One of the neat things about scuba diving is that I sometimes get called to help with something that requires you to be underwater longer than you can hold your breath. It is a skill set and willingness that not many people have, so when the call for assistance comes, I am happy to help. They might need assistance to clear a fouled prop (like my adventure with the schooner Harvey Gamage) or maybe clean a hull or a float or work on moorings. But others involve searching for something that has been lost or dropped. I find those challenges particularly interesting.

Unfouling a sailboat propeller off Beauchamp Point, Rockport. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom


There are different ways to conduct searches for things underwater. One technique is a circular search pattern, usually off an anchor chain or mooring line. You descend the chain or line, hook up a handheld reel or finger spool to the chain, reel out about 5 or 6 feet of line, usually to the limit of visibility. You then stretch the line tight and swim around the anchor chain in a circle as you search the area for what you are seeking. Upon completion of the circle, you move 5 feet farther out from the chain and repeat. Then repeat. You get the idea.

There are two types of lines and reels used for underwater searches. On the left is a finger spool and on the right a handheld primary reel with locking mechanism. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom


If you don’t see the lost item, you might still get lucky. Once doing a circular search, my reel line snagged on the item I was looking for. A crate of lobsters had fallen off the back of a lobster boat in about 35 feet of water and I was called to help find it. The crate had had a line with a small buoy attached to it, but not long enough to reach the surface. My circular search eventually snagged the buoy line and when I went to see what was holding things up, I found the crate.

Hooked to an anchor chain, the finger spool is used on circular search patterns where the diver goes out about five feet at a time and does a circular search around the anchor, progressively moving further out to expand the search. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom


Another time in late fall I got a call to help find a hunting rifle and backpack that had been lost when the hunter flipped his canoe. To amplify the difficulty, the hunter was unable to be there for my search. Instead, someone else met me and was the one who took me out onto the pond in a small boat to search, using directions the hunter had given him! What could go wrong?

Starting a search with a second-hand account of where things likely went into the water is less than desirable. But the task is the task, so we started using circular searches around an anchor he would drop from his small boat. I would swim around trying not to stir up the mucky bottom. Then we would re-drop the anchor and I would start again. We worked our way around the search site in an ever-increasing search field. It became frustrating.

I had been in the water for quite some time and was into my second tank of air when some camp neighbors, who had been watching us, came out in kayaks. They directed us farther over from where we had been searching, saying they had actually seen the canoe flip from their kitchen window. And they were right.

My search line finally snagged the muzzle of the rifle — lucky it had stuck in the muck butt-end first. I happily grabbed it and brought it to the surface. Then, with what little air I had remaining, and with little feeling left in my numb hands, I finally came upon the camouflage-colored backpack, which had sunk decently into the muck leaving only a strap or two floating above which I visually spotted.

I prefer the circular search pattern if it is just me doing the search. Easy-peasy, just drop down the anchor line, hook up your finger spool and off you go in increasingly larger circles. An iPhone off a floating dock was recovered that way. I descended the mooring chain under the platform and did the circular search. It was a weedy bottom about 25 feet down, fairly deep so fairly dark and shadowy. Luckily, the phone was in a hot pink case, which is why the mother insisted I still come out and look for it. She thought the case might save the phone from being ruined by the water. I learned later it had not.

Sometimes I try to talk them out of my coming to search, especially if the site is some distance away and the location of the item lost is not very specific. That is when I tell them what little I can do and what to expect and the low odds of success. I then ask, ‘So do you still want me to come out to look for it?’ Interestingly, the answer is usually yes, they are that willing to recover the item.

My first couple of dive searches I was just excited to get into the water. During a storm once, some items like a storage bench and skis blew off a dock at Saturday Cove. They called me to help find them. It was one of my first calls, so I happily did it and managed to find most of the items. When they offered a gratuity for my time and effort, I said “Heck no, it was my pleasure!” Upon hearing of this, my wife quickly disabused me of that line of thinking. Money coming in for scuba is always better than money going out for scuba!

