Dive trip report April 1, 2010

April 14, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Posted in Writing Samples | 3 Comments
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Not too many divers have ever heard of the New Amsterdam Hotel, and most of us who have heard of it think of it as a myth.

In a nutshell, the New Amsterdam Hotel was one of the first luxury hotels ever built along the Jersey Shore.  Three stories high with 10 guest rooms, the New Amsterdam Hotel was one of the first buildings with indoor running water (at least on the first floor).

Built on the beach (or in the dunes is a better description) by Dutch Settlers in the area that is now Manasquan, and open to the public in fall of 1834, it provided a luxurious get-a-way for the richer inhabitants of New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia.  When you consider that a Philadelphian would have had to travel over a hundred miles by horse or stagecoach over dirt paths to get there, you can begin to appreciate the type of vacation the New Amsterdam Hotel would have provided.

Forgive me for spending so much time on the background details to this dive trip, but they are integral to the trip report.

As most of you remember, during the War of 1812, the British Army burned down Washington DC.  Scholars of the time period will tell you how the American government escaped into the surrounding countryside.  Historians have long known that over 700 pounds of gold bars were missing after the British attack.  What’s not known is if the gold was taken by the British, by looters, or by government employees.

Fast forward from 1812 to 1836.  Thomas Montgomery, a scribe who worked in Washington for the House of Representatives copying documents, checks into the New Amsterdam Hotel.  Among his luggage are two bulky, wooden boxes.  The boxes require two large men to carry.  Unlike many travelers of the day who pay in silver or paper money as he registers at the hotel, Montgomery gives a small deposit to the hotels’ proprietor — ten dollars in gold coins.  (For historical background – the government did not pay its employees in gold coin).

Unfortunately, the sand dunes of Manasquan were not the ideal place for 19th century entrepreneurs to learn construction skills, and soft sand is not the best base for a wooden foundation.  While there are few historical records, and what details do exist are very sketchy, lore has it that the New Amsterdam Hotel was destroyed in a coastal storm in August of 1836.  Local legend talks about a tidal wave actually smashing into the coast and dragging the hotel out to sea, along with its guests and staff.

It’s not actually possible to verify whether or not the hotel was destroyed by a tidal wave, but modern day lodging historians agree that the August 1836 storm did destroy the hotel, and the high surf and strong currents did wash much of the wreckage away.

Guests who had booked vacations at the hotel the following week showed up to find the remnants of a waterlogged timber foundation sticking out of the sand dunes.  Clothing, personal belongings and smashed wooden debris littered the high grass along the coast.  (Even today, treasure hunters who comb the Manasquan beaches find jewelry, pottery and other lost heirlooms, many of which belonged to the ill-fated guests of the New Amsterdam Hotel.)

My regularly scheduled dive trip of March 31 – April 1st being canceled, I was putting my gear away when the phone rang.  Billy, an old dive buddy from years back, was going on a dive trip that Sunday and asked if I wanted to come along.  The only details he could give me was that a clammer had told a member of his dive club about a large mass he had discovered about 22 miles east of the Shark River inlet.  In their dredges, the clammers had scraped up a large wooden box marked “OAP” with a date that looked like 1836.  The box was half full of a mass of blackened wax paper, which because of its size, looked like it might have been used to wrap small individual bars of soap.

I suppose by now you can figure where I’m going with this.  One theory widely supported by many pecuniary scholars is that Montgomery stole the 700 pounds of gold while the British burned Washington.  Luckily for me and Billy, lodging historians and pecuniary scholars don’t compare notes.  We knew that Montgomery probably had the gold.  We knew that he was staying at the New Amsterdam Hotel when it washed away.  We also thought we knew where the New Amsterdam Hotel was.  Getting the picture?

Billy’s dive club had chartered the “Le Petomaine” out of Atlantic Highlands.  That Sunday morning, Billy, myself, 3 other divers and the captain and mate of “Le Petomaine” headed out into the choppy Atlantic in search of the New Amsterdam Hotel.  Also on the boat was Ted, Orlando and Tim.  Ted and Tim had been diving the NJ waters for almost 8 months, and Orlando had certified over a year ago in Key Largo.  Among the five of us combined, we had over 200 logged dives!

