July 27th, 2002
Thanks for asking how the dives have been going. We had an interesting one on the "Wisconsin" wreck last night, while working on our “Southwest Lake Michigan Shipwreck Project” so I thought I'd send it along.
It began when Jane, my friend from North Dakota, swung by the house at quarter to 5:00pm on her way home from work.. While she changed into street clothes, I loaded her new deco-planner program into her lap top computer. We carefully transferred her tech gear from her car to my truck, grabbed some snacks and water, and we headed to Winthrop Harbor marina just over the Illinois border. When we got there, the two other divers we would share the charter with had already arrived, along with Greg (the owner/captain) and George (an assistant captain and tender). We loaded fairly quickly and soon were underway. Jane went topside to ride with Greg, while I sat in the galley chatting with one of the other divers named Hank. I dove with him on the "Wisconsin" once a couple years ago. I seem to remember him getting narked very easily and no matter what he wore under his drysuit, he was always cold. Nitrogen Narcosis, sometimes called “Rapture Of the Deep” is a euphoria divers get when diving deep on air. Every 33 feet is like having a martini on an empty stomach. It affects every diver differently and so far it hasn’t given “me” too much trouble, but I’m always aware of it being there. Hank mentioned he didn't have a dive-planner program and, rather then do it by hand, I told him we could run tables for him when Jane fired up her computer.
With 10 minutes ETA to the wreck, Jane came down to the galley and booted up her laptop. She was running 28% nitrox in her double back tanks, while I'd be running straight air. ( I had air because of the deep "Rocinco" wreck dive, that got scrubbed a couple of weeks ago and I didn't want to waste the air fill ). We both agreed to dive 30 minutes at 130 feet deep. This would mean after 30 minutes on the bottom we would come up to 70 feet and switch to a stage tank with 50% nitrox. The 50% nitrox would shorten our decompression time allowing us to get out of the water a little quicker. We would then make a stop for 3 minutes there at 70 feet, 1 minute at 60 ft, 1 at 50, 1 at 40, 3 at 30, and 16 minutes at 20 feet before surfacing. 25 minutes of decompression for a 30 minute bottom time. After writing down the dive plan and some backup plans on our wrist slates, we ran tables for Hank and his buddy. After we suited up into our long underwear, dry suits, and the rest of our dive gear, we back rolled into the water. The roughly 100 pounds of dive gear felt a lot better once we were in the water and floating on the surface. There was a bit of a current and some waves, but nothing too much to handle. The tender, George, handed us our 50% nitrox stage bottles which we clipped onto our harnesses and then my video camera, which I also clipped on. After a brief rest to get our breathing back to normal we headed down.
We stopped at 15 feet to do a bubble check. This is to be sure none of our gear is leaking anything before continuing to the bottom. I checked Jane's, she checked mine and everything was good to go. We signaled OK to each other and continued down. The “Wisconsin” is a Passenger Steamer that foundered in a storm on October 29th, 1929 and sank.
Our dive plan was to follow the mooring line down to the wreck, swim over the port side rail and drop down to a hole in the ship near the bottom. If the visibility permitted, we would enter the cargo hold through the hole, and shoot video of some 1929 cars reported there. We then would continue farther in, up through an exit hatchway we found during a previous reconnaissance dive, and back out. If time permitted we would then cross over the amidships deck to the starboard hold and shoot more video of some shoes that were supposedly in a broken crate near the entryway.
As we went down the line I noticed how clear and warm the water was. This would make a great series of comfortable deco stops later. At 80 ft we hit the thermocline. The water got instantly cold, 42 degrees, and the visibility went dark and murky. By the time we hit the wreck at 110 feet, visibility was 5 feet maximum and very dark. I hooked a strobe light to the point where the line attached to the wreck, so we could find it easier later and turned on one of my 100 watt camera lights. It didn't penetrate very far, but if we were careful it would be plenty.
Jane already had her halogen light on and was hanging on to the deck rail. We both signaled that we were OK and headed over the port side of the wreck toward the hole and the bottom at 130 feet.
As soon as we headed over the side, I realized we had trouble. Jane was a little ahead of me, and far enough already that I could barely see her light. She was dropping fast. I followed as fast as I could, but then stopped where I was when I got to the bottom of the lake. I could just barely see the wreck and didn't want to go farther out into the lake for fear of losing it and her. I covered my light with my glove hoping to see Jane's light, but it was gone. She had headed away from the wreck and disappeared. Damn it! I thought. The last time we dove deep Jane had a problem with narcosis and I was worried that it happened again.
