It’s Gone!

Chart Detail of Castine
Chart detail of Castine Harbor.

By Michael Carr – Maine Maritime Academy sits on the shores of Penobscot Bay Maine, where the surface water temperature rarely exceeds 50 F, and that only occurs on the one weekend in August called “summer”. Below the surface layer, the 50 F water temperature quickly drops to the low 40s F and remains that temperature year around.

Castine Harbor is deep, with the bottom dropping off quickly from shore, going down to 90 feet just a few hundred feet out. It is a deep, dark, cold and rocky area, as is much of the Maine Coast.

“The cable just broke!” said the boat’s skipper. “It snaked under the keel, and before I could relieve the strain it snapped.”

At the end of the cable was, or had been, a $100,000 Nansen oceanographic bottle cast array, necessary equipment for the Fall semester oceanographic class. Without the array, no class.

“Maybe we can drag for it with a grappling hook” suggested someone who had no experience in underwater recovery.

Many other ideas were offered and ultimately dismissed.

“Let’s hire a commercial diver, they can surely find the array” was the final consensus. When the cable had broken the boat’s skipper had punched the “man overboard” button on the GPS, so he did know where the boat’s location was when the Nansen array went sinking to the bottom.

But like a ship’s sinking, drift on the way to the bottom often sends objects far from where they started. A commercial diver was hired. He jumped into the water and dove down, but he found nothing. Not an unexpected outcome as he had no search plan.

Nansen cast bottle array

After a few days of listening to scuttlebutt at the waterfront, and watching a failed drag with a grappling hook, he went to the boat’s skipper.

“I can find your Nansen array for you, guaranteed,” he said.

“Right,” the boat’s skipper said with skepticism. “How are you going to do that, we already had a commercial diver fail, and the bottom is too fouled with rocks to grapple.”

“If you put me on the GPS coordinates, we can drop a 50 lb. weight on the spot and I can go down and do a circle search. I will find it with one dive.”

“I don’t know,” said the boat’s skipper “But we have tried everything else, and we really need to get that array back, otherwise the “oceano” course will be canceled. The Dean is all heated up over this, so let’s give it a shot.”

Locating a lost object on the ocean bottom is all about precision and accuracy. Before you get in the water you must have a plan. A detailed, precise and accurate plan.

“First we need to compute the tides and currents when the cable broke,” he said. “That will give me the direction to look when I get on the bottom.”

“Next, you will put the boat on the GPS coordinates, and I will drop the 50 lb. steel weight, it will go right to the bottom, and we will then pull up all the slack and tie the down line to a float. The line will be straight up and down.”

“Got it,” said the boat’s skipper.

“I will go down the line to the bottom, and swim circles around the weight, using a line tied at the bottom, making outwardly expanding circles, until I run into the Nansen array.”

“Ok, whatever you say,” replied the boat’s skipper.

“When I find the array I will tie off the searching line to it, and then following the line back to the weight, and then back up to the surface. Once I get back on the boat you can pull the line with your winch and haul up the Nansen cast. “Bob’s your Uncle,” he said.

“Fuck Me,” said the boat’s skipper. “If this works we are going to be in wicked good shape.”

He thought to himself, “Ok, at 90 feet I have 30 minutes of bottom time. It’s colder than a witch’s tit, so I need to find that array on the first or second swing around the weight. With a water temperature of 40 F, and with my leaky dry suit, I will be lucky to last more than 20 minutes on the bottom.”

“Let’s do this,” he said to the boat’s skipper when they were on location and had dropped the weight. He shoved the diving regulator into his mouth and rolled off the boat.

“Goddamn fucking cold,” he said to himself as he descended down the anchor line. He had no buddy, no one to give an “OK” sign to. Just get to the bottom and start searching. That was the focus and goal.

Down he went into the green-gray water. Darker by the foot. Visibility maybe 10 feet. Then he was on the bottom. Rocks everywhere, of all sizes.

Start searching. He stretched out the search line to 20 feet and started a slow but steady circle around the weight. “Just focus on keeping the search line taught, and swimming in a steady motion,” he said over and over. His hands were getting numb, his neck was already hurting from the cold, he had a huge headache from the cold water on his face.”

“Fuck, where is this thing,” he said. Around once, nothing, around again, almost twice and then, right there in front of him was an untarnished stainless steel cable.

“Fuck me, Goddam yes!” he said. He grabbed the steel cable in his frozen gloved hands, and followed it outward, away from the weight, while paying out the search line.

And then “THUD” he ran right into the Nansen array. It’s a huge instrument, about 6 feet high, and the same distance across. It carries water sample bottles around the outside. You cannot mistake it for anything else. It was sitting upright on the sloping bottom.

“Tie the search line to the array, do it NOW,” he said to himself. “Tie a bowline followed by two half hitches, do it NOW” he repeated to himself. Mariners must know how to properly tie knots, some don’t understand the importance of this skill, but imagine finding this Nansen array and then losing it on the way to the surface due to a knot failure? Not acceptable.

“Knot tied, double checked, its right.” He was frozen, he was shivering and having a difficult time focusing. “Keep your shit together,” he told himself.

He followed the search line back to the bottom weight and headed to the surface. Approved ascent rate in diving is 30 feet per minute, but he was not thinking about that, just get back to the surface now, he thought.

As his head broke the surface the boat’s skipper leaned over the gunwale and asked, “What’s wrong, you’ve only been down few minutes?”

He could not talk, his lips and mouth were too cold. He finally stammered “I found it, its tied off, get me in the boat!”

“No fucking way!” said the boat’s skipper. “Fuck me!”

He got back in the boat, shaking and shivering. Around the winch went the line and up came the weight, followed by the Nansen array. What a sight when the array broke the surface. Magical, a vision from the depths!

“I don’t believe it, you found that shit in less than 15 minutes,” said the skipper.

“I told you I would,” he said, smiling through shivering lips.

When they moored at the Castine boat basin he threw the dive gear in the back of his truck and headed home, just a few miles up the Castine Road. His hands were so cold he had to drive using his arms and wrists.

As he pulled into his driveway his wife came out to meet him.

“Did you find it?” she asked?

“Of course I did,” he said “Piece of cake” But, he continued, “I need some help, my hands are so cold I can’t get out of my dry suit, can you put me in the shower, and turn on the water so I can thaw out?”

She muscled him into the small shower, unzipped his suit and turned on the water.

“You OK now?” she asked?

“Yes,” he said ”Never better”

“Good I am heading over to Blue Hill for food, you need anything?”

“Nope, all good here he said, and he just stood in the shower, enjoying the warm water, the steam, remembering the sight of that Nansen array appearing in front of him on the ocean bottom. “Hot shit,” he said to himself, “Hooyah Deep Sea”.