Late yesterday afternoon, the phone rang and the ‘hello’ was forgone. I was met only with a ‘you’re leaving at midnight’…
This wasn’t the first time, and certainly won’t be the last, as this life aquatic as an underwater vagabond has a way of keeping the flow (excuse the pun) of work in a multitude of directions. One of the most enjoyable last minute calls led me to partake in a week of coral reef research in Belize. Yesterday’s call was not quite as glamorous, though no less exciting, ‘…head 8 hours offshore and recover a clam dredge.’
I met at the boat in Fairhaven, Massachusetts at 10PM, loaded my gear, and then we were quickly underway for what would be an all night steam out to Nantucket Shoals. While I was lead to believe that this would be a rather plush fishing boat, it was somewhat the contrary. The mate gave me the nickel tour, which included pointing out the head, and my bunk. He strongly suggested I cove the mattress with a blanket, and cover up the pillow – both for reasons that needed no explanation – this was no 5 star hotel. In fact, it wasn’t even a 1 star hotel. The bunk smelled like one would expect with four fisherman working 30 hour shifts all week offshore in tight quarters…less than desirable.
Nevertheless, I fell asleep around midnight, and woke up at about 5AM to the gentle rock of being underway. We were just about on site. The dive plan was to take up tight on a hauser line fixed to the dredge, then send down a new cable with a shackle on the line. Divers enter the water, secure the cable, then get out of dodge. The challenge? Tides can run at 6+ kts out on the shoals, so hitting the dive at dead slack is important – and we did. The dive was the easy part. It was the brief taste of life on the open ocean that was the challenge. Despite the simplicity of the dive, it was not without challenges. First was depth. We were told that the dredge was resting in 30 feet of water. Turned out it was 50. Not a huge deal, though this difference of 20 feet does make a huge difference when we approach the deeper end of the spectrum. Had this been the difference between 100 and 120 feet, it could have posed a more considerable problem as we may not have been prepared to make the dive safely. Lesson learned – gather as much information firsthand as possible before making a run at midnight.
Breakfast consisted of a cup of burnt coffee with a shot of 2 week old whole milk. Our early lunch, and reward from the Cap’n was each our own can of beef ravioli. Last time I had that slop was 20+ years ago, and I never thought the day would come again. The Captain was all too happy to share and make our remaining stay comfortable given that our short dive saved his company tens of thousands in gear and potentially lost time. His sunken eyes gleemed, as he continued with his fix of cigarettes, sore throat lozenges, and a Coke.
Fortunately, the day was flat calm offshore, so motoring around was tolerable. Logistics were complex however. We had an 8 hour steam offshore, and while out here, the vessel owner wanted the boat to fish after we recovered the dredge, rather than bring us 8 hours home. That wasn’t in my cards, so we arrived at a plan to drop us off in Nantucket, from which we could catch a ferry (with a full load of dive gear) back to the mainland. Made for quite the logistical operation, but all in all a success.
While I haven’t spent all that much time offshore, I always find the subculture alluring. These guys are weathered and go through battle with the sea everyday. And yet they find some balance with a life on the sea that the rest of us could never fathom. Somewhere deep within us is an innate ability to survive on and in an aquatic state. Losing sight of the beach every now again is always a good reminder of our place here on the Blue Planet.
There truly is no place like home.