Whale of a Tale: Return to the S.S. Northern Pacific

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    As diving history progresses, legend begets fact. Some stories are too good to dissolve in the brine of the sea and continue to endure. This is one such tale.

    By Gene Peterson

    Modest events can cast your life. I took my beginner scuba class in the late ‘60s in Rockville, Maryland with local dive club called the Atlantis Rangers. While waiting for class to start, I overheard some local divers discussing the recent discovery of two New Jersey shipwrecks. One was the S.S. Northern Pacific that sank in fire in 1922, and the other was a U.S. Navy destroyer called the Jacob Jones. The Jacob Jones was torpedoed off Cape May, New Jersey on February 28, 1942. Less than 26 years later, in 1968, two Pennsylvania divers, John Dudas and Bill Scheibel dived off the fishing party boat “Big Jim” discovering both wrecks in one day.  I made a mental note that I wanted to someday also explore those wrecks. I would earn that opportunity a few years later.

    My parents were retiring and considering Southern New Jersey as a place to resettle. I prompted them to move there, so that I could pursue my passion; wreck diving. I wanted to be close to Cape May known as the hub for wreck diving.

    Hundreds of shipwrecks lace the approaches to the Delaware Bay lost to storms, wars and due to human error. Most of these classic wrecks remain pristine due to the difficulty venturing to these offshore sites. The well noted include; the Northern Pacific, Varanger, City of Athens, Cherokee, Hvoslef, Moonestone, and Jacob Jones. Known as the “Big Seven”, they are loaded with history, artifacts and gigantic lobsters. In particular, the Northern Pacific is the iconic Cape May shipwreck. It has all the features which continue to inspire wreck-diving adventurers. The passenger-liner Northern Pacific was gigantic; over 525 feet in length, with a beam over 60 feet, making it the largest ship sank off New Jersey. It is upside-down, rising nearly 40 feet off the sandy bottom. Hundreds of portholes are strewn amongst the wreckage of this once robust steamer. The S.S. Northern Pacific was converted during World War I to an Army transport. It made headlines when this colossal ship was stranded on New Year’s Day 1919 just off Long Island with over 2500 passengers onboard. Within four days, the Coast Guard and several other ships safely rescued the weary homebound soldiers, nurses, and wounded trapped on the ship. The S.S. Northern Pacific was refloated and underwent months of repair. On February 8, 1922, while in tow with a skeleton crew, the Northern Pacific caught fire and sank off Cape May in 150 feet of water. The fire was so intense, the Revenue Cutter Seneca had to stand off more than one mile to avoid the blistering heat. A large crack in the hull marks the brittle heat damage. It is a well-known navigation point and allows penetration into the engine room. Here massive boilers are contained beneath the void. Even today, one can still see dozens of portholes attached to the hull. Occasionally, some lucky diver can finagle one from the crushing hull-plates. This is a spectacular dive for those experienced divers and photographers.

    In the early seventies, Captain Sam Still, a local diver took a stanch crew of divers to Cape May wrecks. The hearty nature of their spirit was emphasized by the name of his boat; “The Wild One”. Her home port was Wildwood, New Jersey, an ironic simile. This converted, wooden, lobster boat had an earned name, by her crew boldly pushing the boundaries of sport diving. Members were noted for diving deep offshore wrecks and catching monstrous lobsters. If you dived on the Wild One, you were considered a solid, hard-core wreck-diver and a bit wild…

    Captain Sam was already a legend in South Jersey wreck diving. He was discovering wrecks, recovering helms, bells, portholes, and known as an eminent lobster hunter. Sam was also a conscientious captain, carefully matching the appetite of this legion of divers with their skill levels. He was the go-to man for the S.S. Northern Pacific. Throughout the mid- seventies, Sam Still and his regulars were frequent customers to the Dive Shop of New Jersey, where I worked in high school and college. On Wednesday nights throughout the dive season, the group would meet for air fills and social discussion. The casual shop atmosphere allowed them to rehash their exploits and plans. My enthusiasm and mutual appetite for wreck diving soon got my invite to join them on their offshore trips.

    At that time in this pioneer era of wreck diving, the Northern Pacific was considered one of the stepping-stones of deep wreck diving. It was a premiere wreck rarely dived due to the distance offshore, strong currents, and depth. Few weather windows of opportunity allowed divers much access to the site. Sam made regular runs to the “Big Seven” and then-some. I was especially interested in the massive steamer and jumped at any opportunity to go there.

    As the “Wild One” plods a south-east course to the remains of the Northern Pacific, the early morning fog and damp air saturates those bunk less voyagers making a nest on the deck. It is a three hour plus ride to the site, requiring the crew to leave in the morning darkness and return in the corresponding evening; a long venture even for dedicated dogmatists.

