With promise of adventure and charters, Captain Bob Meimbresse procured a new boat, the Down Deep, and moved to Utche’s Marina in Cape May, New Jersey. Bob sensed it was a worthwhile venture. He realized Cape May was virgin wreck diving territory. Only a handful of dive boats had explored the offshore waters of Delaware Bay’s treacherous cape. First discovered by Henry Hudson in 1609, Cape May had a colorful role in seafaring history as a whaling community. It remained a strategic peninsula from the Revolutionary War through World War II. Thousands of ships have passed the Delaware Capes and hundreds of unexplored shipwrecks lie buried still uncharted off this tip of New Jersey. In 1989, Atlantic Divers made a commitment of over 50 charters to Captain Meimbresse to run out of Cape May. Bob moved, confident in the shop’s pledge.
Article and photos by Gene Peterson unless otherwise noted
The dive boat Down Deep plodded slowly east puncturing an envelope in the fog forty miles east of the cape. Down Deep’s crew was searching for the tug Brian C lost in a storm on November 13, 1979. Built in 1948, in New Orleans, Louisiana, it was originally named the John Cushman. Later acquired by the Boston Fuel Transportation Company of East Boston, Massachusetts, it was renamed the Brian C. The tug was overwhelmed by vaulting seas during a fast moving north-easter and sank near the search area. During the hunt, we ran over a spike rising nearly 25 feet in 155 feet of water. We believed it to be the missing tug, even though the structure appeared to be spread out over a football field of terrain. We were exploring a set of co-ordinates compliments of Captain Andy Applegate.
Dropping the grapnel over the site, we quickly snagged the wreckage. Divers Angelo Patane and Greg Modelle were the first to make the plunge on this unexplored position. The sun burned off the fog and pierced the clear, emerald waters. At a depth 100 feet, the outline of a boiler and large steam engine rose off the bottom. The two divers dropped to the sand 50 feet below. Fanning the sand, Greg unearthed some vintage John Walker whiskey bottles and a handful of brass spikes. While Angelo was coping with effects of the deep and dark water narcosis, Greg was wholly cognitive. He immediately interpreted the wreck as an old steamship with an intact stern and a busted forward bow. Angelo’s euphoric analysis was tainted. He collected lobsters and left a porthole by the anchor. He was convinced he was diving an old barge and thought the brass porthole was worthless steel.
Back on the Down Deep, Greg was elated as he described in detail, a wooden steamship, carrying assorted loose cargo, brass spikes, bottles, portholes, and grinding stones. He enthusiastically elaborated that it was festoon with lobster, had a rectangular boiler, a massive engine, an intact stern, and a large prop. Angelo’s interpretation was inconsistent, but he managed to gather dozens of giant lobsters that nearly burst his bag verifying one of Greg’s declarations. On a dive some years later, Angelo tried to send up a grinding wheel with a one-hundred-pound lift bag. Watching the lift bag sink to the sand, I assisted Angelo by adding another 100-pound bag. Each grinding stone was marked with the stone’s weight. On the surface, I pointed out to Angelo that he failed to read the recovery directions; his stone was marked 120. Angelo was unamused by my goading humor.
On my descent, I confirmed Greg’s assertion that indeed it was an old wooden steamer. I also plucked a few of those loose portholes and gave Angelo back the one he mistakenly left on the bottom. Throughout that day Captain Bob’s little white terrier “Max” kept sitting on my gear and getting under foot. When Captain Bob queried, “What should we call the wreck?” There was no hesitation on my part. “Max’s Wreck!” I exclaimed. On a trip over a decade later, I got to meet the genuine Max, Carcharodon Carcharias.
