Diving with Demons

A Rhode Islander returns to confront the wreck he couldn’t face before.

The Sea Turtle glides on slate-smooth water due east from Block Island into the open sea. Old Harbor and the island’s bluffs recede quickly behind us. That gives me about forty minutes to get my head straight. I decide not to spend it poring over my equipment as I probably should –– checking O-rings, hose connections, mask and fin straps. Instead I figure my time is better spent just trying to calm down. I take a deep breath and stare off the bow at the green nothingness Captain Chuck Wade is rushing us to-wards. Then I exhale.

Actually Wade, whose body is covered in scrolling tattoos of mermaids, nautilus and other sea life, is steering us to a very specific spot in the ocean’s expanse. It’s a location that has vexed me my entire diving life and become a kind of personal, inverse Everest –– a challenge I have never quite been able to summon the courage to meet. We’re headed for the coordinates of the U-853, a World War II German submarine sunk under 125 feet of chilly Northeast Atlantic water a day after the final ceasefire of 1945 was called, ending the luckless lives of some hard men.

It promises to be an exciting dive, a glimpse at a history that is hidden and unvarnished. Bones from the fifty-five sailors who died still lie scattered in the deepening silt of the sub’s floor.

The U-boat sits in final repose intact and upright. For this reason it’s a popular spot for advanced divers. But it can be a tricky expedition, one at the outer limit of what is considered a recreation dive (130 feet). The low visibility, cold water and strong currents can be disorienting. Nitrogen narcosis, the drugged feeling divers feel as nitrogen under pressure enters their bloodstream, can scatter the ability to reason. Bottom time has to be carefully monitored so the ascending diver knows at what depths to stop and decompress to avoid the potentially fatal bends. There is a lot that can go wrong and little you can do if it does.

I take another deep breath.

I’m trying to figure out how nervous I should be. Wade, whose ropey dreadlocks and aforementioned tattoos belie his encyclopedic command of diving science, has sternly warned us about having it together for this dive. I can tell he’s alert for any signs a diver might not be ready. “Listen, this is a complicated dive, and it’s not the depth so much as the temperature, visibility and the currents,” he says. Since I first talked with him, Wade has given me plenty of opportunities to back out.

Still, I’m here to finally dive the sub and get this 800-pound sea monkey off my back. I grew up exploring Block Island’s rocky coves and off-shore wrecks. I began snorkeling Great Salt Pond to collect hermit crabs and clams around age nine. I was spearing blackfish off Clay Head by twelve, wreck diving by fifteen. For several summers during college I hired out as a diver for light salvage and lost-and-found jobs. I’d cart my tanks to the docks and replace yacht propellers damaged on rocks, or scrub boat hulls during Race Week. My favorite job was to go out with the lobstermen and recover traps lost in storms or that had become wedged between the rocks. We struck a local’s bargain –– I’d get paid half in cash and half in culls (one-clawed lobsters) arriving home with a kit bag full of bugs to my ecstatic mother. In between I’d visit the Montana, a coal barge that sank at the turn of the century in about seventy-five feet of water, or the Lightburne, a tanker that ran aground in thirty feet of water –– a mere snorkel –– in 1939.

Given that I had advertised myself as a hard-working diver, not visiting the U-853 felt something like professional shame. It was only seven miles offshore, but I always found a reason not to go –– I didn’t have the time, couldn’t find the right partner or the right boat. Of course these were only excuses. The truth was it spooked me.

Since then, when I tell other divers I grew up plumbing Block Island’s depths, the knowledgeable ones invariably ask about the sub. I’ve never had an answer. Today will fix that. Some things don’t change, however. The damn thing still gives me shivers. It’s not just the prospect of stumbling upon remains of Kriegsmarine sailors, or that the nautical charts still warn about unexploded ordnance left over from the Navy’s attack. It’s the wreck’s history with divers.

Two summers ago a sixty-year-old dive instructor died after surfacing from the U-853 (he died of drowning complicated by pre-existing conditions, according to news reports). He was not the first casualty. Although wreck-specific fatality numbers are hard to come by, local dive experts estimate half a dozen divers have perished on or above the sub in the past fifteen years. Some suffered equipment failure, panicked and surfaced too quickly. Others became entangled inside the sub, or became disoriented in the low visibility.

It’s as if the U-boat was still waging its fight in enemy waters, continuing the mistake that cost the lives of every sailor on board and closing a pitiable footnote to global conflict.

As the war came to an end in 1945, a desperate Germany sent six additional U-boats to harass our shores, a symbolic rather than strategic offensive. The U-853, a type IXC/40 vessel, set sail from Norway in February of that year, according to a Coast Guard history. It arrived off the coast of Maine where it chanced upon the USS Eagle 56 on April 23, launching a torpedo attack that sank the ship (an attack that was only recently attributed to the U-boat). It was the sub’s first kill. The U-853 then stealthily continued south. Back home, things weren’t going so well. On April 30, Adolph Hitler committed suicide, passing the mantle of acting fuehrer to Admiral Karl Dönitz.

