A S S O C I A T I O N OF U N D E R W A T E R E X P L O R E R S
Date: Sun, 28 Jan 2001 21:47:58
AUE Weekend Trip Report January 27th, 2001
So there I was, floating 140 miles offshore and about to dive a wreck in 420 of water in the Gulf of Mexico as I wondered how I could better spend my time. During a conversation during one of our Tortugas trips to dive the deep wrecks of the Rhein, Araby Maid, U-2513, and others last year, Captain Jeff posed the question, "how deep is deep?" I asked him what he had in mind, knowing full well that he had good access to numerous "private" fishing sites. He answered that he knew of a massive wreck in 450 of water and that he was curious to find out its identity. I almost immediately discounted the possibility of diving the wreck, believing the time, effort, and expense was not worth the attempt. On numerous occasions I have stated that "deeper is not better," believing too many people feel that depth alone makes a particular dive "great." Yet, I must admit the mystery around this wreck drew me in, especially once I determined a list of suspect vessels.
I was still intrigued with what the wreck may be, so after further conversations with Captain Jeff, I investigated the available information. Fishermen believe the wreck to be the torpedoed "Eastern Sword," however I found that no vessel by that name was sunk in the Gulf. There was an Eastern Sword that was torpedoed in World War II, but that was just offshore British Guiana. Furthermore, the dimensions of the Eastern Sword did not match the proportions of the wreck site. They also believed the ship was carrying phosphate though I am unaware how they determined this. After poking around a bit more, a colleague mentioned that while he was unaware of a phosphate carrier going down in this vicinity he knew of a sulphur carrier that disappeared mysteriously in 1963 that may possibly be the wreck in question. That ship was the SS Marine Sulphur Queen. While there were three other likely suspects, all war casualties from the U-507, I focused on the MSQ.
Sometime on the morning of February 4, 1963, the Type T2-SE-A1 tanker, SS Marine Sulphur Queen, disappeared off the west coast of Florida while en route to Norfolk, Virginia. The only evidence of her existence where the scant remnants of debris that were recovered 12 miles southwest of Key West on February 20th. No trace of her 39 crewmen were ever found.
The SS Marine Sulfur Queen was originally named the Esso New Haven which was built in 1944 by the Sun Shipbuilding Company of Chester, Pennsylvania. During the closing of World War II, the ubiquitous Type T2 tankers were rapidly produced by numerous shipyards on both coasts of the United States; average production time from the laying of the keel to completion for sea trials was an astounding 70 days. The Esso New Haven was 523.5' in length and 68' in breadth, propelled by a turbo-electric drive system that produced a maximum of 7,240 shaft horsepower. The vessel was capable of a 15 knot top speed and had a range of approximately 12,600 miles.
In April of 1960, the Texas Gulf Sulphur Company looked to make long term arrangements for transportation of its sulphur product in liquid form. Eventually, an agreement was made with Marine Transport Lines Incorporated to purchase the 17-year old tanker, Esso New Haven. For her conversion, the vessel was moved to the Sparrow Point shipyard of the Bethlehem Steel Company in Baltimore, Maryland. She was renamed the SS Marine Sulphur Queen to reflect her new career as a molten sulphur carrier.
In order to accommodate the 306' long, 30.5' wide, and 33' high sulphur tank, it was necessary to remove all of the transverse bulkheads in way of the original centerline tanks and construct a new internal supporting structure. The cargo tank was covered with a blanket of Owens-Corning Armaglas insulation which was 6" thick on top and 4" thick elsewhere; in order to transport sulphur in a liquid state which facilitated the loading and offloading, steam was fed into heating coils which kept the molten sulphur at a temperature of 255 degrees. After the conversion, there remained an approximately 15 width between the sides of the tank and the hull of the ship that ran along the side of the tank. This area was partially taken up by saddle tanks which were used for fuel, water, or ballast. The main tank was divided into 4 sub-compartments which had port and starboard expansion trunks constructed on the aft ends. These extended up through the weather deck into weather-tight pumphouses where the cargo was loaded or offloaded.
