By John Wagner
Graduate Student, East Carolina University Program in Maritime Studies
Today's leg of the expedition was to be a day of firsts. It was going to be the first day the group began photo and video documentation of the wreck site of the Caribsea, the first dive I have ever made with a high probability of seeing sand tiger sharks, and the first day aboard the TomKat.
Learn how maritime archaeologists surveyed and mapped the HMT Bedfordshire. (Courtesy of UNC CSI and NOAA)Click here to view.
The TomKat is the third East Carolina University boat we have had to put into service and should not to be confused with a certain Hollywood couple. Today was also going to be the day we broke down the baseline, took final photographs, and finished mapping on the HMT Bedfordshire. With half of the group going to the Bedfordshire in the R/V Sam Gray, and my group heading to the Caribsea in the Tomkat, it appeared that we would have another productive day. However, in keeping with the projects challenges, we soon discovered that the sea had other plans for us.
Mauritius Bell (Georgia Aquarium) readies his equipment. (Photo: NOAA)
Shortly after leaving the dock in the TomKat, we received a radio call from Chad, the skipper on the R/V Sam Gray, who informed us that they had just reached the mouth of the inlet and were already experiencing the roughest seas we had seen so far. With severe storms quickly approaching the East Coast and the next few days of diving uncertain, we decided to make a dash out to sea to finish our tasks. If we could not make it across the shoals to the Caribsea, we thought we could at least make it to the Bedfordshire to assist with the breakdown of the site.
Chad Meckley (NOAA Corp) tops off the gas tank of the R/V Sam Gray. (Photo: NOAA)
As we tried to maintain a steady speed of 18 knots, the catamaran shaped hull of the TomKat kept falling off the back edge of the ocean swells and gave everyone onboard quite the jarring. About an hour and a half into our voyage, we checked the GPS and realized we still had nine miles to go, making this trip our slowest voyage to date (with a properly working boat).
With about five miles to go, as we debated how to deploy our divers and recover sets of double tanks over the TomKat's four feet of freeboard, our radio again crackled with a transmission from the Sam Gray. They had reached the site but could not find the subsurface buoy because a 2.5 to 3 knot surface current was pulling it too deep to be seen. With rising seas and such a stiff current, both groups decided to call off diving for the day and to head back to port.
John Wagner (ECU) checks his tanks before he places them onboard the TomKat. (Photo: NOAA)
On the way back, we were thankful to discover that the waves were assisting us with our voyage and the boats were able to slide over the tops of them instead of freefalling off the backside of them. Maintaining speeds of 20 to 25 knots, we cruised back to port and even waved to a large loggerhead turtle lazily floating on the surface as we passed. Once we arrived at port, we unloaded our gear, slightly dejected that we had missed another day of diving. But we were happy that we could return to port unlike the many merchant and naval vessels that had plied these same waters during World War II and whose only respite would come with winning the Battle of the Atlantic.