HACKENSACK, N.J. - To an elite cast of New Jersey adventurers who spend their weekends scouring the sunken remains of shipwrecks on the Atlantic's murky floor, the Andrea Doria beckons.
The obstacles to reaching the ill-fated vessel, which sank 42 years ago off Nantucket, Mass., are daunting: bone-chilling temperatures, ferocious currents, clouds of silt that swallow all light and the crushing pressures that bear down under 24 stories of dark ocean.
Wreck diving, like any extreme sport, is recreation turned obsession. "We're not recreational divers," said William Cleary, 37, a personal injury lawyer from Palisades Park, N.J. "But we're not thrill-seekers either. We dive for wrecks because it's like coming nose to nose with history and because it tests the limits."
Cleary and his good friend Vincent Napoliello, two members of an expanding field of skilled divers capable of penetrating those depths, tested those limits in August by attempting to reach the pinnacle of the sport.
Mount Everest of wrecks
The Andrea Doria is, for many scuba divers, the Mount Everest of shipwrecks - and just as deadly. This summer, three divers, including one from Ocean County, N.J., perished while exploring the decks of the sunken ocean liner.
The deaths coincided with a surge of interest in reaching the storied ship. Built for the Italian Line at a cost of $30 million and called the Grand Dame of the Sea, the Andrea Doria was a 700-foot, 11-story floating museum, replete with murals, rare wooden panels, ceramics, and mirrors.
On the foggy night of July 25, 1956, it was steaming toward New York with 1,600 passengers when it collided with the Stockholm, a smaller Swedish ship. It took 11 hours, and all but 51 passengers were rescued, but before the day was over, news coverage of the disaster had captured the public's imagination.
Ever since, the massive, submerged relic has been luring divers, especially in New Jersey, where hundreds of more mundane wrecks line the coastal floor.
Despite witnessing diving tragedies this summer, the small community of local attorneys, police officers, bankers and businessmen who hone their skills in New Jersey's shipping channels say they cannot escape that distant vessel's lingering lure.
A roster of trouble
When Cleary first thought to charter The Seeker to take a group of his friends on a four-day excursion to the Andrea Doria, he knew about the trouble that had hit the vessel in preceding months.
In June, an Ocean County, N.J., resident and passenger of The Seeker, Craig Sicola, died of decompression sickness as he rose from the interior of the luxury liner. In July, a diver from Ann Arbor, Mich., was found face down in the muck that covers the first-class bar and lounge.
In August, as Cleary readied for his trip, he and Napoliello analyzed earlier accidents. "The two of us sat on the phone at night trying to understand what caused problems in the past," Cleary said. "We wanted to be prepared so that if something did happen, we would not panic."
As events unfolded underwater on Aug. 4, Cleary quickly realized no amount of preparation could have readied him for the moment he looked around and realized Vincent Napoliello was not on the ascent line.
It was on the deck of a much smaller diving charter, the 35-foot Blue Fathoms, that Cleary and Napoliello first joined a growing group of local divers to begin exploring undersea wrecks.
And more recently, it was on this cozy boat from Clark's Landing in Point Pleasant, N.J., that Cleary and a small group of friends agreed to reunite, resuming their diving after a dispiriting summer.
With a cloudless sky and an ocean of lazy, 2-foot swells, a single sea gull coasted overhead as the small boat cut its engines. Sixteen miles from New Jersey, the only view was of the red and white flags that mark lobster traps, bobbing in the expansive gray Atlantic.
If Capt. Tony Donetz planned it right, he would be dropping anchor 160 feet down, directly onto the bow of The Ayuruoca, a Brazilian freighter that sank in a collision June 10, 1945, as it steamed out of New York Harbor. For Cleary, this Sunday afternoon dive was a weekly escape from the rigors of a growing Hackensack law practice.
On this dive, Cleary hoped to better acquaint himself with The Ayuruoca, which rested in two large pieces on the ocean floor. Once he had his bearings, he would consider penetrating the interior to poke around the hallways and cabins for portholes, china or other relics.
For Paul Klein, 30, a harbor pilot from Clifton, N.J., this would be one in a series of progressively deeper excursions that could ultimately lead him to the decks of the Andrea Doria.
This trip, like any descent deeper than 130 feet, was considered beyond the scope of a recreational diver. It required technical skills including mixing gases to breathe and timing the ascent to prevent the bends.
If all went as planned, Cleary, Klein, and Upper Saddle River, N.J, Police Patrolman Emmet McDowell would have about a half-hour to map out the front half of The Ayuruoca. Then they would have to begin a slow, 25-minute climb back to the surface.
Technical diving, as deep-water diving is called, has had a surge in popularity in recent years, said Stush Doviat, a regional manager for the California-based diving company PADI.
He credits the surge to a number of technological advancements recently passed from military and commercial divers, like the ones who build offshore oil platforms, to pleasure divers. Key among them is the use of a gas blend called Tri-mix, which has allowed hobbyists to go deeper underwater for longer periods of time.
'Technology has advanced'
At Blue Water Divers in Ramsey, N.J., owner Dave Riscinti said he has noticed the shift. "The technology has advanced, and you have people taking advantage of that," Riscinti said. "People get bored. It's human nature. They want to go deeper and stay longer."
Fueling that desire is the relatively recent emergence of wreck diving. Cleary was flying to Florida six years ago, in search of the usual array of tropical fish, when he picked up a book called "Wreck Valley."
The book chronicles the ships that, over the centuries, sank along the entry to New York Harbor. On the ocean floor are German submarines, merchant ships, ocean liners, an American World War I warship, and dozens of other vessels that were victims of fog, other weather conditions, or collisions.
"I was on my way to Florida, and all I could think about was getting back to New Jersey," Cleary said.
Experts say wreck divers account for only a handful of diving fatalities each year. But because wreck divers make up such a small fraction of sport divers, it's difficult to quantify the danger. hTC In 1995, four of 104 divers were killed on descents to deep-sea wrecks, according to the Divers Alert Network, a Durham, N.C.-based organization that tracks diving accidents around the world. The following year, eight of 85 deaths were tied to shipwreck exploration.
Ten divers are known to have died diving the Andrea Doria since 1981.
'Symbol of accomplishment'
Riscinti, of Blue Water Divers, said it's important to distinguish technical dives like those to the Andrea Doria from the routine sport dives that entertain families and tourists in shallower waters.
"If you compare it to skiing, what most people do is as safe as the bunny slopes," Riscinti said. "What these guys are doing is like a black diamond run in icy conditions."
For those who have never been wreck diving, Cleary said, it's tough to understand the thrill. Much of the excitement stems from researching the history of the vessels. Part of it, he said, is the test of will and skill involved in diving a wreck. But part of it is more difficult to explain.
"When you get inside one of these old ships, it's like you're looking back in time," Cleary said. "I remember my first dive in New Jersey. I reached into a hole in the wreck and I pulled out a 50-year-old bottle of root beer that had come from New Brunswick.
"To some people, that's trash," he said. "But to me, it's like a symbol of my accomplishment."
"It's like taking a rock from the top of Everest, except in this case the rock actually says 'Andrea Doria' on it," Cleary said.
Pub Date: 12/31/98