The air temp was in the low 40’s, with about 15 knot winds out of the east.  Five foot swells greeted us at the site about 9:45AM.  Sonar quickly found the huge underwater mass at a depth of 133 feet.

One of our agreements with the captain of the charter is that only we would know where we were or where we were going.  We would watch the GPS and LORAN and give him steering instructions, but he wouldn’t be allowed to know the coordinates.  Tim had the coordinates given to him by the clamming boat skipper written on a little piece of paper.

As soon as we found our location, we pulled his GPS and Loran systems off the bridge and threw them into the ocean.  This was going to be our private wreck, and he agreed with that.  We would replace his electronics plus give him an extra $1200 when we returned to dock.  Tim put the paper with the coordinates into his pocket.

I should point out that none of us are really “wreck divers,” whatever that means anyhow.  We’re just a couple of guys that like to get wet and look at stuff under water.  We didn’t have lots of fancy gear or valves and stuff – just single tanks with Pony bottles.

With our regular diving gear, we had picked up a pair of Garrett Mark 2 metal detectors, several Scubapro scooters, and enough lift bags to raise a battleship.

Orlando was first into the water.  He was going to set the anchor on the bottom, and release a 25 lift bag so we could watch where the current took it.  After fifteen minutes we hadn’t seen the lift bag.  After twenty minutes, Orlando’s bubbles stopped.  Tim and Ted dove into the water and followed the anchor line down, where they found Orlando, almost out of air.  He had inadvertently tied himself to the wreckage with the anchor line, and was unable to get free.  Worse than that, his wetsuit had gotten impaled on nails sticking out of the wreckage, and in his struggle to free himself, he had ripped the entire torso out of this wetsuit.

Tim helped free Orlando, gave him a Pony bottle, took off his weight belt, inflated his BC and sent him up to the surface.

On the surface, Orlando came popping up like a cork from the bottom of a bathtub.  Billy and I jumped in, and helped him to the boat.  Since he had been holding his breath, Orlando looked a little like the poppin fresh dough boy.  The Captain of the “Le Petomaine” said he would put a few holes through Orlando’s skin to let the extra air out and he’d be fine.  I never heard of that first aid procedure before, but I assumed the captain would know what he’s doing, so Billy and I geared up, jumped into the ocean and followed the anchor line down to the bottom.

The bottom temperature was 38 degrees, and there was a very mild current when we joined Ted and Tim.

Now let me tell you a little bit about myself.  I usually get a little lightheaded when I’m at 120 feet.  Maybe that’s why I love diving so much, getting narc’d is a cheap drunk that won’t hurt my liver.  Anyhow, we were at 130 feet and I felt better than I ever felt in my entire life.  I’d say it felt like a three martini dive.

It took little effort to identify the wreckage.  There on the bottom, well preserved by the cold Atlantic, was an almost completely intact hotel.  It looked kind of like Dorothy’s Kansas home in “The Wizard of Oz” when you see it spinning around in the tornado.

Visibility had to be close to 50 feet, and we could see well into the building.  The four of us did a quick swim around the perimeter of the building.  When we reached the back, we saw that an entire wall had been ripped away, providing easy access to ten guest quarters – four on the first floor, two on the second and two on the third.

Our plan was to investigate the wreck on our first dive, then return after a surface interval to search for the gold.  Billy tied off my wreck reel and I tied off his, then we went into the main entrance.  According to plan, Tim and Ted waited at the front door watching, ready to assist us if necessary.

There was a long counter in the middle of the room and we swam over to it.  We actually found a guest register with the writing partially legible.  Quickly perusing the list, we found a partially legible inscription: T. Montgom.  If this was indeed Mr. Montgomery, he was in room 5.

We swam out to Tim and Ted and, using our slates, told them we were going into Room 5.  Tim stayed in the doorway.  Ted swam to the front desk, and Billy and I headed up the hallway.  What luck – room 5 was at the beginning of the hallway.  From the doorway, I could clearly see Ted at the front desk,  and I saw a vague silhouette of Tim in the doorway, although the flashing strobe on his tank was clearly visible.

Problem number one:   Room 5 was locked.  No problem for me though.  I swam back to Tim at the doorway and grabbed one of the extra aluminum 80’s.  Back to room 5 I swam.  I turned the tank so the yoke faced away from the door, and I smashed the yoke with my 16 lb. hammer.  Nothing happened.  I smashed it again.  It took almost twenty smacks until the yoke popped off and the tank shot into door number 5 like a rocket, tearing the door open as it went.

