Early in 1976 an elegant
Russian cruise ship began making weekly calls at Roatan. The "Odessa"
was four-hundred feet long, carried five hundred passengers, and was
obviously an important gambit in the Soviet campaign to win friends and
influence people in the western hemisphere.
Her itinerary called for
her to arrive at Roatan at 8:00 a.m. each Friday and anchor off
Palmetto Point, about six miles west of Spyglass. Here her passengers
were put ashore in tenders for a day on the beach, a picnic lunch that
featured charcoal–broiled shish-kabobs, champagne and several
hours of beach-combing and splashing in the surf. At five o'clock in
the afternoon the passengers were returned to the ship and she departed
for Cozumel and New Orleans.
Around mid-day one Friday,
the island agent for "Odessa" arrived at Spyglass seeking some help. He
explained that the ship had broken an anchor chain and they needed a
diver to go down, locate the anchor, hook a cable onto the broken end
of the chain, so it could be hoisted back aboard. The agent said it was
in seventy or-eighty feet of water, and the crew had dropped a marker
buoy to help the diver find it.
I called one of the Dive
Masters who was working with me at the time, briefed him on the job and
told him to go do it. He took tanks and left in one of my outboard
skiffs. In a few hours he was back.
"Mister Dee," he told me,
"that anchor sure as hell isn't in any seventy or eighty feet of water.
I was down below a hundred and fifty feet and I couldn't even see the
"They said they had
dropped an anchor buoy to mark it. Did you check that out?"
"Yeah. I went down the
marker-buoy line, but when the depth gauge hit one-five-oh, I came up.
That anchor is deep!" I sent him home for the night and told him I
would go take a look at it the following day.
The next morning "Odessa"
was gone, but I took tanks and diving equipment and ran down the shore
to the site. It was easy to find. The ship’s crew had dropped an
empty 55-gallon oil drum in the sea, secured to a heavy weight by steel
cable. I moored my boat to the buoy, suited up and went down to
investigate. As Ben had reported, it was deep. The weight that held the
floating drum in position was sitting on the sandy sea floor in 265
feet of water. I made a couple of quick circles of the area and saw
nothing of the anchor or the chain that it was supposed to "mark."
Returning to Spyglass I decided to wait for the return of the ship and
discuss the matter with the people who had seen it happen.
On the following Friday
morning, as soon as "Odessa" had discharged her shore party, I warped
my boat alongside her gangway ladder and asked permission to go aboard.
A crew member inquired about my business and on learning that I was a
salvage diver there to talk with his Skipper about the lost anchor, a
messenger escorted me up to the bridge.
Captain Vadim Nikitin
returned my courtesy salute with crisp efficiency. He is a big blonde
man with distinguished gray sideburns that contrast nicely with his
deep suntan. He spoke marginal English, but we were able to make
ourselves understood. I explained that I had dived the marker buoy line
and confirmed the depth to him. He probably didn't believe me. Then I
asked him if there had been an echo sounder in operation when the chain
had parted. He assured me on this point and told a junior officer to go
get us the tracings for the day in question.
The sounding tape showed
depths that ranged from one hundred to eight-hundred feet during the
time period when he said they would have been maneuvering to weigh
anchor and get underway. It wasn't much to go on, but I began making
notes while questioning him further.
The seaside of the reef
location we were concerned with is a steep-to. From the backbone of the
reef that comes right up to the surface at low tide, the underwater
structure steps off in several levels. The top tidal plane slopes off
to fifty feet or so, then drops almost straight down about eighty-five
feet. Another nearly flat mesa runs out to a second wall that carries
down to below 150. At the edge of this sandy plateau, a third drop-off
goes to 260, levels off for a short distance, then falls steeply away
once more. Tracings from the echo sounder plotted this submarine
stairway distinctly. The question was on which ."step" to begin the
search for the anchor. I quizzed the captain closely about his
anchoring procedure, as well as how they handled the ship when they
were hauling it, in preparation for departure.
During this interview it
became clear that it was nothing but poor seamanship that had lost them
their anchor. When they had begun hauling the anchor, instead of
putting the "Odessa’s head out to sea and deep water - the
Captain had pointed the "Odessa" toward shore. Then moving
dead-slow-ahead, they had begun hauling the hook. But instead of
pulling the anchor down the face of the reef profile, they were
dragging it up the incline. At some point, they had "dogged"
the chain, in an attempt to "pop" it loose from whatever was holding it
on the bottom.
"How much chain did you
have out when you dogged it?"
"About two hundred
meters," he replied.
Two hundred meters is
something on the order of six hundred-fifty feet. The man had certainly
put out a long anchor lead for a ship that draws less than fifty feet
of water, but I didn't speak the thought aloud.
