Home Go Diving! Whale of a Tale – Discovering Shipwrecks: In Search of the Cayru

Whale of a Tale – Discovering Shipwrecks: In Search of the Cayru

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Offshore paddle wheeler photo by Paul Whittaker (Peterson Collection)

In the cold morning darkness, the 70-foot head boat Captain Applegate bashed through high seas as it thundered out of Absecon Inlet. Captain Andy Applegate wanted to leave before sunrise to reduce the risk of being plotted as he plowed some 60 miles south out of Atlantic City to his secret destination. It was rough enough to prevent smaller craft from following his monstrous boat. The conditions were marginal for diving, but a change in the wind direction would level the seas as the day progressed. This was what Captain Andy had hoped on to conceal his course.

By Gene Peterson

On the run offshore, the suspicious captain warily eyed the divers and other captains onboard. He paced the decks scanning for signaling devices, that might be alerting other vessels trying to pinpoint our location. Like Queeg, in Caine Mutiny, Captain Applegate trusted no one. All were suspected of stealing the peaches.

Built at Hog Island, Pennsylvania, the Brazilian freighter, SS Cayru was torpedoed by the German submarine U-94 on March 9, 1942. It had been a lure for divers since the late sixties. One of the last big freighters torpedoed in World War II. Oberleutnant zur See Otto Ites, commander of the German submarine, summarized the attack in his war log. Ites noted; after firing a finishing blow, the Cayru then broke in two and sank by the bow. The death blow struck amidships at 2:45 am. The Cayru was listed in his log as sinking 130 miles south of New York and east of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Ites, one of the most successful U-boat commanders plundered over 15 ships on four missions racking up a total of over 84,000 tons of allied shipping. All the crew members on the Cayru and 14 passengers abandoned ship in four lifeboats. Before the sub submerged, they were then questioned by Ites and the German sub crew. He noted the ships name and tonnage. Twenty-two crew members and four passengers were picked from a lifeboat by the Norwegian motor merchant Titania and landed at New York. Two days later, six survivors and one body were picked up by the American coastal minesweeper USS AMc-202 and landed the next day at New London, Connecticut. The night of the sinking, a storm bore down on the helpless lifeboats struggling to make the coast. Fifty-two crew and passengers were lost during the developing gale. After sinking the Cayru, the U-94 then prowled off the Delaware Capes waiting for its next victim. It soon made short work of the Hvoslef on March 11, 1942 with two torpedoes sinking the Norwegian freighter within a few minutes killing six more sailors including the Hvoslef master.

The recorded Wartime Naval documents provided by the crew of the Cayru have proved to be inaccurate. After numerous searches in this area, no trace of the ship has been determined. In 1950, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey conducted a wire-drag survey of the wreck and plotted its position on the charts. In a descriptive report in the 1950 survey, the Naval surveyors stated that they had not located the wreck. It was recommended in that statement, that the felonious wreck symbol be deleted from future charts. After several searches in that area with side-scans and magnetometers no trace of the Cayru had been unveiled. The position recorded in Oberleutnant zur See Otto Ites log marks the position dozens of miles farther off the coast than the original Allied report. It appeared to be off the continental shelf in hundreds of feet of water. Even though the wreck has not been found and almost certainly is unduly far off the American coast, NOAA did a risk assessment as late as 2013 to measure Cayru’s environmental impact from leaking fuel.

Gene Peterson, Kathy Warehouse, Bart Malone, and Rick Jaszyn

This ship was believed to be in diveable waters until research unearthed by research writer Gary Gentile placed the wreck well beyond the Jersey Coastal shelf. Over the decades, several searches were conducted using the false Naval documentation as a precedent and several noted boat captains laid claim to the discovery of this intangible wreck. George Hoffman led a search offshore in the late seventies. He described a wreck at a depth of 165 feet, where he claimed the wheelhouse lay upside down in the sand about 100 feet from the boilers. This similarity equally describes the S.S. Miraflores which I positively identified in 2008 tracing the serial numbers from the mechanical helm recovered there. Captain Skip Galimore running the Aquanaut out of the Barnegat Light, found a shallow wreck in 135 feet of water and declared it to be the Cayru. The age and dimensions of wreck ascertained more likely the site of a long-lost windjammer instead of a steamer. It is a wonder why the Cayru sparked such an obsession for so many wreck hunters.

