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
In the late 80s, Art Kirshner purchased a house in Hatteras, North Carolina. At that time, deep Hatteras wrecks were relatively untouched. Hatteras Inlet was a difficult, ever changing, and dangerous ingress. The inshore wrecks were dived frequently, but many deep sites were out of range for most dive boats. I had known Art from earlier days diving on deep New Jersey wrecks and the Andrea Doria. Art approached me seeking qualified divers to venture offshore of Hatteras. With him I booked three to four groups a year from 1987 to 1992, diving dozens of new and forgotten sights. We bartered; I rented his house and arranged boats, deco gases, and air fills. Art went along as guide and entertainment director. Later, Art became a passionate dive boat captain. Arty Kirshner is an enthusiastic, colorful personality, well known for his animated antics. There were no dull moments on Captain Art’s excursions.
In the early trips, we teamed up with Captain Roger Huffman, a well-respected local fisherman turned dive boat operator. Prior to our trips with Captain Roger, other boats were unable to handle our aggressive type of diving. Roger, a lean Sam Elliot type, seldom wore shoes, bore a bushy dark mustache and maintained a jovial southern sense of humor. Captain Huffman was willing to pass over the frequented coastal sites and investigate new and less visited offshore wrecks. His sturdy 42-foot, Bruno & Stillman boat, the Quiet Waters was the platform for these voyages. Roger had fully rigged the vessel for divers and conceived a new and unusual method for divers to descend to the wrecks in the frequent strong currents known on the Hatteras coast. He dropped a weighted line from the stern attached by a length of line to another weighted clip that slid down the bow anchor line. At the time this was solely Rogers idea. He never was recognized for what today this is familiarly known as the “Carolina rig”. It was a necessary tool for most of the wrecks lying on the shoals just north of Hatteras.
As with many of these trips, we referred to Roger’s fishing dossier of snags and obstructions. Captain Roger had recorded, a small purse seiner fishing boat about thirty miles off Hatteras inlet in 160 feet of water. The night before departure, Quiet Waters was fully loaded ready for the venture offshore with Atlantic Divers group.
Hatteras mariners are subjected to frequent weather changes. They design their deep-hulled boats to handle the vicious seas that erupt without warning. The Quiet Waters was well suited for such conditions delivering a smooth ride in messy seas. This trip would be a test of our vigor and the Quiet Water’s sturdiness.
Roger was a methodical boat handler positioning us directly on top of the lost fisherman. Descending in the warm pristine waters the outline of a large intact purse seiner sat upright in the white sand. Its net had disintegrated but a few cables remained draped from midship to beyond the stern. One door to the wheel house was opened where you could see rings of the helm lying in a heap. Shipworms had long since digested the wooden wheel. The compass had fallen through the floor and lay smashed below deck out of reach wedged in the wreckage. Numerous portholes were battened throughout the tight interior. Moving aft assorted dishes lie strewn about the galley in disorder. They were heavy plain white of a more modern era from the early ‘50s or ‘60s. At a depth of 160 feet our time was limited due to decompression depth. All too soon, we were forced to cut short our tour. Amberjacks thickly spiraled around us on our ascent until we reached our shallow surface stops. The surface current grew stronger each minute of our return. By the time I reached my 20-foot stop, I felt like a flag flapping in a torrent. It took all my strength to work my way back to the stern of the Quiet Waters and pull myself onboard.
Roger had warned us before of the dreaded southwesters that flare up out of nowhere. Within minutes the ocean was tumultuous, and the fierce wind was over 25 knots whipping all halyards against their poles. The boat was lurching abruptly wave after wave tossing loose gear and sliding everything to the port side of the boat. Divers were ascending one by one crawling on their hands and knees struggling to maintain a foothold on the slick deck. Roger had us store as much gear as we could below deck in the stern hatches. We then ran extra lines tying taught whatever gear and tanks were left on deck.
We now gathered in the cabin, preparing for the rough ride in. Before we got locked in a safe position, a giant wave smashed the bow throwing us off our feet. We all fell into the lowest position and there we remained unable to lift ourselves in the jarring sea. It was a frightful ride for most of the trip. As we neared the inlet, the seas began to subside in the lee of the land.
