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: Tue, 29 May 2001 13:53:57
AUE Weekend Trip Report May 25-28, 2001
Day One - Rhein
Four of the AUE gang enjoyed the Memorial Day weekend visiting some of the best deep wrecks in Florida. We got a late start on the evening as one of our buddies was flying in from Virginia to join us and his flight was delayed. After loading up our boat and getting under way, we all crashed for a few hours sleep before our first dives on the Rhein. The Rhein was a 454-foot long German freighter built in 1926. At the outbreak of World War II, she attempted to make it back to Germany from Mexico. Several U.S. warships were monitoring German shipping activities, recognizing the increased European hostilities, although at the time we were not at war with Germany. The U.S. destroyers Simpson (DD-221) and MacLeish (DD-220), shadowed the Rhein as it sailed for home in December of 1940. Before making it out of the Gulf of Mexico, she was caught by the Dutch Navy sloop Van Kinsbergen. The Captain of the Rhein attempted to scuttle the ship by setting it afire, but before it sunk the British cruiser Caradoc joined the fray and placed several 6-inch shells into her superstructure while the USS MacLeish and USS McCormick (DD-223) witnessed the event. The Rhein now rests upright and intact in approximately 250 feet of water.
We pulled up to the wreck early on Saturday and quickly marked the massive wreck. While the sand is around 245 feet, the main weather deck is around 200 feet and the kingposts rise to within 160 feet of the surface. After hooking in, we all geared up and splashed into the calm blue water. While the overcast conditions lowered ambient light on the bottom, we still had 200 feet of visibility above the thermocline (water temps: 80 degrees near the surface, 75 degrees mid-water, and 73 degrees on the bottom). Around 130 feet I could make out the aft superstructure of the promenade deck where we were hooked in amidst the schooling amberjack. Dumping my deco bottles right next to a porthole, I began my 300-foot swim towards the bow so I could look for the bow letters and take a look into the forepeak. I also wanted to look for the crows nest bell that I had noticed from a historical picture of the vessel. On the wreck, we had approximately 80 feet of visibility. Fish of all sizes and colors were swarming around the wreck and 4-5 large stingrays glided around the forward cargo holds. The large and abundant marine life make these wrecks truly unique, as nowhere else in Florida can you witness the amount of biomass and biodiversity that these wrecks support. Unfortunately, the forward mast had fallen backwards and off to the portside, the remains of the crows nest nowhere to be seen. After looking about the bow for a few minutes I realized I would be unable to find the bow letters due to the massive amounts of encrustation along the hull. I turned my attention to the interior of the bow, moving through the portside corridor and into a small supply room. Shelves still held numerous lighting fixtures and gauges covered in thick silt, while small portholes adorning the bulkheads allowed light to filter in. After poking around a bit, I backed out to check out the starboard side. This area was a tad more bare, though there were several objects strewn about the interior. With a few minutes of bottom time left, I turned back for the hook and swam across the devastated bridge area. While there are some bulkhead supports visible on the port side, the remainder of the bridge appears to have been completely obliterated. After poking about for a few more minutes and watching some huge grouper lumber about the wreck, I donned my deco bottles and joined Andrew at the hook for our deco obligation. As we neared our buddies who splashed a few minutes before us, they pointed out a bell hanging below a liftbag at the surface. After communicating where it was found (close to the hook) and that it was just laying loose on the deck, I proceeded to give my buddy the single finger salute to acknowledge his find. I was genuinely ecstatic at the good fortune of my buddy as we had discussed the presence of a second bell leading up to this trip.
A few months ago I managed to track down the parent shipping company of the Rhein in Germany and I inquired if they still had any pictures or information on this vessel. I was pleasantly surprised a few weeks later when I received a package including an original picture and deck plans for the vessel in question. After carefully reviewing the material I noticed there was a large bell found at the crows nest of the forward mast. Apparently, it was a bell for the lookout that would stand watch at this station. A few weeks before the trip I had been talking with Billy Deans in regard to some other projects when I turned the topic to the Rhein. Billy had set up the first trips to this wreck back in 1991 whereupon he recovered the bell off the bow. After we discussed the many incredible attributes of the wreck and both readily agreed that it is one of the top wrecks available to divers, I inquired as to whether he recovered the crows nest bell, knowing that he also had a picture and extensive file of the ship. I think his reply was something like, "What crows nest bell?"
After a pleasant deco, we all surfaced and discussed the dive. While we were admiring the bell on the deck, Joe attempted to pick it up to get a closer look. As he grabbed the steel bolt and chain link at the top of the bell the same place he had attached the lift bag for recovery the corroded bolt gave way and broke loose in his hand. My buddy definitely was blessed on this dive!
After a pleasant interval we all geared up to splash for a second dive. As soon as I hit the deck I rigged the loose porthole next to the hook for recovery. While the glass was not intact, I happened to look at it closely on the first dive and noticed that the glass appeared to have melted and was "rolling" out the base of the swingplate like lava. There was a huge glob of glass approximately 5 inches thick and it looked really cool and wavy; this artifact really illustrated how hot the fire was on the ship as it melted the thick glass of the porthole! I swam about the midship area and poked about the interior rooms. The fire appears to have "sterilized" the interior as there are few small artifacts obvious amongst the rubble, though portholes are abundantly obvious. I noticed bubbles rising along the hull from below, so I moved out of the interior and sank below to investigate. Joe had found a nice porthole laying next to the hull in the sand and was preparing to recover it. Right next to him Boss Hogg a hogfish that has got to be approaching 25 pounds was hanging about watching the scene. Joe turned to ascend towards the hook, porthole in tow, as I followed up along the massive wall of the hull. The team converged at the hook and we all moved up the line towards the boat and dinner.
The team eventually settled in to partake of a much-needed meal and to watch some video that Andrew shot during the second dive. He had moved into a neat generator room towards the stern and documented the large machinery throughout the interior. Several of the hatches that he entered were deformed in odd shapes from the weight of the collapsing ship above. Eventually, we all collapsed for some sleep before yet another dive on the Rhein the following morning, followed by a dive on the Araby Maid and the Oil Wreck.