Twenty-Five Fathoms Down

DON CAMERON August 15 1929

Twenty-Five Fathoms Down

DON CAMERON August 15 1929

Twenty-Five Fathoms Down

Sixty-three years of extraordinary adventure under water has taught the world's oldest active diver that “It pays to be afraid"


DON'T be afraid of fear; it’s the best life insurance you can carry.” Thus in thirteen words Captain Wellington B. Sphears, the world’s oldest active deep-water diver, gave me the kernel of the philosophy which has safeguarded him through sixty-three years of submarine dangers. He pronounced the sentence" solemnly, weightily, and added:

“If I hadn’t been afraid of the water all my life, I wouldn’t be here to tell you about it now.”

I understood his meaning. A few days before, on his seventy-ninth birthday, I had seen him practise this philosophy as he climbed slowly out of fifteen feet of water in which the tug Colonel Lusk lay on her beam ends in the Detroit River and removed the face plate of his fifty-four-pound diving helmet long enough to demand a hammer and say to an assistant:

“I’m scared of that current down there. Keep your eye on the lifeline, and if I signal you to haul away, be quick aboutit.” And back down the ladder he went, disappearing in the gloom of the muddy, sluggish water. He stayed down two hours and tore away the cabin of the tug preparatory to raising her, while we followed his movements by the twin columns of green bubbles rising from his air valves. No signal jerked along the lifeline during that period, though men alertly waited to obey in the space of a split second. That thin cord was watched with a patience and intensity actually painful to see.

Where it Pays to be Afraid

IATER, when I knocked at the door of J the tight little house which he built for himself out of a sunken ship’s cabin on the bank of the Detroit River in Sandwich,

Ontario, “Cap” Sphears—all his acquaintances call him that—genially undertook to talk about this business of being afraid of a difficult job in order to get it done.

“Some folks would call it being cautiouslike, but I believe in plain language,” he said as he removed a pile of charts from a chair to seat me in the midst of a litter of diving paraphernalia. “When you know something is liable to hurt you, you’re afraid of it. If you’re not, you’re a plain fool. I’m cautious because I’m afraid, and I’m not ashamed to say so. Fear hasn’t anything to do with bravery. Nobody ever yet called me a coward, and nobody ever will.

“It isn’t fear that paralyzes a man, not the kind of fear I’m talking about. It’s better for a diver to have fear along with him than a knife. I don’t mean weak nerves and no guts. I’m not that way.”

He isn’t that way. He has gone with his fear into the most treacherous waters on the earth, and into black forests of seaweed. Once he burrowed ten feet into a bed of quicksand to get at the bow of a sunken vessel—and almost stayed there.

He has walked beneath the ice in freezing water and descended into depths and currents that other and younger divers refused to risk.

“Cap” Sphears told me that the first time he thrust his head inside a diving helmet, sixty-three years ago in San Diego, California, he was afraid of the water. Twenty years later, when he sought a lost treasure ship off the Eastern Azores, he was still afraid. In 1902, when he placed mines for the British navy at the lower end of the Suez Canal, he was still more fearful. Each time his fears were realized beautifully.

That first time he became nervous, handled his helmet valve incautiously, and was squeezed into unconsciousness by the pressure of the water before he could be raised to the surface. In the Azores, he touched bottom beside a giant octopus whose insistent embraces nearly cost him his life. In the Suez, one of the mines nearest him exploded, smashed his left shoulder, and put him in a hospital for the better part of a year.

Dangerous Adventure

r"PHE sea made Captain Sphears, as it had made his forefathers for six generations before him. A storm hastened his birth aboard his father’s whaling schooner off Hamilton’s Inlet, Labrador, and a hurricane blew him into his home port of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Later, when he was a callow youth of fifteen with a secondhand diving dress, the sea took him again and swept him from port to port. It got him knifed by niggers in Africa, shot by Portuguese in Rio de Janeiro, nearly throttled by Chinese in India. It left him with a broken leg to fight a four-day typhoon near the island of Fuzan, commanding a British auxiliary cruiser in the naval wrecking corps, and it wiped his brain clean of the awful memory of the last day and night.

The sea flung him up high and dry twenty-five years ago on the edge of the Great Lakes, to let his bushy hair and short beard whiten in the fresh-water breezes. Tired of dangerous depths and stormy waters, he settled down to a business of salvaging and submarine engineering in the vicinity of the thriving port of Detroit.

