Norness

The Norness was one of the wrecks that after the discovery of the U-869 it become a possibility to dive because of the skills we developed with mixed gas to exploring the mysterious sub. Unlike the Sabatian, where we had no idea of what we’d find. The Norness was well documented and was more a case of confirming something we all suspected. John Chatterton and I formulated a plan to confirm the coordinates that we had were good numbers and that there was something down there.

It would not be economical to just run out and see if you can find something on the sounder being that the wreck was 60 miles southeast of Montauk Point. The Andrea Doria was also southeast of Montauk but further east by 40 miles. Plotting out a dog leg return run from the Doria the diversion would only added 4 miles to the trip home. We plugged the numbers into the LORAN and went to investigate.

Arriving on sight some 4 hours later I pulled back on the throttles to make my approach. Instead of the usual mowing the lawn search pattern I preferred what I call sneaking up on the wreck. I would take the boat about a tenth of a mile down wind of what ever direction the LORAN was telling me the wreck should be. Then slowly creep up on the spot maintaining a steady course. If the numbers were accurate, bam! The wreck should come up on the sounder as a huge colorful spike. Sure enough, Bam! There it was! As the boat rolled and pitched the depth sounder would jump between 275’ and 310’ but the top of the wreck looked to be as shallow as 200’. John and I looked at one another, I said, “well, if you average it out, it’s about 290’”. John replied, “lets try to not to put the hook in the sand, that would be bad”.

Even with confirmed numbers it was a hard sell. There just wasn’t enough divers willing or capable of diving to these depths in the adverse conditions of the northeast. John was running the expedition and would end up with only 7 divers and 1 safety diver a total of 10 including John and I.

The trip was scheduled in between Seeker’s now vaunted Andrea Doria trips that departed from Montauk, New York at the eastern point of Long Island. The 60 mile run seemed extraordinarily short in comparison to the Andrea Doria’s 100 mile voyage. Even motoring at a slower speed we arrived at the wreck site before dawn. Instead of tossing a hook into the wreck I shut the engines downs and we drifted for a while cat napping until the sun would emerge in the eastern sky. As the sun finally rose to reveille the surrounding ocean it became apparent to everyone on board we were all in for an exceptional day.

After hooking the wreck it was apparent that no one was going to be diving soon. The current was whipping by the so fast it created a small wake behind the boat as if it were in gear. Everyone paced about fiddling with their gear and generally trying to waist time in anticipation of the dive. Finally it was time to give it a shot John Chatterton rolled in to set the hook making it to the anchor line with out too much of a struggle. Soon the Styrofoam cups used to single all is clear floated to the surface. One by one everyone rolled over the side to be one of the first to dive a virgin wreck. Being one of two captains on board and John being the other I was obligated to wait for John’s return before making my splash.

When John surfaced he gave me and Brad Sheard, the only two left on the boat, a quick briefing of what he saw explaining that the shallowest point of the wreck is at around 230’ and his gauges read a max depth of 286’ at what he describes as “mud”. I rolled in a few minutes before Brad. I don’t remember if there was any current or not going down the anchor line. All I remember is the wreck coming into view as thought the photo I had been studying appeared in my faceplate. This was definitely the Norness, or at least half of it. The bow was no where in sight.

Author and Underwater adventurer Brad Sheard was aboard that day. Later he wrote the following narrative as an article for Sport Diver magazine:


Descending Into History

Exploring the Norness by Scuba

reprinted from Sport Diver magazine, December 1994

The world’s oceans are full of shipwrecks. Many of these lost vessels went down in shallow coastal waters, spawning an entire industry devoted to taking recreational scuba divers to explore the sunken remains. Countless others were lost far from shore, their shattered skeletons swallowed by the dark abyss of the deep ocean; such deep-water shipwrecks are unreachable by all but the deepest-diving submersibles.

