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Do you know that feeling you get after a life-altering event — one so thrilling and challenging and exciting and powerful — that all you can do is try to relive it?
It’s been over 48 hours since we docked the Sea Watch back in Long Beach and I’ve googled every variation of “30-mile dive” and “Scott Cassell” I could think of. I’ve checked out the production team Global Reef’s website for updates, I’ve lingered on Facebook anticipating more friend requests from the remarkable people I met on board and I’m hoping someone from our trip hasn’t posted their photos or videos yet so I can see the trip through a different lens. I’ve been through all the existing albums at least a dozen times.
When we arrived at the Sea Watch at 10 a.m. on Friday, I was 20,000 leagues under a sea of cluelessness. And after talking with several of the other people who would join us as part of Cassell’s support team, I learned I wasn’t alone.
“How in the world is this going to work?”
“What time are we leaving?”
“What time is he starting Saturday morning?”
“Are we going to get any sleep?”
The answer to most of our shared questions was, “No idea.”
The Captain of the Sea Watch had his boat painted in blue camouflage, so part of the crew’s unofficial uniform is anything from cargo pants to T-shirts, from bikinis to board shorts in blue camo. MaineMan made sure to take me to the U.S. Army surplus store so I could have at least one piece of blue camo in my wardrobe. MaineMan once wore a bright orange winter cap on one of our last adventures and the Captain loved it so much he made it another signature piece (a la Steve Zissou and Jacques Cousteau’s crews with their red beanies). I made sure to purchase one of these, as well.
When the crew arrived Friday morning, the Captain pulled us aside and gave us our tasks. Maleno and I were in charge of checking people in. Easy enough.
At some point in the middle of assignments the Captain looked at me and asked, “Do you cook?”
“Cool,” he said. “We’ll have you in the galley, overseeing the action in there.”
I was too ashamed to turn down his request, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself, or MaineMan for that matter, promising something I couldn’t deliver.
“What are we talking here? I can make eggs, a mean tuna fish sandwich… that’s about it,” I said.
Oh man… wait till my dad gets a load of this.
We checked in at least a dozen members of Global Reef, Cassell’s family of support and several cameramen who’d been hired to take both underwater and crew footage. One of them, Ed George, has done extensive work for National Geographic and I nearly wet my pants when I found this out. We made sure everyone gave us their emergency contact info (“No, your cell phone won’t work, thanks!”) and helped them “check in” to their bunks.
MaineMan, with the help of some guys in the crew, loaded the diving bell onto the ship with a crane. The monstrosity looks like a Portuguese man o’ war, with a big glass dome and heavy chains linking it to a giant bucket filled with more chains. As the Captain had noted, MaineMan was the lead on this, so I was nervous as hell watching him handle its loading, but it was a success and I breathed my first (of many) sigh of relief.
At around 4 p.m. we were ready to set sail.
We’ve had some great luck in our channel crossings. I’ve seen whales, dolphins and seals on almost every trip to Catalina. But this one blew those out of the water. We saw at least two different species of whale and I saw two breaches. I hadn’t seen a whale breach in probably 20 years and I thought this was a really good omen.
We set anchor at Catalina around 7 and while many of the crew went to shore to listen to Cassell give a talk, I stayed behind to make dinner. One of the guys (who admitted to me he wanted to open up his own restaurant — good for you, but then why was I in charge of food?!) joined me in the kitchen and we made spaghetti with meat sauce, rather he made it, I oversaw production. I later learned it was protocol to save a captain’s plate — doh! — so thank goodness someone else noticed I hadn’t.
The next three to six hours are a blur. We were all running around helping the camera crew get organized, cleaning, fixing and building last minute machines Cassell would need, and looking out for flying fish. I saw my first one and it was something straight out of “Aliens.” F-R-E-A-K-Y!
Finally around midnight I decided to try and get a couple hours of sleep, knowing Cassell and his fam would be on board at 3-ish to suit up. MaineMan and I had a single bottom bunk to share (with no pillows, blankets or sleeping bags) and the ZZZs just weren’t happening. I laid down and willed myself to rest, but that was all I could do. I was too filled with excitement and jitters to really get any REM sleep.
At around 3:50 a.m. MaineMan shot up and said he had to get going.
“Um, yes!?” I said, knowing he had a big day ahead of him. He seemed to be the Captain’s go-to guy with any technical/mechanical difficulties.
Once I put on my layers I emerged from my confused state of sleep deprivation to find utter mayhem on deck.
People rocking around dazed and confused looking for coffee and their accomplices.
“Have you seen Ed? Jim? Richard? Aidan? Ian? Ricky? Captain? Bill? Josh? Eric? Maleno? Darrell? Scott? Brett? Graeme? Dave? Andre? William? Kerry?”
“Nope, sorry, try the galley,” I’d say.
