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Whale of a Tale Series – Adventures on the Great Isaac

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Joe Lesneki raising the alpha flag

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

Initially the Great Isaac was constructed to tow fuel barges for the WWII allied efforts. The Great Isaac was a massive V-4 tug, 194-foot in overall length and considered to be one of the largest operating tugs in the world. It took a crew of over 30 to operate this titanic workhorse. As a part of this fleet, the Great Isaac gained prominence when employed during the Normandy Beach invasion to tow concrete Gooseberry structures to create a harbor for landing supplies essential to the invasion.

Historically the Great Isaac was recognized for those efforts when Captain C.I. Parkin received a Bronze Star for metritis duty under fire during the D Day landing. After the war, these powerful 2800 horse powered behemoths were employed throughout the world by private towing companies for bulk towing tasks. On the night of April 16, 1947, the Great Isaac operated by Moran towing, plowed north to New York trailing behind was the liberty ship Thomas M. Cooley. The towed Cooley was destined to be refitted in New York.

At the time of the sinking, dense fog cloaked the night making for hazardous conditions. Caution required the regimented use of fog horns and addition watches. Even with such prudence demanded under the capable hands of Captain Ernest McCreary, a fateful collision was eminent.

The Isaac was punctured by the reinforced bow of the Norwegian freighter Bandeirante. Captain Lief Bjornstad of the Bandeirante, likewise had cautiously maneuvered in the fog, sounding his horn yet to no avail. After his ship pierced the port engine compartment of the Great Isaac, Bjornstad backed away from the doomed tug. He quickly surmised his own mutilation. The robust hull of the Bandeirante had sustained limited damage.

Aboard The Great Isaac

Meanwhile on the Great Isaac, the crew hurriedly abandoned the doomed tug. Steam and acrid smoke rose from the swirling sea as it plunged to the depth of 15 fathoms. Fortunately, there were only minor injuries, as all escaped the condemned vessel. Noting a less than remarkable anecdote, one sailor hastily jumped up from his bunk absently leaving his false teeth behind in his urgency. 

The Thomas M. Cooley anchored by the tow cables of the sunken wretch would sit there with a skeleton crew overnight. Towed the next day north by the Great Isaac’s sister ship, Trinidad Head, the liberty ship Cooley would sail again, but the hulk of the Isaac would lay dormant at the bottom of the sea for more than two decades.

In the late sixties with the establishment of the LORAN navigation system along coastal waters, offshore shipwrecks could now be rediscovered. Dead reckoning by compass fell short when relying on land structures in hazy or limited visibility. Loran extended the accuracy to within fifty feet with a range greater than 200 miles. The topography of the Great Isaac made an easy target lying on its port side rising nearly 30 feet off bottom. Since its discovery, less than a dozen miles off Barnegat inlet, this intact site remains a popular destination. The wreck has continued to dramatically deteriorate due to the caustic effect of the sea.

The once impenetrable hull has become a skeleton. Compartments that were boxed tight, dark inaccessible confines have recently opened becoming sunny exposed spaces. There is still great risk for explorers. Divers should remain wary of the crumbling overhead and swinging I-beams. There is an increasing danger of an avalanche from the massive engines, that are tentatively held by rusting mounts. With that said, the tug remains a captivating structure. The profusion of fish and marine life camouflage the hull. Recent discoveries have stimulated greater interest for seekers meandering through the edifice.

When first explored, divers took advantage of the loose and more accessible openings of the tug. Soon the bell was recovered, as well as the helm wheel. Short order was made of the humungous bronze propeller by commercial divers. Before long, recreational dive charters began taking throngs of wrecks divers to scour the popular site. Most divers explored the outer structure, occasionally dipping their head into the wheelhouse. Some would stretch a leg length into the forward hatch gazing up into the foreboding darkness. After summing up the muddle overhangs, sensible explorers would soon exit to the more comfortable open exterior. There were those few that went beyond the ambient light. They pushed on from room to room or descending the stack into the more menacing engine-room.

