Aboard Atlantis

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Alvin descended two miles below the ocean surface to explore the wreckage of HMS Titanic. It hovered like a spacecraft over scalding hot hydrothermal vents to document black smoker “chimneys” near the Galapagos Islands. Its hydraulic claws can pluck a tubeworm off a rock, place it in a pressurized container and return it to the surface, alive. A uniquely capable craft, Alvin’s exploits have won it world wide fame, but even with all its capabilities, there’s one thing it still can’t do. It can’t launch itself.

Alvin is no lightweight. Ten feet tall and 22-feet long, it weighs 17 tons. Launching and recovering it are no small tasks. It requires the coordinated efforts of Atlantis’ captain, a surface controller, launch coordinator, A-frame operator, several line handlers, and an Avon operator. In rough weather it demands precise timing and keen anticipation. And it involves risk; someone has to accompany Alvin into and out of the water. Water that on Atlantis’ sailing schedule is frequently cold, windswept and rough. Water that’s dark and deep and prowled by shadowy terrors, real and imagined.

That someone is an Alvin swimmer. During launches Alvin swimmers ride the sub into the water. They cast off the main lifting line and tail line, and they maintain communications with the pilot, sealed inside Alvin’s passenger sphere. During recoveries they are the first responders. They inspect the fiberglass sample tray mounted beneath Alvin’s cycloptic central view port. If a piece of equipment is in danger of being lost, they secure it. If a biological sample needs special care, they provide it. They direct the Alvin pilot into position for recovery, they reattach the tail line and main lift line, and as the sub’s pulled from the water they dive off with varying degrees of grace.

Alvin swimmers are Atlantis crew members - cooks, deckhands, engine room oilers, Alvin pilots, electronic technicians, officers. All voluntarily trade the safety of Atlantis’ steel decks for the uncertainty of the open ocean. Why? Some do it for adventure. Some do it for fun. I did it for love - love of swimming in the warm blue waters of the Equatorial Pacific.

But before I could swim in the balmy, neon blue seas off Mexico, I’d have to train in the cold, murky waters of the North Pacific. Training for prospective swimmers occurs over three days, during which the swimmer participates in three morning launches and three afternoon recoveries. On day one, the trainee watches the swimmers from the Avon inflatable boat. On day two the trainee accompanies the swimmers into the water. The trainee is encouraged to climb aboard Alvin and to speak to the pilot over the sound-powered telephone. The trainee may also attach and detach basket safety lines. On day three the trainee solos, working alongside a veteran swimmer during launch and recovery.

The third day of my training began on cold, damp morning off the coast of Washington State. The normally tempestuous waters were becalmed. The glassy surface betrayed no hint of wind. Thick fog enveloped Atlantis, obscuring her behind a curtain of white that moistened her metal skin with beads of water.

At 7:30 am, a half-hour before launch time, I descended the stairs into Alvin’s hanger. Alvin, housed in its two-story hangar, sat stoically, one of its fiberglass side panels removed and its innards exposed, while Alvin engineers inspected its electrical systems, its battery function and hydraulic fluid levels, its ballast system, its communications equipment. Each vital system checked and rechecked.

I wore my usual attire - swim trunks, a t-shirt, and flip-flops. My wetsuit, damp and cold from the day before, hung in the back of the open hangar. Water temperatures off the Washington coast hover in the low-50s. To prevent hypothermia, all swimmers needed wetsuits. Atlantis carries a collection, sized to fit a variety of body types. Hung inside the hangar’s tiny dive locker, suits ranged from the new and privately owned to threadbare, garishly colored communal rags with stretched necks and torn knees. I’d chosen a black suit with gold striping and gold knee pads. It was well-made and understated, and its thick neoprene provided at least some protection from the cold water. I wore a mask with a comfortable, watertight fit, and a snorkel I hoped no one had used recently. On my feet I wore a pair of neoprene booties with nylon zippers up their sides, over which I strapped a pair of black rubber flippers. To help me sink, I wore four lead weights, each weighing five pounds, on a stiff canvas weight belt around my waist.

As I stood next to Alvin and struggled into my skintight wet suit, pre-launch preparations hastened. From the “doghouse,” a control station mounted atop the Alvin hangar, the A-frame operator finished his tests. The 30-foot-tall steel structure eased outward and inward, pushed and pulled by shiny hydraulic rams. The main lift line, as big around as an anaconda and coiled onto a large spool, reeled and unreeled.