Co-operatively, Debra Whitcraft and I launched a search in 1982. Andy Applegate, a well-known boat captain running out of Atlantic City long claimed that he had found the missing wreck. Putting together a group of experienced divers we planned to put the elusive wreck on the charts. The team included a who’s who of East Coast divers including high-profile divers and captains. The trip nearly ended before it started when a very annoyed Captain Andy Applegate phoned me. After hearing that I was advertising the trip as a Cayru dive. He told me the trip was off and I was banned from the boat. He was very protective of his wreck numbers and after seeing the names of the divers on the trip he was afraid his secret wreck would be pirated away. Debra intervened and ironed over the situation. Applegate reluctantly let me back on and took the charter. Turning down a large charter in the fall was an unlikely rouse by Captain Andy. His brief standoff was greatly influenced by cash. He had good reason to be skittish. This wreck was highly prized and there were rumors that several ploys were being hosted to bootleg the co-ordinates. Applegate took the risk after weighing the cash to be pocketed before the cold winter froze his boat to shore.

Captain Andy Applegate

Sixty miles south east of Atlantic City, the sun broke on our east as Captain Applegate’s diesels howled and then gradually dropped to just above idle. On the hammerhead bow pulpit, the mate released a heavy Danforth anchor. Then the boat backed down over the wreck and the mate tossed a light grapnel off the starboard side. Captain Andy blew the horn and shut down the engines.

Bob Ehle, Rick Jaszyn and I hastily leaped off the bow and pushed our way down the anchor line. We were shocked by what appeared to be a giant paddle wheel standing upright casting a shadow over the debris field below. We anticipated a freighter, but were rewarded with a much older vintage steamship. Lobsters masked the wreckage making us delusional as we stuffed our bags stretching the mesh with claws and tails.

The depth of 150 feet, limited our excursion and extended the decompression debt. Back on the boat deck, we milled over the shocking discovery. A paddle wheeler is a rarity, but one with the giant wheels still in place is monumental. Confirmation of the identity has been disputed since the discovery. On that first dive, Ray Milligan recovered a bilge pump manufactured in Wilmington, Delaware with no serial numbers. Diver discoveries have included portholes, deck prisms, and mixed pieces of brass, but nothing that dictates a positive identity.

In 2010, Rustin Cassway, Brian Sullivan, and the crew of the RV Explorer recovered a luggage tag verifying the identity of a paddle wheeler inshore of this larger ship. The luggage tag marked Champion 195, corroborates the other evidence that the inshore paddle wheeler is the steamship Champion. The Champion paddle wheeler sunk on November 7, 1879 in collision with the schooner Lady Octavia. There was a loss of 28 passengers.

By eliminating the plausible after the positive identification of the Champion, indicators point to the giant paddle wheeler being the Admiral Dupont. Still a definitive piece of evidence needed to be uprooted. The Admiral Dupont paddle wheeler sank due to a collision with the Stadacona on June 8, 1865, 42 miles east of Cape May, New Jersey. 17 passengers went down with the ship in the night.

After our first dive, a small plane passed over the giant blue and white head boat. It was evident that this plane was circling our location, slowly tipping its wings nearly hovering over the site. The crease in Captain Andy’s brow deepened. It was certain that the pilot was deciphering and recording the coordinates. Applegate barked sourly at me, “This is not the Cayru and we are not giving up another wreck like this today. Tell your guys to make your second dive plans here.” The party was over, so they say. Applegate’s assertion that he discovered the Cayru was sewn into legend, he never took divers out again. He went to his grave never releasing the so-called co-ordinates.

Although the Cayru was not discovered on that trip, nor on numerous other ventures, it stimulated several significant discoveries. The mystery magnified the drama. Perhaps it was just the yearning to know where the wreck finally settled to the sand, that stirred so many to search for it.

I too organized more offshore trips to find the lost freighter. Most attempts were condemned by weather, but there were some successful harmonizing finds. Later I put efforts into the uncertain, knowing the unknown was still worthwhile to find. When you search for the unknown you risk reputation, polarization and escalate frustration among your peers.

