Mid-November – 2009
Off of Montauk
Hurricane Ida slipped out to sea well to the south, off the Carolinas, and we were still diving. It was out of season for a hurricane to turn into a tropical depression, wander through the southern states, come out over the East Coast, and spark into a Nor’easter (a winter hurricane) – but it happened. It wasn’t enough to say “it’s rough, we should cancel.” The customers needed to see it. Telling them wasn’t enough. Some of the divers drove two hours to get to the boat, so we needed to make a day of it. It was possible we wouldn’t dive, but we had to go take a look.
The thought of winter diving made me physically ache with the thought of the stiffness in my hands, and the way my knee always felt sore. Winter diving was cold. You typically didn’t see other boats except an occasional freighter or submarine. It was an exceptional solitude to dive off-season. So, to settle the nerves, I checked all my safety gear the night before: my up-line, safety marker, wreck reels, lights, backup lights, a two dollar plastic whistle, and two knives. I was diving with a set of double steel-one-hundreds connected with a double manifold and an isolator valve. It was bolted on an elaborate buoyancy vest, held in place by an aluminum back-plate. From the two tanks came two regulators, a pressure gauge, a hose for my vest, and a hose for my dry suit. I also strapped on a Nitrox computer and a timer, in case something failed. The dry suit was one piece with a heavy duty zipper across the top of my back. The hood and gloves were wetsuit material that allowed water in around the face and hands. The last of it was a mask, ankle weights for trim, and fins. The double backpack weighed close to one hundred pounds on land. It was just negatively buoyant with all my gear on in the water. This inner-space suit was complicated.
At daybreak in November, the sky was painted a pink and orange murk. It wasn’t sunny at all. The storm was forecasted to clear, but it was still haunting us. We threw the lines off the boat and motored out into the harbor. It was a time when the crew and the paying customers came out for a look around. We slid down the river to the open sea. The water was quiet, but the prop wash was brown and brackish from the heavy rain. By the time we were out of the harbor, the light of the sky changed to steel grey. The clouds were pressing down on us, thickening. I was surprised we had two or three miles of visibility.
My job on the boat was simple – throw the hook out at the right spot, given by command from the captain who looked at the wreck with his bottom finder. Once the line tightened, I would get my gear on, dive to the anchor at the bottom, tie it in to the wreck so we wouldn’t pull out of it, and return with a report. It sounds easy, but it is always fraught with complications. Technical diving was like that – the risks, the snap decisions, and how quickly fate could turn were never really discussed – just understood.
The captain picked up the pace as we passed New London Ledge Lighthouse. We were headed south to Montauk. Our dive site was the U.S.S. Bass, about fourteen miles from Montauk. There was a chop in the Long Island Sound, but considering the intensity of the storm that passed by, it was relatively flat. For two days, the wind howled north to north east gusting to forty miles an hour. As we made way to Montauk, there were no signs of a wicked November storm. It was surprisingly smooth.
As we closed in on Montauk, the swells began to heave and the fog dropped down. The waves were moving around us, like shadows. First you heard it in the boat, pulling and pushing as we surfed down one side, and back up another. We were among giants. Some of the wave tops curled and broke, some just moved off into the fog. It was undulating around us, some growing bigger. They were big, but they were spread out: the energy of a massive storm defusing into the ocean. We were constantly measuring, calculating our worth, but out there everything was magnified to clicking seconds, thumping heart beats, the heave of up to down. I left the bridge and went down to the back deck. The customers were inside, hunkered down, napping, staving off sea sickness, dreaming of mermaids or whatever people dream during a pre-dive power nap. Off the side of the boat, the massive swells rolled by in drifts and heaves on the boat. From the back of the boat, close to water level, I could look up at the waves before heaving up and sliding back down. Back on the bridge, we tried to get information from the NOAA radio system reporting conditions from the Montauk buoy. We wanted to know the wind speeds, the wave heights, and the weather conditions. They announced all the buoys, but they never mentioned the Montauk buoy. Why?
