Wineka column: Hap's Grill owner spends free time with first love, scuba
GRANITE QUARRY — Under the shelter as his students finish putting on their scuba gear, instructor Greg Culp goes over the skills they’ll be practicing in the quarry.
He describes how they’ll make a controlled descent to a staging platform that’s about 18 to 20 feet under the surface.
“This is fun diving, not racing diving,” he reminds the class.
Don’t panic as the visibility diminishes the deeper they go, Culp says. At the platform, they’ll review skills they practiced that morning at the Forestdale Pool in Spencer, working on things such as neutral buoyancy and what to do if they suddenly found themselves without air.
Later they’ll leave the platform and explore parts of the old quarry, which has underwater features that include a couple of rusty Volkswagens, six boats, an oil drum, water tank, stop sign and even a train of carts once used for hauling rock.
A second platform exists at 40 feet below, and somewhere in the quarry, there’s supposed to be a dump truck.
The students will swim among curious bream and catfish, Culp says. The regular divers at American Quarry have named a certain white catfish “Albie” for his albino coloring.
Long rope lines extend from the underwater platform to far reaches of the quarry, and Culp tells the students to keep visual contact with the ropes.
“Are y’all ready to blow bubbles?” he asks.
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By day, Greg Culp owns and operates Hap’s Grill, the well-known eatery in downtown Salisbury. He’s the guy hanging over the grill just behind the counter, plopping hot dogs and hamburgers into buns and ladling them with chili sauce.
But on evenings and weekends, Culp often sheds the apron for his other calling — scuba diving.
When Culp sells or retires from Hap’s, you might easily find him moving to the islands of the Caribbean, where he would love to finish out his days as a scuba instructor.
“Diving’s my passion — I love it,” he says.
Culp, 39, has slaved over the grill at Hap’s for more than 20 years, yet the 8 a.m.-4 p.m. workday has lent itself perfectly to his new days as Aquaman.
Culp’s customers and employees tire of him talking about scuba, he confides, but he can’t help it. Students and friends often come by Hap’s to drop off air tanks for him to fill.
When he dives for himself, Culp enjoys investigating old ship wrecks off the coasts of North and South Carolina. He has come to the surface with items such as Civil War-era bullets, plates, cups and trigger guards from old guns.
They have no value, “except that they’re mine, and they’re cool,” Culp says.
Since earning certification from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors in 2010, Culp has started a new venture, Salisbury Scuba. So far, he has been the instructor for 120 certifications (not necessarily 120 different divers). Last year alone, he certified 69 people, taking in all the classes he taught.
Culp also has become a diving and teaching partner with the Rowan Rescue Squad. He has helped with the underwater recovery of boats sunk by a storm and a stolen car near Tamarac Marina.
“My name just got out there,” he says.
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Earlier on this particular Sunday, in the Spencer swimming pool, five beginners-class students and assistant Steve Taylor form a semi-circle around Culp.
The next thing they’ll be doing is taking off their dive belts. “That’s a very awkward thing to do, but now you know it can be done,” Culp says later after their successful completion of the task.
The students include a young husband and wife from Reidsville, Ben and Megan Pickell; Shelby Boshuizen, 15, a student at East Rowan High; Jabe Fisher, 19, who attends Rowan-Cabarrus Community College; and Kevin Taylor, 22, of Mooresville, and the younger brother of Steve.
The group is in the last training session in the pool before they move to the “open water” of American Quarry in the afternoon.
“I try to keep it fun,” Culp says. “That’s my No. 1 goal.”
The Pickells are taking the class in anticipation of an upcoming vacation to St. Lucia.
“Last week, it was weird,” Megan Pickell says of working with the scuba gear for the first time. “It is much better today. You just have to get used to it.”
Boshuizen said she likes the free-falling sensation she sometimes experiences with scuba diving.
“It’s pretty fun, but it’s pretty hard,” she says. “There’s a lot of work.”
The students are learning 20 different skills — things such as mask cleaning, which is harder than you might think.
“If I tap you on the chin, that means get your chin up in the air,” Culp says before they go under. Later you can see him — but don’t hear him — clapping for a job well done.
Many of the skills are designed to address any problem that might occur underwater.
“Things can go wrong,” Culp says. “If you stay calm, there’s always a way to get out of trouble. The main thing always is, do not panic.”
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Culp says he probably learned to swim before he could walk. His family lived doors down from the Forestdale Pool and also had a place at High Rock Lake.
He was swimming and water skiing all the time as a kid.
During his senior year at North Rowan High School, Culp had a computer teacher who talked frequently about his own scuba diving experiences. By the end of high school, the teacher had sparked Culp’s interest enough for him to take scuba lessons himself.
In subsequent years, as he worked and eventually took over ownership of Hap’s Grill, Culp went diving infrequently at best — usually while vacationing at the beach or reef diving in the Caribbean.
When his oldest son, Dalton, turned 10 and expressed an interest in scuba, Culp caught the diving bug again.
Over the next six years, he kept taking classes and advancing in certification, leading up to the weeklong instructors school in 2010 in Orlando, Fla.
Culp says the school was intense. Out of 44 enrolled from various parts of the country, he was one of six who graduated.
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The levels of certification Culp went through on his way to becoming an instructor included open water (beginners), which allows divers to go as deep as 60 feet; advanced; rescue; master; and divemaster.
Culp is certified to teach up to a 130-foot depth.
He relied on Gene Munday, an instructor who has operated The Dive Shop in Claremont since 1969, for all of the training except the instructors school. He says Munday has “a hole-in-the-wall shop” with cats and dogs running around, but it’s inexpensive and friendly.
Culp does all of his scuba classes in the Forestdale Pool, in quarries and, when depths have to advance to 130 feet, at the beach. The Rowan Rescue Squad allows him to use one of its training rooms for the required hours of classroom instruction.
Besides the various general certifications, Culp also can teach 22 specialties, including rescue diving and in-water CPR.
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So far, Culp’s students have ranged in age from 10 to 60, and he can teach all the way up to the divemaster level.
“Usually the people who want to do it are comfortable in the water anyway,” Culp says.
Steve Taylor and Jeff Burrell, both in Culp’s first class as an instructor, now serve as his important assistants, giving Culp extra sets of eyes in the water.
Both men are working on becoming divemasters.
Burrell has a passion for offshore fishing along the coast, and scuba diving, he says, opened up a whole new world.
“You’re seeing something you’ve been fishing for all your life,” he says. “I got hooked — loved it.”
Burrell’s 13-year-old son took Culp’s class last year, and the father and son often spend time together exploring the quarry, a membership facility of the Piedmont Diving and Rescue Association.
“It’s relaxing to be in the water for me,” says Taylor, a Statesville firefighter,
For $350, students receive a night of classroom instruction (five hours), two Sunday mornings in the Forestdale Pool (eight hours) and two Sunday afternoons in the “open water” of American Quarry (10 to 12 hours).
The fee covers certification, books, tanks and all the other diving gear, except masks, snorkels and fins.
Megan Pickell says Culp has been great as an instructor. Culp stresses again that he’s just trying to make it fun.
“By gosh,” he tells his students after another skill learned, “y’all did perfect.”
For more information on Salisbury Scuba, contact Culp at 704-239-8657, or visit the Salisbury Scuba Facebook page.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.