'Solid Brass' tales capture adventures of diving in Cook Inlet

Posted: Thursday, December 06, 2001

Watching Cook Inlet's surging tides is an awesome thing. But watching isn't author Bob Wick's style. In his book "Solid Brass," Wick shares what inlet tides are like below the surface.

As a "hard hat" diver working in the Cook Inlet oil patch, he's been there, done that.

The opening pages of "Solid Brass" offer a glimpse at the stuff from which Wick is made. Trained at the U.S. Navy Diving School in San Diego in the 1950s, only he and 23 others graduated from the program that began with 76 Frog-wannabes. Of the demands of "Hell Week" and the training that followed, Wick wrote:

"There were things happening to our minds. First-time realizations for young men ... finding out how self-discipline works, figuring out how much more we could ask from our bodies than we ever thought possible, finding out how determined a person you are, and understanding camaraderie at its highest level."

That training laid a solid foundation for a demanding, dangerous and adventure-filled career that has stretched more than 40 years and sent Wick around the globe, across the United States and beneath Cook Inlet.

Describing his Naval assignment in the Philippines, Wick wrote of training the Philippine Navy frogmen. Language barriers resulted in jumping from helicopters at twice the height expected from an aircraft flying twice as fast as anticipated.

He and his team helped locate and load the explosives to destroy an illegal mahogany tree logging operation buried deep in the jungle. In Hong Kong, they trained with the Underwater Clearance Team from England. In Korea, they removed debris -- including bombs, mortars and grenades -- from the bottom of Pusan Harbor by creating an explosive fireworks display "so deafening, the sound lingered in your ears long after the smoke cleared."

Equally explosive are Wick's accompanying adventures. A quiet night in a Waikiki jazz club that erupted into a Hollywood-type brawl, complete with broken furniture and narrowly escaped jail time. Rushing to the aid of a sailor being beaten by the military police, only to become the bloodied focus of the attack. A tour of Hong Kong's back streets, from which many visitors never returned.

Flowing through this recounting is Wick's respect for the country he sees and the people with whom he comes in contact.

The population of a fishing village, bananas prepared every way imaginable, and the acquired skill of husking a coconut with a machete are all described in as much detail as the parties and fights.

After being discharged from the Navy, Wick settled into Californ-ia's commercial dive scene, learning as he went. From harvesting abalone to recovering sunken vessels. From working for Howard Hughes off Catalina to working for oil companies off the coast.

Wick writes of ocean depths reached and the long hours needed to decompress, either under the surface or in a decompression chamber aboard ship. Of "tenders" and boat operators who ensured the divers' safety. Of curious sharks and aggressive sea lions. Of equipment malfunctions and the loss of friends. Of the uproarious good times and the heartbreaking grief that binds together the community of divers and their families.

With all that in his past, Wick turned to Cook Inlet, where tides and weather control the length of a dive and the duration of the season.

"We can only dive in the Cook Inlet during the slack water, between low and high tides. Once the tide starts to move the other way, the diver has to come up. In a very short time the water would be moving six to eight knots."

Not only will inlet currents sweep divers off their weighted feet, tangle their equipment and hold them captive, they also carry startling risks.

"Heavy debris runs in a 30-foot tide, including logs, telephone poles, etc. We once had to steer clear of a whole cabin going out with the rushing tide."

Giving balance to the enormous risks, Wick describes the humor that dulls the sharp edge off life-threatening situations. When a shifting tide once drug a diving companion and his hose under the dive barge and pinned the diver under a pipe, Wick went down to assist.

"Even though I loaded my ankles with all the extra lead we had on deck, my legs were still lifted straight out in the tide. There was nothing anyone could do to help; just throw hose, let out on the winch, and hope the current didn't take it all before I got to Roger."

Finally back on board, an exhausted Roger admitted having stayed down to long, to which Wick simply replied, "Don't ever do that again."

A brief section of the book is dedicated to Wick's visit to Kivalina, where the Wulik River empties into the Chukchi Sea. His first impression is that he is in "some kind of paradise. It was as if we had dropped into another time and place."

He describes his connection to Kivalina with depth and warmth and called his departure from the village "a sad moment."

However, Wick has not departed Alaska. He and his family left their horse ranch in California's Santa Ynez Valley and have adopted Eagle River as their home.

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