Text & Photography by Bradley Sheard


10 daring adventurers signed on for the trip,
aspiring to be among the first to see
the Norness in more than 50 years.

There are very few hard edges in the world, however, and the adventurous soul can’t help but ask: What about those shipwrecks found in the twilight world, lying somewhere between the easily explored and the unreachable? The recent revolution that has coined the term “technical diving” promises to stretch the limits of what is achievable by amateur divers. In the process, a new era of exploration has begun – an era where shipwrecks previously considered beyond reach now beckon to be explored.

The wreck of the Norness has haunted my dreams for years. I longed to explore her sunken hulk almost since I began wreck diving almost two decades ago, but because the Norness lies deep – far beyond the normal limits of scuba diving – it remained only a dream for many years. With the advent of technical diving, however, my secret fantasy was suddenly reawakened. It now appeared that the dive was possible by using mixed-gas scuba.

As a shipwreck, the Norness was just another sunken tanker sent to the bottom by prowling German U-boats; but as a part of history, she held enormous significance. A 10,000-ton Norwegian oil tanker, the Norness was the first ship sunk off the U.S. East Coast during W.W. II. Her sinking on January 14, 1942, marked the beginning of six months of the bloodiest onslaught on merchant shipping the United States had ever seen.

“BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC”

Most Atlantic wreck divers are all too familiar with the American “battle of the Atlantic.” Indeed, a large percentage of the wreck sites frequented by East Coast divers were created by Germany’s marauding U- boats during World War II.

Some 100 ships were sunk from Maine to Florida during the first six months of America’s involvement in the war. Germany’s Admiral Karl Donitz had implemented a secret operation, code-named “Paukenschlag,” almost immediately after the declaration of war between the United States and Germany. A fleet of long-range, type IX U- boats were sent across the Atlantic, where they began a coordinated surprise attack against American coastal shipping. While Donitz originally requested 12 U-boats for the operation, only five were ultimately available for the first strike against America.

The five subs departed Germany in the closing days of December 1941, only weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Observing radio silence during the Atlantic crossing to take advantage of the element of surprise, the U-boat commanders were under strict orders to sink no vessels unless they exceeded 10,000 tons. Smaller targets were not worth the damage their sinking would cause to the operation by revealing the U-boats’ presence, and their mission, to the Allies. Only Reinhard Hardegen encountered and attacked a vessel meeting these guidelines during the crossing, torpedoing and sinking the passenger steamer Cyclops 160 miles southeast of Nova Scotia on January 11. Hardegen’s U-123 then headed at high speed toward its assigned target area – the entrance to the busy shipping port of New York.

Donitz had signaled the Paukenschlag boats by wireless on January 9 that the operation was to begin January 13 – all Allied merchant shipping vessels off the U.S. coast would then become legal targets. The first victims were the freighters Friar Rock and Frisco, sent to the bottom off the northern coast of Nova Scotia by U-130 on the night of January 13.

Hardegen struck the first blow in American waters the next day when he expended five torpedoes to sink the Nomess. Two of the torpedoes turned out to be “duds,” failing to explode or missing their mark, but three of the steel fish ignited the Norness into a fiery inferno that lit up the night sky. American newspapers reported the Norness‘ sinking to a shocked public the next day, starkly proclaiming the arrival of the submarine war on American shores.

What followed the sinking of the Norness was a merciless, six-month slaughter of merchant ships along the U.S. coast. German U-boats kept a constant vigil along the Eastern Seaboard, sending anything that crossed their paths to the bottom. Ships were sunk at the rate of one a day at the height of the campaign, yet it would be three long months before a single U-boat was taken out of action in these same waters.

Finally, after six months of incessant battle that matured the American defensive forces, the tide began to turn against the U-boats. U-boat sinkings in July nearly equaled the number of merchant sinkings in American waters. It became too costly for Donitz to maintain an attacking force off the U.S. coast, and the submarines were withdrawn.