As it would happen, Room number 5 had no back wall – it was one of the rooms we saw when we swam around the back of the
hotel. I could see the trail of bubbles from the rocket powered AL80 as it shot out of the wall opening and into the abyss. Billy and I swam in.

Room 5 at the New Amsterdam Hotel was rather austere by today’s standards.  It had a large bed – about the size of a twin mattress, which was mostly rotted away.  There was a worm eaten desk and chair, fireplace and bench by the window.  Most of the glass in the window was intact, although a few panes were broken.

The skeletal remains of T. Montgomery lie on the rotted mattress, wearing a suit.

The jetting Al80 had stirred up a lot of silt in the room, but the light current had already begun to clear it out.  It just so happened that the current was coming in the front door of the hotel, through the lobby, up the hallway, through the doorway we had just opened, and out of the building through the missing wall at the back of the hotel.

Checking our air gauges, Billy and I had about 2000 pounds left in our tanks, so we wanted to find that gold.  We quickly covered the room in a grid pattern but spotted nothing.  Billy swam to the windows and was looking out to see if any large boxes lay outside the wreck.  I was on the other side of the room, examining the remainders of the bed.  I found 18th century pottery, jewelry, candlesticks and a large chamberpot, but no gold.  I looked over to Billy and noticed the bench he was sitting on.  It wasn’t a regular bench, it looked more like a hope chest.  I swam over to look more closely and I realized it wasn’t a bench at all – it was a trunk.  Actually, it was two trunks side by side.  They were locked with an antique looking padlocks – the kind that use a skeleton key.

I swam back to Tim and got another AL80 and brought it back to the room.  We aimed the bottom of the AL80 at the padlock and Billy and I took turns slamming the yoke of that tank with the hammer until it broke off.  The tank shot into the trunk and hit the padlock.  It didn’t open.  The tank shot out of the room through the missing wall to join its aluminum friend in the abyss.

I swam directly to what was left of T. Montgomery and searched his pockets for the key.  His ancient bones broke apart as my
gear swung into him.  Femurs, tibulas, clavicles, jaws and a pelvis smashed into dive computers, hammers, hoses and weights as I tore through his pockets.  Finally, in the watch pocket of his vest, I found a key.

Billy and I swam back to the trunk excitedly.  The key fit the padlock.  It turned and the padlocked, which had remained in place over 170 years, opened.  Throwing the padlock away, we opened the lid of the trunk.  A layer of silt greeted us, but when we shined our dive lights into the box, we were blinded by the glittering reflection of almost 350 pounds of irregularly shaped rectangular gold bars.

Did I say I get narced easily?  You can’t believe the feeling of finding a box full of gold.  It makes narced feel like a sip of a sloe gin fiz in comparison.  Most divers are happy with a plate, or a dead-eye, and we had found a mother-lode.  This narced felt like a ten martini narc.

Billy swam out to get Ted and Tim, and they all came back to join me with their liftbags and extra tanks.

You could actually feel the excitement in the room.  Through the water, through the silt, through the cold, our hearts were racing a mile a minute at the sheer exhilaration of what we had found.

Billy used his wreck reel to wrap around the trunk and tie it closed.  We attached three 250 pound lift bags to a carabiner hook and attached the hook to the wreck reel wrapped around the trunk.  We carefully added a little bit of air to each of the lift bags, just enough to float the trunk off the floor.  We slowly pushed it out of the room into the open ocean.  Tim guided it a few more feet past the wreckage and used his regulator to fill the lift bags.

As the first trunk started its trip to the surface, the carabiner hooked onto Tim’s first stage and lifted him up.  We watched in
amazement as Tim dragged behind the rapidly accelerating trunk and lift bags.  Always composed and calm, Tim pulled his dive knife and ripped open two of the lift bags.  At about 70 feet, the trunk stopped its ascent and began falling to the bottom, still dragging Tim behind it.  Luckily, the lone lift bag prevented it from falling faster than Tim could equalize.