"How much of the chain
broke off with the anchor?"
"About half of it."
"How much does the anchor
"Fifteen thousand pounds."
"How much does each link
of the chain weigh?"
"I don't know. We can go
look at it."
We walked out over the
port wing and descended ladders to the foredeck. The broken end of the
anchor chain protruded from the winch. It was at least one-hundred-ton
rated, with each link more than a foot long. A stiffening stud in the
center of each link made it look like a straight-sided figure eight. I
estimated individual link weight at around fifty-five pounds and made
some quick calculations.
You've got twenty tons of
iron down there," I told him. "If the anchor weighs fifteen thousand
pounds, three hundred feet of that chain weighs more. Just how badly do
you want to get it up?"
"It is very important," he
assured me. I could see that he meant it.
"I'll tell you what I am
willing to do. I’ll buoy off an area where - from your soundings
- it seems most likely the anchor hung up. Then I'll break this general
search area down into smaller squares and systematically take a look at
each one of them. If we don't find the anchor, you're still going to
have to pay for the search. If I do find the anchor, I'll mark it, and
then we can talk about bringing it up." He agreed readily. We returned
to the bridge and I went back to work on the echo-sounder tracings.
Deep-water hunting is no
bargain. In addition to the depth problem that seriously limits the
time one can spend on any single dive, light is extremely restricted.
Even the brightest direct sunlight, when filtered through eight or ten
atmospheres of water, leaves you working in gloom that is like
going-into a clothes closet, closing the door and trying to find a
collar button with the light that seeps in through the cracks. Even in
the clearest water, at extreme depths you can see no more than thirty
or forty feet - and. we were going to be working on the ragged edge of
Each 33 feet of ocean
depth is spoken of by divers as an "atmosphere". This, because a column
of sea-water thirty-three feet high weighs about fifteen pounds.
Atmospheric pressure at sea level is 14.7 pounds per square inch.
Hence, an atmosphere is about 15 p.s.i. At 300 feet of depth, a diver
is under ten atmospheres of pressure, or about 150 pounds of pressure per
The human body will
mechanically function under this pressure quite well but neurological
and physiological equipment is not so rugged. If one manages to keep a
straight head on his shoulders in spite of the disorientation lovingly
known as the "martini effect", and pressure-induced narcosis that
triggers vertigo and hallucinations, oxygen poisoning can still kill
you if you don't watch out.
The air we breathe is
about eighty percent nitrogen, which is of no use to a mammal,
whatsoever; and twenty percent is the oxygen that we have to have to
live. There are some other trace gases, but they can be ignored in this
brief treatise on deep-diving. Oxygen molecules float around in the
nitrogen gas like raisins in cake batter.
Nitrogen is easy to
compress and oxygen is relatively hard to compress. In view of this
fact, when air is compressed it is mainly the nitrogen - which acts a
vehicle for the oxygen molecules - that squeezes down; and when it
does, the oxygen molecules are pressed closer together in the
A balloon that is ten feet
in diameter floating on the surface of the sea, squeezes down to
eighteen inches in diameter at eight atmospheres with an attendant
concentration of the oxygen molecules that are floating around in the
mass. By reason of this fact, the main danger in deep diving is "oxygen
poisoning" - absorbing too much oxygen through the semi-permeable
membranes in the alveoli of the lungs. When this happens, muscle spasms
called tetany results. The greater the excess of oxygen
molecules the deep diver takes in, the more extensive and more serious
the spasms become. Finally the chest muscles and diaphragm are knocked
out of commission and, with the respiratory function halted, death
So, it's crucial for a
diver to know how to breathe properly when working in deep water.
Nitrogen build-up is
another enemy in deep water, causing "bends" if it is stored up in the
tissues during a dive and not properly blown off by decompressing
before the diver surfaces. There are standard "decompression tables"
for divers that indicate how long one can safely stay at a given depth
without decompressing and how long one must "hang off" at specified
depths (ambient pressure) in the water, to dispose of accumulated
nitrogen, if the no-decompression limits are exceeded. Inasmuch as such
tables (twenty-five years ago) failed to show anything below 190 feet,
I worked up my own numbers by the use of logarithmic tables and a
The search area had been
spotted with boundary markers and divided into eight segments. The
search site hopefully covered the anchor, but there was-no way to find
out without getting wet. Tino Monterossa was a well experienced island
diver who had worked and dived with me previously. He and I suited up
and went over the side of the boat to search square number one.
As we swam down into the
clear blue water, my depth gauge climbed the scale: 100 feet - one five
zero - two hundred - two-two-five. It was getting darker, like
twilight. I checked depth readings with Tino. Our gauges agreed.