On May 4, anticipating Germany’s surrender, Dönitz issued a cease hostilities order to all the ships at sea, including forty-nine U-boats. U-853’s Oberleutnant Helmut Fromsdorf most likely didn’t receive the transmission — either that or he willfully ignored it. The next day he fired a torpedo at the coal steamer SS Blackpoint off Narragansett Bay, sinking the dilapidated work boat, and in the process giving away his sub’s position. A “hunter-killer” group of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships –– the navy destroyer USS Ericsson, navy escorts Atherton and Amick, and the Coast-Guard frigate Moberly — swarmed in, launching a re-
lentless bombardment of hedgehog mortars and depth charges. The attack lasted through the night until noon the next day, May 6, even after oil and debris, including an officer’s hat, floated to the surface. It was the last combat of the war in U.S. waters.

Hard-hat navy divers descended within days, opening a hatch and confirming the kill. The wreck has been explored ever since, including an attempted private salvage operation in the 1960s in search of valuables. None were found. But divers have hauled plenty of Swastika-emblazoned china and pieces of equipment as trophies over the years. Episodes of divers surfacing with bones of the deceased prompted the German government to de-clare the sub a war grave in an effort to shame such behavior.

Today there is no wind, and the sun is burning through the morning fog. The sea lies flat beneath us, except for some rolling, rounded swells. I’m still plenty wary. So is photographer David Barron, who, instead of bringing a photo assistant, brought his own personal safety diver, forty-one-year-old dive instructor John DeRoo. I’m comforted somewhat by the deep-wreck dive experience of thirty-eight-year-old Wade and his crewmate Gus Bricker, forty-five. Both have explored the world below 240 feet, and have dived the sub for years, penetrating its interior several times.

 The problem with modern man is there are very few things that challenge his courage.

Wade has already drilled us on the risks. “It’s considered an advanced dive. But I think it’s on the edge of technical diving,” he intones. “You definitely need experience in cold water.” Bricker plays the good cop. “You’ll be fine,” he says.

Complicating things for me is that I’ve been living in Florida, where the warm water reefs I poke around are splashes in the kiddie-pool compared to this. I’ll be wearing a frayed decades-old, quarter-inch neoprene wetsuit left over from my Block Island days, while my colleagues will be in state-of-the art drysuits or the latest in semi-dry wetsuits. Wade will be my dive partner. He’s sporting a closed-circuit re-breather, a canister that recycles the oxygen from each exhalation while scrubbing out the carbon dioxide. I feel medieval as I slip into a steel tank holding 112 cubic feet of compressed air.

We tie off on the buoy marking the sub and splash in. Bricker stays topside. Wade has insisted that we descend and ascend along the buoy line to avoid drifting. We happen to be in the Narragansett Bay Outbound Shipping Lane, a major tanker thoroughfare. To surface freely would risk ending up with a cargo ship bearing down on us. There’s small chance a big ship would see us, and a smaller chance it could maneuver around us.

It’s the descent that challenges my re-solve. As we slip below twenty feet, we enter a void. The Sea Turtle’s hull disap-pears above us while below we free-fall into nothing more than a greenish-blue vacuum. I focus on the things that are familiar: the mask on my face, equalizing the pressure in my ears, my gloved hand sliding down the buoy line. Each breath is an auditory eruption, the mechanical rasp of inhalation, the bubbling escape of exhalation. Eventually, at maybe eighty-five feet, a shadowy form begins to take shape. It’s circular and clearly manmade. At 105 feet we land on the sub’s conning tower, which is completely encrusted in barnacles and patches of vegetation. Cunner and blackfish dart about. I can make out a shiny metal pole, the remnants of the stainless steel periscope. Behind that is the pipe that was the schnorkel, which allowed the sub to take in air while submerged.

I touch this hard chunk of historic de- bris. Stray thermal currents make the temperature an uncharacteristically balmy 65 degrees. Any fear I had of the depth and darkness vanishes as soon as I make contact. I eagerly motion for Wade to show me the forward blast hole. He stares intently into my eyes to assess my mental state. Then he guides me towards the bow, just beyond the conning tower, to a gaping black cavity. Tendrils of seaweed flicker across what was clearly a lethal hit. I can make out ballast tubes and air flasks where the sub’s outer hull has deteriorated. A thrilled thought skitters across my mind: Wouldn’t it be cool to take a look inside? I stare with wide eyes into the opening, then snap back to reality. Moments ago that thought would have made me recoil. Am I really that excited, or is this the siren song of narcosis?  Just then Wade signals that our time is up. We begin our ascent after eighteen minutes of exploration. We make two stops to decompress, hanging on the line at sixty feet, then twenty feet.

After we’ve clambered on board, my heart is still pounding and I’m grinning.

It was exciting seeing the sub, sure, but the feeling that lingers is different, and I’m pretty sure I’m not narced. I feel transformed and think I know why. I have swum through my fears. All the anxiety of the unknown the dive represented dispersed the moment I touched the sixty-year-old metal. I’ve conquered something deep inside and feel stronger as a result. As I struggle to peel off my wetsuit, I try to communicate this in excited bursts.

Bricker smiles while listening to me. He’s donning a dry suit and double-tank harness for a solo dive in which he’ll enter the sub’s aft blast hole, snake through the center, then emerge out the forward blast hole for a total bottom time of thirty minutes. He cinches tight a strap on his shoulder then looks at me, still sopping wet and jabbering away. “The problem with modern man is there are very few things that challenge his courage,” he says helpfully. “He doesn’t often get a chance to know if he’s a coward or a hero.” That’s essentially what I was trying to get at. But before I can say anything more, he plunges into the water and disappears, alone, into the deep.