UP TIGHT IN FRESH WATER
© Ian Robertson, 2003

Date: Early August, 1963

Site: A well on a farm on the Bulawayo Road near Harare, Zimbabwe.

The task was to recover some pump rod and a foot-valve that had been dropped down a 22 m deep well. Access to the water in the well was down about 5 m of wire ladder that we had rigged. The well was about 1.2 m in diameter and cased in concrete for the first 10 m. Dennis Hansen (fully kitted up for an emergency) acted as surface tender and it was my task to do the job. An added complication was that the farmer had made a grapnel hook out of concrete reinforcing rod and fencing wire, to try to jag his lost gear, and had managed to get this stuck in the well about 10 m below the surface.

I chose a small single tank set and climbed carefully down the ladder, my gear was lowered to me. I kitted up in the water and switched on my torch. The water was surprisingly clear and about 21ºC. I descended slowly, feet first, playing the torch beam downwards. A few metres down, the concrete casing gave way to weathered but firm granite. OK so far, but not a place for a claustrophobic attack. The grapnel hook, a vicious tangle of rods, appeared below me, jammed into one side of the well, leaving a gap through which I slipped very carefully. Two tugs on the line ‘are you OK?’; two tugs back ‘I am OK’. The wall slowly slipped by as I dropped deeper. There was the top of the pump rod, which was lying diagonally across the well with the brass foot valve at the bottom on the opposite side. I worked my way slowly down the rod to about half way at about 20 m, signalled three tugs ‘stop’, unclipped my line and attached it to the rod with a self-tightening friction knot.

I turned to come up, but my bubbles had disturbed silt on the well sides and I was suddenly in very poor visibility – a matter of centimetres. Holding my signal line in one hand and letting the pump rod slip through the other, I worked my way back up to the top of the rod by feel and secured my line again with a second friction knot. Two tugs on the line – ‘I’m OK.’ I then rose gently along the signal line until I could feel and vaguely see the tangle of reinforcing rods above my head in my torch beam. This had to come out, or no way were they going to recover the rod and foot-valve. I signalled for slack on the grapnel wire, pulled it clear to the centre of the well and signalled for up on the wire. The grapnel rose slowly above me and I followed it, guiding it to the surface and, with relief, saw it lifted clear of the well.

I removed my kit and it was lifted out. All that was left was to climb the wire ladder and, with a sense of satisfaction, watch the farmer thankfully lift out his precious foot valve and pump rod and allow the sun to warm me up. Strict BS-AC training of operating as a team, using a roped diver and frequent practice in very low visibility allowed this task to be completed safely and successfully.

Date: 13th November, 1966

Site: Chipoli Citrus Estate Dam, Shamva District, Zimbabwe

The farmer had built a small earth dam. To drain the dam, he had built a concrete outlet tunnel into the dam, said to be 90 cm square, passing horizontally about 6 m to a small chamber. A wide outlet pipe, its top blocked by a plough-disc in the floor of the concrete chamber, went down from the chamber and exited below the dam. The plough disc could be raised by a chain, passing up a pipe to the top of the dam. Pull the chain, a bit like a giant bath-plug, and the dam could be emptied. A great idea. The only problem was, with time, the chain had rusted through and broken and there was no way of emptying the dam. The solution, he suggested, was for a diver to attach a new chain. An interesting challenge!

Visibility in the muddy water of the dam was less than a metre at the surface and less than 30 cm on the bottom, with almost no light at all. Divers Gill and Denise located the entrance to the tunnel at 3.5 m depth, using a circular sweep search on a rope, and loosened the fencing wire that secured the wire-mesh trash-guard covering the tunnel opening, with a pair of pliers. They had to work entirely by feel. They reported that the entrance was extensively obstructed by rocks that had fallen down the dam wall and by silt washed into the dam by the summer rains.

 

BACK TO DIVING HIGHLIGHTS

Next to dive were Stewart and myself. We removed the rocks, dug into the silt, were able to remove the trash-guard and haul it to the surface, exposing the 90 cm wide tunnel entrance. Our next dive was to penetrate the tunnel. Attached to Stewart, on a signal line, I made two attempts to enter. The tunnel was half filled with silt. Just over a metre in, it was completely black, the concrete sides of the tunnel narrowed to 60 cm – not what we had been told! With my elbows scraping on the sides and my tank scraping the roof, I made the inevitable decision not to proceed any further into what could easily become a trap. Moving forward may have been possible but backing out would have been another matter entirely. Probably one of my better decisions! We had to disappoint the farmer! So, success and failure; the will to complete the job seasoned with caution…. .