FROM DREAM TO REALITY

John Chatterton shared my dream. One of the captains of the dive charter boat SEEKER, operating out of Brielle, New Jersey, he had the drive to make an expedition to the Norness happen. Two years earlier, Chatterton found a mysterious sunken U-boat 60 miles off the New Jersey coast, since dubbed “U-Who ” due to its unknown identity. During the winter of 1992, hungry for new wrecks and new adventures, Chatterton began organizing a trip to find and dive the wreck of the Nomess.

Her location was a bit of a problem. She was sunk approximately 60 miles southeast of Montauk Point, Long island, and her generally accepted location was marked by a wreck symbol on NOAA charts of the area. But finding a sunken wreck in the vast expanse of the open Atlantic is no easy matter. Loran numbers for her location were obtained from various fishermen, but their accuracy was unknown – in fact, several different sets of coordinates were found to exist, none of which agreed.

And assuming we could find her, the depth as charted by NOAA was approximately 270 feet, but the actual depth to the wreck was also unknown; she might lie shallower, or perhaps deeper, than the charts indicated. Since we had no way of knowing whether she lay upright, on her side or even “turtle” – upside down – gas mixes had to be planned for all contingencies.

Some insight into the wreck’s possible condition could be gleaned from her nearby sister in battle, the Coimbra. Sunk the day after the Norness, also by Hardegen’s U-123, the fate of the Coimbra was so similar to that of the Nomess it seemed plausible that the two wrecks might be found in a similar condition.

While only two torpedoes were used to destroy the Coimbra, rather than the three that sank the Nomess, both tankers’ backs were broken by the resulting explosions. Both ships were also known to have initially sunk only partway, with their bows left protruding from the rough winter sea for many days after they were ripped in half. Indeed, after sinking the two tankers, Hardegen made a sarcastic notation in his war diary about leaving a trail of sunken ships leading right to the entrance of New York Harbor!

The Coimbra’s condition is well- documented, since she lies in shallower water (approximately 180 feet) and has been visited many times by advanced sport divers. While her hull is relatively intact and lying on its starboard side, she is broken at both of the torpedo impact points and rises at least 30 feet above the ocean floor. If the Nomess wreck was indeed similar to that of the Coimbra, her upper side might even be diveable using air and ordinary scuba gear.


Floating weightless on the edge of eternal darkness,
divers catch a first glimpse of a World War II victim – the Norness.

THE HUNT BEGINS

During the summer of 1993, John Chatterton managed to squeeze a three-day expedition into the SEEKER’s busy dive schedule to look for – and with luck, dive – the wreck of the Norness. The expedition was scheduled for early August with the anticipation of favorable seas and good visibility.

While there were no guarantees we would even find the wreck, 10 daring adventurers signed on for the trip, aspiring to be among the first to see the Nomess in more than 50 years. Nine of the divers would explore the shipwreck on trimix ( a gas mixture of helium, oxygen and nitrogen, ) with the 10th serving as a support diver, to be available at all times in case of an in-water emergency.

The team included some of the top divers involved in East Coast wreck diving: John Chatterton, Ken Clayton, John Comly, Dan Crowell, Gary Gentile, Brad Henderson, Barb Lander, John Yurga and safety diver Tom Surowic, as well as myself. In order to accommodate three days of trimix diving, many of the gas mixtures were made on-site using large storage bottles of helium and oxygen, along with air from the dive boat’s two compressors.

Bottom mixes varied according to individual dive plans and person- al preferences, ranging from trimix 10/40 to 18/30. Nitrox was carried in stage bottles as a transit gas, and surface-supplied oxygen rigs were hung over the side of the boat to facilitate the long decompression times that would be required.

