Crowley's Blog - Tying Lines at Thistlegorm: When It All Goes Wrong
by, May 11th, 2012 at 09:54 AM (1392 Views)
Pretty much everybody that's had a close personal relationship with another human being has experienced times when that person - just for a little while - is not their favourite person in the whole wild world. You had an argument, stormed off into another room, felt guilty a bit later on, then had some fantastic make-up nookie.
That was my day yesterday, except my close personal relationship is with a WWII shipwreck and I didn't get the make-up nookie afterwards. I was at Thistlegorm again; I've been a few times recently because I'm one of the few remaining members of staff who can run the trip, given that not everybody has enough experience to be first guide there, nor is everybody physically suited to the task.
I should probably start a separate Thistlegorm blog because it's where most of my interesting adventures occur, with one adventure that nobody enjoys, and why some staff are not suited for the task, being the "tying of the lines".
Last week there were 15 other boats there and the most complicated aspect of tying the lines was threading them through others that were already in place. Twisted lines are to be avoided, and something a matter of pride around the instructor's beer table.
When I brief Thistlegorm dives, I go through the tying procedure to try and ensure maximum dive time and surface interval for the divers and still return to the jetty on time. It's something like this:"When I jump from the bow for the first line, please start to change into your suits. When I surface for the first time, please make sure you are getting ready to dive. When I surface for the second time to change tanks, please get into your BCDs and make your buddy checks."
I also add:"Please be aware that there may be a lot of unprofessional shouting and swearing between me and the crew. This is just because we are all really just good friends and we'll laugh about it later."
Today I did not laugh. Oh no. Today I did not even shout. In the dark depths of my wrath, however, I did throw my mask so forcefully into the rinse tank that it shattered on impact. NOT a happy Crowley.
The wreck was busy again - ten boats in total. I had 4 divers, a new staff member (Trevor) following for training day, and two instructors training with our CD. Amongst the chaos, I saw the Abou Gameel (Red Sea College), tying up in a great location. Conditions were a bit choppy but otherwise not so difficult, so I asked my captain to pull alongside so I could use her lines for assistance.
Nope - captain decides he needs to drop anchor about three million miles from the wreck (I don't know why, although I sometimes get the impression that they like to chuck the anchor overboard in the same way that kids like to throw rocks from tall bridges). After some faffing about, Trevor In Training (no pun on the acronym, he's a great guy and an experienced instructor, just new to the locale) and I jumped from the bow and began swimming down to the wreck carrying the big, heavy rope.
Now, I don't need to equalise - don't ask me why, because I don't really know myself, but 12 years of diving, 15 years of riding motorcycles and 25 years of heavy-smegging-metal probably have something to do with it. Trevor, on the other hand, does. We jump and the current is hard but I can see the wreck pretty much immediately and head for the anchor winch on the bow, a preferred contact. It was hard work in that current and I was already breathing heavily before I got to about 7m, at which point I looked behind me and a wide-eyed Trevor-In-Training gives me a big okay. When I get within a couple of metres of the Thistlegorm, I realise that I no longer have any forward momentum, even though I'm swimming like the Grim Reaper is chasing me on a tec scooter, and also that Trevor is no longer behind me.
Picture the scene - I am swimming like a cartoon character with my legs a-blur, holding a rope, trying to look around me at a lot of blue to see if Trevor is floating away on the breeze, but nope, he's gone, so I assume he's bailed because of his ears - or abject terror, possibly - and continue on with my journey.
Except my journey is no longer continuing. The bow of the ship is only a few metres in front of me - and I'm going nowhere. I'm breathing like the bellows at an over-worked steel mill just to stay in the same place, when suddenly I am pulled up and away from the wreck. All I can see behind me is a line disappearing off into infinity and no sign of my boat.
"Fertilize It", I thought (something like that, anyway) - and let go. The dream where people are running as hard as they can and find they are going nowhere (and also later realise they are not wearing any clothes) is, I understand, quite a common one (I've certainly had it in the past) and that was me, although thankfully not naked. The ultimate prize right there in front of you, clawed away by the hand of fate when you were within touching distance!
