When There Is No Bottom

By Tom Neale, 1/4/2013


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You're far out in the ocean, far from sight of land, and you jump overboard. Why would you do this? Perhaps a heavy trap line is ensnarled in your running gear. Perhaps a loud BUMP from below made you think you'd better check down there for damage. Perhaps it's just hot, you're becalmed, the sea is inviting and you want to try it.

You float for a bit on your stomach, looking down through your dive mask, into the..well, that's the point. You're accustomed to looking down at the bottom, or at least into murk which you know hides a nearby bottom. But this is very different. You're looking down into relatively clear waterprobably very clear water. And all you see is more water with no clue of a bottom. You see a world going down and down and down, gradually fading until it is out of sight. But you know that world is still there and you know it's still descending. And it's not your world.

Tom under Chez Nous.
You also know, if you look long enough, that you're not alone in that world. You see small gelatinous creatures which glow in the dark. You see fish, darting or gliding by. If you've happened to jump in at the right time you may see hundreds or thousands of fish flashing by. You feel a prickling of your skin because you know that something hungry must be in pursuit. It's the way of the wild. And you see large shapes and forms, sometimes barely noticeable, but you know they're there, moving below you. The distinctive outline of a shark may begin rising, circling. Or worse, closing in. You probably begin to feel very unsettled. Perhaps fearful. Sure, it may be beautiful, but you know that there's no bottom there, at least not for you. You're in a place where your feet can't touchnot even if you dive far, far down. And if they did touch you'd be long deceased, your remains distorted by pressure.

Maybe, as I've often had to do, you must swim under your boat, gird with dive weights, mask, snorkel, flippers and tools (which, for me, always include a dive knife). Something has gone wrong and you have to fix it or at least check it out to make sure that you don't have a serious problem. When you first get in you probably hang there on the surface a moment or two, trying to grow accustomed to being in that world. As much as I've done it, and as much as I feel at home in and on the ocean, I know I'll always feel an eerie unease as I look down. There's this haunting feeling, a remembrance, of what I saw watching a science fiction space movie long ago, with a guy from a space ship taking a space walk, and having his life support and retrieval tether break. I'll never forget the thought as he drifted off into eternity, slowly spinning like a tiny lost planet. Perhaps the ocean doesn't have the same degree of infinity as outer space, but to me, when I'm there, there's little difference.

Tom underwater.
But I dive under anyway to begin my job. Usually the first issue is to time the cadence of the waves because that hull above me is rising and falling and I know I must do what's necessary to keep it from hurting or even killing me. It may come down on me, or as it rolls, the running gear may tangle with me. So I dive down deeper than the bottom of the keel and hang there a moment looking up to assess the situation. My dive weights give me only a slight positive buoyancy so that I can hang out down there, with little effort, to work or to observe.

Your hull is like you've probably never imagined when you see it this way. You've seen the underside of your boat in the yard, but it's not the same. In the water it's moving, it's alive, and it doesn't seem like the same old friend you've known. And all around it is the ocean and its waves. Sometimes they're gentle swell, sometimes it's much rougher. But I'm watching it from the underside looking up. And it's nothing at all like what it looked like while I was standing on the deck of "Chez Nous." There are dimples and streaks of bubbles stabbing down briefly and futilely beneath the moving surface. Small bubbles of air captured under the rolling hull drift up to the surface at the waterline. And the sun's rays, reformed through the water's surface, create a ghostly light show that is soon absorbed by the eternal darkness disappearing below.

I'm free diving, so I don't hang suspended there for long. I come up for more air and go down with hopefully a plan in mind. It may be to cut away line. It may be to run my hand over a cracked area in the paint to make sure that whatever hit only damaged the surface of the paintnothing underneath. It may be to carefully stare at each propeller blade, looking for even a slight deformity, so easily caused by a collision with a chunk of wood, yet so important to the boat's performance. It may be to carefully run the tips of my fingers around the outer edge of each propeller blade, to see that they're all still true.

Tom’s Tips for Snorkeling

1. Don't do it unless you're a good swimmer and comfortable in the water as well as with using a snorkel. Some people find it very difficult to adjust. Practice wearing a mask and breathing through a snorkel in shallow water before you go into deep water.

2. A wet suit, while not adequate as a PFD, provides a great measure of buoyancy and safety when you snorkel.

3. If you are working on your bottom wear a wet suit with long sleeves. These will help protect you from potentially dangerous cuts from barnacles and other growth.

Click Here for More Tips

I welcome the job, because it helps to take my mind off what may be there around me. And of what's not therethe bottom. OK, I tell myself, the bottom is there. But hundreds of feet, or thousands of feet down? What's the point for me? It may as well not be there. I'm in a world I've penetrated only barely, and as much as I enjoy being there, I know that I don't belong there. It is alien. And I am indescribably insignificant. And pathetically puny.

Sometimes when I'm down there, even out in the ocean, I hear the murderous whine of props of some boat, zooming in close for a look, the skipper totally oblivious to what the diver down flag means. I hug the hull and rise to the surface, looking up to be sure the boat isn't alongside. Usually by the time I get up Mel, my wife, has waved them away, called them on the VHF and told them to "stand clear, diver down," and pointed repeatedly at the flag.

And I settle again to the quietness below. As I work I wonder what the people think as they zoom merrily across the ocean's surface, looking at the sunshine and the sparkling waves of that surface that hides so very much below. I wonder if they think that I might be down there probably not. I wonder if they have any concept of that universe beneath the waves, where your feet will never touch the bottom, and if they do, they're no longer your feet. And I worry that they may not realize that, when you're in a boat on the water, what you see is NOT what you get. It's only a fractional beginning. To me this realization makes being out here even more wonderful; more so than I could ever describe.



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