Wednesday, 29 May 2002 00:00

Learning to Climb Trees - Part 1

By Trevor Jackson - Esperance Star

There's a tree in my mothers back yard that is 1000 feet high. At least that's how high it used to be. Now its probably only 50 feet high, it shrank considerably as I grew, but to two nine year old boys it would seem a 1000ft. That's how old we were when my brother and I first climbed it. My mother was never the type of person to inhibit or quash any of our swashbuckling activities as youngsters. Whether it be climbing a 1000ft tree or crossing the 50 mile river, she lived on the theory of 'feed em, love em, and leave em alone'.

25 years later after first stepping up onto the lower boughs of that tree, I was sitting on the front deck of the Esperance Star with twenty grand worth of diving gear strapped to me, about to climb another tree, with a minute or two to reflect on the events that had led to me being there.

Climbing a big tree usually starts with a lot of dust kicking around the base, a few nervous looks up, walking up, walking away, some deep breaths.

In mid January this year I was fortunate enough to attend a speech given by Dr. Simon Mitchell about his remarkable life in Diving. He knew I was in the audience and was constantly referring to the fact that I was a pirate and a thieving wreck pillager, occasionally pointing an accusing finger up towards where I was sitting. This amused his captivated audience no end. After the speech Simon invited me round to his apartment for the first session of dust kicking around the base of the Centaur Dive.

Basically we'd both been planning to dive the Centaur, but logistically both plans lacked what the other could bring. We needed lots of divers, lots of gear and lots of practise. What Simon knew about gas physiology I made up for in knowing how to find the wreck. What I knew about putting together a 16 man dive crew Simon made up for in putting together a 4 hour dive plan, a symbiotic relationship at first that would later develop into firm trust and friendship. Neither of us knew if our plans would ever develop into anything more than just a couple of early middle aged bachelors talking shit over too many bottles of red wine. But the more times we got together the higher the dust would fly, and pretty soon others were around us kicking madly, looking up, sneezing and gagging at the idea, maybe we should step up the first rung and see if the base of the tree would hold us all, see if we had the climbing skills, see if our mothers would call us back down.

Our first deep dive together must have filled Simon with doubt about his selection of dive buddy. The weather the night before the dive was atrocious so yours truly had decided that because no sane man would go out and attempt the Jennifer K whilst a 30 knot gale prevailed, I should get heavily and squarely on the piss. At 6 am the next morning the phone was ringing with the Kiwi on the other end saying, "Where the hell are you?." Even on the way out I doubted the dive was on till his kiwiship kicked me in the guts whilst I was lying on the galley floor of Ocean Cat and asked , "Are you coming softcock?." I jumped up cleared my head and the dive went uneventfully. "That was 85metres, I thought to myself on the way in, another 100 and we'll have it cracked." Our feet were firmly planted at the base of the tree trunk; it was time to look about for some serious dust kickers to give us a hand up.

The one thing I noticed about that first dive off Ocean Cat, and subsequent lead up dives off boats other than my own, was that the dive was a lot easier for me than usual because I didn't have the added worry of still being responsible for the boat even whilst I was underwater. I know it sounds like a wank thing to say, but part of my mind is always on board when diving from the Esperance Star, and if we were to get anywhere near the Centaur, I'd have to be concentrating 100% whilst down there. When assembling a team to help us, this was the foremost thing on my mind; this has to be sorted properly.

You can count on one hand the number of people in this world that you can trust and rely on absolutely, and you can count on one finger the people with those attributes, plus an inherent knowledge of the boat that was to be our platform on the big day. Dr. Carl Watson was the ONLY person that could do this job. I conned him into it, it must be said he was reluctant, he reckoned he didn't know enough about tech diving, I told him he knew more than enough about the things he needed to know about. He need to be disciplined, he needed the respect of the other crew and divers, he needed to be able to kick arse and have it stay kicked, he would be in charge, would he do it? Yes he would.

We got together some of the other key players and had a big meeting, fairly loose. Simon brought along his dive plan and some documents which outlined the basic proposal from both diving and philosophical points of view. We talked at length about the role of the support divers, what gases to carry, in what amounts, how long on the bottom, what if we get lost etc. etc. As the weeks went by it became more and more apparent that we were in fact going to attempt to climb this mammoth tree, in some ways the biggest tree that had ever been climbed, by any kid. We'd got up off the ground and were still looking up, no- one was going to call us in for tea, it was time to reach higher, commit further.

