Dark Down Under

By Tom Neale, 6/10/2010


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Mel paused a moment as she stepped over onto “Chez Nous.” And she grew very silent. I was running the hose washing off a chain and not paying much attention, but I noticed. A moment later she started talking again. “Well, I just lost my glasses overboard.”

We’ve all been there done that. Sometimes I’ve seen it happened with much worse, like a wallet full of credit cards and cash or an expensive piece of jewelry. So I wasn’t too excited about it—at first. We carry spare glasses aboard that’ll get us through, if not with the very best vision. Casually I said, “Well, are they metal? Will a magnet work?” The answer came: “They’re metal but a magnet won’t work.” Bad sign. But I still didn’t get excited.

Brownie's Third Lung compressor on Chez Nous
My first thought was to get the crab net and try to snag them. But they were in around 8 feet of very muddy silty water. The net would barely reach the bottom. I gave it a sweep or two and came up with some old oyster shells, the inhabitants of which had long departed. “This isn’t going to work, What did they cost anyway?” She told me and then I got very excited. This was going to be another time when my Brownie’s Third Lung diving hookah would pay, at least in part, for itself—I hoped. It had already paid for itself many times over with various bottom jobs, dropping events and just plain fun. (http://www.browniedive.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=48&Itemid=85) We got it rigged and over I went, with my Pelican Nemo 4300 underwater dive light. It’s a great light, not only for the beam it throws down there and its toughness, but also because the magnetic switch is designed so that there is no breach in the casing for the switch.

Tom hooked into Brownie's Third Lung
I’ve spent a huge amount of time underwater. I feel at home there. But none of us is really at home there, no matter how we feel. When you descend into a muddy silty creek, you very quickly lose all visibility. And this makes things worse as you proceed into another world. The deeper you get the blacker it gets because of light loss and silt. My plan was to hopefully find the glasses on the first descent. This is important because that first descent stirs up more silt, and every descent or movement thereafter worsens it. I had some hope for finding them when I first reached the bottom because Mel knew exactly where they went in. In theory, I should have put on enough dive weights so that I would have negative buoyancy and therefore wouldn’t have to move going down. But I don’t do this, and I don’t recommend it. Maybe some of the pros do, I don’t know. I know that you can quickly dump your dive weights, in theory, but you never know what’s going to go wrong—especially when you’re operating by feel only. So I had to disturb the water, very carefully, to get to the bottom. I swept the light where the glasses should be and I saw only the barren landscape of the muddy bottom through swirling silt. I surfaced to be sure of my bearings and made several more attempts with the same results.

On the last of those descents I widened my search pattern, still finding nothing. And then I realized that I was a little confused as to which way was where. This happens very easily underwater in total blackness, and I’m always aware of it, and keeping track. But I had gotten so involved in looking for the glasses I was afraid I’d lost track a little. So I decided to surface to re-orient myself. As I came up slowly I expected to encounter the rounded bottom of my boat with my left shoulder. I did, but with my right shoulder, not my left. “Good grief,” I thought, “somehow I passed under the boat and now I’m on the wrong side—the port side. Mel is up there looking for my bubbles and not seeing them. I’ll pass back under and come up on the right side—the starboard.”

As I did so, I wondered how I hadn’t noticed going under the boat, between its keel and the bottom. When I broke the surface, I found the answer. I broke the surface on the port (wrong) side of the boat, not the starboard. I had been right in the first place as to where I was, and my correction had actually put me in the wrong place. This had happened because I had turned around as I was looking for the glasses, so that when my shoulder touched my hull, it was my right shoulder instead of the left. And there I was, surfaced on the wrong side of the boat with Mel on the other side frantically looking for my bubbles. I yelled out and soon all was right again.

I got back to the starboard side and decided to try again. This time I held onto the dock piling with both hands and pulled myself down. (I wore heavy gloves with PVC coating to protect from barnacles.) I was determined to not let go of that piling, even if I didn’t find the glasses. I had the Pelican light attached to one hand with its handy halyard. As I reached the bottom, I could only see, within the cone of the light, around a foot or so from the piling. That was enough.

Leaning against the piling, sitting up on one end and neatly folded, were the glasses. It was as though someone had seen them drift down and folded and set them up on end for safe keeping. I surfaced, holding the glasses up over my head. The lessons were clear.

Tom’s Tips About Going Down

1. Explore what’s good for you under water. Your physical shape and health will play a big role in this, as well as your experience level.

2. Go to well qualified professionals who give lessons, no matter what you plan to do. Learn carefully.

Click Here for More Tips

Once again, good equipment had paid off. Once again we’d been able to accomplish something helpful and important which we wouldn’t have done without having the right tools. On a boat, in my opinion, that’s an incredibly important concept. So many people have gotten into so much trouble because they didn’t have the right stuff in their equipment arsenal. And the right stuff, in a marine environment, is seldom cheap stuff.

But there was obviously another lesson for me. No matter how much you think you know, and no matter how much experience you’ve had, you’re a land creature—not a water creature. I resent this, because I’ve always wanted to be, and even many times felt like a water creature. But hey, Neale, you don’t have gills.

Being under water is often a necessary part of many types of boating. It’s always been a regular part of my boating. But it’s amazing how quickly things can go wrong down there. You know boating—it’s amazing how quickly things can go wrong on a boat anywhere. But under water you’ve got only a moment or so of time before you start losing it—in the fatal sense of the term. Losing it may take the form of panic, rapture of the deep, passing out or other manifestations that can also result in fatalities.

I think that learning to be underwater, whether it’s free diving with a mask, snorkel and flippers or deeper diving, not only can save a lot of money, but it adds an additional dimension to boating that’s incredibly beautiful and fun. But you have to know how to do it. You have to use good equipment. You have to get all the right training. And you have to develop the skills. Even then you may get into trouble and you’ve got to be sensitive to things that can go wrong and be ready. But I love it.

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