February 18. 2012 11:42PM

Warm weather means divers get fewer calls to retrieve vehicles sunk in lakes

Sunday News Correspondent

Recovery crews from Dive Winnipesaukee pull a snowcat from Sandogardy Pond in Northfield in January 2011. (COURTESY)
WOLFEBORO — For some, there's a cold, hard cash reward under the ice on Lake Winnipesaukee, but profits gleaned from the lake bed dwindle as the temperature climbs.

“The ice hasn't been of much use to anyone this year,” said Tom Wachsmuth, owner of Dive Winnipesaukee Corp. in downtown Wolfeboro, which has been the state's primary contractor for water and ice recovery operations in recent years.

The company boasts the Northeast's most experienced search, salvage and recovery dive team. Its crews use computerized diving equipment, a variety of rescue vehicles, ice-cutting chainsaws and air-filled lift bags to raise vehicles from lake bottoms.

The team usually salvages a dozen or more snowmobiles and a half-dozen cars and trucks each winter. But when two snowmobilers who had lost their machines on Winnipesaukee on Feb. 11 called the company, it was just the third time this winter its services were needed.

The multi-faceted business will survive. But the lack of recovery calls is causing boredom for the divers, said Nick Sackos, Dive Winnipesaukee's winter manager.

“Ice diving is such a thrill to me, everybody should try it,” said Sackos. “We really enjoy our work, and we take a lot of pride in what we do, though we haven't been doing much of it lately.”

In business since 1993, Dive Winnipesaukee has a steady customer in the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, said Rick Berry, coordinator of the Department of Environmental Service's Spill Response and Complaint Investigation Section.

By state law, owners of sunken vehicles are required to pay the cost of removing their vehicles within 48 hours of the plunge to the bottom. Most owners comply and contact Wachsmuth's divers immediately, Berry said. Fines are assessed if the owner abandons the lost vehicle completely.

Berry said lost vehicles are rarely recovered within 48 hours during winter months because dives are more dangerous and difficult in cold water and it can take many dives to find the lost vehicle.

When ice conditions are normal, Wachsmuth and his crews use snowmobiles and ATVs to get to the point where the vehicle went down. Teams then use a chainsaw to cut a hole in the ice big enough to pull the vehicle through.

Each diver has two oxygen tanks, a primary and a backup. Divers are tethered to the surface by a rope, which is handled by a crew member on the ice. Safety anchors are placed through the ice at nearby points for stability. Divers go down in pairs.

Near-freezing water temperatures limit dive times. The depth of the sunken vehicle is often a factor because diving 20 feet or more can cause decompression sickness, also known as the bends.

A deep dive requires a pause on the way up to avoid the sickness. Dives of 50 to 100 feet are often limited to 20 to 30 minutes because of the cold and the water pressure.

Divers use large, powerful lights to search lake bottoms. When they reach the approximate site of the vehicle, it can take minutes, hours, and sometimes many days to actually find it.

Snowmobiles are raised by attaching lift bags to the front of the sled. Cars and trucks require bigger holes and bigger lift bags, usually placed on each corner of the vehicle. Once the car or truck is floating in the hole, machines pull it onto the ice.

Several years ago, they recovered a plane that crashed through the ice. Last year, they recovered a snow cat machine. Once they pulled up a bulldozer.

The cost of the recovery varies with the time needed and the size of the vehicle. Snowmobiles found quickly can be salvaged for $800 to $1,000. A large vehicle not quickly found can cost more than $20,000 to recover, he said.

Recovering the two snowmobiles lost Feb. 11 won't be easy, Wachsmuth said. Crews used a fan boat to find the point of entry, but Wachsmuth said he has no idea when it will be safe enough for his teams to dive through the ice. There isn't enough strong ice near the site to anchor the divers and their equipment, and no one is sure whether the ice will thicken in the weeks ahead.

“It's not safe for us out there today,” Wachsmuth said. “Who knows, the way this winter is going. There may be enough ice next week, or next month, or we may have to wait (until spring).”