Thursday, May 29, 2008

Thar's GOLD under them thar waves

A couple of days ago I was searching through some old photos and found one of me and my dive buddy on the treasure hunting ship Virgalona. Danielle, not having been with me then thought that I should write about it, so here it is.

During the Summer ot 2003 I was working for and by myself as an industrial engineer. I had a not quite 1 year old son and I was not doing a very good job of bringing home the bacon. One day a friend of mine mentioned that one of his clients needed a flybridge designed and built for his yacht. I met with guy and we talked design and price and finally settled on $8000.00 which was a pile of money to me who had none. Turned out he got a better deal than he should have but that was another story.

About the time I finished building the fly bridge the boat owner asked me if I wanted to do some treasure diving with his crew. The deal was that he would buy my dive gear and pay me $750 a week cash to dive 8 hours a day 6 days a week. At a time when most treasure divers worked on a comission which rarely paid anything and the fact that I had zero experience I should have been worried but I took the job anyway.

My first day diving was on the good ol' Virgalona. Mel Fishers old boat which was now owned and captained by Mel's old Captain Moe Molinar. I was diving with a veteran Coastie named Byng who was a few years my senior who had been treasure diving for years and the Boss' son Danny who was a complete idiot. Byng showed me what to do and regaled me with tons of stories in the first few days of diving. Our first few days was scan diving which is basically swiming lanes on the reef with a metal detector and digging up any hits that we got. In those first few days of scan diving I had a chance to remember all the crap that I learned in dive class some 4 or 5 years earlier and became super comfortable in the water again. In fact one of the jokes we would play on each other was turning off your buddies air during a system check and then shoving him in the water. After a while you just got used to this stuff. We really were a bunch of pirates!

Those first few days of scan diving however did nothing to prepare me for the sheer terror that I felt on my first hole dive. Hole diving is where you use a device on the boat called a mailbox that is positioned over the propellers to direct the prop wash to the bottom and blows huge holes in the sea floor all the way down to the buried reef or rock. To start off with, I was still pretty unfamiliar with shipboard life and duties such as rope coiling and using hydraulic winches and had a rude awakening on my first day out on the Virg. In order to blow holes you have to position 3 anchors, one off the bow and two off the stern. This is done by tying the bow anchor to the stern of the tender, and then haulin ass about 300 feet out and dropping the anchor and then repeating the process with the tow stern lines one at a time. Not an easy task! If you've never towed 300 feet of 1" poly line with a 12' boston whaler you have no idea how difficult it can be. After dropping the anchor in position, the lines are tightened using some ancient and rusted hydraulic winches which are also used to adjust the boat by either lengthening or loosening various lines. If all of this sounds tedious.....It is, and painfull too. Poly rope tears the hell out of your skin. Anyway, after all of this was done, we through the dive ladder over and I was told to go down and pin the mailboxes? How? You don't know? I didn't either. I suited up, and geared up and dove in and fought with the boxes for about 10 minutes all the while being really really nervous about hanging on to an 18" diameter prop while the engine was idling up above. After about 10 minutes Byng jumps in with a mask and little else and pins the boxes in about 45 seconds. My first day wasn't going well. I stayed in the water while Capn Moe firewalled the engines for about 5 minutes blowing an enourmous hole in the sea floor. As soon as he throttled down, Byng dives in, and motions for me to follow him down. As we are descending, I can see a dark cloud billowing up at us......and then it hit! Holy Crap!! it went pitch black! Black like you can't imagine if you've never been there. If you put your hand on your mask you couldn't even see the skin that was touching the glass! I don't think that I had ever been so scared in my entire life! I tried to fight the panic but lost out after a few seconds that seemed like a few hours. I kept trying to figure out how to surface without slamming into the bottom of the boat whose props were engaged at idle speed to keep the hole from filling in. Honestly, I couldn't even figure out where up was! I finally pumped a little air in my BC and swam like hell in a direction hoping for the best. Luckily I popped out of the cloud before I popped out of the water and was able to get my shit together before anyone on board saw me. I hung there in mid-water for a minute trying to get a grip on myself and finally decided that this was my last chance to feed my family so I guess I'd better get on with it. After all, a job is a job....Right?

Surprisingly enough after that first episode I didn't have any more panic attacks under water. After a few drops it became routine. Engines go to idle, dive under and grab the mailbox, let the propwash shoot you to the bottom, turn on the metal detector, crawl around the hole counter-clockwise in an outward spiraling circle while your dive buddy does the same thing going clockwise spiraling inward. After about 7 minutes the visabilty clears, and within 10 minutes of hitting the bottom you're usually done and back on the dive ladder. If you get a hit, you bury one hand in the sand, or hang on to a rock if available, grab your dive knife and dig it out. Most of the time all we found were cans, bottle tops and lead fishing weights. All of these had to be retrieved even if you could tell by the hit what it was. ( you don't want to have to dig it up again)

This routine went on, 5 minutes on the ladder, 10 minutes in the hole from 8:00 in the am until 5:30 in the pm day in, day out. The only time we were out of the water was when we were filling our tanks and swapping gear. Hell, we even ate our lunches and smoked while hanging on the dive ladder. After a few days it became boring as hell, but the pay was good, the company was better and of course there was always the chance we would find some gold!

We only had a few adventures and mishaps. One time we blew a hole, and I went down to the bottom and found no hole, just hard packed sand. This went on for 3 or 4 times before I went down and hit rock. Keep in mind that when you hit the bottom your BC is completely deflated if you are even wearing one, and the props are still turning at idle speed so the water is kicked up pretty bad so you have no idea where up and down is. So anyway, I'm crawling over the rock, running my metal detector and not really finding the bottom to be what I expected. I keep crawling along, and all of a sudden the water clears and I realize that I'm head down in a crevace that is slightly larger than my body and about 20 feet deep in the ocean bottom. I was only about 2 feet from the end of it! I still get chills when I think about what would have happened if I had reached the end of that crevace before the water cleared. I like to think that I would have kept my cool and figured it out, but more likely I would have freaked out and died.......

Another time Byng and I were in the hole in Sebastian and the water was the color of Haitian coffee even before we messed it up, I'm in the hole doing my thing and head for the surface where I run into Bying on the Dive ladder looking like he'd seen a ghost. Turns out he reached out to steady himself by hanging on to the bottom and grabbed a shark or some other big fish by the tail. He said the he could tell it was the tail area by the shape, and it was big enough that his hand didn't fit around it. Yikes!

And of course who could forget the time that we were diving just South of the Sebastian inlet, I think it was Corrigans and we had a school of hammer heads decend on us. I was actually on the boat while the other 2 guys were down (not the usual state of affairs) when about (4) six foot plus hammer heads swam up to the boat and kind of circled around. Bying and the other Mike came up and quickly got out of the water and then we realized that someone had to unpin the mailboxes or we weren't going anywhere! Good ole Byng dove in and unpinned the boxes! Sharks be Damned! What a guy.

Turns out, we didnt' find any gold or silver that year. All we found were some musket balls, part of a gun, and what later investigation revealed to be a section of the bow of the former German Kaiser's personal yacht.

I never did go back to diving, giving it up for a more practical job. Sometimes I miss it though...... and who knows, we could find some Gold!