The iconic Andrea Doria wreck featured in the press in June 2016 when OceanGate explored the wreck with their manned submersible and assessed her current condition. The footage that was captured showed considerable deterioration of the wreck in the last two years alone. As divers continue to explore this luxury liner, we look back at Bob Wilson’s account of his Andrea Doria 50th anniversary dive in 2006.
Andrea Doria Project 2006 – 50th Year Anniversary Dive
This is the account of my Andrea Doria Project for 2006. Various obligations and responsibilities have conspired against me, the result of which is that it has been 13 years since I last dove on the Andrea Doria. This year, on the 50th anniversary of it’s sinking, I was reminded what a special treat it is to be able to witness the presence and inevitable deterioration of such a magnificent shipwreck.
The dive vessel “Gypsy Blood” departed Long Beach Island, NJ on July 18 to Nantucket, MA. We would be using this as our staging point for our 2006 two-day expedition to the Andrea Doria. The early morning weather was cool and clear. I was certainly hoping that would be a harbinger of things to come. For the reminder of that day, we made the crossing with good seas and sky as our companion.
Approximately 11 hours later, we were entering the picturesque harbor of Nantucket. After a brief stop at the fuel dock, we settled into the tasks at hand. There was equipment to set up and check, provisions to stow, charts to review, and numerous other details to go over and over again. We then tried to get some rest before the attempt on the Doria the next day.
The start to the next day was outstanding, illustrating perfect conditions for our voyage to the famous shipwreck. Calm seas allowed us to expedite our sailing time out there. For all on the boat that day but me, it was the first time on the Andrea Doria. Everyone had varying degrees of experience on deep wrecks. But, this was no ordinary deep wreck…this was the Andrea Doria. With that, comes some baggage. The Doria is steeped in dive history, some of which is less then ideal. I shared a few words of encouragement with everyone and reviewed my dive plan.
The tie-in team was to consist of me and a past DSAT Tec Trimix student of mine, Ryan Ensser. We learned our tie-in was to be made significantly easier by the fact that a dive boat that had previously been on the Doria the day before, left a down-line attached to the wreck for us that was buoyed at the surface. For a tie-in team, this is a home run! The surface support crew captured the floating benefactor and secured it to our boats cleat. Ryan and I were already engaged in gearing-up. There was our double set, two decompression tanks, suit inflation tank, lights, reels, bags, etc. All of which was checked and re-checked several times by us and the surface support crew. It was now time to start our relatively long decent and verify the integrity of the attachment. We were assisted to the stern of the boat and took a final look at what appeared to be ideal sea surface conditions. I stepped off the boat, followed by Ryan. We each grabbed on to a separate line dangling from the boat which would be our tow to the down-line at the bow of “Gypsy Blood.” There was a moderate surface current, but nothing to concern ourselves with, at least at the time.
Ryan and I exchanged a few words in review of our plan which took on a surrealistic presence due to the inhaled helium component in our back-gas and agreed to start our decent.
We shortly discovered we would need to descend hand-over-hand on the down-line due to the current. Approximately five minutes later, to my profound enjoyment, we alighted on the now collapsing hull of the Andrea Doria at about 185fsw. Ryan and I checked the tie-in made by the previous dive boat and found it to be very well done and still secure. I took the “cup” from my dive bag and released it into the water column, where it began its meandering journey to the surface (the arrival of the styrofoam cup on the surface, indicates to the surface support crew that the tie-in is secure and divers can begin entering the water).
Ryan and I were now free to begin our exploration of the “Mount Everest of Diving.” The horizontal visibility was in the range of approximately 20 – 25 feet. I was immediately struck by how much the condition of the Doria had deteriorated in the last 13 years. The wreck lies on its starboard side, creating a condition of structural instability which facilitated the shearing-off of the entire superstructure into a large debris field into the sand at 250fsw. Invariably, this debris field contains many artifacts both buried and exposed. The bow of the once proud ship is tearing away at the port side (which is now the top), due to its own weight. Rows of portholes are present as you swim along the hull. However, the way to gain access to the interior to get to them was not immediately apparent to me on this first “reconnaissance” dive. I indulged in reminiscence to my last visit to the Grand Dame. The Promenade deck was intact and immediately recognizable. A route could be quickly calculated into the interior, which yielded me the most sought-after “Italia” china. This was no longer the case.
The twenty minute bottom time we planned seemed so inadequate. However, we began our ascent as-per our dive plan. As we arrived at our first decompression stop depth of 150fsw to begin what would be 45 minutes of decompression, I noticed the current had increased significantly. Ryan and I were now being passed by another dive team making their initial descent to the wreck. We exchanged “ok’s” and they continued their plunge. We eventually arrived at our final deco stop depth, where we were greeted by the familiar sight of the surface supplied oxygen regulators hanging over the side. As we completed our final deco stop at 15fsw on the port side of “Gypsy Blood,” we realized we would not be able to swim to the starboard side of the boat to clip our deco tanks & bags to our waiting equipment lines due to the current. We started the climb up the dive ladder and stopped half way up to allow the surface support crew to begin stripping us of our external burdens. This was no easy task for either crew or diver, since the seas had picked up and were no longer the clam tranquil sight they were on our descent. Freed from the massive weight of some our equipment, we continued up to the deck and alighted safely on the bench.
It became quickly apparent that the weather had and was continuing to deteriorate. This was supported by a less than enthusiastic weather forecast on NOAA radio. Much to the disappointment of the remaining divers, it was decided to terminate diving operations and that no further diving was going to be attempted that day. Safety must be the overriding consideration in any decision process, especially when diving at this highly technical and unforgiving level. The dive team that passed Ryan and I on the down-line consisted of Aaron Cohen and Bob McPherson (both DSAT divers).
They were now the only team remaining in the water. Everyone began securing their equipment for the anticipated rough ride back to Nantucket. The surface support crew continued to monitor the decompressing divers and made preparations for their recovery. It was no stretch to assume they
Weren’t having an easy decompression stop. Shortly after, Aaron and Bob emerged on the surface, where they were assisted onto the boat in the same professional and conscientious manner as Ryan and I had been earlier. After they were both assisted out of their equipment, they verified the abuse they received at the hands of the sea. Both divers were worn out, but physically unharmed.
It was now time to get out of town. The surface support crew disconnected our boat from the down-line buoy. We were now underway. Captain Anthony Pessolano turned the boat north and pushed the throttles forward to the maximum reasonable setting to get us to the comfort and safety of Nantucket. As we headed towards our safe haven, we learned our antagonist had taken the form of Tropical Storm Beryl which was moving up the east coast in our direction. The reality of our situation had set in. The trip, which took months to plan, was now over.
The ride back was not the best ride I’ve ever had on a boat. But, whatever discomfort we were experiencing was tempered by the fact that several of us had just made a fantastic dive on one of the most significant shipwrecks in history. The camaraderie technical divers share is evident on dives like this. There is no individual. From helping divers gear-up, to getting out of the water. From the competency of the surface support crew consisting of Jim Wilson and Shawn Sweeney to the cooperation of the other dive boat leaving their down-line and buoy for us, everything is approached as a team. This is what makes technical diving so intriguing.