After an amazing era of discoveries, Captain Bob retired from diving. I persuaded several other captains to bring their boats to Cape May for a few weeks in the following seasons. In the summer of 2006, Captain Dan Bartone brought his dive boat Independence down to Cape May. On one of his trips to Max’s Wreck, I encountered the real Max, the maximum apex predator of the sea, a 15-foot great white shark. On my ascent from a dive, during my decompression, I noticed a large shadow circle the boat’s anchor line. I was hanging on a weighted downline at the stern of the Independence. On numerous ascents I have witnessed many different species of mammals, fish, and reptiles, including whales, seals, dolphins, sharks, and turtles. At first, I thought it was a large oceanic sunfish, which is quite common off the coast. Sunfish are weird, half-body shaped plankton eaters, that can be as large as a barn door. They have a flip-flop swimming motion as they slowly plod in the water. This shadow moved definitively through the water as it smoothly swam and then turned toward me. It now swept under me, passing just a few feet below my legs as I clutched onto the weighted chain of the deco line. I watched it rise, then it turned on its side and gazed up at me. I could feel the whip of its tail as it swirled below. The encounter was surreal, I had little time to rationalize the situation. The drumbeat of my heart intensified as the menacing situation progressed. I was awestruck by the bright white face and black eye staring at me, as this immense fish methodically passed under my fins and steered out of my view.
A great white shark in the open sea is a sly marauder. When hunting seals, they are known to rapidly ascend from the depths and disable their prey. The chance of seeing a great white shark in a natural open water environment is extremely rare. Cage diving operators lure great whites in with bait and blood; even at that there is no guarantee one will have an encounter. Most human attacks occur in poor visibility when great whites attempt to surmise their prey. According to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the chances of being attacked by a great white are one in 3.7 million. My odds were increasing with each passing moment. She was probably sizing me up, and fortunately the unpalatable weighted chain and large shadow of the boat above me made her wary. I still had a dozen or so minutes of required decompression as I evaluated my options. I decided to prepare for the shark’s return run, which may be more aggressive. I did a 360 scan and swam back to the boat ladder a few feet away.
Breaking my hang, I pulled myself up a rung or two. I spit out my regulator and alerted my dive companions to get the surface oxygen ready in case I needed to omit the balance of my decompression. They seemed acutely attentive and concerned about my wellbeing. Without any further conversation, I begrudgingly returned to the decompression trapeze. Before I alerted them, they had been fearfully watching the brute’s fins make several agitated splashes behind the boat. Meanwhile back underwater, I saw the obscure shadows of the fish, but rationally began to suspect the whole episode as some aquatic aberration. I cautiously finished off the remaining minutes of my decompression and dashed to the ladder. I tried to justify my previous alarm to those waiting on deck but was quickly muted.
Paul Whittaker and Chris Jazmin feverishly pulled me up the remaining rungs. In an instance, I was plucked from sea and set on the deck. They did not need to hear my narrative. As I climbed the ladder, they feared I might be swallowed as the shark passed underneath the stern only a few feet away. For the next hour we watched the great white, a couple smaller makos and a blue shark circle the boat. From the upper deck, we observed the pack stray further away. Later that day some undaunted divers even made a second dive. In all my dive experiences, I consider this my most epic. Today, studies tracking great whites such as OCEARCH, may have helped us identify this shark. Over the past few years, researchers monitored the famed 16-foot, 3500-pound Mary Lee and others skirting the Jersey coast.
Returning to the wreck several times over the next decade little was found to identify the lost steamer. A key recovered by Harold Moyers inscribed “Dallas” led to no confidence only more perplexity. There was no record found of a ship named Dallas lost off the east coast. I searched the bow area on every dive, hoping to uncover machinery, a bell or a plaque with a name. The bow was very disorganized and blanketed with a tangled net. In the summer of 2008, the dive boat Big Mac anchored on Max’s Wreck for a routine dive. Paul Whittaker tied us into the stern propeller, making an awesome vista as one descended into the warm blue water. Visibility was over fifty feet allowing descending divers a full view of the wreck. A recent storm had washed out the bow to a depth of 162 feet. Divers sifting the wreckage uncovered more bottles, large valves, brass piping configurations, grinding stones, and collected lobster and scallops. Large antennas were everywhere in the wooden debris field.
When the first set of divers ascended safely, Captain Harold Moyers and I fell to the wreck. Harold immediately recovered an apothecary bottle, and a grinding stone. The bow was now noticeably exposed, as I happened upon a deck bilge pump. I signaled Harold and we both agreed to extract the heavy pump. While Harold cut free the entangled netting, I attached a heavy choker and a two-hundred-pound lift bag to the pump head. After filling the bag, it was apparent that more lift and another dive was required. We broke off from the dive and completed our decompression requirements.
Pumps like this one have been recovered from several different sites confirming or identifying unknown wrecks. Such is the case of the pump recovered from the Brunette by Chuck Wine in the early eighties. This pump could also provide positive information to re-evaluate the identity of Max’s Wreck.