That was when the captain shouted to port. A movement across the water’s surface looked like low flying birds, then disappeared in a wave. Then they surfaced again, then more. Not birds, but dolphins. It looked like there were five or six. Then fifteen to twenty broke out around us. They weren’t following the boat; they were crossing. While we were moving south around Montauk, they were coming in. The pod had probably been pushed north in the massive storm that was born by tropical water and destined to die in the cold North Sea. The dolphins’ speckled skin shimmered as they broke over the surface of the grey water only to dive again. We were holding our own above water; they were retreating under it.
The fog thickened and I stayed alert on the bridge to help spot debris or a lost fishing vessel that might miss our radar. The radar was not very effective in the rolling sea that absorbed radar signals and found little to reflect. We traveled south a bit more. The fog increased and the swell grew. Out of the fog, a dark shadow drew in. It was closing. It was a twenty five foot swell, taller than the boat. We started heaving up the wave and the captain turned to the east. The boat slid down the massive wave and into the trough. Our feet left the deck for a moment. As we gained the crest of the giant wave, we saw the second one beyond it. There are always two. The captain turned into it and we rode down the wave feeling our stomach cinch. We had changed course drastically as we rode the wave.
The captain took his cell phone and called home. “Hey, take this number down and if I don’t call you within an hour, make the call.” He was giving our current coordinates.
He slapped his phone shut and said, “We need to move east.” Even a forty-two foot Hatteras was no match for twenty-five foot swells. And they could grow bigger as we moved south.
We had rounded Montauk and caught a glimpse at the beating heart of the storm called Ida.
We later found out that we couldn’t get information from the Montauk buoy because it simply wasn’t there anymore. The seas were so bad that it broke the buoy mooring and swept it out to sea. No news is not always good news.
We moved northeast and found some refuge from the big waves, sheltered by Block Island. The sea was still heaving, but it was easing. When we reached the south shore of Rhode Island, the seas flattened.
Instead of diving on the Bass, we were at a wreck called the Heroine, a fishing trawler in seventy-five feet of water. We set up the anchor chain and deployed the Danforth. I had an uncanny relationship with that anchor. It was a sand anchor and the point was to land it near the wreck site and let it dig into the sand. It was heavy and cumbersome. From there, we often deployed a wreck reel from the anchor to the wreck. Divers would get to the end of the anchor and then find the wreck reel line to follow to the bulk of the wreck. But I had a way of landing the damn anchor right into wrecks.
I donned my gear while the captain set the running lines out. The running lines were set up so you could jump off the back of the boat, shimmy underneath, meet with the anchor line and begin the descent to the bottom. If there was current, it was a safe and easy way to get to the anchor line. Current is always strange in Long Island and Block Island Sound and the fading hurricane had thrown them all out of synch. Nothing was on time, the tide tables were worthless, and the flows weren’t reliable. There was too much wind, too much surge, too much storm for the tide to be predictable.
I jumped off the platform and moved down the running line. I quickly made it to the anchor line. The wreck sat at about seventy-five feet. I moved down to the forty-foot mark. Below me, it was dark. The overcast and the milky look of the water didn’t help. I opened a side pouch and pulled out my light. I turned it on and descended down.
This was the first year I had gotten used to the dark descent. I learned to train my light on the rope heading down. You can gauge visibility, distance, and location on the line with the beam of light. The light is a focus point when you can’t see anything else in the dark. At the chain, you had another twenty feet of chain and the anchor. But I should have known that today would be different. It would be shaped by a dying hurricane. The forces were beyond my will, my training, and my fear. It was Ida shaping the world.
I knew I had left a stormy surface condition, but I didn’t realize that I was entering another tempest. It was a bottom storm. As I moved down fifty and sixty feet, not only was it pitch black, but I could hardly see the line in my hand. I slipped into a sand storm flooding around me. A foot, eight inches, four inches…I could make out little of the rope. I managed to feel my way into a pouch for the tie-in line which was a ten foot piece of rope we use to tie in the anchor. I felt the chain sliding through my hand and I followed it. My knee slammed into something. I was hoping it was the wreck. The chain was held tight to the face of a brown surface that I assume was part of the wreck. I followed it down a bit more and found the end of the anchor.
