April Fool’s Day in Vancouver, and the gray-black sky opened up. One of those cold pounding rains that makes you run in a crouch, hustling for cover. An umbrella-stealing rain. A rain that normally I wouldn’t go out in. But today I was splashing around and loving it, inches from the wet yet bizarrely dry, happily learning to pilot a DeepWorker one-person submarine.
Stan (the other student sub pilot) and I got to the West Van docks around 9 AM. Mike and the 2 Jeffs from Nuytco already had the subs ready, sleek and black with hatches open.
We had a classroom session on emergency procedures, what to do in case of fire, water leak, air leak, etc. We had sandwiches while Jeff told stories of using the subs to retrieve wrecks and bodies. We put on an extra layer of socks against the chill, climbed into our DeepWorkers feeling like race car drivers, and helped close the hatches. Kyle the crane operator smoothly lifted me first, up and clear, over and down the long pilings of the pier, into the cold green water of Burrard Inlet. Jeff in a dry suit unhooked me, carefully keeping his hands warm out of the water, and finally I got to the real work of the day – emergency drills, and sonar practice.
Before you submerge, the subs float where you see half sky and half sea. Today that was gray over green, and a little choppy, making the sub roll. As I sit and type this tonight I can still feel the slow roll of the sub in the water.
Gray over Green, from the surface of Burrard Inlet - Photo: Chris Hadfield
I confirmed by the little white radio microphone draped across my neck that my sub (‘DeepWorker 6’) was healthy, and got permission from Mike to dive. A reach down to the right to let water into the flotation tank, a sudden rush of white bubbles up the right side of the canopy, and magically I was back in another world. Somehow like slipping into oblivion.
Slipping into the green oblivion - Photo: Chris Hadfield
Burrard Inlet is a bad place to dive, with bits of stuff floating in the water, terrible visibility, and the bottom mostly gravel, rock, muck and the occasional pop can. I stared intently into the thick green fog, straining to see anything, but most of the time I barely saw the cloud of mud billow up just as I bumped into the bottom.
The main noise was from the 4 little propellers that moved me around. I steered with my feet, and the harder I pushed, the louder the noise and the faster I turned and went. I had to let up on the gas to hear Mike on the radio, as we went through the emergency drills. It was all pretty common sense stuff – if something’s leaking shut it off, if the air is bad use a mask, if water’s getting in head for the surface. Everybody was happy, and we got on to sonar work.
It was weird to pull the computer tablet out into my lap and have the Windows home screen there with me underwater. A few switch throws and the sonar display came up, replacing the green hill/blue sky with a multi-coloured radar scope. Mike and the Jeffs put targets into the water, and off I went, on a hunt.
Sonar display in DeepWorker: so near, and yet, so far - Photo: Chris Hadfield
I’m a poor sonar operator. Mostly the display looked to me like psychedelic ink blots. Jeff radioed me headings and distances, and once in a while I imagined I saw something on the sonar screen that matched. I tried driving fast to avoid drift, I tried slow and careful on heading, I tried up high near the surface, and I tried down by the bottom. Mostly I just drove where Jeff told me, and 3 times I found the sonar target suddenly looming out of the murk. I also found a piece of PVC pipe that I decided to pick up with the robot arm, clumsy on my first try with that. It uses a joy stick in my right hand, tipping and rolling it to move the arm joints, pulling the trigger to open and close the jaws. I got the pipe clamped on my 2nd try, and raised it high like a skinny algae-covered Olympic torch for the rest of the dive.
PVC Pipe, just like the Olympic Torch - Photo: Chris Hadfield
Jeff called and said it was 4:30, time to head back. I decided my prize PVC pipe would smell bad above water and let it go, and then pushed hard on my left heel to climb to the surface. As I broke into daylight I pulled a lever to fill the buoyancy tank with air, and then trundled over on the surface to where Jeff floated with the lifting hook. Kyle hauled me out and set my on the deck, still wet with rain. I did the last of the checks with Mike on the radio, opened the hatch, took off my warm socks, and climbed back out into the other, non-sub-piloting world.
When it’s April Fool’s Day and pouring rain, I recommend being underwater.