June 23 and 24, 2002 Billy Mitchell Expedition
By Tom Sawicki
The spring of 2002 was horrible for diving in the mid-Atlantic region. Almost everything we planned as a group was cancelled due to weather. As our "Billy Mitchell" weekend of June 23 and 24, 2002 approached, it was becoming more and more obvious that we were planning too aggressively. We had not done any dives past 100' for a number of months due to the weather. Our original plan was to have 2 bottom teams dive the Frankfurt (420') on Saturday morning, June 23. The support crews for that dive would dive something shallow, for instance the Ethyl C (190') on Saturday afternoon. Sunday morning 3 bottom teams would then dive the Ostfriesland (380'). When all the players met on the Miss Lindsey the Friday evening before our expedition was to set sail, we made a group decision to modify the original schedule. We planned for all divers to do two dives on Saturday, one on the U-117 (230') and one on the Ethyl C. Sunday, three bottom teams would dive the Ostfriesland. The thinking was, that the shallower dives let the teams work out the details and get mentally comfortable.
The seas turned out to be ideal as we arrived over the U-117. It was a beautiful summers day. Brad Beskin and myself entered the water and headed on down to the wreck. JT Barker and Bill Ripley shadowed us, as this was Brad's deepest dive to date. The u-boat is sitting upright in 230' of water. She looks to still be steaming across the ocean floor. The up-line was tied in amidship and Brad and I headed towards the bow. Chain dogfish clung to the wreck and large pieces of netting were draped across the hull. Brad and I made one loop from the conning tower to the bow and back. Unlike the U-853, a u-boat I have dove many times off the coast of RI, I did not see any means of entrance into the wreck; however, I did not get to explore aft and there may be entrances that I did not see. We called the dive and headed on up. Everyone dove using standardized bottom and deco gases. I used a single AL 80 stage as bottom gas, as did some of the others.
A few hours later we were anchored into the Ethyl C. This time JT and I were dive buddies and we brought our Gavins to traverse the wreck. Visibility was incredible. The Ethyl C. was a freighter and like the U-117, she is also sitting upright with her masts reaching up to 130'. We scootered all over the wreck and JT showed me a giant porthole that he had been eyeing. I took one look at it and smiling just shook my head. It looked too big to me to bring up with our two bags. I don't know that JT agreed with me, but he just shrugged and we moved on. I am not sure, but it seems like I heard that someone got that porthole. If so, I am sorry JT, hopefully it will still be there this year. One thing I kept on remarking to myself as we did this dive was the number and size of the fish on the wreck and the incredible visibility. Rick Atkins took some video, and after the dive as we watched the video, these facts were remarked on by everyone. Again, all dives were done with standardized bottom and deco gasses and once again I used an AL 80 stage as bottom gas. With two work-up dives under our belt, we were ready for our main objective.
Sunday morning broke with us tied into the Ostfriesland. One of the reasons we chose to dive the Fries over the Frankfurt was the unique history behind the ship. First into the water was the bottom team of Jackie Smith and Christina Young diving CCR's. They were tasked to do the tie in. Dave Widen andBill Ripley diving open circuit on scooters went next. At a predetermined time JT, Rick and myself hit the water. We met up with Dave and Bill at approximately 170' on their return. We all made the switch from our 190' bottles to bottom gas and Rick picked up Dave's scooter. Having made and verified our gas switches and with Rick now on his own scooter, we headed down 200 more feet to the sand.
The wreck is turtled with relief up to 310'- 320'. The size of the ship is remarkable, it seems that steel plate just goes on forever. Chain dogfish seem to love this ship and occupy almost every free square inch. We teamed up at 370' around our anchor line, which seemed to be tied into a mast. We gauged the current and agreed to begin the dive scootering into the current. I recall looking up at the wall of steel a couple of times, the glow of the sun could be seen peaking over the top of the hull but at 380' the ship created a significant and dark shadow. After scootering for a few minutes we found a large opening that apparently marked the section of decking where the forward turret guns lay. JT scootered under the wreck (ships decking on top of him) and I followed behind. In the pitch black even with our lights it was difficult to make out anything. Rick panned under the ship and then the hull. We would not know it until looking at the video later, but Rick captured the image of a six inch side mount gun. He filmed at least one other as we headed back to the anchor line. One thing I have learned from diving and watching video of the same dive subsequently, the camera lens can capture much more light than the human eye, and can see things that we can't. This is one important reason to try and video as much as possible. After scootering under the ship, we turned the dive and began to scooter back to the anchor. Working as a team, I illuminated the tie-in, JT untied and Rick continue to film our work. We slowly made our way up the hull. Our first decompression stops were at 320', still on the wreck. Visibility was at least 100' and we got a chance to relax and really look at the wreck.
At 190' we made our gas switch to 21/35. Within a few breaths I began to feel nauseous. I signaled JT that I was not feeling well and told him to watch me. He immediately stowed his light and grabbed hold of me, watching me closely. Of course I didn't know it, but he later told me he was thinking "You better not tox on me &@^@% *&%%@!!" For my part I immediately double-checked the gas I was on and verified that I was on the correct bottle. I was. I knew even before checking that I was because I knew I had properly deployed the bottle. All of this took less than a minute and just as I was about to switch back to back gas, I began to feel better. I let JT know that I was feeling better, but he still kept me in his sites. We did two minutes at 190' and by the time we moved up to 180' I was feeling fine. The rest of our deco went without complications.
So what happened? First remember the water was cold, around 43 degrees. When I switched from my back gas (10/70) to my 190' bottle (21/35), I went from an EAD of 34' to an EAD of 112' in one breath. Quite simply, I got narked. Subsequently we decided to increase the helium content in our 190' bottles to 21/50 and in our 120' bottles to 35/35. This serves two purposes in my mind. First it completely eliminates the possibility of narcosis while decompressing. Second, it almost completely eliminates on gassing of nitrogen during decompressing. I think keeping the helium content in deco gasses so low is a throw back to the days when getting off of helium as soon as possible was taught. With these new suggested gasses, there is still a significant drop in helium with each gas switch. The drop in helium corresponds with an increase in oxygen, with very little to no increase in the fraction of nitrogen. This in my view is a much more efficient use of the oxygen window, as opposed to increasing the fraction of oxygen and nitrogen in the mix in order to significantly reduce the fraction of helium. I have had the opportunity to use these new gasses and have had good success so far. I had been using 50/25, for my 70' bottle but have now decided that with using these higher helium mixes at depth, 50% nitrox would be a more effective gas.
Mixes Used on Dive
190: deco gas 21/35
120: deco gas 35/25
70: deco 50/25
Brad Beskin-deep support
Charlie Johnson-deep support
Gary Truslow-deep support
Bob Price-Shallow support
Butch Zemar-Shallow support