I was able to thread the line through a few chinks of chain. I then found a hole. By pushing my light into the hole, I could see a place to tie the line. But when my light was pushed too far into the hole, it was pitch black. I could feel my legs pushing and pulling on the surge. If I thought about the rope and nets I could tangle into, about the holes, the failure of equipment, all the things that could fail, I would have panicked. I was able to tie it in. I moved up the chain and left the bottom.
When I came out of the bottom storm, into the murk, I checked my gangues and moved back up. When I surfaced at the bow of the boat, I hailed the captain.
“How does it look?” he said.
“It’s a shit storm down there.”
He looked at me for a minute and said, “Let me see what they want to do.”
They were technical divers. They all had experience and training, so I wasn’t worried about their abilities. But the conditions were terrible. I moved to the back of the boat and climbed out. I pulled out of my gear and helped the divers in. The first diver was back in ten minutes. A few divers spent time trying to “make the best of it.” In some diver circles, they might call this low-visibility diving, but in truth, this was no-visibility diving. All the divers were back in less than twenty minutes. My job was to go back and pull the hook. It didn’t help listening to the customers talking about how bad it was. The captain reminded me that if it was too dangerous that we would cut the line. As I suited up, one diver, pulling off his gear said, “I feel bad for you. It’s bad down there.”
I geared up and went back in. My light was ready and I was hell-bent on cutting the tie-in line, pulling out the hook into the sand and getting out of there quickly and efficiently. I followed the chain into the bottom storm. Only the links of the chain could guide me. I let go of the chain and lost sight of it. Panic ripped through me. Luckily, my scrambling hands grabbed the chain again. I realized that if I disconnected from the chain, I would be lost in a no-visibility situation. I would have to tie into something with a wreck reel, surface, signal, and hope for the best. And the boat couldn’t even come and pick me up because they would be stuck on the wreck. I could drift to Block Island or out to the North Atlantic. I could hear my heart beating.
When I got to the end of the chain, it disappeared into what looked like a metal hole. I couldn’t find the anchor or the line I tied into the wreck. I pulled on the chain, but it was caught and stuck in the hole. I was clutching the chain so tight that when the chain pulled tight against the wreck, it pinned my hand. I reached into the hole, but couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t see anything. I gathered my light and sat looking through my mask at nothing more than the frame of my mask. It was all that I could see in the dim beam of my flashlight as millions of tiny flecks of sand, mangrove roots, mud, sediment, rust, and algae blew by in a primordial blizzard. I pulled on the chain and tried to get the anchor to come to me. It didn’t move and I couldn’t see the actual anchor shackle. I had no place being down there. So, I left.
By the time I moved up into clear water, I was disappointed and tired. Back on the boat I tossed off my gear and went to the front deck to cut the anchor line and tie a float to the end. The hope was to come back on a better day and recover the anchor. As we motored back, we were watching the bottom contour on the depth finder. There were massive ripples carved out on the bottom. Things were shifting and moving in deep currents. The shifting sands were creating a new landscape, new contours, and new bottom topographies.
Since my dive, I had been looking for more information about underwater storms, but there wasn’t much. Let’s face it, few people dive in those conditions, few people would see that condition. It was a black, smothering sand storm moving in deep wall-clouds under a layer of tropical green and blue water. And that’s why the dolphins were staying up on the surface. That pod was riding between the wind and rain on the surface and the black storm raging at the bottom. It was an immense energy that rippled through the sea over hundreds of miles. The storm suspended in the sky had reached to the deepest ocean bottom. Layers of cloud, thrashing water, and sand were the tumult of a cosmic swirl, lifting off to the North East.
Ron Samul is a writer, educator, and diver. He holds an MFA in Professional Writing from Western Connecticut State University where he mentors graduate students and writes novels. He also teaches college freshmen writing courses at Mitchell College. His work has appeared in the SN Review, Library Journal, Liturgical Credo, and on other print/electronic media.