Issue: February 2011

These volunteers willingly jump into the notoriously goopy waters of the Bay . . . all in the name of marine archaeology.

by Jody Schroath

Yawn. Why can't things ever start at noon?

I've stumbled out of my warm Annapolis apartment and out into the bleak predawn cold of a late November Saturday. I've watched the sun come up over Route 2 on the way to Solomons, Md., and then rise as I cross the bridge and head for St. Mary's County. I've followed a succession of ever-narrowing roads until finally reaching the end of the line at Tall Timbers Marina, just north of Piney Point on the Potomac River.

All of this to watch a handful of people don scuba gear and dive deep into the cold pease-porridge opaqueness of the lower Potomac. The divers will be going down 90 feet, feeling their way blindly to the bottom 

along a gunked-up chain, prickly with snagged fishing lures and booby-trapped with yards of snarled fishing line. Then they'll swim the short distance to where a World War II German U-boat lies improbably on the bottom . . . and get to work. Meanwhile, I'll be waiting up above on the dive boat, where I won't be able to see a thing they're doing. Well, heck, they won't be able to see what they're doing either. So, one might reasonably ask, why do they do this? 

Part of the answer is that they are volunteers for the Institute of Maritime History (IMH), a nonprofit group founded in 1994 to preserve and document the remains of ships and other submerged detritus of history. Around the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, where the group is most active, IMH is working principally within what's called S.H.I.P, the Submerged Historic Inventory Project. With modest non-capital funding from the Maryland Historical Trust and the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, IMH volunteers have been using a dive boat to run "lanes" about 80 yards wide, looking for shipwrecks using side-scan sonar. When the side-scan does give them evidence of a wreck down below, the volunteers dive on the site to "proof" it--to make sure it is indeed a wreck--and then to gather information about its size, construction, propulsion, age and so forth. IMH members also scour any number of sources such as published newspaper clippings, Navy records and books on Bay shipwrecks for further identification and history. What I found especially interesting, is that they do this scanning and diving well into the winter. For the past three years they have been scanning the lower Potomac and propose to finish the section from the U.S. Route 301 bridge to Point Lookout in 2010. They have also spent several weeks each year scanning Breakwater Harbor at Lewes, Del. 

Intriguing? I certainly thought so this past summer when I first talked to David Howe, S.H.I.P.'s project director. The idea we hatched was that I would tag along on a couple of their cold-weather dives to see what makes them tick . . . er, dive. But now as I pull into Tall Timber's parking lot, I'm thinking that watching a couple of summer dives would have been just as interesting. 

Tall Timbers, where the IMH dive boat Roper is based, seems just the place for a group of archaeological divers since it is chockablock with unidentifiable boats with unknowable histories. I leave the warm car and hustle into the Reluctant Navigator, the marina's restaurant, where I find most of the day's volunteers already gathered around a table in front of the fireplace, which is spitting happily and radiating heat up to about a foot away. As I take a seat, Howe pops up to get me a cup of coffee. Howe is as familiar as the furniture to the regulars at Tall Timbers, where he is invariably referred to as "Diver Dave."

He introduces me to Isabel Mack and Kirk Pierce, two divers from suburban Virginia who have recently bought one of the marina's vessels--make, model and date of birth unknown--a splendid huge motor-sailer. With a little work, they will have a place to bunk when they are down for diving weekends. Next to them is Dawn Cheshaek, who heads the Maritime Chapter of the Archaeology Society of Delaware. And next to her are Steve Achekian, a diver and Navy veteran of 25 years, and Sandy Carey, a licensed captain who lives at Tall Timbers aboard his Rhodes Sureswift.

And finally there is the aforementioned David Howe, the clock-winder who keeps the IMH group ticking. He writes the project proposals, makes the schedules and writes the reports. He even owns the dive boat. He also has a seemingly inexhaustible number of stories to tell. Seemingly inexhaustible to me, that is. "Actually, we've heard them so often we've assigned each a number," Isabel Mack tells me. "That last one was Number 15." Howe is the group's cheerleader and iconoclast. Ex-Navy and ex-admiralty lawyer, he now works mostly to support what he calls his hobby. "I am not an archaeologist!" he stresses. "I'm an avocational diver."

Right now he's explaining the purpose of today's dive. "We're going to dive on the U-1105," Howe says, "to make sure everything's ready to pull the buoy for the winter. We'll do that next week."

