Memoirs of a pollution control officer
The boat lazily rode the gentle Lough Derg swell. I straddled the seat, one hand on the wheel, the other on the throttle lever. The new 90hp 4-stroke motor gurgled contentedly on the transom behind me. I heard the distant 'kraaa-ak' of a heron and, although it may have been imagination, the whistle of an otter. A pair of swans cast an aloof glance in my direction and then made a point of ignoring me. A drake paddled by, busily pretending not to be begging for crusts. A soft breeze, scented with hawthorn and newly spread slurry, wafted over the lake. I sat back and imbibed nature.
Then I pushed the throttle full forward. The boat didn't exactly leap out of the water and my face muscles didn't exactly ripple like they do when people go into space, but my eyebrows were pinned to my forehead. The acceleration was incredible! 0 - 40 in 10 seconds!!! Well, 40 knots is pretty fast on water because there aren't any white lines in the middle, or 'Accident Black Spot' warnings, and there are lots of bumpy bits that try to make the boat fly. There are also lots of uncharted obstacles that can make a boat go from 40 - 0 knots in zero seconds, so it's quite exciting sometimes.
After a few moments of wallowing in the exhilaration of acceleration, it dawned on me that I hadn't warned the other three people on board that I wanted to test the new motor to its utmost. Perhaps the sudden acceleration had whipped them overboard or they were splattered on the back of the boat, causing an unsightly mess!! I quickly pulled the throttle back to neutral.
Most people think boats don't have brakes.
I was relieved to see all three were present and correct as they tumbled past me and bounced off the forward watertight compartment. I checked afterwards and there wasn't even a tiny leak. It reminded me of a similar episode that happened in Dungarvan Harbour many years ago.
In those days, the early 1970s, there wasn't an EPA to control emissions of industrial waste to the environment. New industries had to apply to the Local Authorities (County Councils, City Corporations) for planning permission to develop a site for industrial development. In many cases, the proposed development received financial support from the Industrial Development Authority (IDA). However, neither the Local Authorities nor the IDA had any expertise of their own to advise them about the environmental implications of new industries. Although both were striving to support anything that provided employment, they were aware that environmental issues were becoming more and more important; they realized that an assessment of the environmental impact of new industries should be an integral part of the planning and funding process.
One such development resulted in myself, DK and Mr. Beeches having to do a survey of the flora and fauna on the seabed in Dungarvan Harbour. DK and I are biologists who used to do underwater surveys using SCUBA until the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) told us we were committing a mortal sin and should desist forthwith. This was before the HSA was invented, though, so we unwittingly committed lots of mortal sins. Especially when we were away on surveys.
We towed the boat to a little place that had a slip and a pub. The proprietor didn't seem to mind that Mr. Beeches used the shelter of his gable-end to fill the fuel tank for the outboard motor from a jerry can while smoking a cigarette and inhaling petroleum fumes. I think he was impressed by the dexterity with which Mr. Beeches handled the expensive laboratory glass funnel during the fuel transfer. He did, however, object to the smell of my cigar.
Our boat, at that time, was a white, fibre-glass Dory. Although it was only 3.5 meters long, it had a nice wide beam and a cathedral hull. It had a broad, flat prow that provided an ideal platform from which divers could roll backwards into the water without hurting it. It had a little wooden seat for the driver, and a little steering wheel that told the motor which way to point.
When Mr. Beeches had successfully failed to immolate himself and the pub, we launched the boat and drove to the survey area. DK and I donned our diving gear and went through all the buddy checks that conscientious divers do. Mr. Beeches, who was driving, took off his lifejacket and used it as a cushion because the little wooden seat was too hard. He rolled down his sleeves and fastened all his shirt buttons in case the sun got at him. Then he stretched out, cigarette in one hand hovering enticingly close to the fuel tank, relaxed in the knowledge that all he had to do was follow our bubbles.
DK and I dropped our 1m2 grid from the surface and followed it as it drifted lazily down to fall randomly on the seabed. We recorded the abundance of each species of plant and animal that was readily identifiable within the grid. We also took photographs that would help to identify other species later. Then we moved the grid and repeated the process until air started to get low. The survey took the best part of an hour and we were quite tired when we finally surfaced.
Divers don't just swim back up to the surface. There's a whole ritual attached to it. They have to control their rate of ascent and their breathing so they don't strain or rupture a lung. They also raise an arm above their head, especially in murky water, so they won't bang their heads on the hull of the cover boat that is following the bubbles. Sometimes the cover boat avoids the possibility of head-bashing by keeping a distance from the bubbles. Mr. Beeches seemingly subscribed to the latter approach because the Dory was about 400 meters away from where we surfaced. His back was facing towards us and he seemed to be signalling to someone in Spain. His arm was rising and falling in a jerky, rhythmical, fashion, as if he was conducting an invisible orchestra. Using the emergency whistles on our lifejackets, we finally attracted his attention and he came to retrieve us.
Not having the energy to reprimand him, or enquire about his previously unrecognized musical talents, we gratefully handed him our weightbelts and air bottles and waited until he had stowed them securely in the front of the boat. Then we hauled ourselves out of the water and sat, panting, on the flat platform on the prow.
For some reason known only to himself, Mr. Beeches decided that it was time to go. So he pushed the throttle full forward. The Dory had a lot of weight on the front end - two divers, their weightbelts and diving bottles. In less than a second, the bow was ploughing its way underwater and the remainder of the boat was following. Fortunately, Mr. Beeches pulled back the throttle before he jumped onto the steering wheel which, by now, was the only part of the boat above water. Mr. Beeches is a fine specimen of mankind, and the steering wheel was just a little one. I still don't know how he managed to remain sitting on it while the boat sank. He couldn't swim, and was frantically trying to grab his cushion/lifejacket as it drifted away. Each move he made caused the steering wheel to turn him away from the object of his desire, thereby proving that every action causes an equal and opposite reaction. After what seemed a lifetime, the boat's built-in buoyancy slowly brought it back to the surface.
DK and I finally managed to avert the danger of capsizing by bailing frantically and making the boat reasonably seaworthy again. It took a bit longer to persuade Mr. Beeches to get off the steering wheel so we could drive the boat back to the pub. It's not easy to drive a boat when the steering wheel is shaped like Mr. Beeches' backside. On our way back, we spotted a pair of sickle-shaped fins cutting through the water. Mr. Beeches, already rather pale, turned decidedly green. We didn't tell him they were harmless basking sharks because we didn't know if they were or not.
As for his musical talents, we later discovered that he didn't have ambitions to be the next conductor of the RTE Symphony Orchestra. He had smuggled a set of feathers on board and was jigging for mackerel!!
"What about following the bubbles?" we asked.
"Bubbles? Sure they'd only frighten the mackerel away."
© John Dory MMII
About the Author
'John Dory' advises Irish industry and Government agencies on pollution prevention and control measures