Retrieving a storage bench blown off a dock at Saturday Cove. Photo by Audrey Lagerbom, from collection of Charles H. Lagerbom

A dive search or underwater task is not a simple thing to bring about. It is pretty gear- and time-intensive. I first have to get my gear together at my house and packed into the vehicle. Checklists help keep track of what gear or tools, or other special things might be needed for that particular task. You can’t forget something crucial. And the gear and tools have to be ready to be gathered and packed, sometimes at a moment’s notice. I find that people tend to want their searches to occur sooner rather than later, their items found as quickly as possible. “Can you come right away?”

So, with gear packed, there is then travel to the site which could be miles away. Upon arrival, I then need to get the gear from my vehicle to the shore or boat or dock — usually nowhere near where I park! One time my gear and I had to ride on a four-wheeler some distance along the shoreline from where I parked. Someone is usually there to meet you and help you to the search location. Sometimes it is to a dock, sometimes to a small boat, dinghy or canoe and then out to the search site.

It takes time to get into your gear, test your systems, make sure all is good before you do the actual search. Time for the search itself can take a long time, or not. I got called once in early spring to pull plugs that had inadvertently been left in the bottom of a built-in swimming pool. The cover panels were still over most of it, so I went in through one small opening at the shallow end and worked my way along the bottom with a pair of pliers. It got darker the farther I went in, kind of creepy and the water was wicked cold. It took me less than 10 minutes.

Once the recovery is over, hopefully with success, you then need to get back to shore, out of the water, get the gear off and re-stowed in your vehicle. Then travel back home, where you still need to clean all the gear, especially if it has been in seawater or pool water. You don’t rush this part of the process as the gear needs to be cleaned properly, so it will be ready next time you need it.

The author was called to pull plugs from a pool in early spring. From collection of Charles H. Lagerbom

After a good, methodical cleaning, the gear then gets hung up to dry and stored. There are not many people willing or able to do this, especially on short notice…a simple case of supply and demand.

Searches conducted from above the water are best, since they utilize high tech gear such as side-scan sonar, sub-bottom profilers and magnetometers. These can give you a visual of the bottom terrain and perhaps even the item you are searching for, if it is big enough like a ship or mooring or something. One wreck hunter told me that the best successful searches are those where you don’t get wet.

But if you have to put boots on the ground, or actually fins in the water, then there are some search techniques that can cover decent-sized areas if you have enough divers and gear, and the depths and underwater conditions are appropriate.

Sometimes, when multiple divers are needed to find or retrieve something, your underwater search options increase. There are different techniques you can use depending on the size of the search area, the number of divers available, water conditions, weather, etc.

A jackstay or corridor search is a good option if you have two divers. In pairs, you follow along a set line in a grid pattern going from Point A to Point B. Once at Point B you move down the end line perpendicularly to Point C, where you then go back along the search area on a set line to Point D on your original end line. Then move perpendicularly to Point E and proceed to Point F. Do this over and over and you can cover a large area in a methodical fairly comprehensive way.

The corridor search can be combined with one of the paired divers using an underwater metal detector or hand-held magnetometer. The other diver would then carry a clip board or laminated map or something to mark any interesting hits or beeps from metallic items. This technique is used by underwater archaeologists as they sweep an area for historical remains, plotting the hits for further investigation.

Another technique is the swimline or freeline search. This is where multiple divers, three or four or more, fan out along a line a few feet apart from each other and then proceed along a set course line, keeping parallel with each other. With being five feet apart or so, the group can cover a large search area. That is, if it is relatively flat, little current or surge, and decent visibility. It all depends on conditions.

So, if you lose something overboard or off a dock or while swimming, rest assured there are options to try and recover it. Fouled props, lost keys, anchors, rings, cellphones, crates of lobsters, a sunken dinghy, they can all be found and recovered. Of course, incentives like a few free lobsters thrown in are always nice too!

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through

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