Today he is a tall, active man who has thinned down from two hundred and twenty-five pounds to a mere one hundred and ninety, all bone and meat. He spends his spare time in his experimental laboratory, where he fusses with high explosives. A four-year course in analytical chemistry and technical engineering at the University of Michigan and his practical experience have developed him into an authority on explosives officially recognized by the ("anadian government.

“I’m afraid of dynamite, too,” he said. “That’s why 1 don’t have accidents with it.”

To avoid hurting himself or anybody else, lie has learned to aim an explosive charge like a rille. He has demonstrated that he can blow a girder off a bridge straight up in the air, and stand underneath when the charge goes off without suffering injury. He can sheer off a spile at the ground so neatly that a person seeing it later would suspect that it had been cut with a saw. He can set off a charge on a pavement without leaving a dent, or he can make the force go down and blow the concrete to dust.

He is the inventor of two widely used explosives, which he has named hydrolite and heurolite. Hydrolite has three distinct explosions when used under water, and is so sensitive to heat that it will explode spontaneously in a temperature of seventytwo degrees Fahrenheit. He fears this particular explosive more than any other, because it is ticklish stuff to handle, but it is so effective in destroying sunken ships and similar menaces to navigation that he seldom uses anything else in such work.

“I knew a big, husky fellow who wasn’t afraid of anything,” the captain recalled. “He was one of the crew of my diving scow, and he used to laugh at my carefulness when I went under water. He wouldn’t bother with all that stuff if he were going down, he used to brag. One day I lost patience and told him to put on a diving rig and try it.

“He was game, all right. He got into the outfit, climbed down into the water, took hold of the anchor chain, and signalled for lots of line. He got it. Straight down he went, about forty feet in a few seconds.

“I had him hauled out as fast as we could take up rope. When we got his helmet off he was in bad shape. Blood was flowing from his ears, nose, and mouth, and it was two hours before1 he regained consciousness. As soon as he was able to walk he quit his job. I don’t know where he is now, but I’ll bet he isn’t diving.”

It isn’t nerve or physique that makes a diver, Captain Sphears maintains, but knowing what will happen if you don’t watch out, and being dreadfully afraid to let it happen.

Water pressure, when it isn’t equalized at all moments by air pressure, is no joke. Human organs built to operate under fourteen and seventenths pounds of pressure to the square inch, which is the approximate density of air at sea level, refuse to behave normally when the pressure is suddenly increased several pounds. Divers, tunnel workers, and others who must work under compression spend a great deal of time in getting their bodies used to it each time they start on a job, and proceed very slowly from a pressure of, say, fifteen pounds to one of seventeen.

Said Captain Sphears:

“The deepest I ever went in an ordinary rig was 147 feet: it took an hour to get down and an hour and a quarter to get out. I timed myself by counting the distance by the links of the anchor chain. A man on deck timed me with a watch, and signalled me when I went too fast.

“One thing that helped me was a jacket of steel and whalebone of my own invention which I wore under the diving dress. This jacket allowed my body about two inches of play inside, and when the water pressure collapsed the dress, it kept the pressure from bearing directly on my heart.”

Bleeding at the ears and nose is one of the commonest experiences of deep water divers. It is the result of the pressure, which makes the heart beat far beyond its normal rate and breaks blood vessels, and even forces the eyeballs out of their sockets and leaves them suspended on the cheeks. It is accompanied by temporary or permanent loss of hearing, almost unbearable pains in the head, sudden physical weakness, and many other ills and discomforts. Sometimes it causes a large blood vessel to burst in the head, forming a clot of blood on the brain, which generally means paralysis, insanity, or death.

The “diver’s bends” is a disease also common among divers, and is caused by their being subjected to so great a pressure that all the nitrogen breathed into the lungs cannot be expelled. Nitrogen bubbles are forced from the lungs into the blood, and travel through the entire system. They get into the joints and cause intense agony and a persistent itching that cannot be relieved. A diver with the “bends,” unless he is placed under pressure again as soon as the ailment is noted, twists himself into fantastic postures from which he is sometimes never straightened—in which case he stands a slim chance of ever diving again. This twisting and bending of the joints gives the disease its name.

So careful has Captain Sphears been to guard against these risks that he has never experienced a hemorrhage under water, and only once was he attacked by the “bends”—an assistant at the air pump had kept him under twenty-six pounds of pressure until he collapsed. Then, ignorant of the mischief he was doing, the assistant released the face plate of the helmet. The effect on the diver was as if he had been hit with a sledge hammer. It was weeks before he was able to walk, and in six years he has not fully recovered.

Fear of taking chances, he said quite seriously, was all that kept him from having more frequent troubles.

