Stranded at Sea

Gene Peterson   Jul 01, 2023

Stranded at Sea

By Gene Peterson

With mild weather ahead of us in late September of 1985, Lynn DelCorio and I packed up his brown Datsun truck for our annual jaunt to Nova Scotia. The little truck was loaded with enough dive, camp gear and provisions for a week. My season of dive charters was over and Lynn’s family hotel business slowed down enough in the Fall for him to break away and travel. The cooler air temperature fired up our mood for another thrilling adventure. Lynn was a longtime friend with whom I shared many ambitious quests. Lynn jumped into diving after his tour in Vietnam, like many other veterans, to substitute the adrenal rush experienced in battle. The traumas he experienced in combat were buried in his gentle, soft-spoken and genial personality. A savvy wreck diver, Lynn made a dependable and a jovial companion on any dive expedition.

The weather on the first few days in Halifax was spectacular. Cloudless skies and the temperature reached near sixty degrees during the daylight. As the sun dropped, temperatures fell to the low fifties. Sitting around the campfire, we chatted about past diving junctures and our next day’s plans. By chance we hooked up with a lobster fisherman located in Ketch Harbor. He had a small boat suitable for two divers. Prior to the trip, I had conferred with Gary Gentile on his past summer trip to Nova Scotia. Ketch Harbor is where he had discovered several new wrecks with a small group of Jersey divers. Gary chartered local captain Gus Henneberry to search for wrecks, and on one of the searches found a wreck called the Zoe. The Zoe was a small two masted steamer that struck Bell rock and sank in February of 1871. The Zoe wrecked in Cow Bay in 1870, less than a year before, but was raised, refitted and put back in service. With a cargo of 5000 barrels of salt beef on its way to Breast, France, the Zoe was lured onto the rocks by wreckers/pirates. They attempted to plunder unsuspecting vessels entering the port by moving lights at the approaches to the harbor but were not able to get to the Zoe. The two steam engines, boilers and some of the cargo were quickly salvaged by the ship’s owners within the month, while the Zoe rested on top of Bell Rock. Shortly after, the remains of the hull plummeted off the edge of the rock to the sloped bottom, one-hundred-fifty feet below. It was an exciting discovery. Gus also led them to a wreck he watched sink when he was a small boy in January 1941, the Kolkhosnik. This Russian freighter struck the ledges off Sambro attempting to enter the harbor and connect with an outbound convoy. The Russian captain reported a torpedo struck the ship to hedge the blame. The Kolkhosnik was loaded with munitions, supplies and various metal ingots of copper, tin, zinc, and lead desperately needed for the warfront. One of the most spectacular wreck dives off Halifax, the Russian shipwreck is massive. Additionally, it carried numerous tanks which are strewn throughout the wreck making it highly photographic. After finding the Russian, as it is nicknamed, Gary’s group did not get back to the little steam schooner.