As a progression of wreck divers passed over and throughout the hull of the Great Isaac, many compartments continued to remain inaccessible. The forward loading hatch and the top door to the wheelhouse were the only access points for dozens of years. Barely, a handful of divers had gained any access beyond the engine-room. The tight corridors and silty confines of the deteriorating compartments unnerved the most intrepid of penetrators.

In the late seventies and early eighties, a small core of divers from South Jersey shared their investigations, and experience on the Great Isaac. Their mutual respect and passion carried little rivalry. Strategies were made to gain greater entrance to more remote interior cubicles despite the restricted access. Pouring over deck plans they started pushing further through the tight corridors into the navigation room, gyro room, galley, medical room and officers’ quarters.

The Great Isaac was becoming ripe. Exciting finds including sextants, chronometers, wine decanters, silverware and china were being unearthed. As the warm weather waned, the time was right to continue exploring before winter storms covered over the next cornucopia of discoveries.

In the late months of 1982 some die-hards decided to push on through the fall and bear the cruelty of winter wreck diving. That type of diving meant treacherous conditions above and below the surface. Sudden violent storms, icy boat decks, frozen regulators, and bitter cold decompression stops in frigid waters are just a few of the trials suffered by those possessed aquanauts. Most rational folks would bail, but we chaffed at the bit for the opportunity.  

Finding a boat to continue in the conflicting condition of winter was no easy task. Only a few capable masters would venture offshore in such extreme conditions. Joe Lesneski, captain of the Down Under was willing. Captain Joe was a tough salvager who fearlessly ran his forty-foot wooden boat out of Barnegat Light, one of the most perilous inlets on the New Jersey coast.  His recognized voyages included rough-water excursions beyond New York waters down to the dreaded shoals of North Carolina.

On a frosty day in February, the Down Under was prepared to cruise off to the Great Isaac. The chronic circumstances of winter diving prevailed. The smell of the kerosene heater saturated the air. Slick icy decks made loading hefty double tanks and equipment hazardous. As usual the frozen head remained inoperable to the chagrin of the coffee engorged regulars. The deck was garland with a conglomeration of lines, weights, lights baskets, and assorted dive essentials.

As the parade of loaders settled, a shot of ethanol was whiffed and the two smoky 671 Detroits thundered. Then steadily the diesel droned, breaking the early morning silence. We broke free and soon cruised past Old Barny, the familiar red and white lighthouse.

The cabin warmed as the deafening roar of the engines prevailed. Soon the ice choked head flowed to the relief of all. Smiles resumed among us. Life was good.

The lighthouse faded behind us as we neared the target. Various projects were discussed by all. Today Harley Sager and I decided we would open the “Auxiliary Stores Locker” directly behind the towing bit. We were prepared with a large sledge hammer, drive pins, and large breaker bars. We would drive out two large hinge pins and use leverage to lay the cover down in the sand. Like opening an Egyptian tomb, our minds reeled of the wonders to be found.

Soon anchored over the Great Isaac, the decks began to clear. Enthusiasm remained high even as we broke through the icy water. The first few feet of sea surface bear a resemblance to a lime slushy. The shock of the biting cold water saturating our hoods and exposed facial areas temporarily diminishing intellect. As Harley and I descended the anchor line, our trigeminal headaches from the icy water dissipated. We were again clearheaded. Swimming to the hatch, we quickly unloaded our configuration of necessary tools. I place a giant drift pin over the hinges, and Harley swung a 5-pound sledge. With a dozen or so swings the pins dropped to the sea bed with little resistance. A slight gap allowed us to slide a large crow bar in between the opening and the hatch. We pried a gap about a foot wide, then Harley began to jump up and down on the bending door until it finally crashed to the sand. As it fell, a bundle of 3-inch diameter tow lines unraveled itself from a massive spool and formed a tangle inside the entrance. A belch of black silt and a jumble of pulley blocks fell blocking the tight opening. Being unable to see through the muck and entanglements, we surmised our situation and decided to push no further. Black inky water quickly engulphed us as we clawed our way up the hull and hovered over the hatch. Our time was dwindling, and the conditions worsened. Without any misinterpretation of the emerging danger, we began our ascent and bore the long numbing minutes of decompression.