Or, in this case, clawed away by the hand of the captain, who for forgot that he had a throttle and allowed the boat to drift halfway to Hurghada while I was trying to drag it closer to the Thistlegorm. I surfaced and looked for my boat, which was spinning around in circles close to the horizon, with Trevor-In-Training floundering around at the surface clutching the end of the line I had just released and I made a very unprofessional gesture in the general direction of the crew.
After a few minutes, we were close enough to make a second attempt and Trevor bravely deflates and descends and hauls the rope underwater. I'm about 50m away, but I deflate (breaking the cord on my dump valve as I do so) and swim down to the deck of the Thistlegorm as hard as I can, carrying the broken cord in my gloved fist. Trevor, good man that he is, has got enough rope down so that we can tie on. I hand him my broken dump valve, tie a hurried bowline, and we safety stop on the rope of the Abou Gameel. I've already made two tough dives with a rapid ascent thrown in for good measure, and I'm down to 80 bar. Trevor has made one-and-a-bit, and has 70. I decide to change tanks just in case it all goes wrong again on the second line.
A wise decision, as it happens, as was my next decision to ask Trevor-In-Training to stay on board because as I said to him at the time - "I have to do this, and if it goes wrong, I will need you to guide" - he doesn't have much experience here, but it's better than going home.
As I boarded, I took off my mask and this is where I smashed it in the rinse tank. I don't think anybody on board had any doubt as to my state of mind! I changed tanks (and masks) and jumped to tie the stern line. The boat was in a good position - co-incidentally the exact place I asked the skipper to put it in in the first place - but about 5 metres underwater, I hear the engine roar, and watch my boat disappear again. I don't know why, and it meant was that the rope was pulled away from me, where it got caught in the ladder of another boat that had moved into position above me while my captain was "manoeuvering". So, there I am, at 15m swinging at the end of the rope, just a few metres away from my target, and all I can do it hold on.
I hear the engine again and my boat reverses back into view. This gives me enough slack that I can - with maximum physical effort - haul enough rope underwater that I could tie onto the wreck. I saw a likely looking davit, drifted onto it where I hooked my legs around it, and - now swinging upside down from a metal pole 18m underwater, I managed to tie a bowline, thus finally securing my dive boat to the Thistlegorm. I then managed to untangle the rope from the ladder of the random dive boat above me - but I had to do this three times, because my own crew weren't paying attention, and at some point in all the faffing around, I was holding on to the ladder of the boat when it jerked violently upwards and something in my back popped, just to add to the torment.
When I climbed back on board, regulator in mouth and sucking down 32% nitrox sounding like Darth Vader after running a marathon, I stripped off my BCD, stalked past the staring eyes of our guests and crew, and collapsed in a heap on the bow. Both my legs cramping, shaking with the physical effort, my head pounding from the CO2 hit, and as I'm kneeling down in a puddle on the deck I was wondering if this is all really worth it.
I love diving the Thistlegorm, but I do not want to end my career there. I'd already spent nearly 45 minutes in the water, making three dives in the process, pumping iron and chuffing gas like a steam locomotive - two tanks and 220 bar to get the lines secured. Even when it's been hard work before, I've not worried for my personal safety, but after this particular experience, I felt deep in my gut that if I got back in the water then I would finish my day in the chamber.
Trevor-In-Training guided the dives, for which I will be eternally grateful (at least until next week), and me... I phoned the office, told them I was not be working the next day, I would not dive for 48 hours, and please would they give Trevor half of my commission. I stripped out of my dive gear, lay flat on the couch in the saloon and put myself on the emergency oxygen supply.
For the record, I was never symptomatic and took only precautionary measures, and I'm writing this over lunch and a few beers from the pub, and I have the next four days in the office so I am not really worried for my health, but... here I am, living the dream.
As it turns out, nightmares are also a sort of dream...