I turned on my other camera light (another 100 watts), and my primary diving light (50 more watts). I reached down to my back plate straps and turned on the two backup lights mounted there. (a few more watts of light). I figured if she covered her light she may see me lit up like a Christmas tree. I waited on that spot for a minute or two then headed up and back to the line. My thought was that if Jane found her way back to the wreck she would go up the hull to the deck rail and follow it back to the line where my lights and strobe blinking would get her attention. Now there was nothing I could do but wait.
As I floated at the line watching the bottom time minutes go by and my deco minutes start to go up, a long 10 minutes went by. I pictured my friend Jane on the bottom in the murky silt unconscious, with her regulator out of her mouth. How would I explain to my friends and her family that she died while I was with her? How would we ever find her in the deep muck and murk at 130 feet, with no visibility? I decided if she wasn't back when my bottom timer hit 20 minutes, I would have to go up and signal for help. Greg hadn't been diving today and I would have enough air and nitrox to do one small search with him before I would have to go up again. 17 minutes passed... still waiting, it was also getting cold. I wasn't swimming around creating body heat, and in Lake Michigan, even with a dry suit; the temperature will eventually get to you.
I looked up and down the deck rail where my lights were reflecting off of the back scatter, just like high beams in a dense fog, nothing... Another 30 seconds... I look up the line and saw a faint light, at first I thought it was Hank and the other diver doing their deco unaware of the problem that was happening. Then as the light was actually moving down the line, I recognized the yellow mask. It was Jane! I had that same feeling you get as a parent after you lose your child in a crowd where you want to yell at them for wandering off and yet are so happy to see them, all
you want to do is give them a hug. I signaled "OK?", she returned "OK!". I then signaled that we should go up. Since I was only down for 18 minutes out of the planned 30, and still had a good deal of air in my tanks, we decided to not use the 50% stages and follow the deco recommendations of my backup wrist computer.
We did our planned one minute stops until reaching 20 feet. At 20 feet the computer told us we only needed to deco for 5 more minutes. After the computer cleared we hung there for another 5, just to be on the safe side. We then got to the surface and climbed into the boat and hugged each other. Jane explained that when she went over the rail, in the low visibility, she didn't realize how fast she was descending until she hit the bottom. Once there she could no longer see the wreck. She too covered her light to look for mine. Even with all of my bright lights illuminating the muck around us, she couldn't see me. She swam a couple of fin kicks in the direction she thought the wreck was in, but after not finding it right away, she stopped and checked her gauges. Because she had been using the 28% nitrox, she had not collected any deco time. This would allow her to do a slow, line free, accent to the surface. This is a difficult thing to do because without a line the only reference you have to go by is the depth gauge on your arm. She made her decision and started slowly heading toward the surface. There was nothing around her, up nor down nor side to side, but the dark bluish green of the water. As she floated there alone, she also had no idea if the current we felt on the surface, was her taking her farther and farther away from the dive boat?
At 70 feet she stopped briefly to consider shooting a lift bag to the surface. When doing deco stops without a line, you can hook your cave reel to a lift bag, send it to the surface and reel up the line as you go up. This gives you a visual reference to hold buoyancy. The current on this dive unfortunately was strongest at the surface and she decided correctly, that it would drag the bag with her attached to it farther from the boat at a faster rate of speed. She opted to continue the accent the way she was. After a brief safety stop at 20 feet, she broke the surface surprisingly only 10 to 20 feet away from the boat. The team on the boat, signaled "OK?". (They knew that there must be a problem, because she came up so soon and away from the line). She yelled that she was OK, but “oops”, lost the wreck. She then asked if I had come up. Greg looked over and said, “There are bubbles coming up all around the line, I'll bet he's there waiting for you.” She swam back to the boat, rested a second and returned down the line to meet me... where we then both came up.
On the way back to the harbor, sitting in the comfort of the galley eating our traditional post dive chocolate and drinking bottled water to stay hydrated, we chatted about staying even closer together on both good and bad visibility dives. We also decided to wait for reports of better visibility before trying our dive plan on the "Wisconsin" again...
Have a great day, no worries. See you soon.
Your Eldest Son~~~