Death At 115 Feet
Posted on January 15 2021
DEATH AT 115 FEET
The occasion for this trip to Hawaii was the Prindle Catamaran Nationals. In addition to tandem surfing competitions, Barrie and I competed in the Prindle fleet racing competitions. We were ranked in first place in the state of California, but for the Nationals we were facing fierce competition from the top sailors from around the world including Australia, Europe, Florida and Texas. Since my sister, Lisa, was living in Hawaii in the small town of Kaneohe, the whole family decided to go to Hawaii and stay at her house for the week of racing plus a few days of relaxation afterward.
The four days of racing were held about 4 miles off the beach at Waikiki. Waikiki beach itself is protected from the trade winds by Diamond Head, but out in the open ocean, the trade winds are unencumbered for thousands of miles and were the heaviest winds we had ever encountered for racing, probably averaging 15 to 30 knots. In our class, each crew of two sailors could not weigh under 275 lb. Barrie and I together weighed 265 lb. so we had to carry a ten-pound weight tied to the mast of our catamaran. This is quite a disadvantage in extremely high winds because we were unable to move those ten pounds out onto the trapeze wires to help hold the boat down when sailing to weather (against the wind).
This is the only picture I have of barrie and I racing in “double trapeze”. It is at Lake Havasue in Ca.
The physical strength and agility necessary to race at this level is the highest. Only sailors in their 20’s and 30’s have the endurance to survive. I think that by the time you’re mid-forties, you retire to the monohull “beer can” regattas. At the end of each day, the exhaustion could be seen in the faces of the crews. Their bleeding hands and aching bodies had twelve hours to recover before the next day of racing began.
The sailing itself was the insanest, craziest, most grueling we had ever done. Beating (going up wind) to the weather mark (a mark is usually a large orange inflated ball anchored to the sea bottom), we were jumping six foot swells like a windsurfer, only we were standing out on the gunnels (deck edge) of the cat, hanging from a trapeze wire. Because the swells were so large, there was a deep trough between each swell. when the cat plunged into the valley between the swells. The next oncoming swell actually blocked the wind so there was less wind pushing against the sails at the bottom of the trough. I would have to sheet in (tighten the main sail) to prevent us from dragging our butts in the water (The sheet is the large line used to trim a sail). Each time I would sheet in, I would need to pull about 75 lb. force on the main sheet. As we ascended the next swell, I would have to sheet out again (release the main sail) before the wind would overpower us and flip the boat over. This had to be done with precision because at the top of each swell was a pitching white cap. As the cat hulls crested the swell and punched through the white cap, our windward hull would have to be flying about two feet in the air so the white cap wouldn’t sweep us off the boat. As we flew the hull over each white capping swell, the ocean would drop away from under the boat and launch the entire cat 3 feet into the air. This would happen perhaps fifty or more times on each windward leg. There were three windward legs per race, three races per day for four days straight.
Each time we would tack (turn the boat into the wind) we would have to perform a perfectly executed, suicidal dive across the trampoline, grab the opposite side trapeze wire, hook it blindly to the hook on our trapeze harnesses, leap overboard while simultaneously pulling with all our strength to re-trim our sails. Barrie tacked our jib (the small front sail) and I tacked the main sail.
We quickly learned that the jibe (downwind turn) around the weather (upwind) mark was nearly impossible. In a jibe, the back of the boat passes through the eye of the wind as it leaves its upwind course to start on its downwind course. This causes the sail to slam violently from one side of the boat to the other with an explosive loud bang and overwhelming power in 30 knots of wind. I realized that it was prudent to over stand (go way past) the mark, so that if we blew the jibe and flipped over, we would have plenty of room to right the boat before we would drift into the mark and become disqualified. This was the first time in my racing experience that I anticipated crashing and planned a strategy to deal with it.
this was our first crash after jibing the weather mark and the wind had not even reached its full power yet.
As the wind increased, by late afternoon, the sea around the jibe mark looked like a battlefield of crashed catamarans as 50% of the racers would flip while trying this difficult maneuver. The wind was so intense, that after a capsize, if you didn’t keep a physical handhold on your boat, it could be blown away from you. One of the husband-and-wife race teams who flipped at the “jibe mark” got separated from their boat. Within seconds it was blowing downwind much faster than they could swim after it. In the chaos of the race, no one noticed. When race officials finally noticed, a Coast Guard helicopter was summoned to search for them. They were eventually found and retrieved after two harrowing hours lost at sea. Lucky the Hawaiian water is warm and we were all wearing our life jackets.