Two-hundred fifty - my vision was getting a little hazy. Was it the
diminishing light, or just reaction to depth and pressure? No. It
wasn't my vision. I was looking at the gray sandy bottom thirty or
forty feet below us. I leveled off and motioned Tino into position to
my right and about twenty-five feet away. He took his station and we
began swimming the search pattern.
Maintaining direction and
position underwater is more of an art than a science. The basic tool is
a compass, but this doesn't tell you how far you have traveled in any
given direction; so you use a steady kick and count them. With practice
you can know almost exactly how for you have gone by the number of
kicks you have made. I counted off the predetermined number, made a
ninety degree turn to the left, then another ninety degree turn to the
left, and we began making a back sweep, paralleling the first pass.
After the prescribed number of kicks, we made two 90-degree right turns
and headed back to the west. I kept a running check on the compass,
depth gauge and watch. The calculations I had made gave us just twelve
minutes working time and I didn't intend to over-reach it.
Not only would doing so
upset our decompression timetable; our air supplies were not going to
last for much more than that, at the depth at which we were operating.
As we slipped along through the muted light, a big barracuda moved up
alongside Tino and swam along with us. We came to the first corner on
the "box" as the sweep-second hand on my watch showed twenty seconds
remaining of the assigned twelve minutes. I gave Tino the thumbs up
signal and we headed for the deepest of the decompression bottles.
In order to decompress us
properly, I had hung a pair of tanks over the side of the dive boat at
the thirty foot level, and another pair at fifteen feet. We spotted the
lower ones in the bright, clear water and grabbed onto them,
substituting their regulators for the ones in our mouths that were
attached to the tanks an our backs. Checking our tank pressure gauges,
I saw that Tino had come up with three hundred fifty pounds of air
left. I had two hundred. Okay. A little tight, but not bad. We would
get better with practice.
The way the time factors
had been worked out, I allowed four minutes to get from the surface to
our working level. Twelve minutes were available at the working depth,
with five minutes for ascent to the first decompression level. An hour
and five minutes were spent in decompression after each dive, divided
between the thirty-foot and fifteen-foot tanks. It seemed like a week
as we swung in the sea blowing off nitrogen; but we gave each
decompression stage its full time and a bit more. Then we climbed back
into the boat.
"Wow!" Tino exclaimed.
"That was a trip. Did you see that barracuda? He was smiling at me."
"Are you sure? How did
everything else feel?"
"I just sort of didn't have
any feeling down there. It was just as you said it was going to be. The
water didn't even feel wet."
The reactions he was
describing are not unusual. Pressure is a pretty good anesthetic. This
is the reason the doctor pinches your arm before he shoves the needle
in. At depth there is a point at which the ambient pressure of the
water tends to block out your peripheral nervous system. When this
happens, the water no longer feels wet, or cold - or anything. Instead
of being a fish-like creature, if the water is clear enough, a diver
can have the sensation of being a bird. Instead of swimming,
you’re flying! The first few times one experiences it, it's
eerie. In time, with repetition, you can come to expect it and use is
as a pretty good check on the accuracy of your depth gauge.
According to the dive data
I had worked out, we could make two identical descents a day, provided
the time between dives was no less than five hours. However, the
surface interval number was the one in which I had the least
confidence. Unless it became important to do it, I decided to limit
ourselves to one trip below each day. So we untied the dive boat and
headed back to Spyglass Hill.
It had been a lot of years
since I had seen the "end of the string," as ten atmospheres is
respectfully referred to by people who have been there. When you are
twenty years old, with muscles in your hair, and unquestioning faith in
your own indestructibility, nothing seems too much. But I had not been
twenty-for thirty-five years! My hair no longer did pushups before 1
combed it in the morning.
As I lay in bed that
night, each minute of the dive was replayed through the memory loop:
the color of the water, the pressure sensation, the viscous texture of
air under high pressure. Down there, air feels like it should be chewed
before inhaling. What about Tino? Was it fair to expose him to such
risks? But he had loved every foot of it! No sweat! As sleep overtook
me, I was still playing it back. Some things don't have answers. We
just do them.
The first area we searched
on the extreme end of the rectangle I had marked off with corner buoys.
The following day we covered the segment that lay alongside - on the
ocean side - of the first segment. Again we had been able to hold our
depth between 255 and 270. The dive was uneventful. We saw nothing. At
that kind of depth, one usually sees nothing.
Monday we were back to
search segment three. This was on the reef side of the double tier of
boxes. We rigged up, checked on each other's buckets and straps and
fell over into the water. On each of the search dives we were carrying
reels of line on our arms to permit us, should we find the anchor, to
tie a marker line to it and by then bending our ropes together - reach
to the surface where we could secure a float marker.