When we finally were able to move
about, Arty stood up exclaiming he was mortally injured. The back of his shirt
was saturated with blood and dripping down his leg. Removing his shirt, no
wound could be found. Across the table from me Don Matifor exclaimed, “You have
a hole in your arm, and I can see your bone.”
He was looking at me. I lifted my right arm and could see little until I turned it inward. A gaping hole ran a few inches down my arm. Arty obviously received his first aid training on the job as an electrician. Soon my wound was clamped shut with pliers and bound up with paper towels and duct tape.
Back on the dock in Hatteras, Roger drove me to Arty’s house where my wife Joanie and my nine-month-old son Keith were waiting. Joanie could tell by Roger’s alarmed expression something had happened. Soon we headed out to the local clinic. On the way, she related to me how the wind had howled all day rocking the house swaying it like a ship at sea.
Hatteras had no urgent care at the time. Due to the limited number of physicians, you had to call in a doctor to the first aid center for any medical emergency. When we arrived, a truck was parked in the lot. Two fishermen in the truck assured me a doctor was on his way. The passenger was waiting patiently for that care. A fish hook had snagged his eyelid, luckily just glancing the outer skin. He was holding the hook and wire leader away from his eye. He seemed nonchalant, but due to the gruesomeness of his wound, I recommended that he go first. Another truck pulled into the lot and an unassuming gray-haired fellow with a light blue medical-like jacket got out. Doc Adams from Gunsmoke could not have played the part better. He opened the clinic, put up the open sign and we followed. After making short order of the eyelid hook patient, I soon found myself getting stitched up. Gazing about the office, I was impressed by the doctor’s collection of fishing hooks removed from various former customers. He had a story for each one: an assortment of mishaps ranging from falls, sits, bad casts and overzealous wind-ups. He had seen and removed hooks from every body part and orifice one can imagine. Arty and Roger waited outside after the procedure. The wind was dropping out, so we discussed plans for the morning. After all a little hole with 15 stitches in my arm wasn’t going to prevent me from another great adventure.
Off Hatteras, North Carolina, we dived many wrecks at first with fishing boats, then dive boats run by Roger Huffman, Eddie Jack, and Arty Kirshner. There were so many major discoveries. A few weeks after I mended fully, we were back on the Quiet Waters. Our destination speculated to be a little tug thought to be the Keshena. It wasn’t one of our choice destinations, but I thought it was a worthy dive. I guess because it was shallow, the group figured it would be small, with poor visibility or picked over. The current was strong but dive-able. True, the site was small and broken up, therefore the discouraged divers came up wanting to go to another sight. It was very sanded in and there wasn’t much to see. I remember being exhausted from all the weeks anchor tie ins, so I sat out.
Arty didn’t want to pull the hook; consequently, I made a quick bounce swim to the wreck, did a little tour and then went to pull the grapnel snagged in the bow. I did a double take of the anchor-chain which was rubbing the growth off the side of the bow. There attached in place were all the letters of the ships name. I pulled out my knife and popped the loose brass KEHENA letters from the port side and then swam to the other side and popped off more letters which also spelled KEHENA. The S was missing on both sides. Some of the letters were made of lead and quite possibly the S may have been made of steel or just fell to the sand. I searched, but I never found either.
That dive was short, which included recovering the letters and pulling the hook. Back on the boat, six divers were waiting to anticipate one of my sedentary anchor-pulling stories. To their surprise, I gently laid my goody bag on the deck with 12 assorted brass letters. I gave each of the group one letter and kept the remainder. They were quite happy and wanted to return anticipating more discoveries. We returned finding a couple port holes, but the wreck was so sanded in there wasn’t much more discovered.
After the trip, I contacted Gary Gentile about the letters and we both speculated that the S must have been steel. It probably corroded away and had fallen to the sand or is still there or the name was put on the bow by an illiterate yard worker on a Friday. A few months late, a lucky local diver recovered a large brass bell. It did have the name on it, and it was spelled KESHENA. She positively identified the wreck’s correct spelling. A few years passed and the stern letters were also recovered complete with an S by local Dave Sommers. The caustic effects of the currents and saltwater continue to accelerate the demise of these wrecks. Now is the time to visit these sites before they become a rust stain in the sand. Hatteras remains a wreck haven, full of discovery and spectacular diving for those willing to make the endeavor one step further to adventure.