Late Breaking News
10 September, 2010
by Michael Dessner
I got to bed at midnight last night, completely wrung out tired. All too soon I hear a knock at my door, I roll over and cover my head with my pillow hoping whoever it is will just go away. It’s Greg again, quietly informing me I am needed on the deck (he really does have a pleasant bedside manner ;-). I’m told that Ginger, the vehicle we had just put in a few hours earlier, had aborted due to a time out and was en route to the surface.
The girls have a prearranged set of mission goals and conditions they must meet to continue working on the bottom. If they do not achieve a goal the clock starts ticking and within a set time period if they still haven’t achieved that goal, whether it be end of line or whatever, they abort, drop their ascent weight and swim to the surface.
In this case, Ginger was working on line 13 of a 60 line, high frequency sonar and still camera mission in the region north of Area 51 (the area east of the wreck with unexplained contacts) when she aborted. We would not know the exact reason until she got to the surface.
We all grabbed coffee, rubbed the sleep from our eyes and stumbled out into another moonless night. I had enjoyed a grand total of 2 hours of sleep bringing me up to a two day total of maybe 6 hours. Andy, Greg and Mark had probably slept even less. We weren’t loving much of anything as Mark and Kevin grabbed up Mustang suits to head out on the boat (the ROV was still below). I prepped the back deck while Greg and Andy monitored the situation. We put the boat out and watched their lights run out into the black night, the incoming weather swell and chop combining with ship movement to turn their lights into a fluttering little ball of St. Elmo’s fire dancing out in front of our rails.
An hour later or so they came back towing Ginger behind them. The ships orientation in the current was less than ideal, dragging the vehicle across the port aft quarter and forward. In other words, the vehicle wanted to drift under the ship on the left side rather than stream out behind us per our usual recovery routine. Some quick boat driving by Louise, line handling by Mark and crane driving by Andy all combined to bring Ginger out of the water after a near miss to the stern. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
Until Andy said, “What the hell is that dragging behind the vehicle?”
It looked like a couple pieces of line hanging from the prop. The vehicle had become entangled and somehow still made it to the surface. We were all amazed, something like that at depth can be an AUV killer. After all there is no cable attache to pull back on if one of the girls gets caught in some bottom obstruction. When Andy picked the vehicle up higher into the air our amazement grew into astonishment. It was clear that one end of the line wrapped around the prop was trailing behind the vehicle and being streamed by the current but the other was hanging straight down. There was some mass there. Ginger had brought something up with her from the bottom of the ocean.
We got the LARS laid down on the deck and started hauling line, there was definitely some weight to whatever it was. At one point Greg asked for a knife and Andy handed him his. He was about to cut the line when I pointed out to him that if he cut the line whatever was hanging off Ginger’s ass it would simply fall back to the bottom taking as much of the polypropylene floating line as was still underwater with it. It would remain a danger to our vehicle; we needed to get it out of there. We started hauling line again. By now a crowd had gathered and we had maybe four guys hauling away building a fair pile of stinky, disgusting, weed encrusted blue line onto the deck.
Greg pointed out that we were likely to be pulling for a long time, “There’s no way that the vehicle could bring this much weight to the surface, we’re likely to be hauling in 3,700 meters of line…”
This prospect did not entice. That could take a long time, perhaps more than an hour hauling by hand. We were again looking at the knife and thinking about the expedient measure of just letting her go, yet still pulling, when I heard something clank off the hull below us. Whatever it was we had it up. We hauled away.
Up over the side came the item, it looked like a clump weight of some kind. It had a couple of red plastic chain links on it and was covered by abyssal slime and mud. It had even brought a few rocks with it. We were all simply amazed. Ginger had run into the line floating up from this weight, it entangled into her propeller and held her there. When her timeout clicked over she aborted and dropped her ascent weight and began the nearly two and a half mile swim to the surface. We were flabbergasted she made it. Greg just told me, “OK, here’s the deal. Our lead ascent weight runs 47 pounds. The drop weight on the entangled line weighs 42 pounds!” Those 5 pounds plus her normal buoyancy were all that saved her from being anchored to the bottom. But for the lack of 5 pounds the Waitt Institute was saved over $1,500,000, the replacement cost for Ginger.
Here’s how that would have played out. We would have known she aborted and we would have had a fair idea where she was but the only way we would have been able to get her back would have been to send down the Phoenix ROV, Remora, to the area. That would have taken it off the wreck and all other operations would likely have been suspended. We would have had a fair to middling chance of finding her and cutting her free but it would have taken days and used up precious time and fuel. It might very well have ended the expedition. Thank the fates the girls are such durable and well constructed vehicles.
When asked I have been a Mary Ann guy since the beginning; I’m originally from Iowa and the brunette farm girl always appealed to me. I’ll let you in on something; I think California has gotten to me a little bit. I love the beach, the people, the weather; I’m pretty much crazy about living there. So while I feel I am true to my roots in my work ethic and the kind of person I like to think I am, give me the Movie Star any time!!
OK, we got a little weather. All the gear is aboard for the next day or so. GOOD NIGHT.