Down to the Bottom of the Bering Sea

I moved down the corridor with a purpose. Don stopped at his cabin door. I turned back to him with a snap.

“Where are you going?” I demanded the things I had unloaded from my ditty bag almost scattering.

“What do you mean?” Don said, in surprise. I looked him up and down.

“Get your coat and gloves. I’ve got to go down there with Dutch. I need somebody on the dive boat who I can trust, and that’s you.” I stuck him hard in the chest with my extended index finger. He jumped back under my forceful touch.

“Me? I’m not a diver,” he stated, but his voice was weak. I turned and headed for the dive locker.

“C’mon, and haul out the keys for the clinic. We need some supplies.”

The clinic was locked, as usual. Don opened the door and then stood back so I could enter.  I examined some small brass doors I’d seen, welded to the bulkhead, on our last visit. One of the doors was painted with ‘narcotics’ on the outside in small black letters.

“Key,” I held out my hand. Don’s hand with the keys in it retreated back to his chest.

“You can’t just go in there and take what you want. All that stuff is counted and controlled.”

I continued to hold out my hand until Don relented, which did not take long. I pulled out ampoules of morphine. 10 milligrams was stenciled on the side of each clear glass container. I sloshed the yellowish liquid around. I popped four ampoules into my pocket then pulled out some syringes. They went into my pocket too.

“Just in case,” was all I volunteered. I tossed the keys back to him as I headed out. “Write a note, then lock up,” I threw over my shoulder.

Dutch was already suited up when I got to the locker. “What do you have on underneath?” I asked, examining the remaining dry suit for fit. It was too big but it would do. “Pants, shirt and two sweaters,” he said. I approved.

“Where are the Navy Dive Tables?” I said and then proceeded with my pre-dive check.

“Dive tables? We don’t have any, Dutch answered. I just stopped and looked at him.

“Dive computer?” I said, my voice rising.

“Nope,” he replied, flatly.

“Damn,” I sighed.

“We don’t ever go deep,” Dutch said, “we only dive in the tropics. We go maybe twenty feet down on the reefs.” I suited up without further comment. I checked my tank to make sure that the gauge said 3000, and then hunted around for a pony bottle.

“No bailout bottles either?” Dutch frowned down at me.

Bailout bottle

Bailout Bottle

“What’s a bailout bottle?” I had expected the question. A bailout bottle was a very small bottle of compressed air with its own little regulator. If worse came to worse, you could get to the surface on just the pony bottle alone. No modern diver dived without one anymore. This was not going to be anything, more or less, than a risky venture out into a deadly cold sea. I decided that we would go out, dive down, find nothing, and then get the hell out of the water. Screw Borman and the anchor.

Two Filipinos came into the locker. They began to haul our tanks and B.C.’s down to the waiting Zodiac. Dutch started to follow, but I stopped him by putting my arm across the door.

“Dutch, this is the kind of dive that guys get killed doing. Pay attention. You do everything, and I mean everything I tell you, we may live through this.” He looked back at me with bloodshot eyes. His breath smelled of booze.

“Okay Indy,” he exhaled. I turned my head away at the 80-proof stench.

“Your job is to watch me and come to my assistance if I need help. That’s it. No looking for anchors, exploring or any other nonsense. Just me. You watch my ass. And don’t call me Indy.” I pulled my arm back. “You know how to buddy breathe?” He shook his head, as I sighed again. Deeply. “Final question. How deep is the water?” Dutch knew that one.

“Sixty-one feet,” he answered, proudly.

“Some good news,” I said to his back as he went through the hatch. Two atmospheres. A bit less. We could safely stay on the bottom for almost an hour without worrying about the bends. Half an hour to be on the safe side. The Filipinos had taken extra tanks, but we would not be using them. I headed for the Filipino mess. When I got there I scrounged around and found a plate of freshly caught fish. It was cooked in the usual Filipino manner. Ungutted and uncleaned. I prized some flesh off, made six large sandwiches with a loaf of French bread, and half a jar of mayonnaise. I wrapped it all in reams of aluminum foil. The biggest defense against cold weather fatigue was fuel, as Benito had aptly demonstrated earlier.

Returning to the dive locker, I put the sandwiches and the gear from my ditty bag into a small canvas sack. I’d used the Vaseline and the socks but also took my Stryker flint. It was so powerful that you could ignite bare wood with its sparks, if necessary. I found a big dive knife with a screw-top hollow handle. I hunted around, unable to find matches. I did locate a used Bic lighter on the floor, so I placed that inside. I screwed the handle back on hard.