Gary Gentile and Lynn Del CorioGus was not available when Lynn and I arrived. Our crafty captain of the small boat and his faithful swab were our only choice. We found out through a series of regrettable incidents; our skipper had misled us, leading us to believe he knew where numerous wrecks were. He and his mate were a modern-day inspiration for Treasure Island II. Captain John, or should I say, “Long John Silver”, had a noticeable limp, a wooly beard and spoke with a brogue accent. His mate had a ring in his left nostril, a star tattoo on each ear, and a handkerchief scarf tied across the top of his forehead. The little boat roared as Captain John backed out of the slip and we swiftly scooted through the harbor. As we left the Ketch Harbor dock, my faith in our swashbuckling captain began to plunge radically. Pointing with his finger at my chart, he asked me what my pencil mark underlined? “Bell Rock” I stated with astonishment, suddenly realizing he had never seen the chart of his own inlet and he was illiterate. At this point, most sensible passengers would demand to return to port. There was the sense of discovery dangling like a carrot in front of our faces, which encouraged us to continue. We dismissed this aberration, because his boat handling skill was notable weaving through the rock laced inlet. After all, he had grown up in this village, why would he need a paper chart to prove his provincial knowledge? Captain John pointed to a buoy ahead of us. “There’s a wreck right here, I saw your Jersey friends diving.” He claimed. Within minutes we were next to the buoy that marked the obstruction. We discussed the plan with Captain John. The boat would drop us above the submerged rock lying in forty feet of water. From Gary’s description, if we swam towards the north-west, the wreck started at ninety feet and dropped to around one-hundred-forty. When Lynn and I were done diving, we would shoot a lift bag as a signal and the boat would pick us up. This type of drift diving was not new to Lynn and me, unfortunately this was fresh for Captain John. Reaching the buoy, Captain John claimed the rock was only a few fathoms below. We jumped over the side into the pristine water. It was cold, green, and crystal clear. As I descended, I could see the outline of wreckage in the sand below. My enthusiasm got the better of me, I could hear Lynn tapping on his tank with his knife signaling me. It was then that I realized I was deep in a gorge at nearly two-hundred feet. With the visibility so pristine, the wreckage lying another hundred feet below, seemed far closer. Luckily, Lynn was following me, monitoring his depth, and called off our decent within a few minutes before we got ahead of our plan. After a safety stop, drifting from a lift bag, we climbed up a makeshift tire ladder onto the deck. “The rock is in forty feet of water”. I reminded the captain. Exasperated, I knew at that point the captain had no clue where the rock ledge was. I discussed a new option. I didn’t want to take the chance of Captain John putting us in a few hundred feet of water again. Gary had told us there was another wreck near a hole in the rocks called the Sonja Maersk. According to the master of the Sonja Maersk, it was trying to dodge a U-boat in dense fog in June of 1942 and struck the north wall of rocks outside Ketch Harbor. The ship struck with such force it knocked out a bluff of rocks and left a permanent scar that can still be seen. This time Captain John insisted he could put us up on the site. He didn’t want to bring us back and lose his charter payment. After we switched over our tanks, we were off. Steaming north-west toward a humungous cliff, we gazed at the rock. Clearly, we could see a dark hollow that appeared to be from some type of unnatural damage. Captain John dropped us just outside of the breaking waves bashing against the cliff. Again, the water was pristine as we descended near the surf breaking overtop of us. Following the wall down, iron wreckage and twisted beams lay throughout. I consider this one my favorite sites to dive in the harbor. It is visually spectacular as you descended the wall. Gigantic boilers lie nestled on the edge of the cliff. The bow rammed the wall perpendicular and then split in half, spitting the engine out into the deep. The stern broke off from the engine and lies parallel to the side of the cliff. At the bottom of the rock-strewn hill, the hull runs to the north. Following the shaft, the giant propeller marks the terminal point at a depth of one-hundred seventy feet. The wreck ends here and a sandy plain runs beyond the outside edge of this debris field. Finishing our allocated tour, we ascended backtracking to the wall. In the shallows, Lynn and I sent up a two lift bags and tied them off to a large I-beam. As we rose from the depth, we watched the waves pound against the rocks less than one hundred feet inshore of us. The sea was much rougher than when we started our dive. The sway of our lift bags was pushing us back and forth with each passing wave. Even though we were tethered with two lines, it was an uncomfortable ascent as we swirled like kites in the breaking seas. Finally, after completing my lengthy decompression, I surfaced to flag in our pickup. Scanning the surface, as far as I could see, there was no boat on the horizon. Looking down at Lynn still finishing up his hang, he could sense the anxiety in my posture. Rising to the surface, he too looked for our designated ride. Nearly two hours passed as we clung to the bags on the surface. We discussed our options. If they had engine problems, we could be stranded for hours, no matter, we were prepared to act. The seas were building and soon we would be washed up on the rocks. I ditched my weights allowing them to slide down the decompression line, getting ready in case we had to make the five-mile swim back to Ketch Harbor. On the next surging wave, I could just make out a boat sitting approximately a mile away. As the wave rose again, Lynn and I waved. We could see someone on the bow wave back. There was no effort to move on their part. We held on for another half hour. Finally, we saw a puff of black smoke and heard the familiar sound of Captain Johns motor as the gray hull steamed toward us. Cutting our lift bags free, we swam to the boat. By the time the boat reached us, we had spent almost three hours on the surface. We were weary, thirsty, and angry. Lynn managed to climb up the tires onto the rocking boat first. As I pulled myself over rail, the mate warned me the deck was slick. My exasperation dissolved immediately as I watched the mad capped scene unfold onboard. The back deck was a mess with baskets of line, pullies and assorted gear. I dropped my tanks to the deck. Clinging to the rail, I gazed in awe at the spectacle before me. Lynn had slid to the back of the boat and was struggling to stand but was unable to on the slippery deck. Each time he tried to right himself, he slid back to the stern like a bar of soap in a saucer. A mammoth halibut, the size of a truck tire was slapping its tail across the deck. The gigantic halibut fish had slimed the back of the boat and was lying half in Lynn’s gear bag with his change of clothes. Each time Lynn tried to crawl out of the goop covered corner, the lurch of the boat would skid him back into the fish ooze. He was helpless in the bouncy seas. I held on tight fearing I too would become part of the gooey fish-fest. As we turned into the inlet, Lynn managed to gain a stance. I couldn’t control my smirks watching the slippery struggle as he spun about the deck with the behemoth fish. Lynn was visibly annoyed, but his good nature showed as he too grinned at the comical situation. It seems our captain supplemented his charter with a fishing excursion while we were diving. Hooking into the massive fish, he felt compelled to land the monster, figuring we wouldn’t mind the wait. Lynn and I were angry at the captain’s lack of concern for our safety and expressed our sentiments. Lynn clearly suffered the greater indignation wallowing in the fish sludge. Captain John apologized, explaining his position and wishing to make restitution by cutting our cost on the next trip. He promised to stand by and wait for us without distraction. After Lynn rinsed down his gear and soaped up at the dock, we pondered the offer. Despite the aberrations in normal procedure, we conceded to try again in the morning under new ground rules. The diving was spectacular, and the opportunity to find another dive boat was nil. Now that we knew where one wreck was, we were bound to find more.

