“The Ghost Ship” sounds like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean, however the Ghost Ship that we dived recently is real and probably one of the last existing mysteries of the Caribbean.
About 3 years ago I was informed about a ship that was found and nobody knew about it. This ship had no name, no mayday was given and no loss of life reported. This is rare in Modern day Maritime History as most vessels carry the appropriate safety equipment, Marine Radios and locating beacons called EPIRB’s.
After years of research and listening to old drunk sailors sat in bars around the Island talking a tale or two about this ship I finally organized an exploration expedition to check it out.
Our goals were to find out why she sank, how she sank and to hopefully have an idea if it’s worth diving again!
The Ghost Ship lies on the Saba Banks, notorious for treacherous conditions, big seas, strong currents, ‘Man Eating Sharks” and also this ship is known to be “Cursed” by some fishermen. So we knew we had to be cautious.
Putting a team together was also difficult, we need a REALLY fast boat to get out there and back in a day, an excellent Captain and crew member and I also needed a well rounded Dive Buddy as we were aiming to dive with Double tanks and 80% Nitrox for accelerated Decompression. This was a TEC dive from day one and venturing down to 40M on a single tank is just dangerous.
There are plenty of PADI Instructors on the Island that can dive safely to 100feet on a single tank but very few that have the skills that I was searching for.
Luckily we trained Simon Uzcatgetui a few years ago and just by coincidence he called me about 2 weeks before the expedition.
After a long chat with Simon we had established that we both want to dive some of the en-explored sites that the Caribbean has to offer and that we both had an interest in Wreck diving and Trimix.
Simon is a Captain of a Megayacht and also a very experienced diver. He had all his own kit, tanks, regulators and was recently certified as an IANTD Rec Trimix Diver. He even had access to an extremely powerful boat and also a Captain and Crew…..
The Fuse was lit and we were set for our exploration dive.
Now all we need is good weather and calm seas, one would think that living in the Caribbean this would be commonplace and usually it is, but when we get a squall, watch out. Gusty winds can turn a flat calm sea into a washing machine in minutes and has caught many a sailor out in the past.
First we set our dive plan, calculated gas mixes, bottom time and Decompression stops and times. This isn’t easy as we both have to make sure that we have enough gas to complete the dive, enough gas to decompress and also enough gas to decompress on our travel gas (the 2 tanks we wear on our backs) just in case our Deco gas is compromised.
This is not as easy as it sounds and as the dive was so remote, we also had to make sure that we were covered for every eventuality.
So it was decided that we would be breathing a custom mix of 28% for our bottom gas (Travel gas) 50% and 80% deco gases which would accelerate our decompression.
Thats a total of 6000 liters of gas per person!
The boat was prepped, fully fueled and all our kit was prepped, loaded and strapped down. The boat is a 32foot Intrepid and Tender to (T/T) Orinokia which is the Megayacht ($10m, 120ft Benetti).
She has two extremely powerful motors which are Yamaha 350HP V8 outboards. Anyone who knows about boats will understand that 700HP on a 32foot boat is a lot of power!
On Sunday 20th January our weather window appeared. The forecast predicted 14knot winds, clear skies, low current and seas around 1.6meters or around 4 – 5 ft. Not the best conditions but we knew we had a chance.
At 0530am I headed over to the boat in Isle de Sol Marina, met the crew, did a final check and we headed out. Simon had arranged some food and coolers stacked with Drinks, Sandwiches and of course beer for the journey home!
Sea conditions were ok and we had a following sea so it wasn’t too bad. We headed to Saba First and then turned to head out to the Wreck. 1 ½ hours to Saba and then 26miles or 1 hour to the wreck. This was the easy part and we knew the return journey would be rough to say the least.
Once at the wreck site, the first thing we had to do is make sure we had a wreck to dive! It sounds so easy, just follow some coordinates, tie the boat to a mooring and jump in for a lovely relaxing dive….. NOT today! It took an hour to find the wreck using the echo sounder, then we had to tie the boat into the wreck. This is easier said than done and took us a few attempts until we hooked into it.
