Mishap Equals Testing Opportunity & Adventure, Part 2

As mentioned in Part 1, initial efforts to retrieve the prescription sunglass my father-in-law, Ron, dropped from his shirt pocket and into the drink over our neighboring mooring slip failed.  The mishap provided an excellent opportunity to try out some cool gear; 1) our Spare Air (mini-SCUBA tank) device, and 2) Jim’s, a neighbor’s, pony tank (small SCUBA tank).  I learned about how long each allowed me to stay underwater at around 15′ below the surface and to not panic as I cautiously ascended without air in my lungs, to meet head-first the barnacled underside of the floating dock.  I experienced what it is to dive in near zero visibility as my movements stirred the silty marina bottom, clouding my view like thick smoke from a slow motion house fire.  And I received instruction from Jim on how to proceed in the manner taught to search and rescue divers.

Ron’s glasses fell in the water on a Saturday afternoon.  Later that day, Bryce and I made our first attempts to retrieve them, as described Part 1.  It wouldn’t be until Tuesday afternoon before I would be able to make another attempt, this time with our tethered compressed-air solution.  Some call it SNUBA, a cross between snorkeling and SCUBA diving.  Others call it a hookah system (if you try looking it up on the Internet, be sure to include “diving” in the search perimeters to avoid getting pages of links to marijuana devices) because of how it provides compressed air via a long hose tethered to your waist.  It took days before I dove again because I wanted to find time to read the instructions and make sure I properly commissioned the unit into service.  It’s an expensive piece of machinery that if improperly used, could kill a diver–no exaggeration.

SCUBA 101 (skip the next two paragraphs if you’re not interested in learning how compressed air can kill or maim one of us):  Breathing compressed air is serious business.  As a diver descends, the combined weight of of the air and the water above put into play physical forces that require serious consideration and respect.  Ignorance is no shield against improper practice.  Having had SCUBA instruction, I knew some basic practices: 1) at fifteen feet of depth, I could safely stay underwater for a long time, more than an hour, 2) to always be in a state of breathing, either exhaling or inhaling, slowly and deliberately–never hold your breath, especially ascending, 3) if you lose your regulator (the mouth piece from which your air is drawn), blow small bubbles, 4) do not ascend faster than your bubbles; 5) make a safety stop 10 feet below the surface for a few minutes before finishing the ascent (unless you’re out of air, then ascend blowing bubbles), allowing your body to release excess air stored in the recesses of your body and giving your ears an opportunity to acclimate to the lower pressure (I get dizzy the last 8 ft.).  If a diver fails to adhere to safe practices, the physical laws of gas and fluids can work against the diver, releasing gases stored within their body tissues and blood stream (Henry’s law), creating painful air pockets between their lungs and chest, or sending air bubbles to the brain, like bubbles released from a freshly opened soft drink (Boyle’s law), killing or paralyzing them.   Why does this happen?  At depth, a diver needs higher air pressure to counter act the increased atmospheric pressures of the water surrounding the diver.  At 33 feet below the water’s surface, the atmospheric pressure is double that of the surface which is about 15 pounds per square inch (psi), so 30 psi at 33 feet. At that depth, an air-filled basketball would be half its size.  If you wanted the basketball expanded to full size at that depth, you’d need to fill it with twice as much air as with what it was filled at surface, which is the same thing as filling it with air that was compressed to twice its surface pressure.  That’s why you can’t just take a long piece of hose and breath from it from the surface like a long snorkel.  The air at surface is not pressurized (heavy) enough to expand a diver’s lungs at depth.  With a long snorkel, you might be able to dive 2 feet underwater, but not much more.  At the same time, if you don’t release the air from the basketball that’s now filled with twice the air at 33 feet, as it approaches the surface, the heavier air inside will expand to match the lower air pressure of the approaching surface, causing the ball to ascend faster and eventually explode.  Okay for a basketball, not okay for lungs.  By the way, without a lot of weight strapped to his or her body, it would be nearly impossible for a diver to swim a basketball down a few feet.  A dolphin might be able to (basketballs underwater), but not many humans.  Although, the deeper you get the ball, the smaller it gets, the easier it will be to push it down.

