Sunday, August 5, 2018

Shadows in a Timeless Myth Presents Frances Namon Sorcho First Female Deep Sea Diver


“As a girl in a quiet little home in Virginia, I little thought I would ever become a diver. In fact I didn’t know what a real diver was.

“When I first saw the queer rig I shuddered, but now the grotesque costume is as natural to me as is my tea-gown, and perhaps I feel a little more at home in it.

“Only arms, limbs and a body well trained muscularly can walk about in shoes that weigh 27 pounds apiece, supporting an armor with copper helmet and breastplate, and leaden belt of weights which tip the scale-beam at 246 pounds. Therefore, the commencement of my education as a diver consisted of a year’s training in a school of physical culture. When it was completed my muscles were as hard and springy as steel, and I felt no fear on the score of physical strength as I contemplated my first visit to the ‘bottom of the sea.’

“My first dive was off the southern coast of Florida, not far from Clear Water Harbor. My husband was at the time engaged in the business of collecting rare shells and coral for several Northern Universities. I well remember how I felt when I first donned the armor. Fear and curiosity were so closely blended that I hardly know which I felt the most of. At any rate, my husband was waiting, and almost before I realized it the queer canvas armor had been adjusted and the breastplate had been slipped over my head. A thick pad or collar had been put on my shoulders to take the weight off the breastplate and helmet, which alone weigh 56 pounds; but even then the plate felt quite heavy, and as the metal gaskets were being screwed down with thumb-nuts and a wrench, I felt as if I were being screwed up in my coffin. But there was little time for such gruesome reflections, and a stout leather belt holding the sub-marine knife was next girded about my waist.

“This knife, a double-edged affair, sharp as a razor, screws into a watertight brass scabbard. It is the diver’s only weapon, and with it he must protect himself against sharks and other sub-marine monsters. The shoes come next. How heavy and awkward they looked, with their soles of cast-iron two inches thick, and how clumsy they felt when I tried to walk in them for the first time!

“The life-line—that all-important half-inch manilla rope—was then knotted about my waist, and the belt of leaden weights was strapped about me under the arms, and I was told to step over the railing of the boat on to the short ladder that had been suspended over her stern. I did so, mechanically I fear, and when I had managed to get down a few steps, the helmet was slipped over my head and by a deft turn locked.

“The queer headpiece was much larger than my head, and admitted of considerable freedom of movement inside it.

“‘Now recollect,’ said my husband, ‘if you want to come up quick in case anything happens, give one jerk on the life-line. If you want more air give two jerks, or less air three jerks.’
“I expected to shoot to the bottom like a lump of lead, owing to all the weight I had on me, but I sank gradually instead, so buoyant was the inflated armor. I was on the bottom with five fathoms of water over my head almost before I realized it.

“I felt a sensation of pressure on the chest, and in my ears and head, which was quite painful. The first thing that I noticed, was a boiling of the water about me for which I was unable to account, until I happened to think of the foul air escaping through the valve in the back of the helmet.

“I found, also, to my surprise, that I could see quite well some distance about me, and observed a number of little fishes, which finally swam quite close to me and appeared to gaze in the glass front of the helmet with their little bead-like eyes, as though wondering what sort of a fish I was. I felt strangely light and buoyant, and found that with the slightest upward movement I would shoot surfaceward several feet. The armor also felt so stiff and hard that I could scarcely move in it.

“The next time I went down was not on a pleasure trip, but to work, and for several weeks my husband and I took turns diving for shells and curios. We finally completed our contract.

“Recovering a dead body is the task a diver dislikes more than any other kind, and although I have recovered quite a number, the work is yet horrible to me.

“The first dead body I ever brought to the surface was that of a man who was supposed to have been murdered and thrown into a lake near Atlanta, Ga. I searched the entire bottom of the lake, and finally in a deep hole found the body.

“It was shockingly mutilated and disfigured, and was almost unrecognizable, but we never found out whether the man had been murdered or not.

“When I came to the surface with that bloated, disfigured corpse, strong men were made sick and turned away, and to tell the truth I felt a little squeamish myself; but it was a matter of business, not sentiment, with me, so I doffed the armor and pocketed the reward that had been offered.
“The exploding of sub-marine torpedoes is dangerous work, and you can take my word for it that one does not feel very comfortable groping about with five or six pounds of dynamite in her hand, not knowing what minute it may take a notion to go off and blow her into kingdom come. Diving is fascinating, but it is dangerous, and there are very few women who would care to engage in it even if they had the nerve.”

Frances Namon Sorcho.

Compiled from sources in the public domain

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It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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