    Sam’s trusted helmsman Phil Lindale steers, as Sammy catches some well-earned rest. The boat steams onward in the quiet pre-dawn hours. A few clicks echo in the darkness, then suddenly, a Penn reel zings wildly. Hermie Akins jumps up from a deck bench and screeches “Fish On!” His rowdy scream echoes throughout the slumbering boat. Phil pulls down on the throttle, as Hermie winds in the big bull head bluefish. The eruption in the monotonous trek draws little attention. Divers roll back in their sleeping bags, covering their heads to muffle the droning motor, as the little boat steams on in the flat sea.As the hot sun rises, the pitch of the diesel changes. The rpms are dropping, a familiar signal that the wreck is near. Weary, salt crusted faces capriciously stow their night gear, and sip coffee. Gazing over Sam’s shoulder, we watch enthusiastically as the paper depth recorder stitches ink over the level bottom at 145 feet. Suddenly, a large spike appears rising nearly an inch on the plotter. Captain Sam calls for a buoy to be tossed over, marking the wreck. The “Wild One” circles the mammoth hulk as Captain Sam scans for the port side crack. Here the scattered rubble offers divers the best area to explore the labyrinth of hull plates and I-beams festooned with portholes and monster lobsters. Here loose portholes lie just out of reach. A frustrating, yet magnetically appealing setting for divers. As if implanted in a boardwalk arcade, they tantalized one to be creative.  Innovative divers carry plumber snakes with hooks to snag the dogs of the giant brass windows, that have dropped to the sand. The hull plates remain outward, leaving the swing-plates and bolted sides underneath. It is too tight of a squeeze to crawl under to work between the hull and the sand. Overzealous wreckers have hopelessly lodged drift pins into the hull attempting to drive out the rotted steel bolts from the outside. Some limited victory has been made in these attempts, but pure luck seems to be the provenance for success here. In the late eighties, legendary diver Chuck Wine recovered three portholes here on his first dive, cutting the wrong line attempting to swim them back to the boat; he lost them all as they dropped far off the wreck. Remarkably on his second dive in a different area, he fruitfully recovered three replacements.

    On the bow, Phil Lindale releases the grapnel, as Hermie races over the side plummeting with the weighted line. His duty is to secure the boat into the wreck. My dive partner, Lynn DelCorio and I suit up with the others and wait for Captain Sam to cut us loose. “Go diving boys.” He shouts after checking the anchor-line.  Over the side we go. As we descend, we run into Hermie ascending. In one of his bags a gigantic, one clawed, fifteen-pound lobster is gnawing at the mesh. His other bag bulges with countless orange claws and tentacles. You can hear his ecstatic laugh as we drop past him. I can only imagine what John Dudas experienced being the first diver to see those three huge propellers rising over the stern. Below us we see only the remaining shafts. These enormous bronze blades were salvaged in the early seventies. Danny Bressette later discovered a propeller hub blown off during the salvage. Molded into the cone was the identifying name Northern Pacific.

    Pushing down, we land by the crack; the expansive hull looks like a vacant parking lot. As we descend further and move toward the bow, a curved hull plate lying like a peninsula sticking out from the main debris field, offers a cavernous swim through. As I look up, a complete row of portholes dangles above, dogs cinched tight. Lynn stops, pulls out a chisel and hammer to start a project. I continue exploring. Advancing in the same direction, I turn back toward to the hull. Ahead of me, a sheer wall rises where the bow has imbedded itself into the sand. Visibility this dive is dark but clear, limited only by the distance of your lighting. In wonder, I stop at the point of the bow. I feel daunted staring at the whole outline of the behemoth before me. Vacillating to the starboard side, I decide to continue with reservation. I am far from the anchor-line. I check my gauges and confirm my position. The wreck is contiguous, and I have an adequate gas supply to continue without retracing my path.   Here the steep, absolute wall continues. A few hull plates have dropped from the sides leaving garage-door size openings. I swim hesitantly into the void. Looking up at the lightless apex, the hollow room is devoid of structure. Large chain links remain visible beneath collapsed panels. Under tons of metal, I imagine a bell once resonated warning and jubilation during her colorful eight-year life as a passenger ship and as an Army transport. The watch is ticking, so I exit the jumble and rise to the top of the hull. Reaffirming my direction, I continue. I travel a good two hundred feet on top of the hull then drop back over to the portside and follow the familiar wanderings back to the crack in the hull. Here I re-unite with Lynn, as he shoots a lift bag to the surface. His tenacity has prevailed, and I acknowledge him as we ascend. The current has increased making our ascent strenuous. A twenty-five-minute air dive with an air decompression requires a lengthy debt of hanging. Currently at this era of early deep diving, O2 decompression was conjecture. No matter, we completed our obligations and safely continued to pursue the adventure.

    Back on the Wild One, divers are wrestling tanks, icing down monster lobsters, and doormat flounder, hauling in discoveries and preparing for the long haul to our second wreck. We would take advantage of the long ride to off gas that nitrogen and magnify our past adventure stories. As we approach Cape May, the summer sun drops from the horizon behind the silhouette of the shoreline. We feel fortunate to witness rare days like this; it never grows old.

    Sadly, Captain Sam Still passed away on October 7, 2017. Sam ran diving trips off Cape May for over three decades discovering numerous wrecks. Sam could be tough but was a gentleman and a soft-spoken leader. I have been to the S.S. Northern Pacific many times since Sam first invited me to join his gutsy group on the “Wild One”. I will always be grateful for those first opportunities. Captain Sam is well missed by all that had the pleasure of meeting him.