Taking the plunge with Summit County Water Rescue, Colorado’s highest dive team
October 1, 2017
A drought salvaged the Speed Queen, at least partially.
The 18-foot speedboat sank to the bottom of Lake Dillon in the early 1980s after an afternoon squall turned mild chop to whitecaps.
"When a big storm comes it gets pretty rough out here real quick," explained Kevin Kelble, a Summit County Sheriff's Office boat patroller who grew up sailing on the lake.
On Sunday morning, a thunderhead was forming above Peak One, but the water was calm as he steered his boat to a public dock where the highest-elevation dive team in the state, the Summit County Water Rescue Team, was meeting for its weekly training.
The erratic conditions on Lake Dillon keep them busy, as glassy water can turn to 4-foot waves in minutes.
According to local lore, that's what happened on the Speed Queen's final voyage. She took on water quickly as the waves spilled in, and her captain bailed and swam ashore near Roberts Tunnel but never reported her missing.
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Nearly two decades later, when the lake's water level dropped 50 feet during a drought, a boater noticed the floating rubber grip of a towline. It was attached to the Speed Queen, as divers later discovered.
The team towed her over to the docks near the Dillon Marina, where she now sits in about 40 feet of water as a dive-training target. In as challenging a diving environment as Summit County, the team does a lot of training.
"It's so much more complex and there are so many hazards," said seasonal ranger Erin Sirek. She's trained as a tender, monitoring a diver's breathing rates, air pressures and search pattern from the surface.
The best way to keep divers safe is to keep them out of the water as much as possible, getting the best possible idea of where their target is rather than sending them in to feel around in the dark, murky depths.
The all-volunteer nonprofit hopes to soon purchase a remote-operated vehicle, or ROV, an underwater drone that scours lake floors with cameras with robotic arms.
It could also go much deeper than divers, who at 9,600 feet have limited dive depths because thin mountain air complicates decompression. In Lake Dillon, they can't go deeper than 70 feet, or the equivalent of about 120 feet at sea level.
The SCWRT, administered through the sheriff's office, has applied for grants but is still seeking donations to cover the estimated $60,000 vessel.
Those eyes in the water would be great assets for the team's six divers, who have to contend with visibility so poor they often won't see what they're looking for until they bump into it, be it a sunken boat, evidence in a criminal investigation or even a drowning victim.
Group leader Drew Fontana, who's been diving since he was 12, remembers a recent mission to retrieve an engine that fell in the water near the Dillon Marina.
"The buoys looked like these huge mines floating in the water, the visibility was terrible, there were just so many things you could get caught up on," he said.
That was a relatively good day. Visibility in Green Mountain Reservoir, where the team recently recovered the body of a cliff diver, is even worse.
"A lot of times there's no visibility and you can't even see your gauges," Fontana said.
But when conditions are bad, it's usually the rest of the team on the surface that's nervous.
"It can be more stressful being on the surface when your teammates are down there," Fontana said. "For most of the guys, once they're in the water, they're more calm than on the surface. They're just in the zone."
Recovering drowned bodies is one of the team's most important jobs, providing closure for grieving families and allowing for more conclusive death investigations. Fontana said his team does about three of those missions a year across the Western Slope.
After one body recovery about 10 years ago, the family of the deceased was so grateful it donated sonar equipment to the sheriff's office, helping searchers scour the water more efficiently.
It's no silver bullet, though, which is why the recue team hopes it can cobble together the funds for the ROV.
"The sonar has limitations because of the topography (of the lake bottom), vegetation and other obstacles," Sirek said. "It also takes a bit of training and creativity to figure out what something is once you've found it."
Through mutual aid agreements, the team says, the ROV could be used to help jurisdictions statewide more safely and efficiently recover sunken objects — maybe even the Speed Queen II.
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