Cameras of all shapes and sizes, tripods of every height, high beams to light up the deck in the early morning darkness, laptops in the galley for uploading photos, videos and blog posts, pelican cases lying everywhere, tanks in varying piles of readiness. We were tripping over ourselves and the heaps of gear.
I snuck in the galley for a moment to eat. My body didn’t care what time it was, it just needed fuel. Thank god I’d had the wits to put out the breakfast food before I went to bed three hours before. The muffins were almost gone, all that remained of the banana bread were a few crumbs, each tub of cream cheese had been busted open and the bagels were disappearing.
I checked the coffee levels and decided to make a new batch. I kept repeating the ratio the Captain had told me in my head: 40 cups of water to 1.5 cups of coffee, 40 cups of water to 1.5 cups of coffee. I didn’t want to screw this up or I’d face the ire of everyone on the ship.
I would periodically go out to check on Cassell’s progress. He was still seated at the stern with cameras focused on him like he was Brad Pitt about to step out of a limo onto the red carpet. At least four different people at the same time handled the gear he was trying to put on. Chainmail for the shark bites, the rebreather, the layers before the layers of the drysuit, the watches, the computers. It looked like we were sending him to the moon, not to 25 feet below the surface of the ocean.
When the sun started to creep out I looked at my watch with shock. It was nearly 7 o’clock, well over three hours since we’d gotten up and we had no idea where the time had gone.
When it looked like Cassell had everything on to survive a trip to Atlantis and back, we all let out a few hearty cheers and rounds of applause.
“LET’S GO SCOTT! WOO WOO WOO!”
I felt like there had been very little discussion of logistics and how we were going to find Cassell in the middle of the channel when we needed to bring him supplies and a fresh smiling face, but I trusted someone was covering these bases.
MaineMan was all set to jump in as a safety diver. What a thrill, I thought, for him to be a part of this moment, the first of Cassell’s dive. I can’t recall the order of who jumped in first, but if Cassell dove in first, MaineMan was just a few seconds behind him, ready to handle any issue that might arise.
We all stared in wonder as Cassell’s head started to get farther and farther away from the boat. This is really happening. He’s off. Now, we believed, the real work began.
MaineMan came onto the boat for a few short minutes before the Captain ordered him back in with his friend D- to assess the bell. I felt scared and bad for him that he had to stay in the water indefinitely figuring this out, but it needed to be done. Cassell was depending on it.
I stood on deck helpless watching the full-time crew shout commands back and forth. MaineMan’s hearing is bad enough on land having blown an eardrum at some point in his youth, so it was doubly tough to get him to hear in the water with his gear on.
The bell was a bitch. We tried all kinds of methods to keep it at a depth Cassell could use it at and it just wasn’t cooperating. We would add more buoys if MaineMan said it was too low, then once we put too much air into it, it would shoot to the surface dragging anyone and anything up with it. At one point the Captain yelled to lighten up the mood, “JAWS!” That’s just what it looked like. The buoys would start moving slowly and mysteriously by themselves, then faster and faster until you saw a huge glass bubble exploding to the surface.
I really feared for Maineman and D-’s lives as they fought to wrangle the 1,500-pound scrap of glass, chain and metal. After a two-hour struggle with the hopes of everyone riding on their shoulders, MaineMan and D- came back to the boat and we’d done all we could do. We got it to a safe level and we had to move on or we’d be too late to meet up with Cassell. The Captain’s boat could only go so fast and Cassell was cruising.
We pulled anchor and started after Cassell. I would say it took us about an hour, maybe a little less, maybe a little more, to reach the spot where Cassell was. In the meantime the tender met us a dozen times with the cameramen and the Global Reef team. They were our link to Cassell all day, since once he jumped off the Sea Watch he would meet up with another boat, the Diver, for emergency situations and most supplies.
We approached the Diver and we all hoped Cassell continued to make good time without a water/food stop. His fiance stood next to me and I could see it in her face right away.
“He couldn’t wait for us. We took too long,” she said, shaking her head, clutching his electric heating pack across her chest. He’d left it with us thinking we’d meet up with him before he’d need it. She intended to hand it off to someone who would put it on him underwater.
My heart sunk. I spotted him on the Diver. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I’d only met the guy just a few hours ago, but I wanted to cry for him. For all of us. People from all over the world were here to watch this and we’d failed him.
I talked to a few of my new friends on the ship and we were all at a loss for words.
“What happens now?”
“Are you sure that’s him?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Is he going to keep going?”
“Is he starting over?”
“Is it our fault? I feel like it’s our fault,” I said.
“It’s nobody’s fault.”
After about 45 minutes of staying in neutral near the other two boats, and after a trade of equipment and personnel, we started to hear snippets of what had happened. He would keep swimming, no matter the shot at the record was dunzo.