Tom Packer and Steve Gatto

On one trip, I gathered a handful of loyal disciples to check out an unknown site. It was a massive anomaly, hence my nick name for the search, “the Big One”. Reaching the site, the gigantic obstruction rose nearly twenty feet and the length ran several hundred feet. Enthusiastic divers leaped over the side anticipating a huge shipwreck festoon with incredible treasures. Tom Packer and Steve Gatto, two of my faithful followers, bolted to the bottom with feverous anticipation only to have their hopes squashed. The promise of the site being a big one was accurate. Strewn across the bottom were a half dozen, gigantic ten-foot in diameter, sixty-foot-long steel pipes bunched on top of each other. The lost cargo of a ship which broke free in a storm created this new site. Tom occupied his time penetrating one of the pipes. A truly good spirited friend, Tom surfaced and joked that this was just another one of Gene’s pipe dreams.

Gary Gentile was also a part of the “Big One” dive. He encouraged me to continue these hunts despite censure and failure. He had endured many of my disappointing gambles, but he had also shared in some of those triumphal discoveries. Success is the result of enthusiastic persistence.

Applegate had planned from the start to take us to an alternate site due to his paranoia and distrust of the make-up of the group. I don’t believe he knew how magnificent this substitute was compared to the Cayru. His displeasure focused on his archrival Captain Eddie Boyle. Eddie had been running dive charters since the mid-fifties and discovered most of the local inshore shipwrecks off Atlantic City. He and Captain Eddie competed for sites. Onboard were several other captains and distinguished wreck divers. Bob Yates captained the Black Whale out of Long Beach Island. Bob posed an equal threat as a skilled boat handler with a large boat, capable of running great distances offshore. Captain Andy had several suspects onboard to magnify his mistrust. He must have known the fox was already in the hen house. The historic dive to the Offshore paddle wheeler included Eddie Boyle, Bob Yates, Rick Jaszyn, Bob Ehle, Bart Malone, Steve Gatto, Chuck Wine, Cathy Warehouse, Ray Milligan, Harley Sager, Debra Whitcraft, and several others.

Befriending Andy Applegate took a decade of phone conversations. I never won his trust. Rather, he accepted that I was going to continue to hunt for wrecks and he was curious as to what he had been fishing for decades. I openly described to him the sites we ventured to. Many times, we inadvertently met on the water nudging each other on well-established wrecks. Eventually, he yielded and shared some smaller wrecks that his new party boat Apple Jack was too big for. He remarked to me in one conversation, that he had a small wreck so loaded with lobsters, that customers caught them on rod and reel. I went there and took a tour-guide on his first ocean dive. Together, we caught three bags of lobsters by hand.

Whenever I received a tip or a new co-ordinate offshore in his area, I would give him a call to verify the waypoint before making the long expensive trek offshore. Over the years, he had side-scanned dozens of offshore sights while searching for cod wrecks. If there was something there, you could be certain he would know. I could tell by the silence in our conversation, when I read out the numbers that the co-ordinates were good. In one memorable conversation, he confirmed two locations during a call. He was definitively irritated murmuring a few curses. One of these sites turned out to be the Danish tanker Texel and the other was the schooner Isabel Wiley. These two historic wrecks were also sought after by numerous wreck hunters.

Both ships were sunk on June 2, 1918 by the German submarine U-151, along with four other ships over 60 miles off the New Jersey Coast. This day known as “Black Sunday” was the most productive mission for any known German sub. Thirteen passengers drowned when the steamship Carolina’s number 5 lifeboat turned over in a storm making its way to Atlantic City. This aggressive attack caused Americas fight against German aggression to peak. The next day, over one thousand men registered for duty in New York.

In the late nineteen-eighties I organized a trip with Captain Wayne Cippolla, owner of the dive boat Horizon, to check out Applegate’s confirmed co-ordinates. On two different trips we were shut down by weather. On a fall journey, we pounded into four-foot seas for hours. Realizing the futility, we turned back after a noble effort. It was not until 1993, when I was able to put together another offshore search in that area. I chartered Captain Bob Archambault on the Robin II to check out the sites. Captain Bob’s boat was much better suited for the long offshore voyage. The only setback on the trip was the intense summer heat.

Capt. Bob Archambault, Capt.John Slotnick on Robin II

The Robin II was a steel hulled crew-boat and in the ninety-degree heat, you could fry eggs on the hull. It was one of the most uncomfortable yet rewarding trips you could conceive. Gary Gentile compared it to his experiences in Vietnam. Despite the rough seas and the roasting conditions, we successfully marked several wrecks including the tanker Texel. This fortuitous trip also included Tom Packer, and Steve Gatto. On that trip we gathered enough evidence to positively identify the Texel located in 230 feet of water. Pipe dreams sometimes pan out…

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston S. Churchill