THE LUSITANIA CHALLENGE

Text by Gregg Bemis, images Dan Burton

Lusitania

Lusitania

top: On a training dive.

above: preparing to dive the Lusitania.

below: Finally the day had arrived.

Lusitania

‘Let’s go’, I signalled to Hal Watts, and we pressed our dump valves and headed down the shot line. This was the culmination of preparations to dive on my very own private property, owned for the past 35 years. Every summer for the previous eight years, I have been helping other tech divers to visit the famous wreck of the Lusitania. Now it was time to fulfill a ripening urge and make the trip myself. The only ‘wrinkle’ was that by now age had crept up on me and my 76th birthday had come and gone.

The Lusitania was (is) the beautiful 790 foot Cunard liner sunk on 7 May 1915 by a single torpedo fired by a German submarine. The resulting explosion was followed about 20 seconds later by a massive second explosion which sent her to the bottom in only 18 minutes. There were 1198 passengers and crew who were the victims of the disaster and the outrage did much to bring the United States into WWI and forever categorized her as the second most important shipwreck in history. The first was the Titanic, man against nature, and this, the second, was possibly the end result of the machinations of man. Since she lies on her port side where the torpedo hit and where the second explosion took place, there has not yet been a definitive study of the cause of the second explosion, and ultimately, that is what we all want to find out.

Originally my plan was to use a closed circuit rebreather for this dive in the hopes of reducing the significant weight involved with four tank open circuit tech diving. Unfortunately, early efforts with a rebreather were less than productive and it seemed that the liabilities for me as an amateur exceeded the theoretical benefits. So it was back to the drawing boards.

Fortunately in the early process, I had been introduced to Hal Watts and his 40 Fathoms Grotto in Ocala Florida as a particularly appropriate training site being 240 feet deep (73m), with very limited visibility and this made it a reasonable comparison with the environment of the Lusitania. Several calls later, arrangements had been made to begin the training. This was a two fold education. First of course came the need to become familiar with the vagaries of mixed gas diving, both the Nitrox gases we would use in the beginning of a 300 foot (91m) deco dive as well as the Trimix components for the deeper parts of the dive. And then secondly the need to become thoroughly familiar with dry suit diving as compared with the warm water 3mm wetsuit diving in the Caribbean that was my normal recreational activity. The North Atlantic water demands significantly greater protection than that with which I was more familiar.

Hal is a great teacher, and he and his wife Jan patiently led me through the necessary educational process, the vast bulk of which was primarily in the water. Because of the warmth of the Florida environment however, this gas usage education was done primarily with a 6mm wetsuit to avoid overheating while suiting and kitting up for these in-water skill sessions. Hence I was finally able to proceed with 250 foot (76m) practise dives off the coast of Florida, it still left drysuit training to be undertaken. This past winter was better for that and we added those basic skills and practise sessions to my capabilities.

Here we were in Kinsale, Ireland aboard our dive boat Salutay, waiting for the weather to provide us with the needed window for our project. Needless to say Murphy’s Law went into effect and despite a lovely Spring, the weather turned nasty. Our first dive was done in the lee of the Old Head of Kinsale in a 35-45 knot wind. The need was merely to get wet and the depth of 60 feet was fine for that. It was important to make sure that all the equipment, put together from American, Irish, and British sources was all functioning without leaks and in every other way satisfactory. While we brought our own regulators, all the other hardware was locally supplied and slightly different from what we were accustomed to. All went well.

Two days later after a nasty front of rain squalls, we headed out in a moment of calm to dive the U260, the first wrecked submarine for many of us. While located in only 130 feet (39.6m) of water, this was sufficient to go through the identical process forecasted for the Lusitania dive, setting the shot line, the dive team sequence, setting and using the deco station, a final check on our weighting and our buoyancy requirements, gas shifts, computer, we would use, etc. Once again all went well and we were ready for the ‘big one’. By the time the dive ended, we were back into stormy conditions so could only hope for further clearing.

Friday dawned sunny and calm, the mellowest day to date and we headed for the site with slack tide scheduled for approximately 11:00 am. The site lies 12 miles offshore past the Old Head and after several passes over the area, we watched her rise up off the bottom on the sonar screen. There is no mistaking her. For all the damage done to her over the years she is still huge. Al Wright, skipper of the Salutay placed the shot line just aft the midpoint, where it was my belief there would be the least likelihood of interference with the fish nets which have been prevalent at both the bow and stern. He and Gary Sharpe, were first in the water to check on the shot line location. The programme was that if they didn’t send a message sausage to the surface within 15 minutes, we would be on the way down to join them. Hence 15 minutes later, Hal and I and our photographer Dan Burton followed them off the platform and down the line. Freda Wright was our most able safety diver to make sure we had anything we needed on the way back up and a welcome sight indeed when we got back to the 100 foot (30m) level.

Hal and I proceeded to the bottom making a gas switch from our Nitrox 37 to our Trimix 13/55 as we passed through the 80-100 foot (24-30m) level. We spotted the flashing strobe light secured to the shot line in plenty of time to slow down for a soft landing on one of the several large ventilators scattered about the wreck. After giving the old lady a loving kiss (its been 35 years) we explored the immediate vicinity including a massive skylight with varied portholes, the glass windows of which are long gone. All the wreck is covered with a scattering of sea growth and with a delicate layer of silt or dead plankton, or whatever. When stirred up it takes a few minutes to disperse but does not significantly interfere with visibility except very locally.

For this first dive, we had scheduled a bottom time of only 10 minutes so reluctantly after four minutes of wreck examination, mission accomplished we headed upwards through the dark waters to the deco station making frequent two minute safety stops beginning at 80 feet (24m). The balance of the 62 minute run time was spent at the deco station comfortably waiting for the minutes to go by and the opportunity to head up to the sunny topsides. Meanwhile Al and Gary had taken advantage of their head start to make a brief perimeter trip approximately 100 feet (30m) fore and aft of the shot to see what they might find. It helps to give a feel for the massiveness of the wreck. This brought us all together at the shot for a speechless celebration.

Typically when we finally emerged, it was to increased wind and wave action which made the climb back into the Salutay as challenging as ever. Back on board, dekitting, warming up from the 48 degree water, we exchanged the pleasure gained from confronting the challenge of the training, teamwork, and execution of a relatively ‘extreme’ dive. This is probably not the normal recreational dive for a 76 year old novice, but I had the good luck to be led by a young 69 year old expert. We decided that we were the AARP (American Association of Retired People) dive team of the year and hope that we opened a few eyes as to what could be done if the desire was strong enough. Over all a grand experience.

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