The Independence II posted a trip that most NJ wreck divers would give their left (you know what) to go on. Me being one of those, I couldn't pass this one up. Capt. Dan was going to a wreck with two diving legends, Richie Kohler from the Discovery Channel's Deepsea Detectives, and John Yurga, a very well respected diver who has been involved in more discoveries than I can list. To top it off, they would be using an "air-lift", in other words, a tube with a vacuum from an air compressor sucking sand and other stuff off a wreck in the hopes of exposing artifacts.
The trip posting didn't say which wreck we would be diving, but it would be in a shallow depth, no more than 80'. The day of this trip turned out to be a perfect day to dive. Clear, sunny, no wind, and flat seas. My dive buddy, Scott, and I made it to the dock by 6:15 and we were loaded by 6:30. The Independence II is docked at Clarks Landing Marina in Point Pleasant, NJ. The roster was filled to capacity, with an extra diver thrown in for good measure.
The wreck was to be the Delaware, which was a steamer built in Philadelphia in 1880. She was 250' long x 37' wide. On July 8th, 1898 she was carrying 66 passengers and crew, when a fire began below deck. She burned to the waterline, but all of her passengers or crew made it to shore safely. The NJ coastline was clearly visible, making for a fast and efficient rescue. She now rests in a shallow 75' of water.
We left the dock under beautiful skies and flat seas. The boat had seven rebreathers and nine sets of open circuit doubles. The wreck is close, so we were there quickly. Crew member mcjangles went in to set the hook. After a little bit (I am being kind), the pool was opened and divers began gearing up. The report was that the viz. was about 10'. The airlift was assembled and lowered into the water. It was tied to the wreck by the anchor line, waiting for Richie Kohler to move it to a place that we all hoped would be fruitful.
Suiting up, I was pleased to have been assisted by Richie Kohler. He's just "one of the crew" on the Independence II. Scott and I went in with a scheduled 60 minute runtime. We descended to find the reported 10' viz. was "generous" to say the least. The airlift was not being used yet, since Richie had not descended yet. We were tied in by the engine, with boilers to our left and the props to our right. Scott and I began to tour the wreck. We followed the shaft to the propellers and then turned back towards the anchor. I saw only one lobster, safely tucked away deep in a hole. I forgot that Scott had his tickle stick in his bag, so this one got to stay. We passed the airlift, still tied to the engine, and moved forward towards the bow. There are four boilers aft of the engine, one of which was opened on the top, so I dropped into it fins first. Nothing noteworthy, but it was still cool. We then continued towards the bow, poking at whatever was poke-worthy. With a dwindling NDL, we headed back to the engine just in time to see Richie coming down. We passed him on the line and went our separate ways. During our hang, bursts of air bubbles shot past us, letting us know that the airlift was in action. Unfortunately for us, we would have to wait until after our surface interval to get our hands dirty. We ended up with a 60 minute dive, a max. depth of 74', viz. on the bottom between 5' and 10', and a bottom temp of 52 degrees.
After an hour out, we were back in the water. We didn't descend the anchor line, choosing to follow the bright orange air line from the compressor down to the airlift. We couldn't use the air line as anything except a visual reference, since it was not meant to be yanked on. We descended to an area aft of the boilers to find Richie Kohler diligently working the business end of the airlift. He created a nice sized hole in the sand and gravel. Scott and I began poking around the same area, looking for whatever we could find. I brought a sand-scoop from my metal detecting kit down with me. It worked fantastic. I would scoop into the sand/gravel as deep as I could, shake it to let the silt and sand escape through the small holes, and then gently shake the contents out onto a level area for me to sift through. I found a really nice piece of decorative glass that looks like it came from a bowl or vase. This method kept reducing the viz. to zero for a minute, but it only took going up or down a few feet to get out of the silt.
Scott and I were head to head with Richie in the hole he was working. We would gently brush the ground by the business end of the airlift, watching it take away decades of sand, silt, stones and shells. We were in an area that was giving up alot of broken glass, so things were looking promising. This was old thick glass, so hopefully we would find some intact bottles. We exposed the wooden deck area and moved the airlift to expand the hole. When I looked up to an opening in the wreck, either a conger eel or American eel was watching over us, slipping closer and closer to me every minute. When I first saw him, he was only sticking out a few inches. Within five minutes, he was a good foot out, and within a few more minutes, he was clearly getting comfortable and had was out at least a foot and a half. I decided to put Scott in between the eel and me, so I shuffled over him and settled down between him and Rich. What do you know, Scott saw the eel too, and how close he was to us, and decided to do the same thing.
After about twenty minutes of us working the hole as a trio, Richie handed the airlift to me. I was shocked...little ol'me. I've never done anything even remotely close to this, but was more than happy to take on this task. What I wasn't so thrilled about was that Richie wanted me to bring the airlift to the surface when I was done by shooting lift bags. Who am I to complain, but I have to admit that I was a bit worried that my bag would not be sufficient to do the job. Anyway, Scott and I continued working the airlift, making the hole larger by the minute. We found a good amount of broken glass, and also three very unusual objects that we still haven't identified. Rust encrusted, about six inches long, thick on one end (about two inches) and tapering to a point on the other end. Pulling the tapered end resulted in the end coming off, revealing what looked like a shank or something. We found three of them. Richie's determination of what they were is a "P.O.S", which I am very familiar with. Time will tell, as I have it soaking.
With a dwindling NDL, and nobody else coming to take over the airlift, Scott and I began the task of rigging the lift to go to the surface. It was at this time that I realized that my bag was not sufficient. With my bag filled, the lift moved only a few feet. It was also pretty well tied into the wreck. As a result, I knew that the mate would have to finish the job. We began our ascent, using the bright orange airline as a visual reference. Luckily there was minimal current, so it was an easy hang. We ended up with a 50 minute dive.
The mate went in to pull the hook and also sent the airlift to the surface using the proper equipment. A fair amount of "stuff" was found, including painted china, a wooden winch/pulley, lots of broken glass, brass nails, a nice rectangle window about 6" x 4", brass "things", and other little odds and ends.
I need to tell you that Richie Kohler was as down-to-earth as they come. I can't wait to use the airlift next season!