Brad Swain

Brad Swain, instructor for Dive Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, a certified Scuba Schools International (SSI) facility. (Courtesy photo)

Around 1960, Brad Swain was a teenager at a party with adults and children. He overheard the grownups talking about a car that had fallen through the ice on Lake Winnipesaukee and thought to himself, “That would be really neat to go find.”

Two decades later, Swain finally followed that adventurous passion, learning how to scuba dive in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1981. Since, he has viewed countless cars, trucks, snowmobiles, and boats under the surface of the water in Winnipesaukee — and across the world.

At 76, Swain has done over 1,000 dives on the big lake and another 700 in the oceans of continents and countries from Australia to Belize to Fiji and Grenada. He did his deepest dive in Truk Lagoon in the South Pacific in 2017, seeing Japanese ships that were sunk by the U.S. military. “We were on a boat the entire week,” he said. “We just did dive after dive after dive. It was great.”

Hundreds of dive students in the region have benefitted from Swain’s knowledge and experience. For nine years, he’s been an instructor for Dive Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, a certified Scuba Schools International (SSI) facility.

He is skilled at using side scan sonar technology. He’s part of Dive Winnipesaukee’s water salvage recovery team, helping people find everything from lost anchors and phones to wedding rings. And he plans international dive vacations around the world.

“I dive a lot,” Swain said. “I try to keep young.”

Getting started

Swain and his family stayed in Melvin Village, a section of Tuftonboro, every summer while he was growing up, and he continues to live there and in Glastonbury, Connecticut, with his wife, Ann. In the summer of 1980, while playing on a men’s softball league in Connecticut, a new teammate came on board. He was a diving instructor and helped Swain get certified in May 1981.

Swain’s first deep dive was on Winnipesaukee, that summer. “I remember it being quiet, calm. Really the only thing that you can hear is the sound of your bubbles from the regulator as you exhale,” he said. “There are rock formations, fish of all varieties, and when you know the right spot, there are wrecks. It’s a whole different world than above the water.”

Swain was hooked

About 10 years ago, the scope of what was possible for him underwater was enhanced by meeting fellow diver Hans Hug Jr. “He, at the time, was the first person I knew who had underwater scanning equipment to locate wrecks. I knew that meant I wanted to make him my number one dive buddy,” Swain said, noting that Hug had what is called side scan sonar, which helps divers find wrecks below the surface while they are above in a boat.

“The device locks onto something on the bottom with GPS coordinates,” Swain said, noting the pair then drops a marker into the water with a flag at the exact coordinates where they expect to find the submerged object of the hunt. Then, they dive. “Usually, we’re pretty close,” he said. “Sometimes we have to do a little bit of a search.”

Over the years, Swain has seen countless wrecks—everything from the original Mount Washington to a tugboat that was once operated by the defunct Miller Marine. “It’s in about 60 feet of water, and it’s over near the Witches,” said Swain, noting that the marina owner sunk the craft intentionally in the late 1940s. “The wreck is very intact. It has an enclosed wheelhouse with windows. It’s about 30 feet long. It has a big engine in it, and behind the wheelhouse, the area is very flat, which you would expect of a work boat.”

Now a teacher

As a longtime instructor with Dive Winnipesaukee Corp., Swain now passes on both the excitement behind diving as well as the many safety protocols involved.

Dive Winnipesaukee offers two different classes: a group program that costs about $700-800 per person, and an executive program that is more flexible in terms of scheduling and more focused on individuals or couples; that class is $1,000 per person.

Both classes offer 15 to 30 hours of instruction and a certification exam upon completion.

All told, Dive Winnipesaukee certifies 50 to 75 divers per year. Swain said there are fewer than a half dozen other diving schools in the state. (For information on Dive Winnipesaukee’s classes, schedule, and fee, call 603-569-8080 or info@divewinnipesaukee.com.)

Dive Winnipesaukee also offers gear. Swain said to suit up with a wetsuit, fins, mask, regulator, tanks, and other critical middle-range apparatus, the cost is about $2,000 per person.