I met the CEO of Luminox, Andre Bernheim, who’d flown all the way from Zurich to witness this. Luminox wanted a hero to be the face of their product and they chose Cassell. They’d even made a watch named after him. Bernheim was one cool dude — a friendly, personable man — the opposite of what you’d imagine a European CEO to be.
I stood near him and we both stared off at the Diver.
“I just feel so sad for him. I’m so bummed,” I said.
“Don’t be sad,” he said, in his Swiss-German accent. “The record was just for fun, he’s not doing this for the record. He’s doing this for a much BEEG-er cause.”
“OK, you’re right,” I nodded, seeing the light in his eyes.
“So be happy. I’m happy. He’s probably happy,” he continued.
I kept these words close to my heart the rest of the day and tried to remain optimistic despite feeling like the mission was a failure.
Until I spoke with Bernheim, I’d been oblivious of the cause he mentioned. I was along for the ride and I knew something of conservation and awareness, but that was it.
Later that night, after roughly 12 hours of swimming underwater and countless bouts of exhaustion, dehydration and equipment fails, and questions of whether it was safe for him to finish, Cassell landed at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro.
He walked through the surf. He smiled at the cameras. He managed to hug family members and fans waiting to greet him on shore. After a shower and a clothing swap, he gave a speech at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium where I finally learned the true meaning of the day.
As a college athlete, my swim coach spoke often of heart. We made T-shirts before our conference championships with “GOT HEART?” written on them. The fastest swimmer doesn’t always win, but the one with the most heart does.
It’s a rather sad realization, but apart from watching the Olympics every four years, I am rarely inspired by displays of heart in our culture. Am I missing something?
Saturday I witnessed a man with more heart than I’d seen in a decade. And only a handful of people on this Earth got to experience it. Maybe a few more than that know what even happened. The gear he was depending on to get him from Point A to Point B failed left and right (the irony is the back of the T-shirts made for the event read “Because if the seas fail, so does mankind”). His body nearly failed him. Yet he kept going.
Cassell’s purpose that day wasn’t the record, though surely if he’d broken it the media would have eaten him up — we love us a good, awe-inspiring headline from time to time. Cassell was doing it for the oceans. For the sharks. For all of us.
I got the chance to speak to Cassell briefly before he gave his talk that night. How he stood there engaging the audience after what he’d been through was beyond impressive. Those who know me won’t be surprised I got teary-eyed talking to him. He looked at me with a Cheshire cat grin and said, “I’m happy as heck!”
There were many reasons for Cassell to have been brutally pissed off that day. For him to have stopped. For him to have given up. But that was never an option. Cassell, much like the sharks he so avidly speaks and fights for on a daily basis, had a simple, yet powerful focus that day.
One of the world’s top predators is slowly slipping away from its ocean home. Now, where sharks loomed, the humboldt squid, like wreckless out-of-control parasites, kill everything in their wake. Cassell swam through a channel that decades ago teemed with sharks, and this time in a 12-hour crossing, Cassell saw not one of the endangered creatures.
Cassell lit a fire in our hearts that day, with his determination and resilience. He reminded us that we make changes not by saying, but by doing, and it is for this message I am grateful to all who let me take part in his mission.
“Honey, do you want to go on the boat this weekend for this crazy adventure?” asked MaineMan.
“What kind of crazy adventure?” I asked.
“Yeah, I think we’ve seen him on TV diving with squid.”
“OK, so what does this entail?”
“Um… staying up throughout the night when he starts the dive, I’m guessing.”
I’d never heard of this guy, but it sounded pretty darn exciting. What a chance of a lifetime. I just finished reading “Swimming to Antarctica,” by Lynne Cox, and one of her first swims was from Catalina to L.A., so how cool to witness somebody else’s attempt, and a scuba attempt at that.
“And we’ll just bring Agnes to daycare?”
I went straight to the computer to scrounge up any more details I could find. Cassell has quite an impressive background. The guy’s been diving since 1977 and he looks like a comic book superhero. I had nowhere to be so the decision was a simple one.
“Sign me up!” I said with the bulging eyes of a kid who just woke up on Christmas morning.
“OK, I’ll tell Chris,” said MaineMan.
“You’re suuuure it’s OK if I tag along?”
I’m tempted to bring a bathing suit and swimcap with me to jump in and swim along with Cassell for a mile or two, but when I suggested this to MaineMan he just laughed.
“Yeah, I’m sure that’ll work.”
Cassell’s doing the dive with a monofin and MaineMan described to me the 1,400-pound globular-like structure they created so he can eat and drink water at 25 feet under the sea.
The whole thing sounds pretty incredible and I can’t wait to be a part of it. I hear MaineMan coming up the staircase which means I’m supposed to be packed so I gotta bolt.
To be continued…