The SS Marine Sulphur Queen commenced operation as a bulk molten sulphur carrier in January of 1961. Unfortunately, the newly christened tanker the first vessel of its kind to transport molten sulphur was plagued with accidents and misfortune. During its operation as a molten sulphur carrier, the MSQ sustained heavy weather damage on two occasions, encountered two hurricanes, and suffered one minor grounding. In 1961 alone, the MSQ was witness to two separate major sulphur spills while discharging her cargo. Liquid sulphur had leaked onto the cargo tank and into the void spaces along the sides, eventually pooling under the tank. Both incidents required new insulation to be installed. The MSQ was also hampered by a continuous leaking of molten sulphur throughout 1962 and up to her last cruise. The volume of escaping sulphur became so tremendous that it necessitated the crew to remove the solidified sulphur after each cruise to prevent the blockage of her bilge suctions. Upon the departure of the MSQ on her final cruise, an estimated 20 to 70 tons of solidified sulphur remained in the bilge. In addition to the problematic leaks the crew faced, fires became common occurrences in the sulphur-impregnated insulation surrounding the void spaces. During a cruise in the latter part of December, 1962, fires burned almost continuously in the insulation around the tank. These fires were of a local nature seldom covering an area of more than a few square feet, and amazingly caused little or no apprehension on the part of the crew. Apparently, they were easily controlled with a steam smothering system and freshwater.
On February 2, 1963, the SS Marine Sulphur Queen completed loading a full cargo of 15,260 tons of molten sulphur at Beaumont, Texas. With Captain James V. Fanning at the helm, the ship passed the Sabine Bar seabuoy later that evening. She was expected to arrive at Norfolk at noon on February 7th.
Early on the morning of February 4th, a personal message was received from a crew member of the MSQ. From this transmission, the position of the MSQ was estimated to be 25°45' North, 86° West. This message would be the last contact from the doomed vessel. Just before noon, the first of two unsuccessful attempts to contact the MSQ was made. The estimated position of the ship at this time was 24°40' North, 83°19' West. Weather conditions prevailing along the track of the MSQ are known to have been rough; the wind was blowing northerly at 25 to 46 knots which produced 16' seas.
At 9:00 p.m. on February 7th, the SS Marine Sulphur Queen was reported overdue to the Commander of the 5th Coast Guard District in Portsmouth, Virginia. An intensive search was mounted along the planned route of the MSQ from Texas to Virginia. During the period of February 8th through the 13th, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and U.S. Air Force aircraft covered an area of 348,400 square miles. The massive search produced no clue to the disappearance of the ship and the search was discontinued on February 13, 1963.
On February 20th, a life preserver and fog horn stenciled with the vessels name were retrieved by a U.S. Navy vessel 12 miles southwest of Key West. A second search was immediately initiated which concentrated on the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico, the Straits of Florida, and the Bahamas. From February 20th through March 13th, the U.S. Navy conducted an underwater search for the vessel's hulk. During this search, additional debris was retrieved and identified as coming from the SS Marine Sulphur Queen: 8 life jackets, 5 life preservers, two name boards, a shirt, a piece of an oar, a storm oil can, a gasoline can, a cone buoy, and a foghorn were all that remained of the tanker. Finally, on March 14, 1963, after all efforts to locate the ship had failed, the search was again discontinued.
The disappearance of the SS Marine Sulphur Queen made headlines throughout the Spring of 1963. Theories of her loss ranged from probable to absurd. It is possible that the heavily laden ship broke in half in the heavy seas that it encountered. Numerous other Type T-2 tankers have broken in half in rough weather such as the Fort Mercer, Pendleton, San Jacinto, and the Marine Electric. It is feasible that the damage previously incurred could have facilitated her demise. The constant leaking of sulphur could have become exacerbated in the heavy seas and the bilge could have become clogged with solidified sulphur which would have hampered her ability to stay buoyant. It is possible that a combination of events led to her sinking; if she began to break apart, the cool Gulf of Mexico water may have reacted with the molten sulphur, possibly initiating a disastrous explosion which would have quickly sent the MSQ to the bottom. However, while there was oil on some of the life jackets and life preservers, there were no traces of sulphur on any of the items nor was there any splintered or scorched debris or other evidence of a fire or explosion. Due to the lack of an SOS or Mayday from the MSQ, it can be assumed that whatever the cause for the sinking, it was swift. Unfortunately, due to the lack of physical evidence, the exact cause for the disappearance of the SS Marine Sulphur Queen could not be ascertained.
