The navigation markers appear like apparitions in the thick fog. They’re the only indication of where we’re going and where the channel is beside the line marking our position on the chart plotter. The brightly colored screen of the plotter seems magical to me. If Odysseus had had this navigation technology he could have easily avoided the Sirens, the six-headed monster, Scylla, and the whirlpool, Charybdis.
The chart plotter I’m staring at is on the bridge of Captain Bill Palmer’s 34 foot Bertram, Thunderfish. It’s showing me the ENC (electronic navigation chart) of the Mystic River along with our position, heading, and speed. Bill’s a charter boat captain and wreck diver and we’re heading out to a well-known dive site. The chart plotter clearly shows the land and other features hidden in the gray veil of fog. Without radar and GPS there is no way we would be leaving the harbor today.
100 years ago on June 28, 1918 there was a fog similar to the one Bill and I are experiencing. On that day the large steamship Onondaga had been ordered to take the inside passage through Long Island Sound rather than the offshore route because of the threat of German U-boats. She didn’t have the assistance of the modern navigation instruments we have today to help her through the fog.
Bill told me that in dense fog the captain heard the fog horn of the Watch Hill Lighthouse which he mistook for the horn at Race Rock. The captain tried to come on the inside of the rock which put him over Watch Hill Reef. The ships bottom scrapped over part of the reef. The captain turned the ship around to try and get back to deep water and hit the reef dead center. Most boat captains would have anchored until the fog cleared but the skipper must have felt confident that he knew where he was but he didn’t. Fortunately, nobody was killed. The 35 crew members were taken off in lifeboats because she was high and dry on the reef, at least the bow section was. The vessel was a total loss. So it was just a tragic error.
The Onondaga was built in 1905 in Philadelphia by William Camp & Sons for the famous Clyde Steamship Company. The company owned a fleet of coastal steamers that were all named after Indian tribes. Onondaga was typical of the steel-hulled passenger-freighters of that time. Her dimensions were 275 feet in length, 40-foot beam, and a 19-foot draft. Her gross tonnage was 2,696.
The Clyde Line had a long history. Established in 1844 by Thomas Clyde, it ran a fleet of steamships connecting Philadelphia and other east coast ports. The company moved its headquarters to New York in 1872 and expanded its routes to include the entire East and Gulf Coasts as well as regular service to the West Indies. The company changed ownership a few times over the years and in 1932 became the Clyde-Mallory Line. The company was sold in 1949 to the Bull Line and the Clyde name disappeared.
Because of the lack of modern navigation instruments, steamship mishaps were frequent. Of the 45 ships the Clyde Line eventually owned, 16 were wrecked, one was sunk by a German U-boat, the others by fire, grounding, or collision. In 1925 alone the Clyde Line lost three ships. The steamship Comanche, built in 1895, was burned and beached in Mayport, Florida on October 17. The Mohawk, built in 1908, caught fire on January 2 off the Delaware Breakwater and broke in two on the beach. The Mohegan, built in 1904, burned and sank off the Cape Cod Canal on May 10th, 1925.
The Onondaga’s sinking on Watch Hill Reef wasn’t the first time she had been in trouble. 11 years before on January 13, 1907 she ran aground off Orleans Beach in Massachusetts. She was high and dry on the beach for two months before she was floated off and towed to Boston for temporary repairs. Later she was towed to Philadelphia for a complete overhaul.
As the Thunderfish left the Mystic River heading toward Watch Hill the fog began to burn off. Bill explained about the dive. “It’s a great dive for beginners because the bow is in only 35 feet of water, the stern in 55. The only thing is you have to dive at slack water otherwise the strong current on the reef can literally rip the mask right off your face. Also, if there is any swell the surge can push a diver up against the jagged steel plates of the hull but in good weather, at slack-tide, it’s great.”
Bill told me that visibility varies depending on the time of year and the amount of plankton in the water. Generally, the visibility is between 10 and 15 feet although he’s seen visibility so good e could see the surface from the bottom. The stern of the ship is pretty much intact.
“You can see the propeller shaft sticking out,” Bill said. “The rudder lying out to the side is intact. I believe the propeller was blown off in the sixties. As you swim along the stern the hull sticks down into the sand. Next you come to the boilers. After that it flattens out and it’s like a giant junkyard. Cargo is spread throughout. She was carrying Model T tires, as well as dishes, cups and saucers, perfume bottles, and shoes. She might have been carrying Harley Davidson motorcycles.”
When we reached the Watch Hill Reef, Bill carefully anchored the boat near the rocks. Watch Hill Lighthouse is only a half mile away. As I watch Bill and the other diver put on their gear it seemed to me there is an incredibly complex amount of equipment but to experienced open water wreak divers it’s just another day in the office. The divers splash into the water and I sit in the sun and watch as the bubbles from their air tanks break the surface showing their position underwater. After a while two heads break the surface and swim to the boat. Bill puts a long slimy object on the rail, it looks like a giant eel. He chuckles and shows me it’s a Model T tire, the rubber still flexible after 100 years under water.
The tide turned and the current starts to run, time to go. Bill settles the boat on to a course for the Mystic River. The look on his face shows the excitement from the dive.
“When I’m going down the anchor line it’s like going back in history,” he said. “My dive suit is my time machine. That’s why I take people out and do the videos, to show what’s down there. There’s a lot of history here and I feel privileged to experience it.”
To learn more about Captain Bill Palmer you can go to thunderfishcharters.com. To watch the full documentary on the U-853 go to https://vimeo.com/111220302.