As we headed straight down
to our working depth, I noticed that Tino's kick had perceptibly
slowed. I waited up for him to get down to my level. Then he stopped
swimming completely, and only his negative buoyancy carried him toward
me. A glance into his face plate was all I needed. His eyes were open,
but his pupils were completely dilated and the orbs were floating
around like two marbles in a saucer. The regulator was firmly in his
mouth and he was breathing; slowly, but breathing. I grabbed him and
headed up. We had almost two hundred feet to go and I took it nice and
easy. Having been in the water no more than three or four minutes,
decompression was not necessary.
He began coming out of the
stupor at about one hundred feet and was reasonably alert by the time
we reached the side of the boat. I took his tank off in the water and
shoved him up over the rail.
"What happened?" I asked
him after we were both out of the water.
"I don't know," he told
me. "Suddenly it just started getting darker and darker. Then, when all
I could see was a little pinpoint of light, that went out. I don't
remember anything until I woke up with you pulling me to the surface."
"Were you drinking last
"No. You know that I don't
drink." This was true. He did - and does not - not drink.
"Did you sleep well?"
"I went to bed about nine
o'clock and got up about six. I slept all night."
"Taking any pills?"
"How do you f eel now?"
I feel fine, except I'm a
We pulled the
decompression bottles up, untied the boat and headed back to Spyglass.
On arrival I went looking for our resident physicians Dr. Charles
Duston, who had retired from medical practice in the Boston area and
came to Roatan to build a home and live on the island permanently.
While his house was under constructions he and his wife, Amy, were
living at Spyglass.
I explained what had
happened in the water and asked him to give Tino a head-to-toe
examination. He did so and, a couple of hours later, told me he could
find nothing wrong with him. "He's probably a lot healthier than you
re, "was his appraisal.
"But why did he pass out
in the water?" I asked.
"God knows," he said.
Maybe the pressure got to him."
"But we made two dives
seventy-five to ninety feet deeper than we ever got today, and he never
missed a kick! There has to be a reason."
"No doubt there is,"
Duston replied, "but I'm not able to find it with a stethoscope and a
Obviously Tino was not
going back into the water on any more deep dives. I gave him the bad
news and sat down to think it over. Altogether, he had been below two
hundred feet with me on seven different occasions. Except for
mentioning the smiling barracuda, he had functioned perfectly. He was
twenty-four years old, built like a rock, didn't smoke, didn't drink,
didn't pop pills or keep late hours. But he damned near bought the
farm! I had almost decided to scrub the project when Ben Castro,
another of my dive guides, came strolling up the hill.
"How’s it going?" he
wanted to know.
"Not worth a damn," I told
Can't find it?" I told him about the incident with Tino. He listened
closely to the story.
"I'll dive with you," he
"It's dangerous," I told
him. I'm not even sure I want to go down again. It just isn't worth
getting someone hurt or killed."
"I'd like to try one dive
with you," he said. "Then we can decide if we want to do any more."
I knew that the villagers
were confident that somebody was going to get killed on the anchor
salvage job. Several friends from the village had come up the hill for
the express purpose of dissuading me from any more deep diving on the
But the prospect was
attractive. I ha d taught Ben to use mask, snorkel, flippers and SCUBA
gear several years earlier. He was a first-class water man:
cool-headed, more guts than a burglar, yet cautious and able to follow
instructions out to the smallest fractions.
And one further thing; I
wanted that damned anchor worse than I had ever wanted a woman!
"Be here at seven in the
morning," I told him. "We'll give it another run and see what happens."
It went like the textbook
says it should. After a half hour of explanations about breath
controlling, search intervals, time considerations, decompression
procedures and emergency bail-outs if something went wrong, he hit the
water like a porpoise and performed like a champion. At the conclusion
of the dive I congratulated him on the way he had handled himself.
"You think I did good," he
said with an embarrassed smile, "but you don't know how scared I was."
"Anybody who goes down
there had better be frightened," I told him. "Just make one mistake
down there. That's all, Pardner! It's three or four minutes to the top
at the best you can do, and you're never going to make it. Now, do you
want to go home, or go back down there and find that damned anchor?
It’s your decision. I’ll try to protect you, but there
aren’t any guarantees at the depth we’re working"
"Let's get the anchor," he
replied without hesitation.