“Insanity,” I cried, and then went down the stairs and into the open corridor until I faced the open hatch to the sea. The Zodiac was nosed into the steel hull. Filipe held it fast with a bow rope, but it bucked and weaved about anyway. Don stood at the stern, his hand on the tiller of a big running outboard. Dutch sat among the gear, smoking a cigarette. I made the leap and settled down next to him. Then I looked around, while Don shot us out from the side of the ship. Passengers lined the deck to watch the operation. I saw Marlys peering down. I looked up her dress. She had on white panties. It was just a glimpse. I looked away, embarrassed a bit. I looked at the Island. It was the water that stunned me, however. It had to be moving at least fifteen knots. As fast as a sprinter could run. The ship was under power, holding itself exactly against the current. No wonder the anchor chain had snapped…unless it had some other reason to, I thought.

“What’s the island?” I asked Dutch, over the whine of the outboard.

“The Isle of the Tsar of Russia,” he explained, between puffs of a cigarette. We were moving up ahead of the ship, as I had instructed Don. A second island was visible, less than a mile from the first.

“And that one?” I pointed at the other island. Dutch laughed.

Dutch laughed, “That one’s also the Isle of the Tsar of Russia.” I screwed up my face.

I screwed up my face.

“Like Daryl in the Bob Newhart Show?” I shot back. Dutch looked at me quizzically, the allusion lost on him. I presumed that he had never seen the TV show, which had had two brothers with same first name. I stood and directed to Don to a spot in the water. He throttled back, and we came to a sliding halt, but I could observe that the current was carrying us fast back toward the ship, now a half-mile away. Dutch and I suited up, each helping the other with tanks and weight belts. My belt held twenty-two pounds, which I knew to be about right. But I didn’t really care that much, as I wasn’t planning on doing anything but going down, and then coming back up on the other side of the ship. Declaring the dive a failure was, after all, the unspoken mission.

We put our fins on, tested our regulators, adjusted our masks, and got ready to go fall backward over the rubber gunnel-tube. Don then tapped me on the shoulder.

“Where’s the pickup?” he asked. I pointed behind the ship in the distance.

“Go about a mile astern of the ship, then pull up,” I instructed. “It’s damn close to the island but it should be about where we surface. I opened my canvas sack and took out the dive knife with its scabbard. I attached it to my left thigh with the straps. I gave the sack back to Don.

“Guard that with your life.” I smiled as I said the words. In the bottom of the Zodiac was a hefty coil of rope, with a CO2 inflatable canister to operate the float. Our immediate mission was to run the line through the last link of the anchor, tie the ends to the canister, and then pop the CO2 cartridge. The ship’s cables, chains, and winches would do the rest. I attached the coil to my shoulder with a strip of Velcro. I handed the canister to Dutch. His face looked white, almost alabaster.

“You have dived the Bering Sea, have you not?” I asked. He shook his head. “Great, just great,” I exploded aloud.

I sat down next to him, depressed and with a bit of fear. We reset our masks, re-inserted the regulators into our mouths, and gave each other a standard ‘thumbs up’ signal.

I’d rinsed my mask over the side before I’d tried it on to adjust the strap, so I knew the water was cold. The wet suit headpiece was essential, as were the wetsuit gloves. But all of it made things difficult to manipulate or touch. Underwater, I oriented and hung head up at about ten feet.   Dutch appeared before me no more than six feet away. I checked everything of mine, giving him another thumbs up. He gave it back. I pointed directly down. We were going to go down to the bottom, stay there, and let the extreme current carry us right under the ship.

Down I went, my weight belt providing plenty of negative buoyancy. The bottom was a shock. I had noted something odd, even at the surface. But at the bottom, which registered at sixty-on feet on my gauge, the seabed was white. White sand. Glaring white sand with waves. The current was stirring the sand and driving it over the tops of small and endless rivulets, like waves of powdery air over the tops of miniature sand dunes. It was stunningly beautiful. It was also totally unexpected. I had presumed that the bottom would consist of rock. Dark harsh and jumbled rock, to be precise. It was anything but. We sailed over the sand, side by side.

There were no more thoughts of Dutch following or watching my back. There was no threat. No sharp edges. No clefts to get caught in or lost. Just white sand everywhere. The ship glided over us, the thrum of its two great propellers beating and thrashing above. It seemed too close. The “Lindy” drew twenty-five feet, so we had a little less than forty feet of water over us when we went under the hull. It seemed more like five feet.

The stern passed over us but we were still in her shadow and jostled by the twisting unseen currents, stirred by her power.   I nearly panicked, as a huge black snake reared its head out of the sand. A thrill of fear went through me.