After learning the basics of safety, breathing, acclimating to depths and other critical knowledge, divers take a certification exam. Then, they are on their own. Because Swain recommends that no diver ever go under water alone, he said new divers often team up with others in their group lesson.

“New divers are not going to go very deep, usually,” he said. “They’re going to be at about 25 to 30 feet, but as they gain more experience, they become more adventurous, and they go deeper, which was certainly true of me.”

Learning the hard way

John McKenna of Rochester was a student of Swain’s and said the instruction was intense and began with online coursework that had to be completed before he could go on a dive.

In the live class, he said students learn safety protocols and things like how to suit up, test equipment, launch safely off the boat, and dive with a buddy and use critical hand signals to communicate and navigate in an emergency.

“It’s simple stuff,” said McKenna, 64. “You don’t want to forget anything. When you’re under water, you’re under water.”

McKenna learned some of Swain’s lessons the hard way.

After raising his family and retiring from Liberty Mutual as senior vice president and global chief information officer in July 2018, McKenna pursued his long desire to learn how to scuba, signing up for private instruction with Swain.

While on his third dive, McKenna had difficulty with descending too rapidly, which caused one ear drum to swell and become painful. “I had to bow out,” he said.

A year later, healed, McKenna signed up with Swain again. They started at the beginning, and McKenna really focused on his breathing and ascending and descending properly, making sure to equalize the pressure in his ears about every 10 feet. “After I figured it out the second time around, diving was a whole new experience,” he said. “I didn’t have to worry about the pain. I could enjoy the dive.”

Since completing additional courses in navigation, McKenna’s deepest dive was about fifty or sixty feet. This year, he has been out once on Merrymeeting Lake, where he lives. “It was just a blast,” he said, noting his favorite part of diving is exploring the life underwater.

“When you’re down under there, you’re part of the neighborhood, and fish will come right up in your face and stare at you and then swim off,” he said. “There are rock formations, and they become homes to water life and fish and other creatures under the water.”

McKenna added that Swain was a great instructor who shared interesting stories of finding wrecks over the years. “It was great to hear his experience.”

On the hunt

Exploring sunken crafts — and finding lost belongings — is Swain’s favorite part of diving. Swain feeds this passion by also doing water salvage recovery for the Dive Winnipesaukee team, which he said is New Hampshire’s most experienced crew. “We do a lot of recovery of snowmobiles, vehicles, boats, jewelry, anchors, cell phones,” he said.

Two years ago, a woman called Dive Winnipesaukee because her husband’s wedding ring slipped off in the water after the man applied sunscreen. The couple provided Swain with photos and video of their proximity to shore when they were anchored on Winnipesaukee.

On a sunny day, they took Swain to the approximate location. He dove for about an hour. “I located what I thought was an anchor-drag mark on the bottom in about 15 feet of water. I was pretty sure that represented where they were anchored the day they lost it,” Swain said.

Because the salvage team charges by the hour, Swain asked for permission to keep searching, and about an hour later, in about 17 feet of water, he saw something shiny out of the corner of his eye. “It was in a rock outcropping. One third of the ring was buried in sand,” he said.

Of course, Swain has also found that car he heard about so many years ago. In August 2004, he located the vehicle and found a grease cap and axle that was stamped “Oldsmobile.” Swain sent photos to General Motors and learned the car was manufactured between 1929 and 1931.

“It was black. It was pretty rusted out. The two headlights are there,” Swain said. “The front bumper, rear bumper, radiator, windows, spare tire on the back. The way we were able to date it was there was an emblem on the radiator, which was first used by Oldsmobile in 1929. The car had only one rear taillight, and two rear taillights became standard equipment in 1932. So that narrowed down the year.”

And concluded one of many diving mysteries.

•••

Janice Beetle is an author, editor and owner of Beetle Press, a public relations and marketing company. She can be reached at janice@beetlepress.com.

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