Another key factor surrounding diving with compressed air is the quality of the air compressed.  When compressing air, the air compressor siphons air from around its intake, the very air we breath at the surface, and squeezes it into higher pressures.  If the air it captures is polluted, the diver will breath concentrated pollution.  This can easily happen if the compressor breathes the exhaust of a gasoline or diesel engine, which puts out carbon monoxide, a toxic gas.  In our case, our compressor works off AC electricity. To create AC electricity, the kind of electricity that comes from the outlet of your walls, we use a gas-powered generator.  If the generator’s exhaust is sucked into the air-compressor, the diver could be poisoned.   When we want to dive at a location other than directly under Kandu, we may take our dinghy out to a better diving location.  The interior space of the dinghy is small, so the generator and the compressor will be near each other.  We will need to be extra cautious, separating the two as much as possible and making sure the compressor only breathes fresh air.  We must place it up wind from the generator with its own snorkel and carbon air filter.  So avoiding engine exhaust and other pollutants is crucial.  And there’s one more thing that breathing in will kill you: oil, any oil, even food grade oil.  In the harsh marine environment, metals rust.  To help prevent rusting, we coat our metals with a light oil spray (CorrosionX or Boeshields T9) to minimize contact from the oxygen and salts that cause corrosion.  The air compressor is no exception, so we must be extra careful to spray only its metal parts and not the air filter.  We must spray the compressor after each use, allowing time for the solvents in the oil to evaporate and for the oil to “dry” on the metal surfaces.  In this way, we insure the diver doesn’t breath compressed oil.  If a diver breaths compressed oil, his or her lung walls will be coated with the oil, preventing the lungs from absorbing air, causing the diver’s lungs to fill with fluid.  Even surfacing won’t save the diver.  So you can see how important it was for me to read the instructions describing the proper use of our new air compressor, and why it took awhile before I was able to dive for Ron’s expensive sunglasses.

End of lesson.  Back to the story.

With the knowledge of the air compressor’s proper use firmly saturating my brain, I gather up a few more items previously not incorporated in my earlier recovery attempts: a multi-colored spring wetsuit (short sleeves and legs) à la early nineties to keep me a little warmer in the cooler water for an extended period, a weight belt to make it easier for me to remain at depth underwater, a large underwater light lent by Jim, and an 8-foot tether tied to the top of the anchor shank that will help me create my search-zone.  We deploy the aluminum anchor just as we had the previous attempt, directly over the recalled drop zone.  Once suited up, I start the compressor.  The manual clearly states that to prevent deadly electrical shock, a wet diver should not turn on or off the compressor.  Someone who is dry, wearing rubber soled shoes, and not standing in water should.  I am dry for the start, but Ron, in his smart and dry street clothes, will turn it off and on from this point forward.

The new weight belt provided with the air compressor system has six little pockets within which to place weights of various size.  The pocket technology allows the diver to easily adjust weights, readily adding or removing as necessary.  It also allows a diver in trouble and needing to surface quickly the ability to loose a portion of the weights, making for a more controlled emergency ascent than were they to release the entire weight belt, which is the standard protocol. So, with marker anchor deployed, marking the focal point of my intended search area, I slip into the water; face mask covering my eyes and nose, regulator in mouth, fins on feet, anchor chain in hand.

First order of business, determine the proper amount of weights needed to attain neutral buoyancy (Archimedes’ principle): having the top of my head float at surface, breaking the surface as I inhale, and sinking as I exhale.  Wet suits float, so I find I need 12 lbs of lead weights (2 x 5-pounder and 1 x 2-pounder) placed evenly around my weight belt to properly float (and sink) me.

