After an afternoon kayaking outing on one of the last warm summer afternoons of the year, I returned to the dock where I’d put in to pry myself out of the cockpit. There was a man in the water hanging on to the end of the dock. I asked him how the water was, thinking he was in there to cool off, but he made it clear that he wasn’t swimming for pleasure: “My girlfriend threw my pants in the water and all my money is in the pockets.”
I peered into the water that was in my shadow. On the bottom I could just make out a shopping cart and a green ride-share bike, but no pants. He said they were farther out, but on that side of my kayak there was only glare. I hauled myself up on the dock and wished him luck, as much for finding his pants as for finding a new girlfriend.
On the drive home I regretted not doing anything more to help, but he had a diving mask on, so if the pants were somewhere near the dock, he’d be able to see and retrieve them; the water there is only about 12′ deep.
The incident got me thinking about being better prepared to recover something that has dropped in the water. About 100 yards from that same dock, the rudder for my gunning dory slipped free and has been on the bottom. I wasn’t prepared then to recover it, and now, 20 years later, I can’t remember just where it would be. Recovering the rudder might have been possible if I could have done two things: see it clearly through the surface, and get a line hooked on it.
More recently, I was testing an electric outboard motor that suddenly pried its tiller from my hand, turned sideways, and wrenched itself off the transom. (It’s the very last time I used an outboard without having it tied to a safety line.) The motor went down in about 30′ of water in the middle of the shipping canal, too deep and too dangerous for me to look for it by free-diving. I went home, made a grappling hook out of steel rod, and connected it to a long line and my little underwater video camera. It took three outings at the canal to find the motor, and it was only with my son’s help manning the hook and watching the monitor while I rowed a search pattern and dodged boat traffic that we found and recovered the outboard.
When I built my Caledonia yawl, I incorporated a simple device for seeing into the water. The plug that fills the motorwell while I’m rowing or sailing has a plexiglass bottom. It comes in handy when I’m sailing in shallow water and need to keep an eye on the bottom, but it has some limitations. When I was exploring the fringes of Yellow Island in Puget Sound’s San Juan archipelago, I got a brief glimpse of the tip of a submerged boulder just before it tore my rudder off.
I’ve had my best view of the underwater world with a hard-hat diving helmet I made out of plywood and plexiglass. A plastic pump for inflating rafts, manned by someone I can trust, supplies air through a 50’ length of garden hose. I made my first dive with it in a marina, and I was quite content to just sit on the bottom, 12’ down, looking out across the sandy wasteland under the docks. I could have stayed there for quite a while, but I could tell by the diminishing airflow that my pump man was getting tired.
An easier way to see underwater is through a different kind of windowed plywood box, one used at the surface. On the south coast of Menorca in the Mediterranean, I saw fishermen wading in the shallows, bent over with their faces pressed into things that looked like oversized megaphones. They had openings at the top to fit around their eyes and windows on the bottom. I never found out what they were looking for, but I was intrigued by their devices, called bathyscopes or aquascopes. They’ve been around for quite a while, perhaps almost as long as window glass has been.
After worrying for a while about the unfortunate man who’d lost his pants, I made a bathyscope from stuff I had lying around the shop: some leftover mahogany plywood, oak from a desk I’d made years ago, a scrap of 1/4″ plexiglass, and a pair of brass window-sash handles. The top end is 3″ x 5-3/4″ with cutouts for my forehead and nose. I pressed a length of lead-free solder to my face to make a contoured pattern.
The window at the bottom is 7″ x 10″ and recessed in the trim pieces at the bottom so it won’t get scratched when set down. The interior is painted flat black to make the best of the underwater view. The handles are angled for a comfortable grip and offset from one another vertically to provide firmer control if the water’s a bit unsettled.
The bathyscope was ready a few days after I’d met the man looking for his pants, so when I returned to the dock with it and a grappling hook I didn’t have much hope of finding the pants, or reconnecting them with their owner if I did. I got a good look at the bike and the shopping cart, guided the hook to them, and hauled them up. There were no markings on the cart, so I’m stuck with that. I took the bike to a service center where the company repairs them. The technician there recognized it as an older model, so it had been missing for quite a long time.
With winter coming, the water here will be getting much clearer. I’m planning on rowing around the marina with my bathyscope, grappling hook, and a large magnet. I suspect the water there has been hiding all manner of treasures under its mask of ripples and reflections.