The downwind leg was wild. Our cat was going so fast that we could barely see through the spray coming off the bows. We were sitting as far back as we could, against the rear crossbar and surfing the fast-moving swells at around twenty mph. Once I stabbed into the back of the swell ahead of us. The bows dug in deep and the whole cat screeched to an instant stop as it “pitch poled” (forward cartwheeled). Barrie slid along the deck and slammed into the shroud (wire holding up the mast) while I got tossed into the air like a pea in a spoon during a food fight. I flew exactly 32 feet through the air because the mast was 26 ft. long and I landed in the water about 6 feet beyond the end of the mast.
(The catamaran was stood up on the bows with the rear end up in the air). Then turned turtle (completely upside down), but we quickly righted it because we were able to use the surface current and the force of the wind to flip the boat back over again. (This is an amazing maneuver that is explained in detail in the sailing story: Death In the Desert.)
this is not us, but just a picture of a pitch poling cat.
Barrie was always the smallest crew in the fleet, and one of only half a dozen girls. She was a determined competitor and as tough as anyone. Nevertheless, by the end of each day all the sailors were bleeding and battered. After four grueling days of racing, we were tied for first place with a good friend and great sailor from the Netherlands, Menno de Boer. The final outcome rested on our finish in this last race. Catamaran racing follows the International Yacht Racing Rules. One very important rule is that during the starting sequence and the actual race “no yacht (catamaran) can touch another yacht.” This is because when the mega-ton big boats race, the slightest bump or scrape can cause serious damage. The rule works something like the “rear-end rule” for cars (you can’t smash into the car in front of you). One other interesting thing is that in yacht racing, they don’t use a standing start because boats can’t remain motionless in the water. The starts can be a full speed charge. The only problem is that if you cross the start line early, you have to go back to the end of the pack and start over. In this final race, as the five-minute horn sounded the racers began crowding the line early. The adrenalin was pumping through our veins, and we all knew it came down to this very moment. Menno was right in front of us, but with 27 seconds to go before the starting gun, he was “early”, too close to the line. His crew backwinded their jib sail which caused their boat to nearly stop. Barrie quickly followed suit and backwinded our jib sail, but our split-second delay caused us to barely bump into the back of their boat. RULES are RULES. And the penalties are spelled out; Barrie and I would have to sail to clear water and perform two 360 degree turns (spin the boat around twice), effectively putting us into last place after the start. Menno and I were both shocked at my misfortune. His eyes met mine as he realized that I had just handed him the championship, then he turned his head and charged for the first mark. I think that we thrive on intense sports competition because it mimics the intense emotions, risks, tragedies, and catastrophes of real life but without life threatening danger. When I saw Menno’s eyes soften as to say, “Sorry Steve, I can’t believe this happened to you,” then turn away and charge ahead to claim the title, I was still in “assess my options” mode. Like in any emergency, you can’t take time to feel sorry for yourself, Barrie and I sailed quickly into clear water, out of the way of the fifty or so cats behind us and did our two 360’s. We used a method that we had practiced where we both stayed in the far back end of the cat while we manipulated the sails and tiller. Our weight sank the rear end and raised the bows which allowed the cat to spin on it’s tail amazingly fast. We got back into the race about ¼ mile behind, caught up, battled past a dozen other racers, but still finished that race in the middle of the fleet. I can say with pride that in that Nationals race series we finished in 11th. place overall.
this is a fun picture of Minno and I playing around on a Prindle 19
After the five days of racing was over, we looked forward to some relaxation over in Kaneohe. After a couple days of laying around, my sister Lisa suggest the she and I go scuba diving with the local dive shop in town. She was a certified diver, and I wasn’t. I had never used a scuba tank even though I was a fairly good free diver and could go down to about 45 feet. She said, “It’s no big deal, I’ll show you how to use the equipment while we’re going out to the dive reef on the boat.”
We drove over to the dive shop. It was a rusty old gas station converted somewhat into a dive shop. A big 300 lb. Hawaiian guy was sitting in a big sofa chair out front. We said, “When is your next dive trip?” He said, “Tomorrow at 8 a.m. You know how to dive?” I guessed he meant, “Are you certified,” but since he wasn’t specific, we just said, “Sure.”
The next morning, we joined about 15 other divers for our adventure. In the pre-dive meeting, the big Hawaiian described his procedures and explained that we would be diving in up to about 40 feet of water on the reefs off Diamond Head. (Normally, recreational divers limit their depth to under fifty feet, so they don’t have to follow the decompression procedures needed with deeper dives.) Then he said, “You know, last week we discovered a Japanese Zero fighter plane that was shot down in World War II. Who wants to go see it?” He failed to mention that the plane was shot down in 115 ft. of water in the dangerous Molokai channel. Naturally everyone enthusiastically yelled out, “Lets dive the Zero!” We all hopped into our cars and caravanned over to the boat harbor. Like the dive shop, his boat was a crusty old fishing boat converted into a dive boat. As we climbed aboard, I noticed that the dive tanks and equipment were arranged in different piles all over the deck. “Little sloppy,” I thought.