The U-1105 is the exception to marine archaeology's don't-tell-anyone-where-it-is rule. (To understand why IMH--and marine archaeology programs generally--insist on a strict "no take, no talk" policy for sunken vessels, see the sidebar on page 47.) Qualified divers (this is considered an advanced low-visibility dive) are welcome to dive on the wreck, which is marked by a good-size can-buoy declaring its presence 90 feet down below. The U-1105, named Black Panther, was built by the Nazis in 1944, near the end of World War II, its hull sheathed in an experimental synthetic rubber that was supposed to make it nearly undetectable by sonar. After sea trials, the Black Panther was deployed to harass Allied convoys off Ireland. When the war ended in 1945, the vessel became the property of the U.S. Navy, which studied it, then sank it off Point No Point, raised it again, towed it into the Potomac and finally blew it up off Piney Point in 1949. In 1994, it became Maryland's first historic shipwreck preserve. Last year, it was made a national historic maritime site.

It's nine o'clock when we push back our chairs and head for the dive boat. Roper is a 36-foot steel-hull trawler that started life as a shrimper in North Carolina and then put in a few years hauling cargo in the Caribbean. Howe bought her in Galveston, Texas, and brought her up to Edgewater, Md., with several friends. Since then, she's been in service as the IMH dive boat, running side-scan lanes on the Potomac and in Delaware Bay, and this summer in St. Augustine, Fla. For the latter, she was on loan to L.A.M.P. (Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program), which was running a field school and looking for the Jefferson Davis, a Baltimore-built ship that saw service as a privateer and slaver before wrecking on a sandbar while trying to get into St. Augustine during the Civil War.

Right now Roper's stern quarter is lined with brightly painted air bottles and a baffling array of scuba equipment, which grows like Topsy as the divers come aboard. I just try to stay out of the way. It's 10:15, and we are waiting for one final diver, who has called to say he's on his way. This is Efrain Lugo, ex-military and formerly an underwater welder on cargo ships along the Ohio and Monongahela rivers. Efrain has also dived on the Mount Everest of wrecks, the Andrea Doria, which lies a fearsome 240 feet down off the Atlantic coast. It's a wreck so dangerous it claims the lives of two or three divers every year. Lugo arrives at 11:15 and we get under way, Howe steering us between the stone jetties that mark the entrance to Tall Timbers.

Out on the Potomac, Mack takes the helm, then she and Pierce break into song: "So hoist up the mainsails and shut down your brain cells, They only would get in the way, Avast there, me hearty, we're havin' a party, It's Talk Like A Pirate Day!" Howe dons an eye patch and brandishes a plastic saber. "Yo, ho, ho," he says . . . of course. Soon, though, pirate activities are set aside. We are approaching the wreck.
"All right, tank up!" Howe says.

Pierce and Achekian are the first team over the side. Their heads soon disappear beneath the surface. Diving in this ice-cold pea soup is a far cry from the crystal clear water and brightly colored coral of prototypical diving trips. So, again I ask: why?

"You can only look at the same pretty coral so many times before you get bored," Mack replies. "Here we are doing something . . . accomplishing something." Howe adds, "This kind of diving is the world's best geometrical jigsaw puzzle. There's no picture on the box, most of the pieces are missing, and you're solving it blindfolded. What's not to love?"

"It's a challenge," Lugo says. "You go down the line and it becomes darker and darker and the butterflies come, and disorientation. That's why I like to freefall, to get down there as fast as I can." He continues more seriously: "There are only a small percentage of divers who do 'low-viz' diving. It's exciting. And for history buffs, it's diving on a piece of history."

Time passes quickly and before long Kirk Pierce and Steve Achekian are back at the surface. As each comes up, he touches the top of his head, a signal that he is okay. The chain from the buoy to the bottom is indeed covered with snagged lures, they report, but the boat itself seems pretty much free of trash. Pierce says he went to the conning tower and then around the deck, but didn't find any junk on it.

A second and third team go down and emerge with much the same report. Everything is ready for Day 2 and the pulling of the buoy. The ladder is yanked up with a boat hook and we head for home. It's 2:30. Back at the dock the mountain of gear dwindles rapidly and the divers disappear down the dirt road and back to their real-time lives.

Day 2 shows up on schedule the following weekend, but this time I'm making the trip back to Tall Timbers by boat, leaving from Sandy Point Marina on the Yeocomico River. I start across the Potomac just as the sun hits its high point of the day, then head for the Virginia shore.