Adjusting Weight Belt
Adjusting Weight Belt
Finding Neutral Buoyancy
Finding Neutral Buoyancy

Jim’s large light strapped to my right wrist, I slowly begin my descent in to darkness.  The regulator underwater amplifies each tin-can sound inhale, like that of Darth Vader’s.  Each time the compressor’s ridged yellow hose touches my mask, I hear the rapid-fire thump of the compressor’s motor in my head, as if the compressor were on my shoulder.  I push it away as I can.  Although it is a sunny Tuesday afternoon, I can’t see much past arms lengths–just a dim light from the large lamp.  I can see the anchor chain, but little more.  The murky dark cotton-textured bottom behaves like the top of a cloud, the closer I get to it, the more it envelops me.   Jim’s idea of using the light to visually inspect the bottom before resorting to touch is proving fruitless.  At bottom, I can’t see the light beam through the water, let alone anything resembling the sea floor.  If I’m unable to use it, then I don’t want to lug it around, stirring up the silty bottom. I consider ascending so that I may remove the cumbersome light from my wrist and leave it on the small concrete dock that separates Kandu from the neighboring boat.  Just before I direct myself up, I feel an inanimate flat object under my righthand.  It’s the 18″x30″ outdoor carpet mat that Trent had dropped many months ago, that I discovered during my previous attempt to find the glasses.  I decide to take it with me.  As I ascend, the light fades up and I can see what’s in my hand.  Black silt streams off the small carpet like coal exhaust from the stack of an old fashioned steam-powered locomotive.

Ron, hoping I had been lucky, is disappointed I hadn’t found the glasses so quickly.  To better feel the bottom and better plant myself in one spot, I remove my flippers and leave them on the dock too.  Now I will be able to feel the bottom with both hands and feet.  I dive again, my left hand sliding down the anchor chain, guiding me to my starting point.  No longer encumbered by the spotlight, I am ready to feel my way over the silky bottom, determined not to quit until I recover the lost sunglasses.

Arriving at the upright anchor, its squarish crown sides are planted straight down in the silt, its erect shank pointing skyward. I untwist from the top of the shank the small white nylon lanyard that I tied earlier that day.  I can barely make it out, but somehow I’m able to see it.  It takes me awhile to get oriented.  I’m a little lost at first, but calm down and begin implementing the plan:  while holding the end of the lanyard in my left hand as far from the anchor as possible, I extend the reach of my right hand and both feet. In a leg-spread push-up position, I first move my right leg as far to the right as possible and gently poke my toes into the silt, moving my leg up and down, side to side.  The bottom is soft.  My toes easily sink into the fine, saturated silt.  I cannot see but the dark grey-brown cloud that encircles my head.  Were there somewhere else near me, I could not know.  Just as in life, I know the immediate circumstance that surrounds my senses.  The focus of my task is here, not elsewhere.  If conditions are better someplace else, I don’t know, and don’t care to know.  Once the right leg is done, I stretch the left leg as far left and away from the anchor as I can and begin carefully examining the bottom, first moving my foot up a couple inches at a time until my knee is to my chest, then a little to the right and back down again, a couple inches at a time, hoping to feel something rigid, not super soft mud.  The water temperature is cool, probably in the upper 60’s.  With my wetsuit, I know I can stay for about an hour before I begin to get hypothermic (cold enough where I’d have to consider surfacing), and that with the compressor supplying me with air, I can easily stay an hour or much more if needed.  At a depth of fifteen feet, one hour of compressed air will not cause any physiological problems.  So long as I ascend slowly and take a minute break at 10 feet, I’ll be fine.  At the same time that my feet are working, my hands are performing a similar, but opposite pattern.  It’s a bit like rubbing your head and patting your tummy.  With an eight foot lanyard wrapped around my left hand and my body outstretched, I figure my toes are about fourteen feet from the anchor, creating a search diameter of about 32-ft., plenty large enough to capture my prize.  Once one piece of the pie has been carefully felt up and down, maintaining my push-up position, I crab walk to the right a couple steps, past the area I think I’ve examined, and start exploring another piece of the dark black-brown cotton-ball pie, looking for the cherry pit in the pie.  In New Orleans, they bake a pie with a little baby Jesus figurine mixed inside the almond paste filling.  No one knows which slice will contain the prize, so you very carefully bite into your slice until you or someone else discovers it.  Well, that’s a bit like what I’m doing.  I’m carefully feeling my way through each piece of pie, first from the outer edge, then I’ll move closer to center and feel my way around the inner circle, looking for my prize.