As we motored out of the harbor into the open ocean, Lisa explained to me how the equipment works. First, you wear this life jacket looking thing called a buoyancy compensator. The reason for this is that as you dive deeper, your body compresses under the intense water pressure and you become less buoyant. The buoyancy compensator is connected to the air tank by an air hose. As you dive deeper and deeper you periodically squeeze a valve and blow air into the compensator to stabilize your buoyancy, so you don’t just sink to the bottom like a rock. The other important piece of equipment is the regulator. You put this in your mouth. It controls the pressure of the air from the tank as it enters your lungs. Lisa pointed out that you can actually take this out of your mouth while under water then put it back in your mouth again. You clear the water out by blowing into it. She also mentioned that this useful function works well if you become seasick while underwater. You can barf right through the regulator. When I was a kid, I always watched Sea Hunt, a skin-diving TV show in the early 1960’s where Lloyd Bridges, the narrator, always pointed out diving rules and tips like: how to do the buddy system to share air in an emergency, and never return to the surface faster than your bubbles. I was an armchair expert, so I figured this would be a cinch.
As we approached the open sea, because we had endured such heavy wind racing off Waikiki, I was not surprised that the wind was blowing over 20 knots and the swells were at least 8 feet. The big Hawaiian knew his local waters. We were about three miles off Coco Head crater. I watched as he triangulated our location by lining up a church steeple with the tip of Coco Head to the left onshore and a big Union 76 sign with another mountain peak to the right onshore. (This is also a method that surfers use to find and return to the right take-off spot when surfing the giant waves off the North Shore). When our boat reached the point where these “line ups” converged, he knew that we were directly over the Zero.
It turns out that the Zero was sitting gracefully in a field of sand on the ocean floor. There was no coral reef in the area, and the big Hawiian knew that at this depth, his anchor would not hold against the high wind and rough seas on the surface. He had half a dozen assistant “pro” divers to help with the tasks. These guys were teenaged, minimum wage kids. He called over to one of them and said, “You, swim da anchor down and hookem up to da landing gear on da Zero.” I thought, “Pretty good idea! Hmm?” The kid put on his diving tank, mask and fins, grabbed the anchor and dove overboard. About ten minutes later he returned to the surface and yelled out, “You all hooked up, boss.”
While he was waiting for the kid to hook up the anchor, the big Hawaiian had the boat facing down wind. The anchor line was fastened to the bow cleat. The big Hawaiian cut the engine. As the boat tightened against the anchor line, I was amazed when the boat continued to face the bow downwind. Yes, the boat was pulling back end first, upwind against the anchor line. Everyone knows that a boat, like a weathervane, will swing downwind when anchored. Then I realized as I looked at Molokai Island off in the distance that we were in the notoriously rough Molokai channel. It turns out that the Pacific Ocean does not just sit there like a calm pond. It flows in giant swirls and currents that can carry a stranded sailor over 150 miles per day. As these currents are squeezed between two islands, the “Venturie Effect” causes the currents to accelerate even faster. I looked overboard and saw that the current was passing the side of the boat really fast, enough to keep the boat turned backwards into the high wind and swells.
The other divers were oblivious to the situation, and they were eagerly sorting out their rented equipment and suiting up. I explained the current to Lisa then said, “When you go overboard, sprint-swim straight to the anchor line at the bow and hang on. If we have to, we can go hand over hand down the line”. Then I said, “When you come up after the dive, hang onto the anchor line the whole way up. When you reach the surface let the current take you along side the boat to the transom, then make sure you grab the ladder. Don’t miss the ladder or you will be swept out to sea!!!” I didn’t want to appear to be a know-it-all, so I didn’t just blurt the situation out to everyone. After all, they were certified, and I wasn’t. The divers were paired up into small groups. Each group had one minimum wage “pro” dive assistant. Because the groups were made up of friends, Lisa and I ended up in our own two-person group. We were the first group to enter the water. Our “pro” was the young guy who swam the anchor down. We went overboard and immediately felt the strong current but managed to get to the anchor line. I mouthed the regulator and for the first time experienced that magical feeling of breathing under water. I looked down the anchor line as it arched into the mysterious depths. I was ready to charge so I started down the line followed by Lisa while the rear position was taken by our “pro”. As we descended, I noticed that the current became lighter. At about 50 feet, the current was not bad. I could still see the bottom of the boat, but I could not yet see the Zero. Then at about 70 feet I could just make out the airplane sitting in a field of white sand. After we got to the bottom, our “pro” signaled to us that he was low on air and was going to return to the surface. Now, I have to laugh at his choice of hand signals. First, he pointed at us then pointed down as if saying; you go down, then he pointed at himself then pointed up as he made the “slit my neck with a big knife” gesture. Apparently, he had not turned his tank in after the last dive day to have it refilled. We gave the OK sign and proceeded to explore the Zero alone 115 ft below the surface.
