are more than simply a retail store."

Jonathan EddyJonathan Eddy is the general manager of Waterfront Diving Center in Burlington, which he owns with Arthur Cohn, director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum at Basin Harbor. Eddy, who has been certified as a scuba diver since his early teens, spent 12 years as a New York banker before opting to make diving his career. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Eddy was born in Schenectady, N.Y., and lived there for 17 years. Following his father's death and his mother's subsequent remarriage, the family moved to Europe where Eddy finished his senior year of high school in 1974 at the International School of Brussels in Belgium. By that time he had already been scuba diving for four years.

"My family had a pool while I was growing up. I started swimming very early. I've been interested in the water all my life. I can't recall a time when I didn't want to be a diver. When I was 13 an older friend and I enrolled in a scuba diving class at the local YMCA during the winter. We did our open water dives in Lake Champlain in 1970, and I've been hooked ever since. That friend was my diving buddy for years."

During his senior year in Belgium, Eddy toyed with the idea of becoming a commercial diver. "As it turned out, I didn't do it. It's a difficult way to earn a living because the lifestyle is so nomadic. You have to travel to where the jobs are. It's not a lifestyle I chose to pursue."

Eddy enrolled in the American College of Paris. At the conclusion of his freshman year, he worked for Club Med on the Costa Brava in Spain for four months teaching diving. Returning stateside, he spent the next three years at Syracuse University majoring in history and political science. From 1975 to 1979, he and a partner owned and operated a small seasonal dive shop in Willsboro, N.Y., in Willsboro Bay. That's how he met Cohn.

Cohn founded Northern Divers in 1975 in St. Albans, then moved the business to 100 Main St. in Burlington in 1977. As fellow dive shop owners, the two conversed by telephone on numerous occasions and eventually met. Eddy volunteered to dive for several of Cohn's nautical archaeology projects. Eddy's seasonal shop closed shortly after he graduated from college. "I went to college to get an education, not necessarily a job," he laughs. "When I graduated in 1978, I suddenly realized that my particular college background wasn't the best preparation for employment. I had studied what I studied because I was interested in it, but financial realities took over immediately. I needed a job."

Eddy started working as a bank teller for Northeast Savings, a large regional bank with branches in three states. He remained with the bank for 12 years, rising through the ranks to vice president in charge of mortgage lending for the New York State division. During this time he met his wife Laurie. During his tenure at the bank, Eddy pursued recreational diving and dive travel. He continued to serve as a volunteer diver for projects coordinated by Cohn, becoming increasingly interested in nautical archaeology. In the mid 1980s he applied to the graduate school of nautical archaeology at Texas A & M. Although he was accepted, he decided not to enroll. "At that point I opted to stay with my banking career. Once again economic realities won out. I would have had to leave a successful job I enjoyed for schooling and a greatly reduced income. Also, like commercial diving, the life of a nautical archaeologist is nomadic -- traveling from one project to another."

After 12 years as a banker, however, Eddy could no longer ignore his persistent inner voice. "Banking was a great career and for the first six years I really enjoyed it, but the last six years became more and more difficult for me. I knew it was time. I had a keen interest in history and had been diving for years. I wanted a career where I could marry the two."

Then Cohn made Eddy an offer he couldn't refuse. In May 1988 Cohn and a partner, Clem Thompson, had started Waterfront Diving Center on Battery Street in Burlington. "Clem was functioning as the manager, the instructor, and the hands-on person," Eddy recalls. "It was readily apparent that additional help was needed, so Art and Clem talked it over and asked me to consider coming into the business. The plan was that I would manage the business and Clem would concentrate on diving instruction and running the educational programs. Shortly after I came on board in July 1990, Clem got an illness that dictated he could no longer dive. He decided to sell his interest in the business and I bought it. I have been running the business since 1990. Art is the senior instructor and president but he does not have an active role in the business day-to-day."

As the hub of an extremely busy wheel, Waterfront Diving Center is open year-round and extends its spokes in all directions. The retail store sells a complete array of diving-related merchandise. They stock 30 sets of rental equipment. They offer diving classes at every level from a two-hour "Try scuba" orientation session through dive master, as well as specialty classes in dive rescue, ice diving, drysuit diving, underwater photography, and nautical archaeology, to name a few. The basic scuba diver course is 35-40 hours long. Each session is half class work and half water work.

"We are open seven days a week from May 1 through Columbus Day, and six days a week thereafter," Eddy explains. "We teach year-round, although the majority of our classes take place in the summer when we can use the lake. We use the YMCA pool in the winter. We conduct "Try scuba" experiences at Twin Oaks and Racquet's Edge. We run scuba programs for students at UVM and Middlebury in the fall and spring for credit. We teach a class at the YMCA. We offer two ice diving classes each winter. We visit elementary schools to demonstrate the equipment and show slides to the children. Diving is a year round sport, even in Vermont."

Eddy uses eight independent, fully certified instructors who teach only for WDC, as well as two additional instructors who work full time in the retail store. The youngest students the center has ever trained were 12 years old -- the minimum age allowed by the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI). "That's because of the weight of the equipment and the math and physics concepts involved," Eddy explains. "There really is no upper age limit -- it's a matter of individual health. The oldest student we ever trained was 70. Another of our customers is 75 and continues to dive regularly."