Several weeks earlier, on the way back from one of the SEEKER’s Andrea Doria expeditions, Chatterton had taken the opportunity to check out some of the loran coordinates for the Norness wreck. While several of the locations showed nothing on the bottom recorder, one set of numbers indicated a large object rising some 60 feet off the ocean bottom. Surely this far out at sea, in such a remote location, this large obstruction could only be the Norness. Since we now knew the loran coordinates were good, expectations were high on the trip out to the wreck site.

Shortly after our arrival on the morning of August 10, I was thrilled to get my first glimpse of a wreck I had only dreamed of for the past 15 years: The SEEKER’s video depth sounder showed a large, nondescript, red and yellow mound rising above the flat ocean bottom. Little could be learned by studying the sonic profile shown on the fathometer’s video screen, however. While the object rose high above the bottom, there were no distinguishing features to indicate how she sat – indeed, my best guess from the “picture” was that she lay turtle; I tried to hide my disappointment and hoped I was wrong.

A grapnel dragged across the wreck quickly snagged the sunken obstruction; the SEEKER swung around and we found ourselves at anchor over the first American victim of “Operation Paukenschlag.” As soon as the boat swung around, however, we saw we had a problem – the current was roaring by the now-stationary dive boat at more than 2 knots. After months of preparation, the conditions were undiveable. Hours passed slowly as anxious divers looked over the side of the boat and watched the ocean rush past, contemplating just how hard it would be to fight that current, and even more frightening, how difficult it would be to hang onto the anchor line for the hours of decompression the dive would entail.

After two or three hours, the current appeared to be subsiding just a bit – or perhaps we just couldn’t wait any longer. Chatterton and John Yurga suited up as they prepared to secure the anchor to the wreck – they would be the very first divers the Nomess had ever seen. Loaded down with twin 120-cubic-foot cylinders, pony bottles, stage bottles of decompression gas, dive lights, emergency ascent reels and all the other paraphernalia commonly carried by East Coast wreck divers, the two looked like a pair of aliens from another world; in fact, they would very shortly be just that.

The two-and-a-half hours it took for that first team of divers to return from their dive seemed like an eternity to those of us left on the dive boat. For the sake of safety, all divers would await the return of the tie-in crew and their report of the conditions below. Only after we knew that the anchor had been securely fastened to the wreck lying more than 200 feet below us could we make our own dives. While everyone’s thoughts were their own that afternoon, I am quite certain that they all came in the same flavor: Was this in fact the Nomess we were anchored over? Was she upside down, upright, or perhaps lying on her side? What was the visibility? My own thoughts were plagued by the uncertainty of visibility – would I be able to capture her on film?

When the tie-in team finally climbed back onto the dive boat, Chatterton had a broad grin across his face and said to me, “Brad, bring your camera – it’s awesome! Visibility has to be at least 60 feet.” My dream was about to come true.

TOUCHING HISTORY

I was nervous about fighting the strong current while carrying two stage bottles clipped to my side and towing a 15-pound camera. Fortunately, the current dropped out at about 60 feet, and the water was still and clear for the remainder of the descent. As the ambient light faded away, Dan Crowell and I entered the slate-gray, colorless world of the deep ocean. Countless specimens of oceanic plankton hung motionless in the depths as we dropped farther into the dark abyss.


We were joined by an ocean sunfish.
Together we swam about the decaying
remains of the tanker like ballet
dancers in a silent symphony.

Short-tentacled, clear jellyfish of a type that I had never seen before pulsated slowly by us, while huge salpa chains hung suspended like giant strings of DNA. While salpa chains are often seen on inshore wrecks, they are generally found in short, broken strands; the chains here were larger than any I had ever seen before, measuring 10 and 20 feet long.

We were nearly 200 feet below the surface when the pale, ghostly form of the Norness’ stem loomed up from the depths. Lying on her starboard side, the entire wreck was carpeted with white, flowery sea anemones. In the dark depths of the Atlantic, the anemones gave the wreck an eerie appearance; she almost seemed to glow in the dark. As we reached the end of the SEEKER’s anchor line, which had been tied into the stem companionway railing, Crowell and I landed on the port side of the Norness’ hull. A row of portholes punctuated her hull plates, running parallel to the companionway, while below us were doorways leading into the ship’s interior.

