MERRIMAC — When two unmanned underwater research vessels became stranded more than 7,000 feet deep off the coast of British Columbia in late August, a Pentucket Regional High School graduate was able to recover them days later and thousands of miles away using his arms, eyes and spatial awareness.
Ben Tradd, who grew up in Merrimacport, guided another remotely operated vessel named Jason to where Hercules and Argus were stuck on the seafloor after their tether to the surface broke.
The entire operation took about 26 hours, including roughly four hours of sleep between two dives, he said.
Hercules and Argus, which are owned and operated by the Ocean Exploration Trust, were off the coast of Victoria Island, British Columbia, to service seafloor instruments operated by Ocean Networks Canada at a location known as the Endeavor Hydrothermal Field.
The vehicles were in the water when the tether connecting them to their support ship, the exploration vessel Nautilus, separated and the pair became stranded on the bottom in 2,200 meters (7,220 feet) of water, according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Upon learning about the mishap, offers of assistance from the oceanographic research and exploration community began to arrive.
Among those offering help was WHOI’s ROV Jason, which was about 200 miles south of the stranded vessels aboard the U.S. research ship R/V Thomas G. Thompson operated by the University of Washington.
“Jason is a workhorse of the deep-submergence work and was in its ‘heavy-lift’ configuration when we heard the news,” said Andy Bowen, director of the National Deep Submergence Facility at WHOI. “If something like this was going to happen, you couldn’t ask for better circumstances. We were ideally prepared to offer the highest level of assistance possible. We know that, if the situation was reversed, we could depend on our friends at OET to do the same.”
Perhaps the most challenging part of the recovery, according to Tradd, was coming up with a plan. Because Hercules was buoyant, Tradd and pilot Mario Fernandez severed the connection between them and watched as Hercules safely floated to the surface.
“We kind of birddogged it and put together a plan,” the 35-year-old Tradd said during a phone interview.
Once Hercules was safe, Jason returned to the seafloor and attached a cable to Argus. The crew on Nautilus recovered Argus and brought it to the ship a little more than 24 hours after Jason arrived, according to WHOI.
Tradd, a Falmouth resident who graduated from Pentucket in 2004, has been with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute for 14 years. For years, Tradd has been fascinated with shipwrecks and the sinking of the Titanic. He jumped at the chance to work at Woods Hole.
“Always wanted to do something in the water related to science,” Tradd said.
Tradd said he and others at Woods Hole routinely conduct “heavy lift work” but the recovery in September was the first time he saved two underwater vessels. Thousands of feet below the surface, it basically comes down to spatial awareness and knowing when you are near hazards such as cables, rocks, formations and gear, he said.
“You kind of have to project yourself there,” Tradd said, adding that a bank of computer monitors is his only visual connection to the stranded vessels.
Despite trying to recover equipment worth millions of dollars using comparably expensive tools, Tradd said he was “pretty comfortable for most of the time.”
There were a couple of what he called “sketchy moments” but for the most part, the recovery was flawless.
Dave Rogers is a reporter with the Daily News of Newburyport. Email him at: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @drogers41008.