Eddy says he has noticed an increasing number of families becoming involved in the sport, especially in preparation for vacations. "When scuba diving started in the 1950s, it was pretty much a male macho sport, not a mainstream sport like skiing. All that has changed. Now 40 percent of the divers we certify are women, and a number are students under age 18. When families go to places like Florida or the Caribbean and dive together, it adds a whole new dimension to their vacation."

Rolf Sennhenn, owner of The Old Brick Store in Charlotte, completed his scuba diver course with WDC two years ago. "My instructor, Ben Drury, was outstanding. He had a wonderful sense of humor and safety always came first," he recalls. Sennhenn's son Gotz took the course two years later when he was 12. "There were two kids in the class. His instructor, Colin Hennessey, was great with both of them --- he knew diving and was extremely safety conscious. Gotz is thrilled about passing the course. When it came time to purchase the equipment, I asked a lot of questions. Jonathan Eddy was knowledgeable, personable, and hard-working. He went out of his way for us. As the saying goes, he knows his stuff."

Divers from the center dive for the Burlington Parks and Recreation Department, replacing buoys in the Burlington harbor and helping to install and repair their dock systems. They also have a contract to install the moorings at the Lake Champlain Yacht Club in Shelburne Bay. Benjamin Pacey, superintendent of park operations and assistant harbormaster for the city of Burlington, speaks highly of Eddy and his staff. "Our relationship with Jonathan and his business is symbiotic. They perform many diving services for our department. Additionally, they offer recreational programming through our department to the general public. These programs include introduction to snorkeling and escorts to the underwater historic preserve system. In return, the center is permitted to teach diving and other classes at many of our facilities. Frequently Jonathan's services are required in extreme weather conditions. He and his staff have always responded cheerfully and with excellent results."

Eddy also networks with two Lake Champlain charter boat captains, Dan Couture and Larry Boivin, whose vessels WDC hires for student instruction and diving excursions. Boivin, who is himself a certified diving instructor, owns The Last Frontier, a 25-foot Boston Whaler with a dive door. "I like working with Jonathan and his staff because they are so professional. Students are always very well briefed before they board, so there is no confusion. Everything is done safely and smoothly. It is always a pleasure to have his business charter my boat."

Safety. The word appears again and again, not only in Eddy's conversations but in those of his students and business contacts. "It is of the utmost importance in a specialty business like ours," Eddy says. "We are selling life-support equipment. When people come to us, they expect a certain level of expertise." All the people who work here are divers. They know the sport and the equipment. They have to. We sell only quality equipment, and we service everything we sell. Having diving equipment serviced correctly and having faith in the business that sells it to you is critical in this sport. It's not like selling a pair of jeans. We have to think safety all the time. We teach according to NAUI standards and we support DAN, the Divers Alert Network.

"The sport actually has an excellent safety record, and we want to keep it that way. If thousands of people start dying while scuba diving you can bet the government would come in and regulate us. We don't want that to happen. We want to ensure that people to whom we sell or rent equipment know what they are doing, and they in turn have to trust that we know what we are doing. That's why, for example, you must present your scuba diver certification card if you want to have an air tank filled here or in any shop that teaches according to the standards of the various training agencies like NAUI, PADI, or NASDS." In addition to diving organizations, the business and/or its owners are members of the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Burlington Development Association, and the Citizens Advisory Committee for Historic Preservation. They participate in Champ Fest and the annual boat show.

One aspect of Cohn's and Eddy's business that might not be apparent at first is the number of trips they offer for divers and their families. Instructor Eric Tichonuk is a frequent trip leader. They have taken groups to the coast of New Hampshire, Maine, various destinations in the Caribbean such as Bonaire and the Cayman Islands, Mexico, and the Bahamas. The trips are so popular that Eddy plans to increase the number offered. Closer to home, they offer day trips and after-work charters on Lake Champlain, guided dives to observe the shipwrecks in the underwater historic preserve, and fun-filled challenges such as a New Year's Day dive and an underwater pumpkin carving contest to raise funds for DAN.

Colin Hennessey is an instructor for WDC. He sees his role as multi-faceted. "I love the water. I teach diving, repair equipment, provide air fills, work in the retail store, and help people with knowledge of the lake. There is such an amazing amount of diving knowledge on the staff here that for me it's like going to grad school. This is a wonderful job."

Eddy points out that the diving business isn't one to get into if you want to become wealthy, but if it is the sport you love, it is rich in satisfaction. "Making a living as a diving instructor in Vermont isn't easy," he says. "The staff members of WDC are extremely valuable to this business. They are experts. They know the equipment and the business of diving inside out. It's difficult for a dive shop to pay what their levels of expertise really deserve. They are what makes a dive shop tick.

"Being able to earn a living doing something like this -- something I truly enjoy -- is a real blessing. Yes, there's stress, but it's stress I'm in control of and it's great being my own boss. Every day when I come to work I have a view of the lake. What more could I ask for? "It was a tough decision to leave the bank, but in retrospect there isn't a single day I regret making that decision. It was the right one for me."