Back on the deck, the other divers had squared off on their projects spread throughout the wreck. Harley and I were still damp and shivering from first stroll in the park. We discussed our next strategy. There was an eminent danger entering the locker. Not knowing what other loose entanglements or entrapments remain dangling overhead could be a lethal risk. Harley was too bulky to fit through the tight and gnarled opening. He sensibly declined to enter the hold. I had slithered through similar constrictions before and felt comfortable pushing through this gap. There was one condition for the menace I was going to embark on. We would split the finds evenly, but if there was a single unique element, it was agreed it was my claim. We shook and prepped for the next plunge.

Debbie Whitcraft, Gene Peterson and Jim Vogel at Maritime Museum of New Jersey with restored Great Isaac tow light.

The visibility cleared after our surface intermission allowing us to better decipher the obstructed hatchway. Harley agreed to station himself at the entrance while I carefully removed the hindrances. After some gently nudging, I managed to clear enough space for me to slide through. Waiting at the tight escape hole Harley shown his light to guide me back. Inside the cavernous hold I saw wonderous things. Cage lights, turtle lights, massive spools of towing line, bits, block and tackles, and brass telephone boxes were strewn throughout. In the far corner my eyes locked on a huge towing lantern mounted on a six-foot steel pipe. Overhead, I looked for dangling cables or loose debris that could snag or slide down and trap me. I glided over piles of disconcerted clutter. Reaching the piece, I found it to be loose but mixed in some confusion. I swooped up the awkward assembly and hovered back to Harleys guiding light. Harley pulled the lantern through the hatchway, I passed out an assortment of additional finds and then followed.

In the sand, as we gathered up our discoveries, I made a gesture to Harley that there was only one lantern. He made a gesture back to me indicating his dismay. We ascended. Back on board, Harley was content with the split. The others exchanged stories and elaborated on their finds.

Captain Joe pulled the hook, warning us it was going to be a rough ride in. We battened down our gear as Down Under plied through the building seas. The wind had picked up to a stiff 20 knots. White caps of frozen ocean broke behind us. The sky darkened in contrast to the foaming white waves that surrounded us.

When Joe warned us that we were going to be in rough waters, we took heed. On the last trip the Down Under nearly earned its name when a wave broke over the stern rolling the boat on its side. All on the back deck were washed off their feet. We clutched onto the rail of the upside of the boat with our feet dangling. The cause of our near demise; Some stored life jackets had broken free pulling down the secondary throttle shutting off one engine just as we surfed down a mountainous wave. The quick action of Captain Joe saved us from sinking by turning the boat around and heading back out the inlet. 

Reminded of this previous incident, I redonned my drysuit with my street clothes. I inserted my wallet, truck keys, donned my fins and sat in the back of the boat clutching the lantern. Tom Packer jeered this action. I let him know that when the boat went down, I was going to swim to shore and drive home with my prize. After a few more jolting waves, the entire boat was suited. Barnegat was still one of the most feared inlets on the east coast before the south jetty was extended in the 1990s. It was a wise act for all to prepare. As we approached the dreaded channel, the seas had built to a catastrophic height. Waves broke across the shallow sand bar ahead. The Down Under pressed on through the crest of a breaking wave, when the boat stalled struggling against the surge. A second wave broke flooding the stern knocking Dave Poponi off his feet. It left him helplessly floating in the detritus. Captain Joe powered up the boat to full throttle as we sped ahead of the next breaker.

Dave jumped back up, shaking off his awkwardness. We all laughed with relief, knowing how fortunate we were. 

Since then many of dive boats have safely passed through Barnegat inlet voyaging to the Great Isaac. Today, Captain Gary Smith of Dina Dee regularly visits the tug. Old Barny greets all that pass. Many great Great Isaac adventures await. Perhaps someday a lucky diver will stumble upon a set of false teeth.