What is it like being an Alvin swimmer?
The Alvin swimmers ride the sub into the water, unhook the main and tail lines to get it free of the ship, snorkel around the vehicle to complete final checks, board the waiting small boat, and watch it disappear into the depths.
The swimmers are a highly visible part of launch and recovery, the last to leave the sub, the first to return when it surfaces, and many photos show this taking place on tranquil seas, crowned with a swan dive after Alvin is reattached to the ship.
The job is a critical part of both launch and recovery. And although Alvin only launches when the weather conditions are favorable, they can change unexpectedly over the course of a dive, which means sometimes recovery can be a very different experience from the preceding launch. The conditions can also vary greatly depending on location and Alvin dives everywhere from the tropics to the Gulf of Alaska.
Swimmers are drawn from the Alvin Team and Atlantis crew and go through extensive training for this role. The steps that keep swimmers safe—as they work with a large vehicle and heavy machinery in the open ocean—have been passed down from swimmer to swimmer for decades.
I sat down with several of them to discuss the pleasures and perils of being a swimmer. Here’s what they had to say about being the only people allowed to swim where Alvin dives for research.
It’s good to be in the ocean
Swimming during launch and recovery is something that Alvin Engineer Kaitlyn Beardshear has been looking forward to for most of her time on the job. “I’ve been here two years and for most of that time Alvin has been out the water,” she said. “I’ve known the steps of being an Alvin swimmer in my head for a long time. There is a joy in finally getting to do this.”
As a swimmer-in-training, Beardshear is drawing on thorough instruction from experienced Alvin swimmers and years of surfing. Balancing on the sub, even when it is choppy is reminiscent of a beloved recreational activity.
“I love being in the ocean. Getting splashed by waves is my idea of a good time. Any day getting in the water is a good day.”
Don’t forget what you are dealing with
“People come out and say they want to be a swimmer,” said Atlantis third mate Patrick Neumann. “Then they put on those goggles and look down into the abyss. I can see in their eyes that they are terrified. You’ve got 4,000 meters below you. You’re out on the ocean, looking down to nothing.”
Neumann has been an Alvin swimmer for the better part of three decades and is presently coaching the newest members of the crew and sub operations team through the role.
“This is a dangerous job,” he adds. “But it is an incredible experience and it never gets old. On a science day, the sub comes come back on, goes back in the hanger, and the scientists are like happy kids gathering around the basket looking at their rocks, and their mud, and their tube worms. We help make that happen. It’s worth it.”
It’s a whole new perspective
“I’ve spent a lot of New England summers in the ocean,” said Alvin engineer John Dymek, “But being in the open water this week was a little intimidating. It was rough out there and we seemed very far away from the ship.”
Dymek is presently training as swimmer and his first open water deployment took place on the first day of sea trials. The wave height was not unusual for launch and recovery, but still a far cry from practice sessions at the dock in Woods Hole.
“The scale of the vehicle also changes a lot when you are swimming with it,” he added. “It seems bigger. It’s really cool to see it in its environment, to swim down to secure the safety lines, and it's right there, people are inside, and they are going to the bottom of the ocean.”
Nobody else gets this view
When Alvin begins to descend, on a clear day, you can literally watch it disappear into the depths, said Research Engineer Fran Elder, an experienced swimmer. “When you see the sub go dark you know it’s gotten really deep.”
Swimmers don’t just get to see Alvin vanish, they get to hear it come up, added Neumann. “On recovery we take the swimmers out in the small boat in the direction where we think the sub will surface. When it gets close you can hear it pinging through the water. You can hear the communications as it comes up to the surface.”
“Being a swimmer is fun and terrifying,” said Elder. “You’d be lying if you said you weren’t afraid sometimes. But we are working in incredible places and we’re the only people who get to go in the water.”
- Hannah Piecuch