On the main deck the Avon driver inspected his craft. He checked the 17-foot rigid hulled inflatable boat’s fuel supply and engine oil level. He turned the key, and the Honda outboard started. Its propeller, submerged in a water-filled 55-gallon plastic garbage can, spun slowly. A message from the bridge crackled over the driver’s walkie talkie. Prepare for launch.

Using hand signals, the bos’n mate directed the crane operator to position his hook directly above the Avon. Meanwhile Alvin, seated in its cradle, slowly rolled out of its hangar on its railroad tracks toward launch position under the A-frame. Spectators gathered. They talked and laughed and snapped photographs with tiny digital cameras. Exhaust fumes from the Avon’s outboard fouled the air. Bob Marley played on the hangar’s speakers.

A short blast of the ship’s fog horn. Game time. The crane hoisted the Avon, lowered it over the rail, and stopped. Line handlers pulled their lines tight. The Avon driver, wearing a life vest and a hardhat, climbed in. A hand signal from the bos’n, and the boat descended to the water below.

The dive coordinator motioned for the passengers to mount the steps up to Alvin’s embarkation deck. Under his watchful gaze, they removed their shoes and climbed over Alvin’s red fiberglass “sail” and descended one by one into the sphere. The pilot closed the hatch and sealed it. Our cue to take our positions. I felt pensive. Was I really ready to solo? Carrying my flippers and mask, my fellow swimmer Ken Rand and I ascended the steps to the embarkation deck and boarded Alvin.

From its forward resting position, the A-frame leaned backwards, and Alvin slowly rose off its cradle, the main lift line popped loudly under the strain. Rand and I watched the A-frame’s lattice of piping, hoses, and hydraulic fittings for leaks. The sub floated across the deck until it hung over the stern. We stopped with a jerk. Slowly we descended into the water.

Cold seawater lapped at our feet. Atlantis’ stern towered above us. The Alvin rolled in the water, its bulk, like an iceberg’s, largely submerged beneath the surface. Rand unhooked the tail line and together we threw off the heavy main lift line. We were free. The Atlantis maneuvered away and disappeared into the fog. We were alone. Rand, a 62-year old former Navy submarine veteran, talked to the pilot through the sound powered telephone mounted inside Alvin’s sail. Take off the basket safeties, said the pilot. I strapped my mask to my face and bit down on the snorkel. I took a deep breath and dove in.

Even with a thesaurus, it’s difficult to convey just how painfully cold 52-degree water feels. It focuses the attention like an explosion. It seizes the heart like a fall. Within the first one to four minutes, rapid skin cooling decreases the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. Immersion (or even just a stream leaking down the neck of a wetsuit) triggers a reflexive gasp, a sharp, involuntary inhalation through the mouth. Doctors call this the Cold Shock Response. Cold water constricts the body’s blood vessels, forcing the heart to pump harder. Blood pressure increases. Hyperventilation and an inability to breath-hold follow. Drowning and sudden death from heart attacks can occur immediately or within minutes.

Visibility narrowed in the murky green water. I had to feel my way down the basket safety line. At its end, a stainless steel carabiner clip attached to a ring on the corner of Alvin’s sample tray. Together with a second carabineer clipped into a pad-eye on an upper corner of Alvin’s “face,” the safety lines supported the sample tray’s weight. I unclipped the bottom carabineer and then the top and pulled the line free. Rand did likewise and together we rose to the surface. Even though I’d been underwater for less than a minute, a pain like an ice cream-headache stabbed my skull. My hands felt stiff, and my fingers tingled. I had entered stage two of the cold water response - Loss of Performance.

We clambored aboard the sub. On the pilot’s command, we opened a vent valve and activated an electronic identification beacon located inside the sail. We swam to the Avon and watched the sub descend beneath the waves. My last day of training was half over.

Around ten o’clock the weather began to change. A fresh breeze emerged out of the northwest, dispersing the fog enveloping us. Sullen daylight descended from a gray, overcast sky. It grew colder. The sky turned black, and rain squalls lashed us with stinging showers and willy waw gusts. By noon the wind had strengthened to nearly 30 knots. Whitecaps appeared atop fast moving swells streaked with foam.

