Another Hair-Raising Tale

           ---- from the "Incredible   Island"

    Salvaging the "Odessa" Anchor in Very Deep Water

                    "Fact-ion" By: Lorenzo Dee Belveal                   


This is a true story. The "Odessa" is  a Russian cruise ship that used to make weekly calls at Roatan.  The people and events are real, however the sequence of events may have been altered to facilitate exposition.  Hence, it is properly described as "fact-ion. This story is an extract from my 6-volume autobiography, that will be published under the title "Yanqui        _______________________________________________________L.D.B._____


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 bottom!"

"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 weigh?"

"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 other things.

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 square inch.

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 compressed nitrogen.

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 comes quickly.

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 slide-rule.

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 night?'

"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."

"Belly ache?"


"Taking any pills?"


"How do you f eel now?"

I feel fine, except I'm a little sleepy."

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 rubber hammer."

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 him.

"What’s a-matter? Can't find it?" I told him about the incident with Tino. He listened closely to the story.

"I'll dive with you," he volunteered.

"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 "Odessa" hook.

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 on schedule.

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 great trip!

"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 straight down!

"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 us."

"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 steel cable.

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 secure.

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 hoisting line.

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 - wholesale!

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 walkie-talkie radio.

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!"

"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 another.

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 boarding platform.

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 - Author

Copyright © 1997 by Lorenzo Dee Belveal                             All rights reserved.










Lorenzo Dee Belveal, Author
Copyright © 1997 Lorenzo Dee Belveal
All Rights Reserved

Guadalajara, Jalisco, MEXICO

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