When Deb Laufer stepped off the dock and into a boat at Charles River Canoe & Kayak’s Kendall Square dock about a month ago, and her iPhone slipped out of her pocket and into the murky depths, she figured it was gone for good.
As a general manger for the boat rental company, she had watched countless people lose their devices in those precarious moments between the dock and the boat. It happens about “once a week,” she said.
Every time, she urges customers to simply let it go. The Charles is a lot cleaner than it used to be, but what are they going to do, go get it?
“It’s very deep off the dock there,” Laufer said. “It’s urban, with centuries of industrial use, so at the bottom there could be metal and you could get cut. It’s really low visibility. It’s a little bit dangerous, for sure.”
Then on Wednesday, a friend reached out with some stunning news. Someone had retrieved her phone. And it still worked.
“I was immensely grateful,” she said. Specifically, for John Anastos.
It was around 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday when Anastos, an aerospace engineer who lives in Andover, and Jennifer Abramson, who lives in Somerville, returned from an evening paddle board ride on the river. It was their third date.
Like so many before him, Anastos placed his smartphone on the edge of the dock while climbing ashore and accidentally pushed it over the side. It slipped beneath the surface and disappeared.
But unlike so many before him, Anastos, 39, decided he wasn’t about to let his device go so easily. He grabbed a 10-foot paddle, lay flat on the dock, and tried scraping the bottom of the river with it. It wouldn’t reach, so he went to plan B.
“So I just started jumping in,” Anastos said Thursday from his work phone.
An experienced swimmer and former Ironman Triathlon competitor, Anastos did a “pencil dive” off the dock and started pawing around the grimy riverbed. This wasn’t the Caribbean.
“It was disgusting down there,” he said. “The muck at the bottom was the grossest thing I’ve ever touched. When I came up I smelled so bad.”
But among the muck was a cellphone junkyard. He surfaced with a phone in his hands, then another, sometimes grabbing two at a time. By the end, “seven or eight″ dives had yielded 11 smartphones. None were his.
“I just kept grabbing more,” he said. “We just kept laughing every time I came up. We couldn’t believe it.”
Abramson couldn’t believe he’d gone into the water at all. She said she told Anastos, who moved here from Illinois five years ago, about the river’s sordid past, and even played The Standells’ “Dirty Water” on her phone for him while he was diving.
“He potentially doesn’t have his head screwed on right,” Abramson said, hastening to add that she was “just kidding.”
“But he was definitely determined. And you could conclude that he is certainly not from Boston,” she said. “I don’t think anyone growing up here in the 80′s or 90′s would have jumped in the Charles repeatedly.”
By this point, Anastos decided he was done plunging into the cold, dark water, so he wrapped the phones in a towel and took them home, where he showered “for a very long time.”
Most were in pretty rough shape after years underwater. But he tried plugging them in one by one, just in case, and to his surprise, three of them came on.
Anastos and Abramson were able to reunite two phones with their former owners by reaching out to contacts listed on an “emergency” page. One was Laufer, who would have advised against the recovery effort, and the other, who lives in Worcester, lost the somehow-still-functional phone about a year ago. (The device may have its waterproof phone case to thank for its survival.)
To track down the third owner, who hadn’t listed emergency contacts, Abramson has been circulating a photo of its lock screen, which features a picture of dog wearing a suit and tie and a birthday hat with the word “Marshall” spelled out in balloons behind it, on various neighborhood Facebook pages and the website UniversalHub. No hits yet.
As for the unexpectedly large bounty he stumbled across, Anastos said there appeared to be plenty more where that came from. He estimated he searched a roughly 3-foot-by-3-foot area at the bottom, a small fraction of the riverbed near the large, busy dock.
“Given how many I got in that one little spot, there’s got to be hundreds down there,” he said.
But he knows for sure that his days of fishing for phones are over.
“I smelled bad once. I don’t need to do that again,” he said. “So I don’t recommend it, although if someone finds mine and can let me know that would be great.”