I grew up in the 1960s watching TV shows such as Sea Hunt and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and reading every book written by Jacques Cousteau about the underwater world. When I was 11 years old, I talked my parents into giving me SCUBA lessons for my birthday and was certified a few months later. Starting off with gear that now found only in museums such as double-hose regulators, steel 72 ft2 tanks and smooth rubber wetsuits, I spent many hours exploring nearby lakes and rivers for lost valuables. Tanks were somewhat difficult to get filled near where we lived so a friend of mine that was also a diver and I convinced our parents to go in together on a gas-powered floating air compressor or hookah system manufactured by Evinrude, the outboard motor company. Well, that hookah provided us with hours of enjoyment at virtually no cost other than a little gas and I was hooked on the use of hookah systems for my treasure hunting endeavors.
Over the years hookah systems have improved dramatically and one of the leaders in providing state-of-the-art equipment recently has been Joe Sink, owner of The Airline by J. Sink based out of Summerfield, Florida. A few years ago I had the opportunity to test one of Joes systems, the R260-4, powered by a 4HP Honda engine and it was one of the most dependable systems I have ever had the opportunity to use. The construction was first rate and it supplied air effortlessly to me and a partner at depths of over 50 feet on a consistent basis. The only complaints some hookah system users have had about the conventional gasoline-powered units are that the noise of the engine tends to attract undo attention when trying to use it in areas such as abandoned beaches now ringed by high-dollar homes or in areas that do not allow the use of any gasoline engines. Joe listened to the feedback of hookah divers and worked on developing an electric system that would allow a diver to slip beneath the surface and remain entirely silent. Working with Thomas Industries, a world leader in air compressor systems, Joe and his team came up with an electric hookah system that eliminated problems faced by others that had tried to build an electric hookah such as the weight of the system, battery life and usable depth. The result of their efforts is the Model 12V160-3, a high quality system capable of supplying air to one diver at depths of up to 50 feet.
Overview The great thing about any hookah system is that it can be packed into a small space such as a hallway closet or the trunk of a compact car contrary to the space required to store even a single SCUBA outfit; i.e., tank, regulator, weights, BCD, etc. The 12V160-3 takes the typical hookah system storage requirements and cuts then in half! Without the 12V marine battery used to power it, the entire system weighs less than 35 pounds (the single-head compressor is roughly 25 lbs. & the air hose / regulator about 10 pounds) and can be packed into a space about 20 x 10 x 10 (this is the size of the travel suitcase I am using to store the system--picked up for $25 at the local Big Lots with room in the side pockets for spare parts, tools and the manual). The hookah system comes ready-to-go with the exception of the battery. Choosing a battery is a matter of personal preference; i.e., the larger the battery, the more run time received but the weight and cost goes up as well. Air Line recommends the use of a marine battery for the system and the two ratings that are listed in the companys literature are a Group 31 (provides 2 hours of continuous operation) and a Group 27 (provides 80 minutes of operation). Either one will provide plenty of bottom time but if more time is needed simply bring along a spare battery and swap them out when the first one is drained down. The design aspect that sets The Air Line apart from other hookah system manufacturers is the close relationship that they have forged with Thomas Industries. By working with a world renowned company using components that are stocked by any of the Thomas dealers and repair centers, some 900+ worldwide users can have repairs done locally and at reasonable costs rather than being forced to send their units back to the factory for at times lengthy and costly proprietary repairs.
