REMINISCENCES | On being thrown overboard in Hawaii’s Kauai channel

The year 1957 was a big one for scientists all over the world. It also almost cost me my life.

Nineteen hundred and fifty-seven marked the beginning of the International Geophysical Year (IGY). I was a lowly fisheries technician and my scientific background was almost invisible. Nevertheless, I was intimately involved in the IGY, as two Hawaii ocean agencies in 1957 collaborated to put me on the research vessel Makua in the middle of the Kauai channel. Our instructions were to use Nansen bottles to collect salinity samples and temperatures down to a depth of 1,000 feet.  The two were the Hawaii State Division of Fish and Game, which owned Makua, and the US Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, which supplied some of the crew, including me.

Makua was a sturdy ship some 75 feet in length, made of wood and could easily accommodate a crew of six or eight. Her foredeck was open and about one third the length of the vessel. There was an above deck’s cabin and clear space in the stern for another one-third of its length, and the superstructure and a forward below deck cabin and engine room made up the remaining length of the ship.

But it had one feature that deserves special mention. Screwed into the top of the aft cabin and to the roof of the below deck’s cabin on the edges of both sides were wooden stringers about four inches high and two inches thick. Every foot or so there were holes in the stringers about four inches long, which made up a long series of holes the crew could grab to steady themselves whenever the ship rolled.

“I was not wearing a lifejacket, only a tee shirt, shorts, and zoris, which are rubberized open slippers.”

Did Makua roll? You bet she did. I don’t know if Makua had a round bottom or had a squarish bottom with sharp chines (edges) on each side of the bottom, but roll she did. In the middle of the Kauai channel, she rolled steadily in six-foot waves when under way. While drifting, she could make unexpected snap rolls, and when this occurred, everyone had to hang on.

This all took place on a morning in August or September 1957. I remember there were six, or maybe eight of us on Makua. Kauai is about 100 miles from Oahu, so we were about 50 miles from each island. Our job was to use the Nansen bottles to collect salinity and temperature data on a 24-hour basis.

This day was glorious. The sun was shining, there was no rain, and the temperature allowed us to work wearing tee shirts and shorts. The waves were mostly about five or six feet high, but an occasional wave would be up to eight feet high. We were stationary (drifting), because a ship can only cast Nansen bottles when it is stationary.

I was not wearing a lifejacket, only a tee shirt, shorts, and zoris, which are rubberised open slippers held by thongs that went between my big toes and my other toes. Zoris give little if any protection, especially when working on a ship and now are never allowed in modern day ships. My wearing zoris contributed to my downfall.

“To my astonishment, the next big wave threw me, unharmed, back on board the boat.”

I don’t remember exactly what I was doing, but with one hand, I was hanging on to one of the holes in the stringers in order to steady myself. Then something caused me to let go of the stringer, perhaps to bend down to fiddle with my zoris or do something else. At the moment I let go of the stringer, Makua was hit by a much bigger wave possibly eight feet high. The ship did a snap roll and threw me overboard, right over the railing, and I landed about six or seven feet from the side of the ship. I was so startled I did not realise I was in an extremely dangerous situation. But I am a pretty good swimmer and did not have time to panic.

I realised that the wave had knocked my glasses from my head. I did not know where they were, so I opened my eyes underwater and saw my glasses slowly going down. The water was as clear as a bottle of gin, so I reached down, grabbed my glasses, and then to my astonishment, the next big wave threw me, unharmed, back on board the boat.

Back on deck the rest of the crew gave me a round of applause as if I had staged the whole feat. My zoris were still on my feet and my glasses in my hand, unbroken. After I had gathered my wits, I realised that if this had happened at night, the chances of my finding and getting back on board would probably have been zero.

I recall reading somewhere that if you are moving around on a ship that is making it hard to walk or stand, then “keep one hand for yourself and one hand for the ship.” That is very good advice. Wearing a lifejacket is another good idea.

The above article is an excerpt from Swimming with Fishes, Dr Bob Iversen’s memoir detailing his experiences as a fishery biologist. It is reposted here on Baird Maritime with the author’s permission.

Submissions wanted! Do you have an exciting, amusing, or downright dangerous anecdote from your time in the maritime world? Send your submissions to: [email protected].

Bob Iversen

Bob Iversen is a retired Hawaii fishery biologist who spent 40 years studying tuna and other fish in the tropical Pacific Ocean. He is a former officer in the US Navy, and initiated the “mental health of seafarers” movement that has now taken off worldwide.