We ran the boat inside the
reef and ate our lunch on the beach. Then we knocked the tops off a
couple of green coconuts and drank the water from them. We flaked out
under a pair of coconut trees and slept for a while. About two-thirty
we were back down inspecting box number four. Nothing but a few pale,
colorless fish and the blue-gray bottom of the sea. It looked like a
moonscape. A couple of groupers joined us briefly, then bored with our
game, they swam lazily over the side of the shelf and disappeared into
the gray-black void that falls away into the Cayman Trench. We came to
the last corner of the box and headed up. The search program was back
Boxes five and six were as
sterile as the others had been. Nothing but sand, an occasional blob of
coral and a few fish were seen. We were running out of territory. Two
boxes remained and if we didn't find the anchor there, I was all out of
ideas. But with a program laid out, I wasn't about to abandon it until
we had completed it. Ben and I arrived on site a little before eight
o'clock on Thursday morning. We strapped our gear on and perched on the
rail of the dive boat. Rolls of line were looped over our shoulders and
the decompression tanks could be seen bobbing in the clear water below
us. The sea was as flat as a bowl of soup.
"This is the day, Dee,"
Ben said. He made a last-minute adjustment on his weight-belt and
dropped his face mask into position. "Let's go get him!" He pitched
over backward and disappeared in a big splash. God, how I hoped he was
right! I hit the water right behind him.
The area we were working
on this particular day was a sloping sand plain that started at about
275 feet and ran off to more than 300. On the north (sea) side of the
rectangle there were fairly solid outcroppings of coral. This is
unusual at such a depth since most coral needs more light than it can
get at eight or ten atmospheres. We hugged the inner line of the box
and swam north along the edge of the "step". My depth gauge hovered a
250 feet, and an following an occasional undulation in the shelf floor
took took us down to 270. It was quite dark, but our eyes accommodated,
so we were close enough to the bottom to permit us to spot anything as
big as an anchor, should we swim over it.
Suddenly I saw a track
through the sand that looked like something had been dragged across the
sea floor. Passing a signal to Ben, I broke away from the compass
headings and followed the gouged scar across the sand bottom. The track
disappeared over the shelf of the sandy plain. I doubled back and
over-swam the scar toward the reef. At the edge of the wall it halted
again, and turned back sharply toward deep water, marking a "V" pattern
in the sand. As 1 fought to keep my breathing regular and my kicks
under control, the end of the big chain emerged into view. Ben saw it
at the same time and let out an underwater yell that must have scared
all of the fish within a mile of us.
We settled down on it. I
passed the end of my line into the next-to-the-last link. With a double
bowline secured, I checked the depth gauge. We were standing on the
bottom in two-hundred-eighty-five feet of water. Two vertical thumbs
means up means "we go" - and we went - unwinding the marker-line as we
ascended. When my line ran out, I bent Ben's coil onto the end of mine,
and we continued to climb through the water to the first decompression
bottle. Back in the boat, a celebration took place. There were only two
of us and we had nothing but a jug of water to drink; but we were about
as high as you can get on accomplishment. We tied a bright yellow,
24-inch float to the end of the marker line and headed home. It was a
"Odessa" had asked me to
notify if we succeeded in locating the anchor. On arrival at Spyglass I
placed a call to the ship and passed the good news to the Skipper. Then
I gave him a short list of gear that his boatswains should have ready
when they arrived at Roatan the following morning. He offered his
congratulations; I wished him good sailing and we broke off.
When our dive boat left to
rendezvous with "Odessa" the following morning, it was loaded with
equipment and people. Happy, Dr. and Mrs. Duston, a couple of guests
and my son Don, were with Ben and me. There was a holiday mood about
the whole thing, but my thoughts were given to the critical steps we
still had to accomplish before the anchor was really ours.
On arrival I obtained
permission for my party to go aboard, then Dr..Duston, Don, Ben and I
went to the bridge. Captain Nikitin was elated and cordial. I plotted
the anchor location for him on a clip-board chart and pointed out our
colored marker-buoy that we had bobbing in the sea. The other end of
the reference line was attached to the anchor chain, almost 300 feet
"Do you think it’s
in a position so we can get it up?" he wanted to know.
"I think so," I replied,
"but we can't be sure. The anchor seems to be wedged into a sort of
gully in the sea floor. As you moved ahead with the ship, the anchor
dragged up this coral trench until it finally wedged itself; the anchor
chain was stretched out on a line toward the beach. The east-to-west
drift-set caused the ship to move down, and in so doing, the chain
fouled around a coral outcropping the size of a big automobile.
It’s not going to be easy to pull loose, but I’m going to
try to "unwrap" the chain from around the coral head that now has it
fouled. If the chain holds for us we should be able to do it."
"How about tying onto the
anchor and hauling it out backward?"
"Captain, that anchor is
well under three-hundred feet deep. There is no way I can fasten
rigging on it with only compressed air to breathe. If we had mixed gas
equipment and a decompression chamber, I would prefer tying onto the
anchor and bringing it out backwards; but as it stands, we either bring
it up on the chain or we leave it there. It's your decision."