Field Test Something always seems to come up when doing a field test for the magazine and in this case it was a car accident that resulted in a fractured collarbone which kept me out of the water for a while. Well, just as well since the water had cooled a good bit during the winter months (yes, even in the South we get cold water) and as my shoulder mended, the water had warmed up to the low 50s. The first site I took the 12V160-3 to was a friends house on nearby Lake Wylie. He had a long floating dock that I could sit the hookah system on shared a sandy beach with several neighbors which had been in use for more than 30 years. Wearing a 5mm farmer john suit, I needed an extra weight belt to get down in addition to placing 8 pounds (2 lbs in each of the 4 pockets) of weight in the tow harness included with the 12V160-3. I personally like to use a separate weight belt with most of my weight on it that can be easily dropped if an emergency situation arises rather than ditching the harness attached to my air supply. Per the instructions, setup was a breeze. I uncoiled the air hose, connected the alligator clips to the battery, pressed the purge valve on the regulator and placed the toggle switch in the ON position. Being accustomed to gas-powered hookahs, the silence was deafening as they say. I could hardly believe that the system was actually providing enough air to allow me to detect on the bottom and took a number of breaths before I left the security of the dock and slipped under the water. This site was fairly shallow, only 15 feet deep or so, but it allowed me to get used to the 12V160-3s performance. The regulator is the standard adjustable-second stage model that The Air Line provides on all of their systems and allows for virtually effortless breathing even when lying prone on the bottom exerting ones self such as when recovering a deeply buried artifact. I spent just over an hour at this site swimming the full length of the 60 hose digging a number of deep targets in both the sand and mud / rock sections of the beach. As I pulled myself back onto the dock, the compressor was still running as strongly as it had been when I started. The next site I took the 12V160-3 was a sand bar in the lake which attracted boaters in the summer but had steep sides that sloped off to depths ranging from 25 to 40. I talked Barry, a friend of mine with a boat, into helping me with this part of the field test and we arrived early one Saturday morning. Despite the abnormally warm weather (about 60F), once I dropped below the thermocline at 20, I was thankful that I was wearing a thick suit along with boots, gloves and a hood. Our lake is not the best in the area in terms of clarity so when I hit the bottom at 35, I had less than 3 feet of visibility. I swam along the base of the sand bar and found that there were quite a few targets just under the surface. Again, an hour was about as much as I could stand due to the water temperature and I headed back up to the boat with a bag full of finds. Rummaging through the bag when I got onboard the boat, I found a pair of silver rings, a 10KT gold charm and a petite 14KT gold ladies ring along with a handful of coins and quite a bit of aluminum trash--typical for most swimming sites! Refocusing on the 12V160-3s performance at somewhat deeper depths, I was impressed at how efficient it had been in terms of providing me with air throughout my dive, despite some stretches where I was definitely gulping air down at a good rate, guess I need to get back in the gym and spend some time on the treadmill before the water hunting season really starts up! The final test I put the 12V160-3 through was one to simply see how it performed at its maximum rated depth of 50 feet. Coaxing Barry to take me out again, we head off in search of a deep section of the lake where I could drop down to 50 feet or so. He obviously knew the lake as it took less than 15 minutes to reach a deep part of the original river channel, registering over 60 feet deep on his depth finder. With only 60 of hose, I knew I would not be able to reach the bottom but I would be able to swim around at 50 to see how much air the 12V160-3 could supply at that depth. Strapping a depth gauge to one wrist, a flashlight to my other and a BCD over my chest, I slipped off the stern of the boat and slowly bled air out of the BCD and descended into the dark water. Watching the needle on the depth gauge creep upwards, I leveled off around 45 and started swimming back-and-forth at a good clip to see if the compressor could keep up with my increased demand. The 15 minutes of increased activity did not result in diminish airflow so with the test behind me, I began ascending to the boat and a waiting thermos of hot coffee. The 12V160-3 had performed better than my initial expectations at all three sites ranging from a shallow beach to 45+ cold water depths and did so with no complicated setup or assistance required to get the gear from the house to the truck and finally into the boat or onto the dock.
Summary The 12V160-3 is ideally suited for divers that are looking for a light-weight (relatively) system that is virtually silent and is exempt from restrictions many freshwater sites have on gasoline engines. I am not endorsing in any form or fashion that the 12V160-3 be used to sneak into areas otherwise off-limits; however, it is a lot easier to gain access to sites if the constant drone of a gas engine does not accompany your presence. Mounting the 12V160-3 on a conventional hookah system flotation system or simply placing it on a dock or boat makes the system extremely versatile and opens up sites that might otherwise have been unavailable. While it does not replace a gas-powered system for all-day use, the 12V160-3 does fill a niche that underwater treasure hunters (and even general divers) have been asking for, and does so at an easily justifiable price. The entire system comes with a full one-year warranty with the compressor warranted through Thomas Industries and the rest of the system through Air Line. For more information on the innovative line of hookah systems and related accessories produced by The Air Line by J. Sink, contact them at P.O. Box 190, Summerfield, FL 34492, call them toll-free at (877) 207-3235 or visit their informative website at http://www.AirLineByJSink.com. NOTE: The use of any dive equipment including a hookah requires that the user(s) receive basic training on its use. If you are not currently a certified diver, contact a local dive shop, YMCA or community college in your area and ask about taking a basic certification class.