Legend of the Andrea Doria

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“the Mount Everest of wreck diving”

On the night of July 25, 1956, the Italian ocean liner SS Andrea Doria was struck by the Swedish ship MS Stockholmin heavy fog off the coast of Nantucket. 46 people were killed in the collision and subsequent sinking of the ship. Though not the largest or fastest ocean liner of its era, the Andrea Doria was widely regarded as the most beautiful. Its decks were dotted with three outdoor swimming pools, and it was dubbed a “floating art gallery” for its dazzling array of paintings, tapestries and surrealist murals.

The sinking of the Andrea Doria

Today, lying at a depth of 74m the wreck of the Andrea Doria is known as “the Mount Everest of wreck diving”. Due to the luxurious appointments and initially good condition of the wreck, the Andrea Doria has been a frequent target of treasure divers. The depth, water temperature, and currents combine to put the wreck beyond the scope of recreational diving. The skills and equipment required to successfully execute this dive, such as use of mixed gases and staged decompression, put it in the realm of only the most experienced technical divers.

Peter Gimbel later conducted a number of salvage operations on the ship, including salvaging the first-class bank safe in 1981. Despite speculation that passengers had deposited many valuables, the safe, opened on live television in 1984, yielded thousands of American silver certificates, Canadian bank notes, American Express travelers checks, and Italian bank notes, but no other valuables. This outcome apparently confirmed other speculation that most Andrea Doria passengers, in anticipation of the ship’s scheduled arrival in New York City the following morning, had already retrieved their valuables prior to the collision. Divers have managed to recover various porcelain items bearing the Italia line insignia.

   

Artifacts recovered from the ship

Artifact recovery on the Andrea Doria has resulted in numerous fatalities. Sixteen scuba divers have lost their lives diving on the wreck, and diving conditions at the wreck site are considered very treacherous. Strong currents and heavy sediment that can reduce visibility to zero pose serious hazards to diving this site. reported that thick fishing nets draped the hull. An invisible web of thin fishing lines, which can easily snag scuba gear, provides more danger. Furthermore, the wreck is slowly collapsing; the top of the wreck is now at 190 feet (58 m), and many of the passageways have begun to collapse.

 

The Air of Everest

By John Chatterton

Before rebreathers and before trimix, air-breathing wreck divers were testing themselves and their equipment on the wreck of the Andrea Doria. In retrospect, I consider myself lucky to have been there in the 1980s. I was in the right place at the right time.

Long before I made my way to the wreck, it had been explored by virtually all of the sport’s wreck-diving legends like Peter Gimbel, John Dudas, George Hoffman, Mike de Camp and Bill Nagle, yet they barely scratched the surface of the wreck’s potential.

Nagle was the captain of the dive boat, Seeker, my usual ride. He was an experienced Doria diver and my wreck-diving mentor. Before I made my first dive to the wreck, Bill warned me that the Doria was very dangerous. I clearly understood that any wreck in 250 feet of water was indeed a dangerous place for a diver, but that was not what he meant. “The Doria is dangerous because it is so highly addictive,” he said. “You’ll see. You’ll have to keep coming back.”

I thought Bill was crazy. I knew how much preparation, dedication and money it took just to get there. I was not going to make 100 dives on the Doria. I was going on a single trip, it was going to be the highlight of my diving career, and then I was moving on, or so I thought. Ultimately, Bill was right. I would make more than 150 Doria dives before the new millennium.

The Doria lies on her starboard side in about 250 feet of water. Back in the 1980s the port side was only about 180 feet deep. On the right day, any open-water diver could swim down and touch the Doria. The problem is that you can’t tell from the boat if it is the right day. Oftentimes the ocean surface will be completely still, but current can be roaring on the wreck. Visibility can be 100-plus feet, but it is more likely to be 10 to 20 feet. One thing is for sure: It’s always cold, roughly 38 to 48 degrees.

Until computers came along, we had to use the U.S. Navy dive tables. Unfortunately, there were no repetitive tables for air dives over 190 feet. We were not going to stay above 190, or sacrifice our repetitive dives. We overcame this obstacle by interpolating the Navy tables in a way I should probably not describe. It was not exactly what we learned in open-water training.

In the 1980s, deep diving was not acceptable to the mainstream. It was outlaw diving and we were bad boys (and girls). Of those who crossed the 130-foot redline, there were divers who were content simply to make it to the wreck and satisfied to touch the exterior. But what made the Doria the Doria was found inside. Its uniqueness was defined by the almost limitless penetrations it offered. Completely unexplored areas of the wreck awaited those willing to enter. This is what made the Doria different from all the other wrecks of the day. It gave you plenty of rope to hang yourself.

Like most of my peers, I became bolder with every dive. Eventually, I could swim solo down to the wreck, drop into the promenade, swim down to the double doors, enter into the wreck on the promenade deck, swim aft to a stairwell, travel in the stairway down two decks to the foyer deck, come out in the second-class foyer, cross into the second-class dining room, swim aft to the bulkhead at the revolving door, drop down to 230 feet, and enter the corridor into the second-class kitchen. There I would find a cabinet and collect a few souvenirs of glassware. Alone, on air, without a penetration line, this was incredibly aggressive diving.

Why break all the rules of diving to risk dying lost and alone? For me, I wanted to go where no diver had ever been. It was about challenging myself and answering the question, “Could I do it?” Could I figure out a way to go beyond where I had been and get back? Maybe others had different reasons. Regardless, it was adventurous diving and there were numerous injuries and fatalities to prove it. Looking back on the way we dove back then should make any modern day certified diver cringe.

Unfortunately, the days of vast penetrations on the Andrea Doria are gone. The wreck is collapsing and is barely recognizable for what she once was. While the Doria has been in decline, diving has changed dramatically, too. Today we know more about both diving and education, and we have better tools. We dive deeper, longer, and we are much better equipped to manage the inherent risks of diving deep shipwrecks. However, for a short time, the Andrea Doria really was the Mount Everest of wreck diving.

Article by Jacques Bezuidenhout

Sources: scubadiving.com; wikipedia.org, andreadoria.org