"Are you quite sure we can
pull it loose with the chain?"
"I'm not sure of anything
about this job, except that I know where the end of the chain is
located. I know that I can hook it up to the other broken chain end
that you have on this vessel. With this done - provided we can get some
first-class ship - and a whole hell of a lot of luck it should work for
"Very well. Let's do it,"
he agreed. "But first, shouldn't we arrange our business?
"I hadn't forgotten that,"
I assured him. "But now that we have the anchor marked, why don't you
use your own diving crew to do the underwater rigging?" He had told me
previously that they had tanks and a compressor aboard, so I assumed
they also had some divers in the ship's company.
"We only dive twenty
meters," he told me. "This work is too deep for my diving crew." Ben
shot me a quizzical glance. He doesn’t even need a tank to
free-dive sixty feet - and spear a fish!
"All right, we'll do it.
This is my proposition: we have already run up a bill for you, finding
and locating the anchor. You already owe me this amount. I showed him
the sheet with my calculations on it. I will include the search
activity in a no-cure-no-pay contract. If I put the anchor back aboard
this ship, you pay me. If I fail to put it aboard, you owe me nothing."
I named the price. "One further thing, Captain. Our contract must
stipulate that if I do not complete the contract for you, I get salvage
rights to the property." The anchor and chain on dry land had a resale
market value of twenty-five or thirty thousand dollars.
He agreed without a
quibble. Inasmuch as my son, Don, a lawyer, was with me on the bridge,
I put him to work framing the agreement. Then it was typed. The Captain
and I signed it, with Don and one of "Odessa's" bridge officers
inscribing their signatures as witnesses. Ben and I returned to my work
boat. The cruise ship hovered above us like a big white bird.
In order to bring the
anchor up, it was going to be necessary to get the broken ends of the
chain shackled together. Since we couldn't hope to completely raise the
underwater end, I decided to raise it as far as I could, then lower the
portion that was on the ship to meet its other portion, somewhere under
the sea. Moreover, the ends had to be close enough together to permit
shackling. Trying to drag a chain whose links weigh fifty pounds each
through sand, is no fun - especially in deep water.
Using the buoy line as a
vertical guide to the chain below, we placed a shackle through the end
of a length of half-inch wire rope and lowered it to the sea floor. By
maintaining tension on the reference line, the shackle slid down it and
dropped an top of the second chain link.
We went down with it and
shackled the cable to the chain. Then we removed the nylon line and
hauled it up. It had served its purpose. Our "down line" was now a
We decompressed, emerged
from the water and went back aboard "Odessa" to breathe pure oxygen for
fifteen minutes. Then we joined the rest of the Spyglass crowd in the
ship's ornate dining room for a sumptuous lunch. The First Mate, a man
by the name of Vladimir (what else?) ate with us as he answered a
barrage of questions about the ship, Russia, and where did he learn
such excellent English?
He told us that English is
a required language in Russian schools. He also told us that the chefs
in Odessa’s galleys could serve us twenty different kinds of
borscht. I took his word for it.
After lunch we went on a
tour of the vessel, while waiting for sufficient time to elapse as to
permit us to go back into the sea for the next step in the anchor
lifting. The ship was a beauty, and immaculate. It had been originally
put under construction for a Danish firm that later was unable or
unwilling to take delivery of her. The Russian "Black Sea Shipping
Company" had bought her off the ways. Gangway markings, bridge
instructions, public room signs, etc. were all carried in Russian,
Danish and English.
In addition to a huge
dining room and a coffee shop, there was a night club that featured
both a Russian and an American dance band, a casino, promenade areas,
swimming pool, shuffleboard courts, gift shops, barber and beauty shops
and public rooms scattered everywhere. The food service was
thoughtfully handled by a platoon of young waiters and waitresses - all
of whom seemed to have some ability with the English language. We were
treated with the greatest consideration, given permission to shop in
the gift stores and allowed to stroll around wherever we wished.
Finally the time came I to
get back into the sea.
Captain Nikitin had sold
me on the notion of trying to raise the submerged anchor and chain with
a two-inch stainless steel cable. His idea was to use the smooth spool
on the end of the anchor winch to pull it up, once we had secured it
below. Quite frankly, I didn't like the proposal because I still didn't
have any firm notion about how tightly the anchor chain was fouled in
and around the underwater coral mound - nor how much of a strain would
be required to break the anchor out of the rocky channel where it
looked to be firmly wedged. However, in the interests of international
relationships, I agreed to give his suggested procedure a try.
