While I’ve been good about maintaining a proficiency regimen for various diving skills and technical equipment, I have not spent much time actually working underwater since my role shifted into program development for recent #exosuitproject efforts.
This has been a challenge for me, as I went from literally spending every day underwater for numerous years as an inshore mud diver, to largely sitting behind a desk. When the diving slowed down, I went through a physical withdrawal period – quite possibly some type of decompression sickness from the several thousands of hours spent in very shallow water. After coming out of that withdrawal, or perhaps decompression, the after effects of extensive diving started to kick in…various pain niggles, skin issues, my metabolism got all screwed up and I went through a number of food binge issues, a serious lung/sinus thing, and it went on. I’d say that now, after a year, I’m just slowly becoming reacclimated to terra firma, though still carrying many of the residual issues along with me. On one hand I feel like I needed to put that level of physical and physiological stress behind me, on the other hand, perhaps I would have been better off sticking with the program.
Yesterday, a colleague inquired if I’d be up for some Saturday side work to install a helix mooring. I couldn’t have been more excited about getting back out there to do some work underwater, so away we went. For those not knowing what a helix mooring is, it is essentially a steel anchor that is hydraulically screwed into the seafloor until a certain amount of torque is reached during installation. These can be up to 20 feet long, or longer, comprised of a bottom section with multiple ‘discs’, then extensions to drive deeper and deeper until the desired torque is reached. The full anchor can be 600-700 pounds, and the diver is required to handle each extension segment underwater – lifting, rigging, maneuvering – its a lot of bumps and bruises.
From it’s terminal end, chain is typically affixed to then secure moorings, floating docks, or similar marine hardware. I’ve installed probably over a hundred of these things in the past, so the sequence was like riding a bike.
Despite working in shallow water, the conditions during mooring work are often difficult – bay bottoms tend to be mudholes, the water is dirty from runoff and at times industrial waste, and it can be very dark to blackwater type diving. These are the types of environments that offer little for sightseeing, but truly help to refine underwater sensory perception and spatial awareness.
Installing a helix system means running a hydraulic torque motor underwater, keeping hydraulic hoses, gear lines, and an air hose free from entanglement, or worse – getting jammed up in and around the anchor as it screws itself into the bottom. It’s not an inherently safe operation, so it takes a degree of skill and common sense to do it right without incident. This type of work is often taken for granted as grunt work by the outside community, but I can tell you from firsthand experience that the guys out on the water doing this type of stuff, despite some personality issues, are sharp as nails when it comes to being capable hands out on the water. ‘Think fast, act fast’ is the name of the game.
My first descent was through the brown upper layers to arrive at a firm bottom in about 20 feet of water. The bottom was crusty, consisting of shell hash and rock, though there were patches of floculent organic matter. There was just enough water movement to whisk away sediment that I kicked up as I got the work area organized with tools and lines, and was I was pleasantly surprised to have 3-4 feet of visibility. It just felt good to be back there in my element, however a few things were obvious. One was that I recalled having to fight a few areas within my suit that would routinely flush with water and make me cold. The year or so away from wet work lead to some added insulation which filled up those areas and I was instead sweating like a fool. Sweating underwater is such a strange thing, but when you do, you know for sure that you are losing some serious water weight as you can actually feel the oil from your skin wick away under your suit and become replaced with seawater. The day’s operation rounded out at me four pounds lighter than when I woke up in the morning.
Communicating topside is typically by using pull signals which at times do not go recognized. That means multiple ascents and descents, fighting your sinuses, and quite frankly defying all of the basic rules of diving regarding ascent rates and so on. Your tissues end up working like a sponge while transitioning to and from 10 psi numerous times over the course of several hours.
When driving the helix anchor into the bottom, you can feel the power of the pressure the hydraulic unit is placing on doing the work, which results in you paying acute attention – all of the equipment down there could do some serious damage. Every now and again a hydraulic hose will drape itself over a shoulder, or around your legs, and its subtle vibration from fluid cycling reminds you of the power you are playing with. As the anchor screws deeper and deeper, silt is kicked up and visibility often reduces itself to zero. At times, psychologically you have to force yourself into this little black hole to operate – that can be extremely challenging for some, and often the make it or break it point in a diving career. The ability to operate, and operate well, when feeling in such isolation is a major hurdle to overcome for the working diver. For me at least, those moments offer the solitude I miss day by day, and I strive to be at my best during those moments. Those are the times when performance counts most.
After about three and half cumulative hours on the bottom and the job done, it is time to break down the hydraulic torque motor underwater and send tools to the surface. By this point, exhaustion sneaks up on you, as to bumps and bruises from working with all the heavy equipment and muscling around 600-700 pounds of anchor hardware. It’s definitely like falling off that bike that you are so confident in riding.
At the end of the day, I re-appreciated what it is like to be in ‘dive shape’, something that I am not in right now, but certainly hope to be again very soon. For now, I am paying the price for taking time away from it all.