Archive for October, 2007

My First Dive on the U-869

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

With GREAT expectation, we headed out for my first dive on the to U-869. After reading The Last Dive and Shadow Divers, I had a few butterflies in my stomach. I’m about to dive on this wreck that has brought significant recognition to NJ diving. On the other hand, a few divers here paid dearly to be part of the mystique that is Northeast wreck diving history.

The NOAA forecast was for 4-6 ft seas, dropping down to 2-4 during the day. On the way out the waves were behind us, aka following seas, so it did not hinder our trip. The captain kept a close eye on the conditions. As junior member of the crew, I was driving at 6:00am while the rest slept.  Nearing the wreck, Mark and I quietly geared up for the tie-in. It was our first time on the wreck, so we were given a brief on the best tie-in points to look for.

The shot was dropped from 240 ft above the wreck, as the captain looked at the depth finder and GPS. We waddled precariously across the pitching deck. The rebreathers lighten our load considerably, but the bailout bottles hanging from our sides make the going awkward. The 6 foot waves don’t help. Within seconds Mark and I were in the water, following the line down into the depths.

After what seems like minutes of dropping I check my gauges: 50 ft… 100 ft… 150 ft…

It’s amazing how long it takes to get this deep. The NAUI charts say that the max decent rate is 75 ft per minute. Go ahead and try to drop that fast. The entire descent involves several tasks repeated in rapid succession: clear your ears, filling your drysuit. add wing gas, check and adjust the PO2 in the rebreather, check on your buddy, don’t get caught in the line. Now repeat as often as possible. It’ is slow going. Friends say I drop fast, but 50 ft/min is about all I can manage. At that rate it’s still 5 minutes before seeing the wreck.

Around 150 the lights start going out fast. The faint glow of my gauges made the numbers easy to read, and reassured me that it was not my vision causing the problem. The surface water had been clear, but each foot of water contained plankton and minerals that blocked the light from penetrating further. I reached back and hit the switch on my canister light. A dim but reassuring flicker appear in front of me. We were still dropping down as I strapped the light head to the back of my right hand. It takes a few seconds for the light to come to full brightness and form a beam, but it was only illuminating the water and plankton below, much like a cars hi-beams in fog. Mark was just a few feet above me. At first I would look over my shoulder to check on him, but now with his light’s beam glowing below me, he can signal if he has a problem.

Slowly out of the dark something appears to reflect the light. We’ve been dropping for a while, so at first you wonder if it’s just the reflection off plankton, or more fish, or maybe your eyes playing tricks. I quickly check the depth, 200ft. We’re getting close. Then it’s evident, it’s an object. It’s whitish. As we get closer anemones come into focus. The object is about 20 ft by 10 ft. , and it’s in the sand. It’s the conning tower. Ok, I know where I am. Now what did they say about where to tie in?

The visibility is very good, but it’s only about 8:20am, and its VERY dark. Only the beams of our lights are visible. My mix is 10/50. That’s 10% O2 and 50% He. Still at this depth, there is some Narcosis. I recall from the brief there is a good tie-in point on the periscope, and aft of the break in the hull at the gun turret. I see the shot line, and look around for a few seconds for the points mentioned. Let’s see, periscope, yes, that’s a few feet to the right. Gun turret, yes, thats 20 ft ahead of us. All the while, I’m adjusting my buoyancy, boosting my PO2, and checking my gear before setting into action.

I looked back at the line, and find Mark has grabbed the chain and headed out for the gun turret. Not my preference given the proximity of the periscope, but communication is difficult at these depths, and and he seemed to be on a mission. I grab the line and head after him trying to lighten his load. The chain is heavy enough, but the drag of 300ft of rope through water, is significant. Fortunately, there is not much current today, and we make good headway. We reached the top of the wreck, and Mark found a good spot. By this time he was a bit winded, and signals me to finish the wrap. Once done, I pull the signal floats from my pocket. The pressure on the bottom is 8 times that of the surface. The little signals, normally the size of your hand, are now the size of a quarter. I let them go, and watch them rise slowly. It will probably be another 5 minutes before they reach the surface.

Mark signaled that he was OK, but wanted to stay put and rest for a moment. I was too excited to hang around. I headed down to the break in the hull to look around. Thoughts of going inside crossed my mind briefly, but I wanted to get a good look around first. The vis appeared to be 40+ ft, beyond the range of my feeble light. Swimming aft along the top of the wreck, there was the gun turret and the hole in the engine compartment. The outer skin of the sub was long gone, the inner pressure hull was wrapped in ribs that had held the outer hull in place. Between the rips were pipes, valves, hatches, and lots of sea life. I dropped down to examine the stern, rudder and screws.

Unfortunately bottom time was short, as we took half of it on the tie-in. I returned to the line to find Mark starting up. We started our long ascent to the surface. Fortunately the bottom was relatively warm (44), and as it worked out the thermocline was at about 70 ft. This made for a relatively warm ascent by Northeast standards. The upper stops were a bit rocky with a mild current. Jon lines kept us from being beat up too badly. At the surface, the passengers were now awake, and everyone was waiting for a report on the conditions. Boarding the boat was manageable as the waves were settling down to 3-5. Even NOAA may have gotten this one right.