“I know just how dangerous all these things are,” he explained, “and so I have studied the human machine and just what it can stand. I wouldn’t be surprised if I knew as much about anatomy and medicine as some doctors.

“Like every other diver I have an off day once in a while. When I get into the rig and begin to take the pressure, I have pains in my ears. I can’t hear and I can’t swallow. I have a feeling of suffocation as I climb into the water, and then, crack! my ears are all right again and I hear better than before. But I’ve had enough. I know I’m not in shape for diving, and I go back to the scow.

“The first thing I do is take a long walk and a big dose of castor oil. Next day I eat a light breakfast with no meat, and exercise for two hours. Then, if I don’t feel tired or sick, I go out to the scow and try it over again.

“Most divers have a certain depth to which they can descend in comparative safety. It may be twenty feet or a hundred. They take their lives in their hands when they go deeper, and even if they don’t suffer right away, they are slowly killing themselves by overstraining the lungs and heart.

“In the old days I didn’t have to set a definite limit on my depth, although 147 feet, as I have already mentioned, was the deepest I ever went without special armor. I used to go down a hundred feet pretty regularly without any trouble at all. But now that I’m getting old, fifty feet is plenty. I seldom attempt more.”

A Pioneering Submarine Commander

IN 1879, the British navy launched the first pair of motor-driven submarines that would really work. They were called “helldivers,” and had very little speed, a cruising radius of about six miles, and navigated just beneath the surface of the water. They were forty feet long and carried two men apiece.

Captain Sphears commanded one of these submarines for several months during naval manoeuvres. It was hard to handle, and once submerged it was doubtful if it would ever rise to the surface of its own accord. The motors, which were powered by wet batteries, had a habit of failing at ticklish moments.

“I didn’t like the job at all,” he told me. All you could do in the way of attack or defense was to fire an oldfashioned torpedo that wouldn’t go straight and was as likely to blow you up as your target. But these old submarines started something that is going to be mighty important one of these days.

“Before long, someone will build a submarine capable of navigating the greatest depths and seeing its way by means of giant searchlights. It will be able to reach the deepest parts of the ocean and there release divers wearing armor strong enough to stand up under the weight of the water. Then there will be discoveries made at the bottom of the sea that will amaze the world.”

What sort of discoveries? Captain Sphears was not sure. But he had found the sea a wonderful and terrible place, and was certain that whatever secrets it might hide would not be little ones.

Submerged Twenty-six Hours

TT IS hardly likely that Captain Sphears

will ever see this supersubmarine and hear the tales of its daring crew. But neither is it likely that he will worry much about that part of it, having had such an amazing sequence of adventures in his own lifetime that he can scarcely relate one for thinking of the next.

One of the most thrilling of them all was in fresh water. Twenty-six years ago last Christmas a Cleveland street car left an open drawbridge and plunged into the Cuyahoga River, drowning fourteen passengers. Captain Sphears was summoned to recover the bodies.

There was heavy ice over the river and the bottom was oozy with refuse from a number of manufacturing plants. The water was thick and black as night when he descended. The car was lying on its side in the ooze. For several hours he worked to locate and bring out twelve of the corpses.

The otner two he could not find. Feeling his way blindly, and avoiding bits of broken glass that might cut his dress, he made his way from one end of the car to the other. He forced himself through a narrow doorway and outside the car. Finally he found the bodies beneath the wheels, and taking each by the hair of the head he made his way back through the car and by means of his telephone gave the order to be hauled out.

He waited to feel the tug of the lifeline, but no tug came. Then, after a moment, the voice of one of his helpers sounded in the earphones.

“The line’s snagged. You’ll have to work it loose before we can do anything.”

Feeling for the line, Captain Sphears started to find the snag. He was halted by a window too narrow for him to squeeze through. The line had gone through that window and was caught on a bolt some distance inside the car.

“Get another diver,” said Sphears into the transmitter. “I can’t reach it.”

So the call for another diver went out through the city, and, when it was not answered, travelled over the wires to other cities. Nowhere could a diver be found who could get to Cleveland in time to perform a job that must be done almost immediately. This, it must be borne in mind, was more than a quartercentury ago.

Detained under a few feet of water, chilled to the marrow, so tired that he could scarcely walk, the diver groped for I twenty-six hours in a vain effort to free himself. All he had for company were two dead men and a voice over the telephone that enquired at intervals how he felt and sought to encourage him.

When the twenty-sixth hour had passed he gave up trying.