Around mid April I started to get the gear together. Each of the support divers would arrange his/her own equipment but there were 12 nitrox/oxygen bottles with regs to source, rig and fill. A 200metre+ shot line would have to be designed and built, plus two spare shot lines to be deployed if the bottom divers got lost and needed to be shadowed by a pickup boat.

The bottles and regs were easy. I rang my old mate Blue Zone Bob and his reply to my request was, "as much gear as you need, no problem". This was a big call for Bob, every other person we had approached for assistance or sponsorship had kept us at very long arm lengths. Not that I blamed them. There was a very big risk in being involved in a dive like this, but Bob didn't give a shit, he would help no matter what. The tanks needed to be rigged so that they could be quickly snapped onto the shot line at the required depth once it was set. I went out to the local hardware store and bought a couple of dozen of those clips you would use on the end of your dog lead, I shackled these to the tops of the tanks and this made a very neat little connection point. The first support divers would meet us down at about 40 metres would carry two of these tanks each, they were 88cfts filled with 50/50 nitrox. If we were on open circuit they would clip the tanks to us, if we were ok and still on rebreathers they would take them up and stage them on the line at about 20 metres. We were already carrying enough open circuit gear on our persons to enable us to get up to 20 metres should the rebreathers shit themselves at the worst possible moment, so the guys meeting us at 40 was really just part of the "feel good factor", which on a dive like this was not something to be taken lightly.

As we were all pretty much first timers on a dive this deep, the shot line took a fair bit of thought. I went out and bought two 120metres coils of 16 mm rope, did a bit of rudimentary mathematics and chopped the length down to 200 metres once they were spliced together. [After we'd finished the dive we realised this was about 30 metres too long, but more on that later]. On the wreck end of the rope we shackled 15 metres of half inch chain and our specially fashioned shot weight/anchor, the "Max Factor." The 'Max Factor' was a modified G-size gas cylinder with 8 steel wings welded to it. It was open at both ends to allow it to fill with water; the wings were to act as grapples when the shot hit the bottom. The whole lot weighed in at about 180 kgs, and took some serious manhandling. The bottom 100 metres of the rope had cyalume sticks attached every 5 metres, because we learned on our 125metre lead up dive that things would be like night time on the bottom, we wanted every chance of seeing it in the dark if we got a little lost. On the surface it was a fairly standard set of floats holding the lot aloft, with loops spliced into the rope for tank attachment every 3 metres from the surface down to about 40 metres. The whole thing took two whole days to put together and sat in 44-gallon drum on the front deck.

May the 1st came. The team had planned to be ready by that date and for all intents and purposes we were. Anxiously we watched the weather. Climbing a giant tree required great weather. We had one or two false alarms, and then on May 12, I rang the team. 'Tommorow night, 8 o'clock'. Simon got there early, about 2, and we sat on the front deck quietly all afternoon drinking coffee and assembling the final items. One by one the guys showed up till at 8 o'clock, with a full compliment, we quietly slipped to sea.

It was our final night of dust kicking, our final walk up to the trunk, this time we would climb and climb to the highest and thinnest branches, they would sway and sway and we knew we'd feel giddy, and we knew the view would be a once only. Next morning I got up at about 6 am and started to steam out past Cape Moreton, setting the GPS up, nine miles to go. Some friends on another boat called, "Predator' had past us on the way out and had gone to find the site ahead of us so we didn't have to muck around trying to find it. They did a good job and as we arrived Skipper Tony slotted in ahead of us and led the ES straight to the wreck, it read 177 m on the sounder. Things got real tense for the next half an hour, I remember yelling at some of the crew at one point whilst we were about to drop the shot, something like,' get the fuck off the front deck'. Everyone was jumpy. With everyone clear I kicked the Max Factor through the side gate and she rocketed down into what was sure to be a darkened seabed. Things got even more tense, there was a fair bit of muffled laughter and a little subdued bravado. It was like goodbye at a train station, we were soldiers going to war, or backpackers flying to London, or somewhere in between. One of the girls started to cry, I made a silly joke, I felt good to have this true and loyal crew around me, it was a moment in time I will never forget. Skipper Billy Marsh took the helm of the ES; we got our gear on very matter of factly and walked out to the back deck. The tanks and cameras were clipped on to us, torches working, computers working. We walked up to the tree, and started our climb.

To be continued..