I find and collect objects as I sift through the muck, clothes pins and a roll of tape.  Each time, a little disappointed it isn’t the “little baby Jesus.”  So I continue my pattern, hopeful that this systematic slice-of-the-pie approach will bear the intended fruit.  I am determined to find it.  Before descending, the dockside pundits, other live-aboard sailors, mocked my determination, sighting how they were not able to find objects ten times larger than the one I was seeking, figuring that the current had taken it far away.  It’s taken me about 30 minutes, as best I can sense time, to complete the outer circle.  Knowing my air hose and lanyard are now wrapped around counter-clockwise around the anchor chain, after moving up close to the anchor, I begin my search routine again but this time I move left, clockwise around the anchor, to slowly unwind my tethers.  Fifteen minutes later, about halfway around the anchor, I am a little discouraged.  I’m starting to get cold.  Being careful not to stir up the bottom, I’m not moving around enough to elevate my body heat.  I don’t want to start doing underwater burpee exercises for fear it will stir up the contents of the sea floor, possibly dislodging the sunglasses to drift away in the mild current.  I tell myself I’ll stay down as long as it takes.  Police search and rescue divers don’t give up, and neither will I.  Maybe the anchor set on top of the glasses.  I check, but they are not there.  I continue with my search pattern.

At first I hesitate to believe it.  The object that brushes against the outside of my right hand doesn’t feel like a clothespin and it doesn’t swim away. My numb hand feels something a little larger.  I carefully examined what I’ve touched.  They are the glasses, my “little baby Jesus.”  I found them!  Yippie for me.  Kenny from New Jersey isn’t going to believe it!  With the anchor chain in my left hand, and the sunglasses in my right, I carefully stand up from the bottom, gently moving the glasses through the water to wash away the silt.  Standing there, I exhaust some of the compressed air from my body, not really a necessary step for the shallow depth I’ve been working, but it’s my practice.  Still unable to see, I take time to swish the glasses underwater before placing them on my head, above my black mask. As I slowly ascend so as not to disturb the glasses from my head (I really don’t want to loose them now!), I begin to see what’s around me and I can see the air hose above me. I move around the anchor chain to complete my circle and unwind the hose from around the chain.  The whole time I was down there, about 50 minutes, Ron had been monitoring the compressor and the air hose, taking up the slack and letting it out as I needed.  As I break the surface and remove the regulator from my mouth, I declare that looking any further for the glasses is fruitless.  Not seeing the dark glasses above my dark mask, Ron agrees and thanks me for the effort.  He said he’d just have to drive to Mexico and get another pair.  Unable to hold back any longer, I lift the glasses from my head and ask, “Like these?”  He bursts out with a laugh of disbelief, and says, “If nothing else, you’re one persistent guy.”

While I rush up to take a hot shower, Ron works to rinse off the equipment with fresh water from the dock hose.  Although some may say sunglasses didn’t warrant such an effort, I am pleased that I got the opportunity to try out our Spare Air and our hookah diving systems.  I appreciated the education Jim gave me regarding search techniques.  The overall experience was valuable and will help me in the future.  And, the glasses provided me the excuse I needed to take a break from working on the boat, time away that was greatly appreciated.  Plus I saved my father-in-law a drive to Mexico and back, and he got to experience first hand just how stubborn I can be when I’m determined to achieve an outcome.  Although there was no guarantee of success, the value of persistance paid off . . . this time.

Another underwater salvaging event just occurred.  Look forward to “A Tale of Two Skateboards.”

Anchor Used to Locate "Baby Jesus"
Anchor Used to Locate “Baby Jesus”
Ron at Home with Sunglasses
Ron at Home with Sunglasses