“I’m going to cut the lifeline and the air hose,” he announced over the phone. “Give me lots of air right now and stand by where you see my bubbles to grab me when I come up. Then roll me on my back and twist off the face plate as soon as you can.”

The volume of air reaching him was increased. His dress inflated about his body and he felt the choking sensation that warns the divers that the lungs are overcrowded. He doubled the air hose to keep the water out, cut the hose and the lifeline with one stroke of his knife, grasped the hair of the corpses in one hand, kicked off his thirty-two pounds of iron shoes, and gave a push with his feet. When the men on shore wrenched off his helmet he was unconscious. They rushed him to a hospital in a fire engine.

Captain Sphears claims that the twenty-six hours under water constitute a world’s record for endurance, and that he nearly duplicated the feat a few years later when he remained submerged for twenty-three hours in order to saw a steel mooring cable from a ship’s propeller, in which it had become entangled.

A Fight with an Octopus

T-JIS meeting with an octopus was another episode that had its shivery moments. Here is his own description of it:

“The captain of the British gunboat to which I was attached in the 'summer of ‘eighty-eight’ heard that a Spanish galleon, supposed to be loaded with treasure, lay on a shoal just off the Eastern Azores. We happened to be passing that way, and having a few hours to spare, I went down to have a look.

“The bottom was all white sand, dotted with patches of green seaweed, and the water was clear. I could see for several hundred feet in all directions, but nothing more dangerous than a few fish and some small water snakes was in sight.

“An octopus lying on the bottom looks like the stump of a tree with roots extended about it. This one was right in the centre of a patch of seaweed, which hid it completely.

“I was about a dozen feet away when it lifted its body to the height of about five feet, supported by four of its tentacles while the others waved slowly about in the water like snakes. It wasn’t a very pleasant sight, but it disappeared in a second in the mess of ink-like secretion which the octopus employs both as a weapon and a shield. I gave two quick tugs on the lifeline and the boys in the boat, who couldn’t see what was going on because the water was choppy, began to pull away.

“Just as I started to rise I felt a tentacle wrap itself once around my leg, below the knee. I grabbed my knife and slashed at it, and felt another tentacle brush against my arm. By this time the rope had tightened around my waist and was almost squeezing the breath out of me, and I didn’t seem to be rising at all. I slashed some more with my knife, and finally the arm let go.

“When I reached the surface I found that my dress was ripped, and the only thing that kept the air in and the water out was the fact that it was collapsed and lay snug about my leg. My shin was bleeding where a big piece of skin and flesh had been stripped off. I was bleeding about the waist, too, where the rope had cut into me.

“The octopus died about a minute later. We dropped a depth charge which brought him to the top of the water in pieces. But I wasn’t in condition to dive any moré that day, and as the boat couldn’t wait, we steamed away without having another look for the galleon. If ever she lay on that shoal, she must be there yet.”

Octopuses are fairly plentiful in southern waters, but are seldom dangerous. Twenty or thirty others that Captain Sphears ran across later were small ones and seemed more afraid of him than he was of them, the captain remarked.

Often as he has looked for sunken gold in the green haze that covers the bottom of the ocean, Captain Sphears has never found it, unless you take into account the numerous times he has assisted in the salvaging of large and small steamers, many of which carried valuable cargoes. He has, however, ventured into the gloomy cabins and holds of rotting sailing vessels that have lain on the submarine sands for many years, his clumsy, grotesque costume frightening the strange fish that swam in and out of the portholes.

Stumbling on Tragedy

ONCE, when he hammered in the door of a locker of an unidentified vessel, he stumbled upon what must have been a sinister tragedy of other days. Standing upright in the narrow confines of the closet, where it presumably had been locked before the vessel sank, was the skeleton of a woman. There were no clues to her identity or how she came to meet her fate.

It was while helping to raise a fishing vessel that the man of many adventures was forced to bury himself in quicksand to get at the hull, which was so far down in the black ooze that only the cabins showed. He swung a fifteen-pound hammer in the thick mess, whose consistency was about equal to ■ that of molasses, and then crawled through it to the engine room to see whether the machinery might be lifted out to lighten the load on the derricks.

At various times in various waters he has been injured, knocked out, suffocated, stuck in the mud, and otherwise temporarily embarrassed more times than he can remember, but always he has won through by merit of taking great pains and treading with the utmost caution.

The professional life of the average diver is nine years. Captain Sphears has been taking all the chances of the game for seven times nine years, and barring unforeseen accidents he will still be taking them, fearfully and carefully, long after you have finished with this article.