Harold and I were perplexed by the amount of lift required to raise the small brass pump. We discussed a plan, I was to descend, secure another choker and lift bag to the pump, while Harold swam a line from the boat to the mechanism to insure its recovery. After a break for desaturating and lunch, we plunged back into the water. Camouflaged beneath the conflagration was a hidden quandary. A long length of heavy lead pipe buried in debris and entangled in a net was attached explaining the magnitude of lift required to raise the pump. I knew the piece was heavy, but I had underestimated the added weight of the thirty-foot-long lead piping attached. I filled another 200-pound bag and then added one additional hundred-pounder. At last Harold added some finishing air as we warily watched the ensemble of netting, pipe and pump levitate off the sandy bottom.
Dashing to the ascent line upstream of the lift, we returned to the surface monitoring our decompression. As we neared the surface, we could see the pump and its assemblage swinging down current of the Big Mac. Fortuitously, the RV Explorer dive boat was passing from a nearby offshore wreck. Rusty Cassway and Brian Sullivan loaned us a much-needed hacksaw. Mark Clark and Harold cut the 400-pound lead pipe from the bilge, and we hauled aboard the lightened pump. As expected, the pump provided vital clues to the identity. Safely on the Big Mac, we discovered an inscription on the pump that would lead to identifying the wreck. Stamped on the pump were the words “U.S. Navy Yard, New York.”
Researcher Gary Gentile drew enough evidence from the pump’s inscription to declare a uniqueness based on the location and description provided by Harold. Gary ascertained it to be the Montgomery. This 787-ton wooden screw steamship, built in New York City in 1858, was chartered by the Navy in May 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, and placed in commission as USS Montgomery. The Navy purchased her in August of that year to enforce the blockade of western Florida and the northern Gulf coast. On December 4, 1861, in the Mississippi Sound, she engaged the Confederate steamers Florida and Pamlico. Remaining in the Gulf, during 1862 Montgomery captured or destroyed a half-dozen blockade runners, mainly sailing vessels. Following her return to the Atlantic in 1863, she took part in the search for the Confederate raider Tacony. She was then assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron `in January 1864, where she sank blockade runners Bendigo and Dare. Montgomery also captured the steamer Pet, and the Bat, and then participated in the two assaults on Fort Fisher in North Carolina. In 1865 she defended the port of Wilmington, Delaware and carried on in the operations in North Carolina’s Cape Fear River until the end of the war. Decommissioned in June 1865, Montgomery was sold but retained her name when she reentered commercial service in 1866. She was active for nearly eleven more years, until she was sunk off Cape May, New Jersey, due to a collision with schooner Seminole on January 7, 1877. The position of her sinking is where Max’s Wreck was discovered over one-hundred-twelve years later. The wreckage structure matches the type of ship and the crushed bow is evidence of a devastating collision.
A further annotation, and an ironic twist; eventually Captain Bob did find the tug Brian C. Additionally, the sister ship of the Montgomery, the Huntsville, also sank off New Jersey. At first the wreck was mistakenly named the Lang. The Yohanna Lang nearly sank in that location, but the Lang was salvaged and towed inshore. A wooden plaque inscribed YOHANNA LANG is currently on display in the Cape May Museum. This wreck has assumed several other nicknames including the “North-east Boiler” and the “Copper Wreck”. Discoveries have included portholes, large and small brass spikes, some bottles and a gold watch dated from the early 1800s. Captain David Pfeiffer of the dive boat Submission pieced together some clues and realized that he had been diving the site for decades. He presented a convincing description to Gary Gentile that fitted the Huntsville. Gentile concurred with Pfeiffer. Although the wreck is deeply buried in the sand, it has more to offer. The Huntsville was also an 840-ton wooden screw steamship. Launched at New York City in 1857, she too successfully captured dozens of blockade runners during the civil war and had an extensive history. Poignantly, Huntsville resumed her commercial career which lasted until she burned and sank off Atlantic City the same year as the Montgomery in December 1877.
I am often asked if I am afraid that I will encounter a shark while diving. Such magnificent creatures stir a rush of adrenaline throughout your core. My genuine fear is that I will not see any. One should be glad to see sharks; it defines a vibrant ecology. -Gene Peterson