Repeating the earlier
placement, we put a shackle through the eye of the big cable, fastened
it around the smaller "down line" and lowered away. As I had feared,
Ben and I were not able to pass the eye in the big cable through the
chain link. After two or three minutes of trying, we had to use a short
steel choker to secure the chain and the cable together. We then
returned to decompress and surface. When the deck crew an "Odessa"
began hauling the big cable up, the half-inch tie-cable broke. But we
hadn't lost much.
Our down-line was still
We said our goodbyes,
thanked the Captain for his hospitality and promised to meet him on the
site when he returned in a week.
The big day was another
time of glass-smooth seas, bright sunlight and a gentle breeze. Once
more Ben and I escorted the big stainless steel cable below as it
snaked down on its shackle guide that had been placed around the
smaller wire rope. Two new chokers had been prepared, that we threaded
through the second link of the chain and shackled into the eye of the
Everything was ready, but
I felt I had to see what the situation was in the coral mound where the
chain was fouled. I checked our time and motioned Ben to swim "cover"
for me, as I headed down the anchor chain. The needle on my depth gauge
passed three hundred and kept going, as I moved lower. Suddenly the
pawl in the gauge ran out of teeth and the needle swung crazily under
the glass. The air entering my mouth from the regulator took on the
viscosity of thin syrup. I glanced up and saw Ben hovering over me. I
checked my watch and as I looked at it, the crystal shattered and it
flooded. Things were getting a bit too sticky for comfort. I quickly
swam around the flank of the coral hillock and noted the path of the
chain. It would come free but we were going to have to lead it out very
carefully. If I tried to jerk it free, it was sure to break again.
There were hundreds of tons of rock and coral on top of it. I looked
down the gully and saw the black outline of the anchor. It was
completely buried with the exception of the backbone. I took some
compass headings and started up.
Before I had much more
than caught up with Ben, my air tank began going dry. Pulling the
reserve air valve down, I increased the rate of ascent and began
hoarding what was left in the tank. I had about three-hundred-fifty
pounds of air between me and the first decompression bottle - and there
was still a hell of a long way to go. It felt like I was sucking
wrinkles in the air-tank on my back when we reached the first
decompression level and was able to trade my dry regulator for the full
one. That first big lung-full of air was worth ten million dollars -
I again boarded "Odessa"
and advised the Captain that we were ready to bring the stuff up. But
first we needed to get some ship movements clarified if we were not to
risk breaking the chain once more. We went to lunch to talk it over.
"Odessa" is equipped with
bow-thrusters, so we could move her head from side to side with great
precision. I told the Skipper that I wanted him to lay the vessel on
parallel course with the reef. This called for a precise 40-degree
heading. Then we would move dead-slow-ahead and haul in on the hoisting
cable until it was almost vertical in the water. Then we would stop the
screws and swing the ship on her axis, using only the starboard
thruster. As soon as we had the end of the chain up as far as we could
lift it, we would then stop all machinery and hook the two ends of the
broken anchor chain together. He went back to the bridge and I went out
on the bow to observe things and pass instructions to him by
The deck force wound the
steel cable around the winch spool and took up some slack. I asked the
bridge for "ahead dead-slow" and got it. The deck crew kept the cable
coming in through a scupper opening on the port rail. The big cable
squeaked and shivered as it took the strain of the anchor chain, and
began slipping on the spool.
"What is our bearing?
"Forty degrees and steady."
"Steady as she goes." The
cable moved slowly into a vertical position as the ship inched ahead.
Suddenly there was a visible relaxing of it, and the wire rope began
crawling upward once more.
"Stop screws!" I yelled.
"Quarter right thrusters." The cable kept crawling across the deck as a
blast of foamy water jetted out of the starboard thrust tube and the
ship began to turn seaward on her axis. Once our stern was now pointed
toward the shore and the cable was again slipping on the nigger-head. I
knew we had done everything we could with the cable. We were now going
to have to hook up the chain.
"Stop machinery," echoed
back through my walkie-talkie.
At this point we had part
or all of the anchor chain dangling on the end of the hoisting cable.
The next step was to lower the ship's end of the chain and shackle them
together. To do this we again placed a big shackle in the second link
of the ship's end of the anchor chain, fed it out through the hawse
hole and secured it around the hoisting cable. Then we lowered it down
an top of the length of chain under the water. The end links were
resting right together. Two fifty-ton shackles fastened them and we
were ready to pop the anchor out of its burial plot.
Captain Nikitin joined me
on the bow to watch the proceedings. We both knew that if we broke the
chain again it was beyond recovery with anything except special diving
and salvage gear. Our nervousness was altogether obvious. "What do you
think, Captain?" he asked me. "Will the chain hold?" I may have seen
visions of Gulag Archipelago in his eyes.
"God knows," I answered
him truthfully. "But I could certainly do with a drink."
"I can take care of that,"
he assured me.