The visibility was indeed spectacular, and as we peered over the ship’s railing and across her decks, which sloped downward at an 80- degree angle, we could see that the majority of her superstructure was remarkably intact. In fact, it was one of the most intact W.W.II wrecks I had ever dived. It was probably the extreme depth at which the wreck lay that had preserved her, effectively isolating her from surface wave action during even the most severe storms.

Or perhaps, I thought giddily, the abandoned fishing nets that she was wrapped in had held her together over the years – the wreck was so enveloped in nets that she looked like a shrink-wrapped plastic toy. The nets were large-mesh monsters made of twine so heavy that white anemones clung to the strands of netting as well as the hull, increasing the eerie appearance of the scene laid out before us.

As Dan entered one of the doorways leading into the ship’s interior, I dropped down from the upper gunwale and glided over the ship’s inclined deck. Adjusting my buoyancy, I floated weightlessly in the still water, drifting effortlessly over the decks of the sunken tanker. She was a beautiful sight to behold, especially after all the years of dreaming about her. Her hull appeared to have been severed cleanly at one of the torpedo impact points, somewhere between the ship’s forward navigational bridge and stern living quarters. The ship’s forward half was nowhere to be seen, despite the clear, dark water in which she lay entombed.

CAPTURING THE MOMENT

Somewhere in the blackness below lay the ocean bottom; but the deeper we went, the hazier the water became. I chose to remain high on the wreck where the water was clear and attempt to photograph the surrealistic scene that lay before us, while Dan probed the depths of her dark interior.

Although the water was clear, it was also very dark to the camera’s lens. The human eye can adapt to such conditions and see with relative clarity even by candlelight, but unfortunately photographic film does not have this same sensitivity. I had elected to use high-speed black-and-white film to capture a wide-angle “seascape” of the wreck. While the use of strobe lighting would have enabled me to use color film, I would have only been able to capture the details of the wreck – I wanted to photograph the forest, not the trees.

As I turned and began swimming back toward the anchor line, I saw Dan reemerge from the ship’s interior. At that instant we were joined on the wreck by a huge ocean sunfish. I had often seen these strange-looking fish on the surface and occasionally on other shipwrecks, but I had never seen one this deep before. Together, the three of us swam about the decaying remains of the tanker’s stem for another 10 minutes, like three ballet dancers in a silent symphony. I marveled at the effortless ease with which the sunfish swam over the wreck – an effort we could only imitate with the use of high technology and special gas mixes.

On the stem sat the remains of a huge gun tub, placed there for protection from the very U-boats that had sent the Nomess to the bottom. The tub appeared to be empty, with the gun nowhere to be seen. A staircase interconnecting deckhouse levels stood at a crazily canted angle, almost unrecognizable in its fluffy white covering of anemones.

A solitary boat davit protruded from the upper gunwale, the only evidence left of the boats used to abandon the sinking tanker on a dark January night a half-century ago. Below, glowing a ghostly white in the dark gloom of the depths, stretched the tanker’s centerline catwalk. Perfectly preserved handrails formed parallel strands of plush, white velvet rope running the length of the ship’s deck before ending abruptly at the hull break. And everywhere dangled the eerie remains of fishing nets.

All too soon our allotted 20 minutes of bottom time were over, and we were forced to begin our slow ascent. The decompression that stood between us and a safe return to the surface was formidable, but it also provided time for reflection about what we had just accomplished.

For me it had been the achievement of a long-standing dream – to dive the very first American victim of “Operation Paukenschlag.”

Bradley Sheard is an avid technical diver and underwater photographer.

SDI TDI Deep Explorers, Inc.
P.O. Box 302
Brielle, NJ 08730
dan@deepexplorers.com

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