While most of the world was busy getting ‘Trumped’ Tuesday night (election night), there I was, all clammed up on the galley bench of a clam dredge fishing vessel trying to get a few hours sleep while en route to Nantucket Shoals off of Massachusetts. The mission – recover a clam dredge that had been lost.
So, what is a clam dredge? Well, imagine a very large steel cage with a series of water jet nozzles at the front used to churn up the ocean floor. The vessel drags this cage through a clam bed, and picks up just about anything in its wake. This is not an incredibly selective methods of fishing, but is one of those techniques used for ages that is unlikely to change any time soon. When these dredges come up, the bycatch is separated from the clams and tossed overboard, but I can only imagine that the survival rates of accidentally caught critters going through the ordeal of being dragged through a steel cage full of rocks and shells is very forgiving. Nevertheless, our population is dependent on seafood, and like it or not, this is just one method of many employed to provide we humans with the resources we demand.
Every now and again, a clam dredge is lost – it could be stuck on the bottom, or topside hardware on the vessel fails and the dredge has to be released until the mechanics are fixed. A lost dredge means a boat is not working, and therefore not making money. This down time is expensive, and given the many variables to operating at sea, it’s critical to seize the opportunity to get out there as soon as reasonably possible. In any case, many times divers are needed to assist in recovering the dredge, as they are extremely heavy at 10,000 or more pounds, and can only be recovered by the winches aboard these vessels with their strong steel cable. I’ve been through this excersize a few times over the years, and it is among the most challenging types of diving that has come my way.
And there we were…a 9 hour steam out of Fairhaven MA and headed to Nantucket Shoals. With a full crew on board, the divers were left with the option of sleeping outside or in the galley. I’d have opted for the former if it were summertime, but we’ve been in to freezing temps here at night. So, galley it was. At 6’1″ I had an expected rough time sleeping on a 3.5′ long kitchen bench, but managed to close my eyes for a couple of hours at a time. I was woken up twice. The first time was a bit of a rogue wave which sent my $6 tub of trail mix off the table and onto the floor…there went my snacks for the trip. So after cleaning that up at 2AM, my next interruption was at 5AM with the Captain shouting ‘time to get up’ followed by ‘Trump won’. What a way to start the day…crass fisherman and politics all at once.
We arrived on site at about 6AM, and then went on to locate the dredge which was marked with a buoy attached to a 2.5″ diameter Hauser line. The plan was to grab the Hauser line, take it tight to the stern, then slide the 1.25″ diameter steel cable down the line to the dredge. We would descend, shackle the steel cable into the dredge, then surface. THen the vessel would haul in the dredge, and we go home. As these things go, it’s never as easy as it sounds.
Diving on Nantucket Shoals is quite beautiful, but also treacherous. No land in sight, a fair amount of marine life, clear water – it’s as open ocean as you can get within reasonable proximity to shore around here. Water depths are in the 50 to 90 foot range. THe challenge is the tide. When the tide cycle changes, currents can rip at 5 knots. Time the dive wrong, and you can be swept away, and quite likely not recovered by the boat you are on. We hit the first attempt incorrectly, and hat to abort. Our second attempt was successful, reaching the dredge in 70 feet of water, shackling in rather quickly, and ascending back to the boat in less than 20 minutes. But then, as the vessel began to haul up the dredge, the loop spliced into the end of the wire cable slipped out, and all that came up was the end of the wire – no dredge. We lost the tide, were low on air, and were sure to run out of daylight in sticking around for the next window, so 9 hours later we were back in Fairhaven. That’s the gamble out there on the high seas. Things can either go perfectly, or they don’t go at all.
After an almost 30 hour door to door excursion and not much accomplished other than a backache, a headache, cold hands, and a night of missing us all getting Trumped, I was happy to get back home for a decent night sleep and regroup with the world. I am continually amused at the diversity that comes with this life aquatic – one day I’m on a luxury yacht with fine diving and the best technology money can buy, and the next I’m all clammed up on well, a clam boat.