VBTech Marine Electric Expedition
Capt JT Barker
The Marine Electric is a T-E Bulk carrier, it was a T-2 Tanker and was converted in 1962 from 504x68x39 to 605x75x47. On Feb 12, 1983 only 3 of the 34 crewmen on board survived the sinking of the "Marine Electric", of the 31 crewmen who lost there lives, six were never found. The wreck now rest in 130ft 85 miles NNE of Rudee Inlet,Va.
In January of this year I was contacted by writer Bob Frump ( some of his back ground and work can be seen at http://www.webandwire.com/index.htm ), he had visited my web site and had seen a recent trip I had made to the wreck. At the time He wanted to know what the site look like after 17 years and was the original writer of the story when it sank. He is now finishing a book on the "Marine Electric", he has uncovered more information than one can imagine. I had already done some penetration of the wreck, but was unsuccessful in going in very far. After several emails he had told me enough history of the wreck, to make me believe that a serious expedition should be done on the wreck. There was no gold, rings, or things to find. Many old time wreckers had dived the wreck already, some claim to even have even visited the Engine Room. Commercial divers were hired to examine the wreck for weeks to determine why it sank. But in all these dives, no one ever went into the ER to look for the missing 6, of the 6 some had been standing watch in the ER and never got out as it sank very quickly. After several months of emails 2 teams had joined in to do the search.VBtech and the WKPP, as the date for the trip drew near the 2 members from the WKPP had commitments and could not attend, one had a show for his business, GUE, and the other had just sold his home and was moving. So it would just be VBtech.
As the date drew near, others began to bail out on the trip, fear of seasickness or lack of funds were the excuses I heard, but others stepped up to go, as did those who are hooked on diving . We were not being paid, we were paying to go, to go and do the right thing that others had failed to even try and do.
I had already mapped the wreck prior to this trip. Entrances were labeled, plans were made, and no one knew exactly what we would find. Of those that went only Rick Atkins and myself were to go inside, Eric " The Student" Deister was to be support for us and did one hellva job on the video. The others lead by Dave Widen were to map the outline of the site, we were also fortunate to have Roger Campbell, a local ship repair specialist, who had been on the Marine Electric before it sank.
One might ask" what do you expect to find?", for sure we are not looking for anyone alive. But it may take more than 17 years for bones to rot away or even cloths may be found with ID in them, one does not know what he will find until he looks to see what is there. When it first sank I'm sure the families wonder if they drowned in the wreck or were not found by the "Coast Guard" on the surface. These were answers we hope to find.
Rick, who had only dived the wreck once before and Eric (who had never before) went with me. I had on the last trip found a small skylight that seem to lead directly into the ER, only, it had an angle bar that I thought needed to be removed before we could enter. So we took off with hacksaws and a "whammer jammer"(don't ask), Rick and I began to size up the opening. I began to get an uneasy feeling as Rick wiggled his way thru the hole, I pushed in the parts that were snagging to assist him in. Then it was my turn, he did the same for me from inside the wreck. We turned and slid our way into the wreck, ladders, walkways, pipes, everything was a snag, at some point we could go no further, a dead end. We still had not done any real search of the ER and had to turn our dive. As we exited the skylight it had only been 30 mins BT, so I decided to show Rick all my planned entry points. After 45 min BT we started up.
Once on the surface we regrouped for a new plan, Dave was unable to lay the measured line to the bow, he had never been all the way to it, I had located it on the previous trip by following plating, the official report claims that the mid body is missing and there is a 240ft gap between the stern and the bow. The report is incorrect.
After a 2 hr SI, Dave was able to lay the line, after I ran a line to plating that leads to the bow and the distance measured in the 170ft plus range, a difference of over 60 ft. This was our second dive and while I ran that line and went to check out the bow , Rick and Eric would start to lay line in the new chosen entry point.
While on the bow I believe the first cargo tank sits just off the bow and I scootered into it, so at least one did not drift away as they said in the official report, there seems to be way too much plate down there for that to be true.
I then scootered to a chosen entry point so I could catch up with Rick inside the wreck, as I got there and started to enter the vis dropped to 3 or 4 inches and I saw a fin move in front of my mask. I backed out of the hole and waited, soon Eric came out in cloud of silt dragging a full bag of "China". In a couple of minutes Rick came out and removed the line, we had at least one mate on board who does not listen and by removing the line keeps him out. ( We found out later he is very sneaky too.) I then took Rick down the Port passage way and showed him several port holes ready for removal, one was just a hammer tap away from getting. We then went up to start our deco we had done 40 mins BT.
Once on the surface we began to plan our next dive, Rick and I would go back into the China spot and see if we could push past it to the ER, Eric would go to the loose porthole and recover it ( he has never gotten one). Little did we know that the sneaky mate was "ease dropping" and planning a little "snatch and grab" of his own, he is not yet good enough to find his own artifacts.
After 2 more hrs of SI we were going again, Rick lead and we went into the hole, once we made the hard turn there was a blanket floating over head, the passage was only 3ft x 5ft wide to go down, at the end you had to turn down. Rick started down and I waited at that turn. Vis soon went to 1ft, I went behind him and saw a fin, I then pulled on it, I thought he was stuck. We then backed out to where the "China" was and he filled the bag I held open. Eric waited by the hole, we exited the hole and went down the main deck looking and then back to the skylight to look again. Rick and Eric went to get the "porthole", it was gone. So they began to look around, while I carried a light cover that I took off a porthole back to the anchor line. I did not feel right after I carried the heavy cover and found Eric to tell him I going was up and to make sure he and Rick were fine.
