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: Mon, 30 Jul 2001 22:29:34

AUE Weekend Trip Report Key West: July 28-29, 2001
USS S-16, USS Kendrick, USS Wilkes Barre

After taking a quick look at how my yard has transformed into a jungle due to lack of attention during my July diving trek, I loaded up the truck and headed for Key West. The group wandered into the Seaport for a quick lunch before loading up our gear and motoring out for an afternoon dive on the USS S-16 (SS-121), a submarine that was laid down on March 19, 1918, by the Lake Torpedo Boat Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. The S-3 Class coastal and harbor defense submarine was 231 feet in length overall with a beam of almost 22 feet. The submarine was armed with four 21-inch torpedo tubes installed in the bow. On May 22, 1935, USS S-16 was decommissioned and placed in the reserve fleet at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

With the threat of World War II looming ever closer to the United States, S-16 was taken out of mothballs and re-commissioned on December 2, 1940. However, the S-16 was again decommissioned on October 4, 1944, and struck from the Navy List. The S-boat was intentionally destroyed by sinking on April 3, 1945, off Key West, becoming the first vessel to be commissioned into the "Key West Ghost Fleet." Today, she sits in approximately 260-feet of water.

Eagerly anticipating our visit to the S-16, we loaded up the boat and meandered south toward the wreck site. We would again learn that one of the hardest parts of these dives is finding the damn wreck. The LORAN numbers I received did not convert well and put us in deep water, over 3 miles from the actual location. Our secondary set of numbers placed us closer to the ballpark, around a quarter-mile away. After spending a good deal of time in our fruitless search, we noticed a small fishing boat approach and start drifting over the same area. We opted to motor over and investigate. After conversing over the radio, we got the correct numbers to the sub from a very helpful fisherman. We soon marked the wreck and prepped our shotline, dropping it into the attractive blue surface waters. After gearing up, our team of eight lined the stern of the boat and dropped en masse once the boat positioned itself adjacent to the shotline. Right before I hit the water, the last thing I remember was one of my buddies saying "Eat my bubbles..."

Finning towards the bottom, one of my other buddies made the mistake of scootering too close to me. Taking the opportunity, I quickly grabbed a fin as he dropped past (swimming is for suckers) and hitched a ride. As we approached the bottom, I dropped off and worked my way up to the hook into a light half-knot current. Soon I saw a massive shadow appear as the conning tower of the S-16 loomed in the distance it was much bigger than I expected. I turned to signal the rest of the team as I observed their lights in the distance as they worked their way to the wreck. I swam up to the conning tower and checked out the cool chariot bridge and open hatch into the control room. I slowly worked my way aft, watching the numerous fish on the portside of the wreck dart about. The wreck lists about 20 degrees to starboard and the port side of the wreck is exposed to the prevailing current. As such, the port side is richly adorned with a garden of whip corals, more so than on the lee surfaces of the wreck. Heading aft, I dropped down and checked out the starboard and port screws that are still in place. Working my way back forward, I looked down into the large aft hatch that leads into the generator room. This hatch is large enough to drop down into with doubles, something that will have to wait until our next visit. Passing the conning tower again, I continued on to the bow. There is another large hatch open in the bow, allowing for even more penetration into the interior. I eventually reached the bow which was in great shape. Other subs that I have visited usually have deteriorated greatly, soon shedding the outside hull and leaving only the pressure hull. The S-16 still looks very much like a submarine and is very impressive. The hydrodynamic lines of the bow were high off the bottom and divers can pass clear under the forward portion of the sub almost back to the forward hatch.

I slowly worked my way back aft and hung out with some of the other divers near the conning tower. Our camera guys were doing their magic and documenting the sub while the rest of us played around for our last few minutes. After the rest of the team departed, my buddy and I reeled in back to the shotline at the end of our allotted dive time. En route, we bumped into one of our other buddies ("Eat my bubbles") who was just now showing up after wandering around the sand for a while <G>. At the time we didn't know what was up, so we lingered a few more minutes as he did a cursory examination of the sub. Soon, we regrouped and headed up for our decompression obligation which was rather dull. The team eventually boarded the boat and headed back to Key West, arriving in the harbor just in time to watch the sunset spectacle.

The following day dawned with even better weather as the team arrived at the boat to dive the USS Kendrick, followed by the USS Wilkes Barre. The USS Kendrick (DD-612) was launched on April 2, 1942, by the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, San Pedro, California, and commissioned on September 12, 1942. The Kendrick, a Bristol class destroyer, was 348 feet in length with a 36 foot beam. The Kendrick was eventually subjected to demolition tests off Key West by the David Taylor Model Basin, Carderock, Maryland, in March of 1968. She sits upright and intact, resting in approximately 320 feet of water.

We had attempted to dive this once before, but errant numbers and a poor bottom machine left us high and dry. The Kendrick lies almost inline with the current, and due to her narrow beam, she can be a hard target to hit. After spending a good deal of time looking for the wreck, we lucked out and registered a low spike on the bottom machine. We soon obtained good GPS numbers, as the various members of our team ritualistically whipped out their GPS units to secure accurate positioning information; future visits to these wrecks should be much easier now that we know exactly where the damn things are.