You couldn’t help but think of the pilot who must have died in the cockpit. There was an eerie feeling like visiting a graveyard late at night, but I put that out of my mind and started looking around. First, I noticed that the entire plane was covered with a layer of bright green moss. Then I noticed that beautiful tropical fish were everywhere eating the moss. Different schools of fish had laid claim to their own section of the plane. One group was over the wing and a different group was under the wing. The strangest thing was that all the fish under the wing were swimming upside down, belly up. I’ve never seen a fish swim upside down, let alone a whole school of them. The deal was that fish are used to pecking at the moss when it is under their chin, so to accomplish this under the wing, they had to swim upside down.
I swam over to the cockpit and looked in, then I pushed my fins forward and squeezed in feet first. Another school of fish had taken up residency in there also. I sat in the seat, held onto the “stick” and sighted down the gun sights. Lisa was right there and we enjoyed the Zero together. After about ten minutes alone on the bottom at 115 depth, the other dive groups started arriving along with our “pro”. They swarmed around the Zero like ants.
The big Hawaiian had advised us to watch our air pressure gauges. When the pressure was down to 500 lbs. we should start back up. Lisa and I kept a careful vigilance over our gauges and after about 20 minutes at 115 feet we had to head up. When I looked up, I could only see the turquoise glow from the sun. As I ascended, I could begin to make out the bottom of the boat. I was careful not to ascend faster than my bubbles, just like Lloyd Bridges, and we even paused for a while at about 30 feet like I had seen divers do on the Discovery channel. When we broke the surface, we held onto the anchor line briefly then were whisked by the current alongside the hull to the transom where the ladder was hung. We held fast to the ladder as our bodies were suspended on the surface by the strong current. We got our fins off and climbed back on board. All was peaceful on the surface, the big Hawaiian was enjoying a Primo beer, but below a crisis was developing.
Down below, one of the buoyancy compensators had a leak. The doomed diver had repeatedly squeezed the air valve to maintain his floatation. After about 15 minutes he simply blew all of the air out of his air tank. When he could no longer breathe, and was desperate for air, he panicked and grabbed the regulator out of another diver’s mouth. The stunned other diver, choking on the sea water in his mouth, struggled to get his regulator back. In total lack of cooperation, the two of them struggled. The first diver released the regulator, hoping to initiate the “buddy system” where you pass it back and forth. The second diver only saw a crazed madman who wanted to take his air. He took a deep breath of air, then turned tail and swam away wild-eyed. The first diver chased after him but could not reconnect. There were no other divers close by so in desperation he decided to swim for the surface, but he had already burned up a lot of valuable oxygen. Apparently, he blacked out before ever reaching the surface. One of the “pro” divers noticed the guy swimming for the surface, but he could not catch him before the guy blacked out. By the time the “pro” got to him, he was unconscious. Soon all the divers realized that there was an emergency, and they began heading for the surface. The “pro” guy was trying to hang onto the ladder and maneuver the unconscious guy onto the boat. This made it so that other divers were unable to gain access to the ladder. If the big Hawaiian had the foresight to let a long rope drift down current from the rear of the boat, all the many divers would have had something to hang onto. As it was, there were about twelve divers crawl swimming for their lives, trying to get back to the back of the boat. The current was way too strong, and they just drifted off into the white caps and glare of the sun.
I had a hold on the unconscious diver, but just couldn’t get him up the ladder. The big Hawaiian grabbed his other arm and together we pulled him up. Meanwhile, people were spreading out all over the rough ocean surface and disappearing into the glare. The big Hawaiian ran to the bow to pull up the anchor, but it was fixed to the landing gear on the Zero. He ran back to his toolbox, pulled out a dive knife, then returned to the bow and cut through the anchor line. The boat was loose in the current. He started the old engine.
For over a half an hour he crisscrossed the waves searching for divers. Fortunately, they were all able to rely on their buoyancy compensators to keep themselves afloat. We had tried to revive the drowned man with no success while the search was in progress. The big Hawaiian had gotten himself into a big mess and his mood was rotten. Even a couple more Primos didn’t help the situation. He headed back to the harbor at full power. Lisa and I decided that we did not want to get involved with the police investigation that was surely going to develop shortly after our landing. We envisioned hours of testimony for long after dark. When we had a chance, we quietly got in our car and went home.
Barrie and I had plane tickets for 10 a.m. the next day, so we were outta there. Lisa began sending me Honolulu Star Bulletin newspaper clippings about the incident. The dive shop was closed down and the big Hawaiian was being sued by the victim’s family. I don’t recall what eventually happened to him, but I will always recall that trip to Hawaii.