By Tom Morrisey
Several years ago, while trying out my first drysuit in the dark waters of Lake Orion, my dive light picked out a curiosity: a patch of tannish white, bearing the letters “INRUDE.”
I reached down to pick it up and was rewarded with undulations from the waterbed-like bottom, wafts of silt and
considerably more weight than I’d expected. It was the shroud to someone’s outboard motor but with an unexpected twist. The motor was still attached.
Treasure! Bounty from the sea (Okay, lake)! A few minutes of digging in the soft muck was enough to uncover the remainder of the prize and obliterate the remaining visibility. But, even an inspection by Braille was enough to reveal that the motor was in one piece and that the prop still moved. I had a keeper.
But, what to do with it?
I hefted the hunk of steel and cast aluminum and found myself waist-deep beside it in the muck. Swimming was not going to be an option. But when I’d purchased my first BC (which hadn’t been that many months before), I’d gotten a large-capacity model, suitable for Great Lakes wreck diving. So, I blew the BC up and then, when that still wasn’t enough to lift the motor, added a bit of air to the drysuit.
Voila. We rose, ascension-like, out of the silt cloud, the motor’s prop blades cutting furrows into my neoprene-gloved hand. About halfway up, with an atmosphere of pressure removed, buoyancy increased dramatically, and I was faced with the fresh quandary of how to vent the drysuit—a process that involved raising my left hand and then pressing the valve button with my right—without letting go of the motor. Trying to hold the motor between my legs resulted in a prop blade in a place where a prop blade should never be, so I settled for venting the BC instead.
A minute later, I was at the surface, my drysuit so over-inflated that I looked like the Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. I shifted the motor from one hand to the other, cutting fresh furrows into the other glove, began kicking for shore...and discovered the operating principle behind a sea anchor. Kick as I might, I was going nowhere. To make matters worse, the expanded air in the motor’s fuel tank had pushed a film of shimmering, choking gasoline to the surface around me, and I looked, and felt, like a character in a disaster film.
Frustrated, I dropped my treasure, vowing to return to it the next day. The following morning, I was back with another diver, a friend who had a reputation for retrieving things from the lake. We swam out, found the spot and then floated at the surface while my buddy dropped a weighted line from his reel. We followed it down, taking in line all the way, locked the reel down with six feet of line extended and swam a slow circle. Then he let out another six feet of line, we swam a second circle and, three-quarters of the way around, found all of the motor that was visible—a single prop blade.
My buddy took out the 100-pound lift bag that he’d bungeed to his tank, shackled it to the prop shaft, added air to the bag with his octopus and then gave the motor a gentle shake, as if rousing it from sleep. Magically, it began to rise from the soft lake bottom. We swam up on either side of it, venting air from the bag as we rose. We made a three-minute safety stop with the motor hovering between us, and then went to the surface, where we swam the motor to shore with the ease of a pool toy.
In the years since that chance discovery, I’ve found and raised a couple more outboard motors (both of which are still in use every summer), brought up enough Navy and Danforth anchors to outfit every one of my boating friends, moved sunken boats to create underwater training areas and generally become relatively proficient at the underwater game of “go fetch.” I’ve also learned to do so at considerably less risk to my health. The use of one’s BC as a lifting device is conducive to any number of nasty phrases: arterial gas embolism, runaway ascent and barotrauma, to name a few.
Fortunately for those who’d rather study at something other than the School of Hard Knocks, it’s not at all hard to find training in finding and recovering underwater objects.
Newer divers will want to get a few hours of bottom time under their weightbelts before they try yanking the neighbor kid’s dirt bike off the lake bottom. Most training agencies will require a certification level beyond the basic (such as Advanced Open Water) before divers undergo search and recovery training. As skills such as compass reading, distance measurement, guideline use and route-following all need to be second nature to the recovery diver, it’s not unusual for agencies to require certification in that area (Underwater Navigator) as an additional prerequisite.
A good search and recovery course will teach you more than how much lift bag to use to get a dropped tacklebox to the surface. The essence of any such training is safety—safety ensured by use of proper equipment and techniques, good planning and organization, and courtesy to other divers and boaters in the area around you. Since recovery operations often disrupt visibility, search and recovery training usually introduces low-viz diving and navigation techniques. Divers are also taught to use methodical search techniques that keep them aware of where they are in the search grid at any given time.
One of my favorite drills is to toss five numbered golf balls at random into a 50-by-100-yard area and ask divers to find and return the golf balls to me—in numerical order. Once they’ve learned how to run a grid and relocate reference points, most people can do this in a matter of minutes.
Police and fire-and-rescue divers
often combine search and recovery training with forensic investigation techniques, in order to learn how to document and preserve underwater evidence. Cave recovery courses, which train divers to do U/W body recovery, also include such forensic matters as photographing evidence.
But, for most of us, search and recovery is a useful and enjoyable skill. In the North Country, many divers keep themselves in air fills through the winter by retrieving sunken snowmobiles. In warmer climates, it seems as if there’s always somebody sinking a ski boat. Divers handy at retrieving such things become very popular people.
One of the best reasons for getting such training, in my opinion, is the good will we can spread for diving by being able to retrieve other people’s lost objects. Scuba divers and their restricting dive flags are seen as nuisances by many boaters and anglers—but you’d be surprised at how that can change when you bring up that spun prop or return a tacklebox packed with $300 worth of lures. At a river area where I dive, anglers were once trying to outlaw diving, but now that many divers there spend their last drift picking up lost lures and fishing tackle—which they return to the anglers—the divers are viewed as an asset, and co-existence is much more peaceful.
Skin Diver regular Tom Morrisey is presently co-authoring a PADI Distinctive Specialty Course for Police and Forensic Divers.