I grew uneasy. Launching Alvin is a relatively straight forward procedure. Put the sub into the water, open the vent valve, and let the pilot do the rest. If the wind is blowing more than 25 knots, the launch is scrubbed. Launches are easy.

Recovering Alvin is another matter. Lifting a seventeen ton object out of moving sea is inherently dangerous. Rising and falling swells create shock loads that can snap lines and bend metal. In rough seas the danger increases. While graceful beneath the waves, Alvin rolls and pitches like a mechanical bull on the surface. Crashing waves batter its submerged bulk, creating instability dangerous to swimmers. Care must be taken to avoid the sub’s mechanical arms, which can knock an unwary swimmer senseless. Complicating matters, the sub’s mass generates swirling clouds of effervescent bubbles that make vision all but impossible. Swimmers must
feel their way around the bucking sub.

At 4 pm, Alvin’s pilot radioed his estimated surface time and location. My fellow swimmer on the recovery was Anton, an Alvin Group member. Anton had swum in similar conditions before, and he appeared unconcerned. He posed for pictures and talked easily to spectators gathered inside the Alvin hangar. My mouth felt dry. Fear gnawed at my stomach. The weather had not abated. The wind was blowing above 30 knots, and the turbulent seas churned and heaved. It would be a difficult recovery. At 4:30 we climbed into the Avon, and the crane dropped us quickly to the water.

A 12-foot swell, its translucent peak as sharp as chiseled green glass, lifted us nearly as high as Atlantis’ main deck. We plunged so abruptly into the trough behind that I nearly levitated. As the inflatable heaved beneath me, I struggled to pull on my flippers. We motored forward into the oncoming swells, tall enough to obscure the horizon. Atlantis’ bridge radioed the Avon driver and directed him to a spot 500 meters ahead. Amidst the peaks and valleys, we searched for Alvin’s red sail.

It appeared about 100 meters away, a splash of color against a backdrop of gray. We pounded toward it. Cold sea spray soaked our faces and stung our eyes. My stomach felt tight. I realized I was panting and tried to fill my lungs with slow, deep breaths. I’d need all my air to attach the basket safeties. The Avon stopped 20 feet from Alvin. Time to go. Anton jumped over with the sound powered telephone. He swam on his side, stroking with one hand while trying to keep the moisture sensitive phone above the waves. I took the basket safeties and leaned backwards out of the Avon. Silence. The waves overwhelmed me, tossing me like a rag doll in a washing machine. Beneath the waves, I heard myself gasping breaths though my snorkel. Pain like a frozen knife stabbed the middle of my forehead. I fought to focus.

I dove down. I grabbed Alvin’s light bar, a bank of flood lights attached to a tubular steel railing atop the sub. I held myself away from the sub’s metal arms. I felt for the pad eye and clipped in the first carabineer. My snorkle filled with water, and I inhaled burning saltwater into my lungs. I surfaced and coughed and wave broke over the top of me. I held tightly onto the gyrating sub. My lungs seemed incapable of inflating properly. They felt leaden, inflexible. I gathered my wits, took a deep breath and dove down again, deeper this time, to the rings on the corner of Alvin’s sample tray. I should have been able to clip the carabineer in my hand into the tray’s ring, but to my horror the safety line was too short. I fought to pull the ring and the carabineer together. I fought until my lungs felt
about to burst. I failed on two more attempts. The line was two inches short of the ring.

Having attached his line, Anton was standing atop Alvin in the howling wind struggling to hear the pilot through the sound powered telephone. I called to him. As the Atlantis crept slowly toward us, he grabbed the carabineer. He immediately noticed a second problem. A strip of black electrical tape was holding the carabineer’s spring loaded latch shut. In my adrenalized confusion, I hadn’t noticed. Unable to remove the tape with his dead fingers, Anton gnawed at the tape with his teeth. He disappeared beneath the waves, and somehow he attached the clip.

The Atlantis drew closer. Her three thousand tons of iron and steel cleaved the waves like an ax, her great angular bow rising and falling with dreamlike languor. Sheets of salt water, wind whipped and frothing, cascaded down her blue hull and across her gray bottom paint, exposed to the thin and unfamiliar environment above the swells.