As it smashed into the bottom, Tim followed it, smashing his face into the trunk and cracking the glass.  The trunk stayed intact, thanks to Billy’s wreck reel wrapped around it.  Tim’s mask was leaking, but not broken completely.  Aside from being slightly shaken and heavily narced, Tim was OK.

Unfortunately, we only had four lift bags left – probably not enough to raise both trunks.

We went into the hotel and prepped the other trunk of gold.  Floating it above the floor, we moved it into the sand next to the first trunk.

I have to admit that the cold, the depth and the narcossis was beginning to affect me, as I’m sure it did the other divers.  My vision began to get a little blurred and my fingers were plain cold from the water temperature.

Checking our air gauges we had about 1000 PSI each, plus our Pony bottles.

We worked carefully, deliberately, systematically; tying the trunks together and attaching the lift bags, being careful not to get entangled.  By now we were all pretty thoroughly narced, and still feeling quite good.

Tim took off his broken mask and began blowing bubbles through his eyes.  This is possible if you can hold your nose and  force the pressure from the back of your throat into your sinuses.  Ted thought it was pretty funny and he took off his mask to do the same.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t get bubbles through his eyes, but it was a pretty hilarious sight to see two guys in 38 degree water blowing bubbles and making funny faces at each other.

Billy didn’t want to be outdone, since he is and always has been a clown.  He opened up the two front zippers on his Cadillac of Dry Suits, the DUI 200, pulled down his thermal underwear and began to urinate.  I think, I’m not sure he was urinating.  38 degrees does a quick job of making a man into a woman.  I was laughing pretty hard and trying not to gulp water.

Not to be outdone by Billy, Tim swam back into the hotel through the missing wall.  He actually swam INTO the hotel wall, because he had long since lost his mask and was having problems seeing.  A few moments later, he swam out with the proverbial lampshade on his head.

Ted grabbed the last extra tank and put his mask on it.  Then he took the pencil from his slate and drew a smiley mouth under the mask.  We all thought it was kind of funny.  Billy, not one to not be the center of attention, opened the valve on the tank and it began to tumble end over end.  That elicited more laughter from the guys.  The tank slowly tumbled away from us until we couldn’t see it any more.

Tim pulled out a slip of paper that had the GPS coordinates for our wreck.  Much to our entertainment, he ate them.

By now, I had grown tired of laughing and had begun to develop a case of the munchies.  I noticed one wall of the hotel was
covered by large brown mussels, so I took my game bag and filled it up with the tasty mollusks.  I swam back to the trunks and without thinking twice, I put a 250 lb liftbag on my mussels and sent them up to the boat.

The other divers thought that was hilarious, and they began collecting mussels too.  Within a few minutes, three more game bags floated up to the surface courtesy of our 250 lb lift bags.

Then we began to ascend.

It was at about 100 feet that I realized we had just left 700 pounds of gold on the bottom so we could bring up mussels.  But my tank was down to 500 PSI and I really didn’t have much choice but to surface.  We could always go back down.

We did an extra long safety stop until our tanks were empty, then we climbed up to the boat.

Here’s the bad news:
1)  You can’t cure DCI by putting holes into a diver to let the extra air out.
2)  Shake shingles, although they might look like mussels, are not edible.
3)  If you break your tanks open or leave them on the bottom, you can’t use them for subsequent dives.

Tim ran for the head to try to throw up the slip of paper.  What Tim got couldn’t help anybody find anything.  Since we had thrown away all the navigational electronics, we didn’t even know where we were.

With no air tanks left, we couldn’t even go down to untie from the wreck.  The mate ended up free-diving to about 30 feet and cut the anchor line.  The captain added the cost of the anchor to our bill for the charter, the GPS and the LORAN.

Oh well – easy come easy go.

Billy had brought a case of Becks along with us, and we all enjoyed a cold one as we ate Doritos and headed back to Atlantic Highlands after our 2010 April Fools Day Dive Trip.

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3 Comments »

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  1. Dave,
    Nice dive report. Do you mind if I add your blog to my website? I run NJDive.com, and I list a bunch of personal blogs of NJ divers. Let me know at mb104@aol.com

    Thanks,
    Mike Bender

    • Hi Mike,
      Sure – add me to your website, although a lot of my writing is not dive based . . .

  2. and I forgot to mention, that it was pretty funny…..

    excellent writing. If you are going to continue this type of reporting, it may create quite a following.


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