While I was researching the MSQ, I contacted the daughter of an MSQ crewman for more information of the vessel. She happened to forward my name to BBC Television who were in the process of filming a show for the Discovery Channel. After much discussion, arrangements were made to conduct a preliminary exploration dive on the wreck. A team was selected and the process of developing our dive plan was initiated. The eight-man dive team was looking forward to the project and worked to evaluate every possible nuance and detail of the dive. The four bottom divers would be escorted down the shot line by the deep support divers who would then do a quick gear check and make sure gas switches were made to our bottom mix of 9/68/23. Other gasses were 35/20/45, 50/50, and 100%.
After a seven-hour boat ride, our vessels the Nauti Gal and Gulf Business reached the site around noon and quickly marked the wreck. To our benefit, the wreck was only in 420 of water, however, due to the profile on the bottom reader it appeared to either be turtled or on her side. Our two vessels made numerous attempts to grapple the wrecks with our shotlines, meeting with limited success due to conflicting wind and current, sloppy 3-4 seas, and the layout of the wreck. A shot line was finally secured after almost two hours and the teams began to gear up. The teams on the two boats arranged for deployment slightly upcurrent of the shotline in order to intercept it around 60. The first group from Gulf Business hit the line and promptly the poly ball was drawn under. The Nauti Gal worked to reposition and locate the bubbles from the other divers. After moving into position, the second team splashed. We met with the first team who were now off the line and ascending. Apparently, the drag on the line pulled the poly ball under and it began to sink after being crushed by the pressure. Fortunately, it resurfaced a few moments later. The groups boarded the boats and we went through the motions again for a second try. The second deployment was a bit more synchronized, though the rough conditions and current made for a difficult time getting to the line. I was fortunate and quickly found myself at 60 with one of the deep support divers. The others were working their way down the line or to the line under the surface. After several minutes of labor, the other divers had reached the line and made their gas switch. I motioned for Mikey Rodriguez to lead down the line, as I was carrying a camera and wanted to get footage of the descent. The team made their way hand over hand down the line into increasingly darker waters. Greater amberjack started appearing as we approached the bottom, escorting the team to the wreck. Eventually, the lines of a wreck came into view around 350; unfortunately, my bottom timer quit registering depth at 328.
While we had rigged the BBC camera with wire to prevent the pressure from allowing the various control buttons (e.g., zoom) to make connection, we neglected to wire a button that switched the camera from digital video to digital stills. As I reached the hull at ~370, I lost video capabilities. I appraised my surroundings: the wreck was sitting on her side and all her surfaces were covered in a very low coral encrustation. Due to the lack of luxurious growth found on shallower wrecks, the lines of the wreck were extremely crisp. The team began exploring the wreck, noticing the various hatches on the deck. We dropped down the vertical deck of the wreck passing what appeared to be a mast that still jutted out into the darkness. The marine life on the wreck was fantastic. Soon, we were joined by a *very* large Warsaw grouper whose size dwarfed many jewfish I have seen. The grouper hovered directly over Mikey while I captured as many still images as I could. A few of the deck hatches were unsecured and were lying open. In general the wreck appeared to be in extremely good shape. As we continued along the wreck, Joe and I noticed some structure appeared to loom in the distance. Forward or aft-facing bulkheads (we could not determine what side the vessel was lying on) adorned with portholes were observed, but due to our limited time and its distance from the hook we opted to stay in the vicinity of the upline. The team managed to obtain a preliminary beam measurement which we felt paramount to determining which wreck we were diving; the MSQ had a beam that was almost 10 greater than the other suspect vessels. With our time nearing the end, we made preparations to foul the hook, and ascend for our decompression obligation.
As I slowly crept up the line, I was relieved to see my bottom timer eventually start to accurately register the depth. I was also relieved to see that the BBC camera did not flood. We soon saw the deep support divers waiting patiently for us near our first deep stop around 210. The team worked its way into shallower water, eventually joined by the shallow support divers that would eventually ferry equipment from the divers to the boats. A highlight was the appearance of some very friendly dolphins towards the end of our decompression. We first noticed them in the distance, though one of the bolder individuals eventually came with 10 of us as he did several rolling passes. The team eventually surfaced and boarded the boats to the anxious camera crew. After finally stowing our gear and recovering the shotline, the two boats motored for home, eventually reaching the dock around 1:30AM. Pleased with our initial exploration, our exhausted team said our goodbyes to the BBC crew and slowly loaded our cars, yearning for sleep.
Footage from our trip, as well as our preliminary conclusions, should appear in the Discovery Channel program that is scheduled to air in May. I will notify the list when I learn of the exact airtime. My thanks and appreciation goes out to the entire team that helped with this project.