Basket safeties attached, I returned to Atlantis for the tow line. Anton stayed aboard Alvin and guided its pilot to position the sub’s backside perpendicular to Atlantis. I swam over to the Avon and pulled myself aboard. The driver engaged the outboard, and we surfed down the faces of following seas toward approaching Atlantis. We stopped and held our position just behind her stern.

The bridge ordered the tow line passed. Coiled on a reel mounted near the waterline on Atlantis’ stern, the tow line pulls the Alvin beneath the A-frame and the main lift line. The tow line was tossed overboard. From the Avon’s bow, I reached into the water and grabbed its yellow float. The Avon driver pulled slack line out of the water and piled it in the boat. I clipped the tow line’s locking hook into a pigtail, a five-foot line itself ending in a hook. We maneuvered closer to Alvin, now nearly even with Atlantis’ stern. I jumped into the water landing without injury upon the blades of Alvin’s maneuvering thrusters. I clipped the pigtail’s hook to the pad eye on Alvin’s back end. Simple. It seemed to go well. I had no idea it had all gone terribly wrong.

I emerged from the waves and flashed the thumbs up sign. Hook attached. Tow away. I swam alongside Alvin and looked up at Anton. His face wore a curious expression. Neither a scowl nor a grimace, his stiff lips and blank eyes conveyed equal measures of regret and pity. Dread emerged from my chest like the Alien.

“The line came off,” he said.

Some mistakes can be overlooked. Clerical errors, for example, or construction oversights can lay undiscovered for years. Other mistakes, however, like an errant missile or a grounded oil tanker are, well, unmistakable. Even casual observers and small children notice immediately that something’s wrong.

I had committed perhaps the most egregious of all swimmer mistakes. The tail hook was idiot proof, deliberately designed to eliminate any possibility of failure. Clip it onto the pigtail and forget about it. Nobody could remember it ever coming undone. Now they could. I had missed the small line inserted into the tow line’s hook. The thin yellow line blocked the “locking” clasp from closing prematurely. I should have pulled the line free before I clipped the hook onto the pigtail. Because of my inattention the fool-proof locking hook failed. Because of my inattention Atlantis would have to make another pass in poor weather. And because of my inattention the passengers inside Alvin - those poor passengers - would have to endure additional minutes of vomit-inducing carnival rolling atop agitated seas.

My stomach dropped. The line came off? How could the line come off? What do you mean the line came off? I watched in horror as the tow line snaked through the water toward Atlantis’ stern, slowly receding into the distance. I could do nothing to but wait and watch. Atlantis crept ahead on its long, slow round turn. Anton said nothing. Through the sound powered phone, he explained the situation to Alvin’s pilot. His grim face reflected the mood inside Alvin.

The remainder of the recovery went flawlessly. The Atlantis eventually completed its second pass. For a second time I swam to the Avon. For a second time I plucked the hook from the water. For a second time I clipped the tow line’s locking hook into the pigtail. And for a second time I leapt into the heaving seas, and this time the hook, yellow line removed, locked shut. But the damage was done.

I returned to the Atlantis a diminished man. I had to answer to the bos’n, who informed me that he had inspected the hook and found nothing amiss. I had to explain myself to Atlantis’ captain, who appeared sympathetic but said little. And I had to explain myself to launch coordinator, Pat Hickey. Hickey wore the aggrieved expression of someone just involved in a collision with a wrong-way driver. He didn’t as much as look at me as look through me. I didn’t exist. I would swim no more that trip.

My tattered reputation would not recover until the following trip, when I swam without incident on nine dives in the cold, rough waters off northern California. But by that time Hickey had left on vacation. The day after my “incident” I met with Hickey in his room. It was a short, terse meeting. Like the supplicant I was, I again offred mia culpas. Hickey, able now to see me (though only through a lens of polished skepticism), said only “check the hook every time.” He certified me as an Alvin swimmer.

Standing atop Alvin beneath the blazing equatorial sun, I think back to that dark day. Warm water, as transparent as liquid glass and as blue as Aqua Velvet, washes over my legs in waves that gently swell and recede like the breathing of a sleeping giant. The pulverizing mid-afternoon heat fills the air with evaporated water that moistens my skin with droplets of moisture. No hint of wind creases the water’s surface. Dazzling sunshine adorns approaching Atlantis. Her navy blue hull and pistachio green superstructure emit waves of radiant color that saturate the sea before her like a dye.

I am in love.