The growing seas were an indicator that the weather was about to take a dramatic turn. The opportunity to go outside the harbor would soon diminish. A thousand miles south, hurricane Gloria was brewing in the Mid-Atlantic. We were trapped north, unable to go home as the storm approached from the south. There was no internet, tracking or advanced warning as there is today for hurricanes. An occasional radio broadcast gave us minimal information to access the situation. Although my home was a dozen miles inland, the threat was more worrisome for Lynn. His family hotel was right on the beach in Ocean City. If we departed immediately, we were bound to run directly into the storm on the way back. We decided to wait and leave after the storm had passed and hope for the best.

Captain John kept his word, when we surfaced, he was there waiting for us. The bottom conditions on the wreck had deteriorated since the day before. Visibility had dropped off considerably and there was a noticeable surge on the bottom. One small bonus, I recovered my weight belt that I ditched the day before. It began to rain heavily as we left the dock that morning. Hunting for more wrecks was out of the question as the seas white capped and a gusty wind blew out of the south. After a pleasant though uneventful dive on the Sonja Maersk, we decided to head in. That night after returning to camp, we put a tarp over our gear and slept in the back of Lynn’s little truck bed. Even though it was a cramped night, we remained dry in the torrential downpours. The rain turned to a drizzle in the morning making it bearable as we suited on the beach for a harbor dive. Swimming throughout the kelp and rocks we would happen upon a humongous lobster. A lobster license is required to trap these delectables. Abidingly, we left the monsters, but practiced grabbing the huge titans roaming the rocks. These lobsters were more aggressive than what we found off the Jersey coast. They acted very much like blue clawed crabs, snipping and snapping at you as you swam by. One had to be on guard or be attacked without provocation. While walking out of the shallows in a few feet of water, a large ten-pound lobster latched on to one of my fins. It was a bit alarming to be the hunted instead of the hunter. On the beach, the dark sky opened, and another rainstorm soaked the two of us as we walked out of the bay. Breaking down our saturated gear in the deluge, we decided to set off for home. We paid our air fill bill with Steve Giza at Timberlea Divers, made our farewells and departed. Hurricane Gloria fortunately bypassed the Jersey shore and regrettably struck Long Island flooding the landmass and tearing a path through New England. We dodged the advancing storm by holding over in a Maine hotel. The storm then rolled along the Nova Scotia coast creating massive waves which broke high above the hole in the wall in Ketch Harbor. We had timed our escape accordingly.

The following year in 1986 Gary and Lynn, with a handful of divers, explored Cape Breton. I opened my dive shop Atlantic Divers that year and was unable to break free and join them. The trip was full of exciting discoveries, and a fortuitous contact was made with a commercial diving company , Connors Diving. The company rented Gary an air compressor for his trip to Canso. On his return, he passed on that contact information to me. Planning a trip back the next year, I reached out to the company to discuss a trip. I found out the company had a fully rigged dive platform for commercial operations in the harbor. That connection would prove an asset and lead to numerous expeditions and bonds of friendship that would last decades.

“found” - Meriwether Lewis