All this time I have this feeling that this isn’t the wreck, that we may have to call the dive at anytime due to rough seas, will the boat be here when we get back to the surface, can I really trust the Captain and crew to pick us up if we have an issue…. all this is going through my head…. We are extremely remote, what happens if one of us is injured? We both know that if something happens help is about 3 to 4 hours away…. so you can see just how cautious and professional we have to be, we couldn’t take ANY chances.
So we kitted up, did our safety drills, check our Deco Regs and tanks and just took a minute to slow our heart rates, check our kit and focus on the job in hand, check our dive profiles and then it was time to get in.
The current was ripping on the surface (we did a current check before we got in using a line with a weight so knew this) but once we had our deco stages it was time to descend and swim to the anchor line (which was hooked into the wreck) and then time to venture into the unknown….. this is where the adrenalin really starts.
As we got to 15M deep we had hundred of Horse Eye Jacks, African Pompano jacks, huge and aggressive Barracuda and SHARKS… it was amazing how fast the sharks came and also how close they came too. They are obviously not used to Divers!
Once we located the stern of the wreck we had to spend a few minutes making sure our anchor was secure and also deploy an SMB or safety marker buoy to let our Captain and Crew know the position of the anchor, just in case we detached for any reason, they could circle the boat around the SMB and follow our bubbles.
Once everything was checked and secure we headed off on our journey around the wreck. Visibility was around 60-70feet and there was a very light current.
We encountered more sharks, monstrous Jacks, Nurse Sharks, Turtles and just shoal after shoal of fish. The Saba Banks are known as the Nursery for the Caribbean and this was definitely apparent.
The wreck sits upright, still anchored and looks like it was being used as a very cheap transportation vessel for shipping Cement. The boat is full of massive bags of cement. 4Foot cubed bags of cement. There must be hundreds of them.
Once we explored the bow which is now broken off we found more conclusive evidence as to why she lays on the bottom.
Whilst in water both Simon and I had a very clear idea of how this boat spent it’s last minutes.
Before heading to the surface I had to get inside the wreck and found an awesome hatch that lead me into the hull. If you watch the video this part is at the end of it. That was a really cool way to end one of the most exciting dives I have ever done.
Once we were at minute 45 it was time to head back to the boat. We left the anchor in place and SMB ready for dive 2 and headed up for our first Deco stop:
21meters switched to 50% nitrox for 1 minute
15meters on 50% for 3 minutes
12meters on 50% for 3 minutes
9 meters we switched to 80% nitrox for 5 minutes
6 meters on 80% for 5 minutes
3 meters on 80% for 10 minutes
We knew that our deco times were excessive, however with the remoteness of this dive we knew that we wanted to remain extremely conservative and of course safe!! An extra 8 minutes in water beats a trip to Puerto Rico for a week in a Decompression Chamber!
For me spending time on Deco is just great, time to reflect on the dive, think about Sally and my little boy (Keiran) sat at home and also to prepare for getting back on the boat in what we could see were adverse sea conditions.
Before reaching the surface I had switched to my travel gas, stowed my deco regs and side slung my tanks to make exiting much easier. Trying to handle stages on the surface in big seas is not ideal, one foul swoop of tank to head and I would be in big trouble. I passed my tanks up to the crew, and then climbed on board.
At this point I couldn’t stop smiling…. I know how many people talk about diving this wreck and we just did it and I videoed the whole experience!
Simon and I just sat on the boat as smug as can be and for around 5 minutes, we were speechless…. we didn’t need to say anything as we knew what we had just achieved.
Then reality dawned when a rather large wave broke over the bow…. it looked like our second dive was out of the question as while we were diving 3 squalls had picked up around us. The squalls were around 10 miles away, but it was enough to pick the seas up and force us to run for cover.
We cut the anchor line (left a $350 Fortress Anchor on the wreck) and I took my SMB and left a reel tied to it for next time!
Waves were now breaking over the bow even more often and we were under power heading back to St. Maarten. The Journey to the Wreck site took 2 ½ hours, our return journey would take 3 ½ hours…. luckily we don’t get seasick!
The return journey was about as much fun as pulling your toe nails off with a pair of pliers, but we endured it and got back to Isle de Sol Marina where we celebrated our Expedition with an ice cold beer, plenty of hero shots with the Crew (Hector and Luis) and then headed home.
(Chris wrote this blog, but Sally posted it 🙂 )