After finishing my deco I got on the boat, soon my left shoulder began to hurt, a sure sign for me that I have been doing several deco dives in one day. I went to the upper deck, took some "Aleve" and breath some 02, the pain was gone in 20 mins. That is not in any way recommended what you should do if you feel you are having a DCS problem, other than the breathing 02.
Some decided to do a Lobster hunt that night, but several of us passed on that. Rick informed me that after I left he had found a new hole to go into, deep inside the pump room, in there he said was a water tight door still closed that look like it lead to the ER.
The next morning we worked on a new plan. Mr Frump ask if we would shoot photos of everywhere we had been, we had not taken any cameras down at this point, so it was a good idea. We also chose to do one long dive instead of only 2 dives which is all we had time for, I hoped this would prevent anymore shoulder pain and it did. We would not do more than 70 mins BT, shorter, should we reach our goals for the dive.
First we would check out the new hole and see if we could open the door, then we would look around if we could get in. If not we would go to the skylight and I would shoot stills while Eric shot video of Rick going in. Then we would go to the "China hole", I would lead in there to shoot shots while it was clear in front of me, Rick would run line behind me and Eric would video us going in and coming out.
We left the boat and headed down, Rick went right in the new hole at the pump room, I followed as did Eric shooting video. We passed pipes, ladders, and debris of all kinds and came upon the watertight door. I looked at the hinges, they were rusted away. We pulled on the door to break it loose, it would wiggle but that's it. The handle would not turn at all, we needed heavy tools, but had none with us. Rick began to work deeper into the wreck I followed, we zigged & zagged to get around large pipes, till we could get no further. We back tracked to get out, I watched as Rick got stuck, he tried several times and could not pass the pipes, I wiggled back down and signaled him to go on the other side, that is how he went down. He gave me the OK sign and was out with ease. We then all exited the pump room and went to shoot stills and video of Rick going into the "Skylight", this took hardly anytime and we moved on to the "China Hole".
Once at the hole, I slid in as calmly as I could as not to stir any silt up, shooting photos as I went in. I went all the way to where the remaining China was, what was left was in the silt, Rick was behind me and when he stopped a cloud rolled in on us. I started to feel around and pick up the last few pieces and place them into the bag Rick held open. We got face to face because we could not see each other and I told him "NO MORE", I then raised up and saw a few more coffee mugs hung on a pipe in front and above me, I took them and placed them in the bag. Rick handed me the reel, as I signaled I was going up in the hole I saw above. I went up and could see what look like a passage way, but the silt was rising with me and I deemed it to be a danger to go any further. I dropped back down and face to face signal Rick to leave, he took the bag and I had the reel, by this time there was no VIS at ALL.
We did not know that Eric had followed us in, to video some and I was unaware that Rick was signaling him out, it seemed like we were not moving as I could feel him still there in front of me. The stress was building, soon I felt him moving and I began to reel in the line, I could not see anything. By the time I got to the last secondary tie in point, Rick was outside. As I worked on trying to figure out how to untie it, in zero vis, the "Monster" inside me was growing, his name is "Fear & Panic", we have met before. He is a horrible beast who has killed many divers before and would take my life without a second thought. The only thing I know that tames him is experience, I kept him under control.
Rick had signaled OK against my mask before he left and I had gave it back the same way. He had tied the line coming in and I could not figure it out. I settled down and did not move hoping some of the silt would drop so I could see the line and unwrap it. I thought I even heard the "Wicked Witch" whisper ," I've got you now my little pretty and your china too", its seems the monster can change into who ever he wants or either the wild days of my younger years are catching up with me. ;-) I then placed my fingers around the line after the secondary tie in and followed it out and let the reel unspool until I was out of the hole. Then I stopped and wrapped the line around my hand and popped it. Rick pulled the loose line from around the tie in and it came out of the hole, we placed the reel and loose line in my bag with the china. No one will be able to follow where we went, we left no trail.
We then moved up to the port passage way, where the portholes are, we had Rick go in as I took Photos thru the portholes at the same time Eric shot video the same way. We then returned to the anchor, BT was 46 minutes. Rick and Eric decided to stay a little longer and went to the bow and back, their BT time was 62 minutes. Once on the boat it was decided that everyone should get some of the "China", 6 dinner plates and 6 coffee mugs was given to Mr. Frump to send to families of the 6 missing crewmen. He was also given the same for himself, everyone on the boat was given some as a souvenir of the dive and for their effort.
As we did not make it into the parts of the ER that needs to be looked at, I will go back again and remove the water tight door that keeps us out. I wonder how so many can claim to have been all in the wreck and yet we found piles of "China" that they would have taken, the ER blocked off, and a water tight door that has never been opened. And don't tell me that the oldtimers closed it on their way out either.
I would like to thank everyone who helped on the project: Rick Atkins, Eric Deister, Dave Widen, Jim Cobb, Roger Campbell, Tom Adams, Debbie Evans, Bill Ripley, John Lumbard, Mates Chris, Joe, and Capt Mike Fantone. A special thanks to Bob Frump who has other details I did not mention. Those are for his article and book.