I sucked deeply on the regulator. Then I noted a large hole in the snake’s head. The ‘head’ was the broken end-link of our anchor chain. We were moving so fast we almost blew right by it. Dutch caught the link with one gloved hand and then grabbed my weight belt until I could get a handhold. The current was unbelievable. You could not face sideways into it while stopped. I lost my mask twice and had to clear. My eyes and nose were near frozen with exposure to the freezing water. But there was nothing to be done. The sharp shiny edges of the link break had to be avoided. Any damage to our dry suits while in 40-degree water could be quickly fatal.

Commercial dives were much harder than sports dives. Commercial divers worked harder. Dutch and I scrambled to hang on, attempting to thread the uncoiled rope through the second, unbroken link. It was much, much more difficult than can be imagined. Finally, we achieved it. We next attached the canister. Tying the line was near impossible, with the gloves on. I had to remove mine. Then it was easy, but there was no putting the tight rubber gloves back on after I finished. I tucked them into my belt, instead, and pulled the cord on the CO2 cartridge. It zoomed for the surface while the doubled line played out.

We did not have to guide it. We saw the float canister plunge up through the surface. We looked at each other and smirked, using the thumbs-up gesture at the same time. We let go and began our ascent to our pick up. For some reason, the current had dragged us closer to the island than we had calculated. Stalagmites appeared, jutting out of the sand. I knew it was time to surface and pointed up. We inflated our B.C.’s together and headed up. Don was far back but finally waved back, having spotted us. I could see people on the fantail of the ship waving, as well. I looked for Marlys without success. “Where the hell is Yemaya when I need her?” I implored the wind.

Don motored up. By this time Dutch and I were only yards from a great high cliff face. I waved Don back, but he came towards us anyway. He got close, then turned and gave us the side of the hull. There were ropes extending all along the rubber tubes of the Zodiac. We grabbed and held. My frozen fingers had no feeling, but I held on anyway. “Cut the engine,” I yelled, trying to give him a slit-throat gesture, knowing that he was unaware of the up-thrusting stalagmites. He cupped one ear without benefit. I thought we could just float past the island, and then restart the motor on the far side.

There was a huge bang. At the same time, I felt a heavy impact penetrate right through the boat. Almost immediately the top of an upward stabbing stalagmite struck me. My suit ripped, as ice water instantly poured in. Don pulled Dutch aboard, but even he and Don, tugging together, were nearly unable to bring me, with a full dry suit of water, aboard. I lay on the bottom of the boat, exhausted and cold to the bone. When I sat up, at last, Don delivered the bad news. “Prop washer’s busted at the shaft,” he said, in resignation. I then looked to the fantail of the ship, but it was gone. I clambered to my feet in shock, only to see the World Discoverer (AKA “Lindy”) far away. Very far away, and moving farther away fast.

“What the hell?” I cursed into the strong wind. We were past the island; the current was abating, yet the wind and huge swells were building. Don put his palms out and up, his forehead wrinkled in question, then pulled a hand-held radio out of his jacket.

“I’ve got communication. I’ll just call ‘em,” he assured me. He pushed the button on the radio down.

“Dive One to the Captain”, he repeated, over and over. A Germanic voice answered on the fifth try, although the reception was too scratchy for me to understand the words. “Almost outta range,” Don said, a worried look on his face. He talked for several minutes; his back turned away from the wind. Finally, he put the radio back into his coat. His face was white.

“What is it?” I demanded.

“It seems that there’s a cruise ship on fire. An emergency. The “Lindy”s bound to race to their assistance. They’re the closest. It’s the Law of the Sea and all, but the burning ship’s only fifty miles away. They’ll be back for us in a few hours.” He smiled, weakly, when he finished.

“Jesus Christ Don,” I blasphemed, “with this current, we could be on the Russian Coast in a few hours.” I thought hard and fast. “Oars?” I asked, looking at Don. He shook his head. “Paddle?” He said nothing. I moved closer to the inebriated Assistant Cruise Director.

“Dutch, get your snorkel and get in the water. You’re our only hope. We’re in the lee of the island. Swim us in. We can wait this out behind the island if we can find a place to land. My suit’s full of water, or I’d be in there with you.” Dutch scrambled to get his snorkel and mask back on. I hoped that his level of alcohol would not prevent him from swimming the boat in. I looked into the distance at the Isle of the Tsar of Russia. The Bering Sea was a brutal, punishing beast at any time, much less in a storm. The ominous clouds to the North, beyond the island, did not look tropical at all. Nor did they look like they would be long in arriving.