We rigged the shotline and once in position sent it towards the wreck below. The team again dressed out and splashed together, working their way down the shotline. Due to the east winds over the past week, the surface currents this weekend were negligible. However, once below the thermocline, they were obvious. The mild current yesterday was replaced today with a blistering one and the descent took a fair amount of effort. Approaching the bottom and working towards the hook, I noticed the anchor chain of the Kendrick running off towards the wreck in the distance. Aside from the very strong current, the water on the bottom was a numbing 54 degrees yikes! Swimming against the current was useless, so I dropped to the bottom and worked along the anchor chain towards the wreck. As I began to pull along the links of the chain, I noticed the bottom was moving.  WTF?!  It took a second for my brain to register what I was seeing as I peered closer to figure out the anomaly. I soon realized that the sand bottom was covered in a thick carpet of small (one inch) brittle stars that would move around as you approached them. It was pretty damn cool. As I continued to work towards the wreck, the razor sharp bow of the destroyer soon appeared out of the mist. Awesome! I finned up to the bow and then had to force myself to relax for a minute or two after the hefty workout. I held onto the edge of the hawse pipe and caught my breath as I flapped in the breeze, taking a look at my surroundings. As I checked all my gauges out, I noticed the max depth on my Uwatec registered *exactly* 326 feet which prompted a chuckle. Once rested, I took off to work my way aft towards the superstructure. While the forward guns have been removed, the rounded bridge of the destroyer is still is dressed out with her portholes. As I peered in, I saw several red snapper hiding from the current. A few snowy grouper and scamp dashed about, not lingering in the swift current. I slowly crept about, absorbing the scenery around me. I stopped just aft of the superstructure; the temperature at this depth (~290 feet) was in the low sixties and much more tolerable than the water just under me. As the deck drops down to around 310 feet and there is little protection from the current aside from the funnels, I opted to just hang around this area until my other buddies wandered back. The guys that headed towards the aft noticed a fracture that traversed the entire beam of the wreck; the Kendrick is actually in two sections but still contiguous as the sections are only separated by a few feet. Soon, the guys reappeared and we poked around a bit more around the bridge. One of my buddies went up the mast above the bridge and grabbed hold as he mimicked a flag whipped about by the current. There is a decent amount of line on this wreck and the swift current had it billowing out off the starboard side. Shaking my head at his lunacy, we eventually let loose and sailed back towards the shotline towards the end of our 22 minute bottom time. After clearing the grapple from the debris that it was hooked into, the current pushed us up the shotline like an elevator. As we worked our way up, the current fortunately became a bit more subdued. However, as the hook was still dragging in the sand, we signaled our intent to let loose of the line and shoot bags for the latter portions of our decompression. During deco, I tried to find a word to describe the wreck of the Kendrick, and the only one that sprang to mind was "sexy" the lines of the Kendrick are sleek and petite, illustrating the potential speed this vessel once possessed. With the misty 60 feet of visibility we had, it was a great dive. We all agreed that the dive with a scooter was a "kick-ass" dive, though without a scooter the dive was an "ass kicker." However, one of the guys said the current was so abusive that he was barely able to make headway into the current with his Gavin. Hopefully, he will develop "turbo" mode for our next batch of scooters.

After we secured our gear and recovered the shotline, we motored over to Pelican Shoal for lunch and mid-afternoon snorkeling before our afternoon dive on the USS Wilkes Barre. It was a most relaxing day on the water. After playing about with nurse sharks, lobsters, tarpon, and spotted eagle rays for three hours, we worked our way over to the "Willie Bee." The USS Wilkes-Barre was a Cleveland Class light cruiser, 608 feet in length, 63 feet in breadth and displacing 10,000 tons. Her keel was laid down on December 14, 1942, at Camden, New Jersey, by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation. She was launched on December 24, 1943, sponsored by Mrs. Grace Shoemaker Miner, the wife of a prominent Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, doctor, and commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on July 1, 1944, with Capt. Robert L. Porter, Jr., in command. The Wilkes saw a great deal of action in the Pacific Theater of World War II, eventually receiving four battle stars for her service.

Decommissioned on October 9, 1947, the USS Wilkes-Barre was simultaneously placed in reserve at Philadelphia. She remained in "mothballs" at Philadelphia until struck from the Navy list on January 11, 1975 the last light cruiser on the Navy list. Thereafter, the ship was subjected to underwater explosive tests off Key West. On May 12, 1972, her battered hulk broke in two. The after section sank of its own accord on that day, the forward section sank on the 13th, as a result of a scuttling charge. The impressive stern section sits upright in 250 feet of water, while the less-visited bow section sits on her starboard side a few hundred feet away.

The Wilkes is always a crowd pleaser and is personally one of my favorite dives. On a day with good visibility, the wreck is awe-inspiring. Fortunately for a couple of the guys who had yet to dive the wreck, an impressive model of the Wilkes was graciously donated to me by Captain Billy Deans. The detail of the model is astounding and really provides a good primer for those about to visit the wreck. Even though most of us had been to the wreck several times, the enthusiasm for this dive has yet to dissipate. After dropping the shotline on the wreck, two of the guys who wanted to pull a longer bottom time jumped in to secure the line. After 5 minutes, the rest of the team jumped in for a quick 25-minute dive. Again, while there was no surface current, towards the bottom the current picked up but was much less severe than our experience on the Kendrick. As I saw the wreck appear below, I dropped off the line and dropped to the port deck. I wandered around the portside of the superstructure, chasing behind several large snapper. At the aft base of the superstructure, the resident jewfish lumbered around, thumping his disapproval at our presence. Several of us rendezvoused at one of the guns in order to get a group shot, though a few of the guys lagged behind and missed the party. I dropped down and swam back to the hangar, finning over the massively flat aft deck. A few black grouper hovered about warily watching me as I passed by. After poking around a bit more, I finned back towards the shotline and waited for the rest of the team to rally. Unfortunately, two of the divers mis-interpreted our dive plan and lingered a bit longer, to the displeasure of the those that were forced to extend their planned bottom time. After the remainder of the team appeared, we instinctively worked together to free the shotline and scooter it away from the wreck so we could drift off for decompression.

It was a great weekend of diving and we look forward to rounding out the Key West Ghost Fleet with upcoming dives on the USS Fred T. Berry and USS Saufley.