"Weigh anchor," I told
him, and he relayed the order to his Bo'sun. The winch shuddered and
the chain clanked through the link-dogs. We watched it like we were
hypnotized. There was a momentary pause followed by a spasm and the
chain kept clanking up through the hawse-pipe.
"She broke free," I told
him. "She's coming up."
"I think so. Unless we
broke the beam," he offered, never taking his eyes off the spot on the
surface of the sea below , where link after link emerged from the sea.
"I've always heard that
you Russians love pain and suffering," I told him. "At a time like this
you have to be an optimist!" He smiled wanly.
The shackled ends of the
chain inched across the deck and into the bull wheel. A sailor dropped
the locking pawl into place and a replacement link was installed
efficiently. They resumed the hoisting. At last the stock of the anchor
broke through the surface of the water and the big hook hung dripping
in the afternoon sunlight.
Passengers had solidly
lined the forward rails on the upper decks to watch the drama. A cheer
went up as Nikitin and I were photographed in the middle of a Russian
bear-hug. We climbed the ladders to the bridge deck where he gave
orders for the securing of the deck detail. Then he and I went down to
his combination office and quarters.
No sooner had we arrived
and sat down, than an attractive young lady came in bearing a big tray
with a bottle of Stalichnaya Vodka and half a dozen frosty silver
goblets about half the size of martini glasses on it. The Captain
waited for her to open the bottle and then pour for us. He raised his
drink and so did I.
To your success, Captain.
It was good work," he said graciously.
"And to your great skill,
Captain. I could not have done it without your excellent assistance," I
replied, not to be outdone. He tipped the glass of fluid down his
throat in a single gulp and I followed his example.
I have drunk lots vodka
before: with tonic water, with soda, with coca-cola and mixed as a
cocktail. It had never previously fallen my lot to imbibe the stuff the
way the experts suggest; straight, as close to frozen as you can get
it, and out of a metal beaker that has also spent several days in
sub-zero temperatures. It's truly is different.
The initial surprise is
that the cold fluid has almost no taste at all. It glides across your
tongue like a butterfly sliding down a banister of sunlight. The cold
edge of the glass on your lips is the ascendant sensation. You swallow
without hardly knowing why. On entering the top of your esophagus, the
icy liquid begins to thaw - and by the time it arrives in-your stomach,
it is exuding a friendly warmth that contrasts interestingly with your
still-cold lips and tongue.
Within a few seconds after
its gastronomic arrival, you are conscious of an escalating sense of
visceral euphoria that starts three inches behind your belt buckle
and-extends outward in ever-expanding radiations of pure pleasure -
like whorls from a pebble tossed into a smooth mountain lake. Almost
subliminal tingles of exquisite sensation travel along your nerve
fibers like tiny, shiny emeralds finding their way along the gossamer
network of a spider web spun out of silver and gold.
Somewhere between your
hips and knees the magical effect begins to softly diminish like the
whispers of angels, until only a shadow remains of the ecstasy you have
experienced. When the last echo is still - only then - is it time for
The Russian Captain and I
toasted each other, our families, the United States of America, and
Mother Russia, the President and the Chairman of each, peace,
friendship, space exploration, brave men, beautiful women, loving
wives, loyal children, understanding mistresses, good lawyers, long
life and strong anchor chains.
In time, as he continued
to pour, I was able to coax the afterglow of a glassful into the
furthest regions of my extremities. My very toes were tingling. Then he
reached into his desk drawer and handed me a sealed envelope. I put it
in my pocket.
"Aren't you going to count
it?" he asked.
"Why should I count it?" I
asked, in the warm glow of vodka-fueled expansiveness. "If it proves to
be incorrect, I will bring back your change!" He roared with laughter
and made some remark about the brotherhood of the sea transcending mere
national identifies. It struck me as being significant at the time; but
almost anything could have seemed significant in my then-current
condition. As the second bottle became an empty hulk, the first mate
rapped at the door and asked for permission to get underway.
Not being dressed for a
Caribbean cruise, I said my good-byes and followed the pretty servant
girl down the passageway, into the elevator and down to my boat. A case
of Stalichnaya vodka and a case of Belugi caviar was being loaded
aboard for my boat, courtesy of Captain Vadim Nikitin, as I reached the
Ben was waiting for me. I
asked him if he thought he could find the way home. He seemed willing
to try. I moved into the bow, arranged a buoyancy compensator under my
head for a pillow and slept all the way. As the undulations of the
craft rocked me gently, I dreamed of big white ships, big black
anchors, beautiful Russian girls and diving to ten atmospheres in a sea
of ice-cold Vodka.
It was delicious.
Lorenzo Dee Belveal
1997 by Lorenzo Dee Belveal
All rights reserved.