So I finally joined
the rest of the 21st century and got a GPS receiver. The first
time I took it out was on the schooner on a day we’ll call
“breezy”. I had only the reefed main up and a gust
promptly snatched the sheet out of my hand and popped the reef
tie off the tack. I turned downwind to get out of the channel
to the launch ramp and noticed we were going pretty fast under
reefed main alone. My speed freak wife asked if she should put
up the foresail. After guffawing, I picked up the GPS to tell
her exactly how close to hull speed we already were.
Another gust forced me to drop the GPS. I aimed for the chine
and saw it heading that direction, but I had to look away before
it landed. Well, this gust was strong enough I had to let the
sheet out all the way – the boom thwacking against the foremast
as I dumped wind. After a few moments the worst of it passed,
and I headed up to get the sheet back and fix the reef tie, but
the next gust pulled the steering cable out of its clamp. I had
Colleen drop the sail while I had a word with Mr. Evinrude.
It was about this time I realized the GPS was no longer in the
boat. I had cleverly thought of putting it in a freezer bag for
additional waterproofing. I had even more cleverly thought to
add foam flotation…but I didn’t actually do it! So
it sank. But it sank in only 5-6 feet of water, and close to the
I think we both know that I couldn’t leave that alone.
It’s never that simple
Unfortunately, this is harder than it sounds. In the Florida
Keys or Wisconsin’s cold northern lakes, you could just
paddle over the area in question and look down into the water.
When you see it on the bottom sand, well, there it is! This lake
is nothing like that. The water is full of algae and visibility
is maybe two feet. Worse, the bottom is soft muck at least 3”
deep before it will support any weight. This means anything you
drop is immediately enveloped in muck and invisible.
I jumped in the water and felt around a bit with my feet right
after dropping it. But there’s too much ground to cover
without a better plan.
The single biggest question is how accurately you know the position
where you dropped the item in question. Any doubt about the position
increases the area to be searched exponentially.
I knew I went straight out past the buoy, then turned downwind,
then came up as I was adjacent to a bit of a peninsula.
||Here is a map of the area with my presumed track.
But this doesn’t seem quite right. The distance didn’t
seem noticeably wrong, but most people are pretty bad at judging
time and speed in such a situation, so I didn’t put much
stock in my impression of the length of that downwind run. More
importantly, the peninsula didn’t look that pronounced –
more like a bulge. And I don’t remember any inlet before
I figured out why. The map was made over 25 years ago and the
launch ramp has been moved since then!
||Here’s where it is now.
This makes that downwind run a lot shorter! This is a good thing.
Let’s look at why.
I figured I would probably need a rake of some kind to comb through
the muck. Let’s assume I’ll build something 3.5 feet
wide with a 16-foot handle. The 16 foot handle means that standing
in one place I can rake a circle that is 32 feet in diameter.
But to cover a large area, I need squares that can butt against
one another. This is easy math.
The diameter forms the hypotenuse of a right triangle, which
is also half of the square we care about. Since the legs are equal,
we square our 32-foot diameter to get 1024. Divide that in half
because the two legs are equal. That’s 512. The square root
of 512 is the length of any side of the square – 22.6 feet.
Let’s round that down to 22 feet.
Let’s also figure out how to cover that area. The circumference
of a 32 foot circle is 100.5 feet. To allow a little overlap I’m
calling the rake 3.5 feet wide. Dividing the circumference by
the width tells us we need to make 28 strokes to cover the circle.
In case we need to use a compass to line up the strokes, dividing
360 degrees by 28 tells us the strokes will be a little under
13 degrees apart. Assuming I can make one stroke per 15 seconds,
a square would take 7 minutes. Realistically it would probably
be at least 15 minutes per square to get any kind of accuracy.
Back to the map
So let’s divide up the area we need to search. The downwind
run is about 400 feet long. Divided by 22 feet, we need 18 squares
to cover it. We probably need a wider swath than 22 feet, since
the sheet might have flung it some distance overboard. So let’s
assume two parallel runs of squares, or 36 squares. This would
come to 9 hours based on my estimates above.
That is within the realm of possibility, so it’s time to
design a rake. Time to bring in the big guns.
“Trust us, we’re experts…”
Jim Michalak once described me as having “boundless energy
and enthusiasm.” I guess he never met Dave “Shorty”
Routh. You might remember that I mentioned him in the Welding
101 article. He has never met a project he didn’t like,
and his infectious enthusiasm has spawned a global fleet of PDRacers.
Need I say more? Anyway, Short also springs to mind for shallow
water salvage. Check this out: http://www.shortypen.com/essays/sunken/.
Surely a GPS would be easy if we put our heads together.
