Slammed in the HE Plant Back-Eddy

A few days ago I dove the Hydroelectric Plant route with my wonderful dive buddy, Lise. She and I explore the river often, and she has accompanied me many times at Lock 23. She’s the perfect dive buddy: she stays close, she enjoys every aspect of the dive, and she’s quite content to go wherever my GoPro takes us! We have so many good laughs!

Last week it was over the HE Plant sluice gates. We approached shallow enough to catch the stepped end of the north wall, but instead of following it in and over the north gate, I chose to drift slightly deeper and in to the middle gate.

Visibility was awful but we’re pretty comfortable with that. Over we went. I turned slightly south aiming for the steel ring and transformer cylinder, but was suddenly – and I mean suddenly – caught in a hard and unpleasant back eddy on the inside of the south gate. I simply could not move against it to make my way east to the turbine area. I clawed on the bottom but got nowhere and could feel myself tiring. I tried to ascend a bit because that sometimes helps but to no avail. Lise was nowhere to be seen.

In the next instant I was slammed (and that’s exactly what it was) sideways into the south wall. My first reaction was to stop fighting and let the eddy throw me back over the gate and out of the plant… and I’d start my approach again. But I also knew that my buddy would stay within the walls of the headpond. Whether or not she got caught in the eddy, whether or not she saw me or my light, she’d slowly proceed east at ground level – it was and has always been our back-up plan. All easterly movement leads to the narrow uphill approach to the turbine area.

So. I hunkered low, caught my breath, then clung with my fingertips to the wall, easing along until I sensed the gentle incline and felt the eddy lessen – and there I waited, shining my big bold light in the direction Lise ought to arrive from.

Sure enough, within a minute (though it seemed like ten) her equally bright light gleamed through the silt. She too was pointing its beam to where she knew I should be. When she got close, we made some signals about being out of breath, having a pounding heart, and needing a rest, then added a couple of “what the heck was that!!” faces.

Then on we went, the rest of the dive presenting as its usual serene self. Crazy.

Why did we stay put in that headpond? Why not look for each other? Why not surface?

We knew that this eddy exists – sometimes mild, sometimes ugly. We have previously plowed through it, albeit within sight of each other.

The visibility was bad, made that much worse by our efforts against the swirling eddy. Finding each other would have been nearly pure luck.

We knew each other’s dive capabilities well and have learned that, if separated in the locks, it’s better to continue slowly along our defined route since we almost always find each other along the way. We both have excellent lights, carry surface marker buoys and, perhaps most importantly, have lots of air.

We knew that surfacing was always an option but one that would separate us for sure and oblige us to finish the dive on our own.

An aside from me: Obviously there are times when you must surface (if there is a dangerous problem with your gear or your health) but (a) doing so from within the locks puts you a fair distance from shore and (b) all surfacing puts you into overhead boat and seadoo traffic. If you deploy your SMB – and you should – and then decide to re-descend, deflating it is a really tough task in current.

What if we had been less experienced – exhausted, lost in the poor viz, breathing heavily? We’d have to brace ourselves and rest, circle our light outwards, wait a minute to see if anyone found us, and then do one of two things: (1) surface to see if our guide or buddy was up there, or (2) head north (that’s where home always is), and surface when we got low on air. You should, as a buddy pair or group, establish which one during your pre-dive discussion.

When you head north from the HE Plant headpond, you first come up to its north wall which is a mere 13 feet from the surface these days. From there the continued swim is long and boring as it ever so slowly becomes shallower through the weeds. At that depth your air will last a long time. Without a marker buoy, you need to swim through the weeds to be safe. With a marker buoy, you can swim above them. You’ll register the dive as a memorably negative one but all such dives give you useful experience! When you’ve recovered you can contemplate your newfound knowlege. The next dive will be better.