I've been doing a little late-season cruising in the middle Bay, and this leg across the Potomac is a quick trip, one I've made plenty of times before. It doesn't feel the same, though--maybe no trip over the waters of the Bay ever will again. No matter how cold the month or how bad the weather, I'll never feel as if I'm the only boat on the Bay, because now I know that underneath me lie hundreds . . . no, thousands of boats that were here before me . . . and got no farther. "We have the names, dates or position of about 5,000 sunken vessels," Dave Howe had told me. "And we figure that's maybe twenty percent of the real total, at a stretch."

I arrive at Tall Timbers in plenty of time for a chat with marina owner Rick Meatyard and then dinner. At about seven, Howe comes in and helps himself to coffee before sitting down to watch me eat crab-stuffed tilapia. "The question people ask," Howe begins, "is why we do this."

"Mmm," I say as encouragingly as I can with my mouth full.

"My answer is that it's local, it's interesting, it's fun, it's a good way to spend time on the water . . . and in it. It's great practice at precision navigation, it stimulates the study of local waters and the history of what other mariners did and why they did it. It promotes the protection of our waters and submerged sites."

My first thought on hearing this speech is: Hey, he must have a teleprompter in here. Then I remember that he talks this way all the time. I make him write it down. But for the part where he tells me again about marine archaeology as a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, with no picture on the box and most of the pieces missing, which you try to put together blindfolded, I ask him just to write Metaphor 1. I love the image, I just don't need him to write it down for me.

The next morning we all meet at the dive boat. I'm docked in a slip just behind Roper, so I'm able to lope over in full daylight and well armed with coffee. Hoses, dry suits, wet suits, tanks, watches, back-up breathers, weights, lights, masks and flippers are already threatening to take over the stern. I find a slim foothold and head for the cabin. Steve Achekian, Dawn Cheshaek and Sandy Carey are back. Isabel Mack and Kirk Pierce are missing, but four more volunteers have joined us--Bill and Sarah Roberts, Mike Nowotny and Maurice Price.

At ten, Efrain Lugo calls to say he's on his way. As we wait, Cheshaek sweeps leaves off the deck and Nowotny unpacks his dry suit. Nowotny is one of the group's original divers. We talk about the usual--doing marine archaeology in a low-visibility environment. "The challenge is finding something and then making deductions about it. To assemble a picture of what it is. What you're doing is valuable too." Veteran diver Sarah Roberts likes the tasking, too. And the solitude that not being able to see your hand in front of your face imposes.

"I've hit my head on the conning tower several times," Bill Roberts offers as he pulls his mask into place. "But in August, the visibility was so good I could back off fifteen or twenty feet and see the silhouette of the wreck."

"Last week, I saw the conning tower for the first time," Lugo adds. 

That's another part of the thrill, they all agree. When you do finally get a day with good visibility, you get very excited. Price, a police officer for Baltimore City, adds: "I love it. In 2006, my wife and I were in the Bahamas and took a diving course. When we got back I did a search for volunteer divers and found IMH." Price e-mailed Howe, who responded, "See you on Saturday." That weekend Price made his first dive with the group. He was hooked. "I've learned more on this boat than I can say. I was never treated like the new guy. This is a great bunch of people."

At 10:30, Lugo arrives and we pull away from the dock. It's colder today and the blue sky is soon blotted out by a thin layer of gray cloud. But the wind is light, and outside the breakwaters the Potomac is flat calm. Howe goes over the plans. Lugo and Nowotny will make the first dive. They are to wrap a heavy rope around the conning tower, which sits at about 65 feet beneath the surface. This will then be used to lower the chain after it has been detached from the U-boat buoy. "One of you will pay out the rope while the other swims it around the tower," Howe says. "Then take the slack out. We'll take the rest of the slack on the boat. Next, we'll attach a shackle on it to drop the chain."

Nowotny sits down to get his tanks on, while Lugo sits opposite him to do the same. As they are doing a final gear check, Howe decides Lugo's air hose needs to be changed. As Howe makes the change, Lugo says he feels like a knight preparing for a joust. "Squire, bring me my sword," he says. It's decided that Lugo will be the one to swim the line around the tower. "The man swims like forty-two miles per hour," Price says. With the new hose in place, Lugo climbs onto the swim platform at the stern and jumps into the water. Nowotny tumbles backwards off the port quarter.