Shorty’s concurred that a rake was only way to recover
anything from muck. Shorty pointed me toward special rakes used
for recovering golf balls from water hazards. I had a vague memory
that clam rakes were fairly similar, and so they are. (www.ribbrakes.com/com.htm)
After I got this together, Shorty pointed out that a heavy rake
might want to sink into the muck. He had done some Koi rescues
where he stood on a full sheet of plywood laid across the muck
at the bottom of a pond. By the time he was done the sheet had
sunk 20” deep! His helper stepped off and sunk to the shoulders
and had to be hauled out with a rope from shore. Because of this,
Shorty felt that skids were a necessity. He was also worried that
a stick handle would cause the tine angle to change as it was
hauled in, and suggested making it rope pulled. It was too heavy
to lift on the end of a pole anyway.
So I spent about five hours I together this rake from scrap and
$6 worth of 3/8” concrete reinforcing rod. (I used about
15 feet – it was on sale.) I assembled the wood first and
welded the metal parts in place. Just be ready to smother some
minor fires as you weld.
Note how much of my 5x7 foot cockpit this implement takes up!
||Rake in cockpit
Shorty also felt that the angle of the tines should be adjustable.
He had a mechanical adjustment in mind, but I simply bored some
extra holes. This requires more disassembly to adjust, but it
was faster to make. I didn’t even know if it would work
at all, and I had invested enough time without any kind of test.
So let’s find out if it does work.
Guess what? That big, heavy rake floated like a cork! I had to
take off all the wood except the vertical plywood on the sides
to get the tines to sink into the bottom. I could pull it a little
by hand, but the 18 horse Johnson pulled it just fine, leaving
a giant plume of mud in the water and a large mass of Asian Milfoil
weed on the rake.
But that wasn’t the big discovery at the lake.
Shorty and I independently had the same idea to make a fake wooden
GPS and weight it with lead to be the same as the original. I
guess it must be a good idea. If the rake can grab that out of
the mud, it should grab the real thing.
I got in the water to test how quickly this would sink. Guess
what? It also floated like a cork! Garmin says it doesn’t
float, but I guess they are just covering their butt so people
don’t expect it to float after the battery compartment floods.
In a plastic bag it most certainly floats, and with the bag sticking
out of the water.
Shorty tested his with the same results and my new one does the
same thing. In the sink it looks like it’s touching the
bottom, but it’s not.
I should have made this test first, because this completely
changes the game. Rather than sinking where I dropped it, the
GPS would have floated downwind, and rather quickly in the winds
we had that day.
Let’s look back at the map.
||Lake Map 4
The thin lines show the probable direction it would have been
blown. It would have floated until some time after the bag was
holed, so it could have easily gone to the far end of the lake
(not pictured), creating a huge search area. But chances are it
became the catch of the day for one of the fishing boats downwind.
Oh well. I guess I’m done looking for something that probably
The case might be closed on the GPS, but Shorty still thought
there was something worth pursuing. He liked the big rake for
dragging for lost anchors, but I couldn’t see spending hours
digging up the bottom of the lake for anchors I don’t need.
A note from the Department of Seriously, Don’t Bother
I know my buddy Don is going to read this and start up again
plotting to recover an old Evinrude from the bottom of a lake
up north. Everybody say it with me, now: “Seriously, don’t
bother.” I’ll bet $10 that motor swallowed water and
broke a connecting rod or two when it fell off the transom 20-some
years ago. If you want to find it you can borrow my boat…if
you keep the rake! I take no responsibility for what your wife
says or does to you if you take that bet.
Shorty also brought up the idea of fishing around near piers
for all the stuff people drop – tools, fishing tackle, cell
phones, etc. Or next to bridges for stuff they dispose of –
engagement rings, murder weapons, mobsters. I thought this was
more interesting, but now we’re looking at a whole different
tool. It has to be small and light enough to reasonably stow in
a boat, and it has to work in most bottom conditions. It doesn’t
need to reach that deep. Probably it would make most sense to
have it mount on the pushpole you already have.
Shorty had the idea to attach a net to the open space above the
tines of a common garden rake - Brilliant! But I think we want
a bigger net, and I think the tines would get in the way in any
bottom but soft muck. It is almost never soft muck at a boat ramp,
since the propellers tend to blow away anything soft.
The simplest approach might be a common fish net – the
kind with the metal handle that looks like an oversized tennis
racket – lashed to the pole. Maybe we’d like to flatten
it a little, and maybe we’d like the net cells a bit smaller.
And I think we’d probably like the rim to be thinner so
it can scoop up small stuff rather than shoving it along the bottom.
But I will have to leave that experiment for spring or to someone
Was this worth it?
Good question. I think the experience was interesting. Even if
I had recovered the GPS, it is only economical if you don’t
value your time very highly. A GPS like this one only costs about
$100. After deducting materials and spreading it over the about
20 hours I spent, my labor comes in at under minimum wage. Way
under when you consider that I paid only $51 for a used GPS to
replace it. (I gave up the color screen, but that doesn’t
matter much to me.)
On the other hand, it started me thinking on whether I’d
like a net that can fasten to a pushpole, which might have been
That’s Shorty’s take on it, and why it is never a
good idea to talk to him about any project you don’t want
getting out of hand. Don’t believe me? Look at the number
of PDRacers all over the world!
Madison, Wisconsin, USA