"Diver leaving the surface!" Carey calls twice, as first one then the other disappears under the water. Bill Roberts finishes suiting up. Cheshaek gets the shackles ready. "Line is vertical!" Carey calls about five minutes later. The line feeds out slowly until Cheshaek, who is watching the line unspool, calls, "Last twenty feet!" Howe ties the end of the line to the U-boat buoy.

That's when we notice the fishing boat approaching. Approaching way too close. Everyone shouts: "Divers down! Divers down!" As they shout, they point up to the dive flag--a white stripe on a red background--flying from Roper's tower. The fishing boat keeps coming. Now it's nearly over the submerged divers. "Divers down! Divers down!" the shouting continues. Now they make broad go-away motions with their arms. Cheshaek jumps up onto the cabin roof and holds the dive flag out straight so it can't be missed. On deck, Howe mutters something about buck-shot and rifles. Finally, slowly, the fishing boat bears off. The crisis is past, but the danger was real, had either of the divers chosen that moment to resurface.

Relieved, everyone goes back to the business at hand. "Boaters don't understand what the dive flag is," Achekian says, shaking his head. This reminds Howe of the Herbert D. Maxwell story. I immediately decide to designate this story Number 2. "A few years ago," he begins, "we were just south of the Bay Bridge diving on the Herbert D. Maxwell, when a big Bayliner comes roaring up to the dive boat and asks, 'Hey, what's the blue and white flag?' " (In case you are ever tempted to roar up and ask the same question, the blue and white flag is the international signal for "Diver down, stay clear and slow.") The Maxwell, Howe continues, was a four-masted schooner of 186 feet and 772 gross tons, built in Bath, Maine, in 1905.    (Really, he remembers all this stuff.) "On the night of March 16, 1912--a month before the Titanic went down, by the way--she was outbound from Baltimore for Wilmington with 750 tons of guano fertilizer, when she was run down by the S.S. Gloucester, also headed up the Bay. Four of the Maxwell's crew drowned in the accident."

Lugo and Nowotny surface and give the okay sign. Their part of the job has gone according to plan. Now Roberts and Price drop into the water at the buoy. Their task is to use a light line to lower the chain slowly down the heavy rope that Lugo and Nowotny have just set. (Confused? Don't worry, there won't be a test.) The chain is lowered but left attached to the wreck by a light line so that in the spring IMH divers will be able to find it, even though by that time it will be lying under several inches of silt. So after the chain is dropped, it is then left attached to the submarine with the light line and the heavy line is retrieved.

Accordingly, the light line is paid out and the heavy line retrieved. Price pops up. He's out of air. Roberts soon follows. The divers heave themselves back onto the swim platform and back into the boat. It's tough luck, though, for Cheshaek and Achekian, who are suited up and ready to dive. But the job has been completed in two "easy" steps.

"This ranks in the annals of buoy retrieval," Nowotny declares as the  ceremonial bottle of rum is passed to all personnel--save Carey, who is now at the helm. The buoy is snugged up against Roper and we head triumphantly back to Tall Timbers.

There's not much more to relate. Once again the divers collect their gear and head north, east and west to their homes and humdrum life on the hard. Howe, Cheshaek, Carey and I settle down for an impromptu dinner of rockfish donated by a resident fisherman and so fresh it might have been down there with Roberts and Price as they worked around the wreck.

And after dinner? Why, we watch an episode of the 1960s undersea adventure series Sea Hunt, of course. This one is about a killer whale off the coast of California with a Godzilla complex. Series star Lloyd Bridges dons his scuba gear and saves the day, of course. No low-viz work for him, though, I note. "All killer whales should be killed!" he concludes. What? We look at each other as if we could not possibly have heard it right. Oh, Lloyd, how could you? We decide not to watch another episode. No telling what species might get the ax next time.

Early the next morning, coffee in hand, I back the Albin 28 away from the dock and slip quietly through the breakwaters into the Potomac. The seas are running about three feet and the sky is an unfriendly slate color. I scan the horizon for other boats. Nothing. Then as I pass St. George Island, I remember the ships scuttled at the mouth of the St. Marys River by Lord Dunmore during the Revolution. They're still there. As I round the marker off Point Lookout and turn north up the Bay toward Annapolis, I think of the unidentified little wooden Collier located by IMH that found its final resting place somewhere nearby. Yes, I tell myself, I'll have plenty of  company, all the way to the Bay Bridge--cue story Number 2: the wreck of the Herbert D. Maxwell.