A brass plate from a running light told the story. Ninety feet deep off the New Jersey coast were scattered fragments of the U.S. brig Logwood, a sailing vessel that went down in a storm off Asbury Park in the 1880s. Ribs rising from the sand and silt of a century seemed to plead for a life that ended nearly a century before.
Logwood is one of more than a thousand disintegrating wrecks that pepper charts of the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to Cape Hatteras. Where she once stored linens, rum and other goods she now holds prizes of the sea: lobster, sea bass, winter flounder, ling cod and occasional artifacts.
It's all there for the taking, from scores or hundreds of hulks, if you can find them.
"The sea is the last frontier," Ray Jarvis said, eyeing the assortment of brass spikes, fish and lobster that he and his companions had brought up from an unknown wooden vessel that doesn't appear on any chart. Judging from the spikes the ship was built no later than the reign of Queen Victoria.
Lying 85 feet deep off Brielle, New Jersey, it was the first of three wooden wrecks that Jarvis and 19 other sport divers explored last month, searching for "brass and bugs" -- artifacts and lobsters.
Before anyone went over the side of John Larsen's Deep Adventure II Jarvis called everyone to the stern and explained the dive plan, reviewed underwater hand signals and assigned buddy teams that would descend at about 10-minute intervals.
The first obligation of diving buddies is to help one another dress and check equipment. Since the bottom temperature was only 48 degrees, we struggled into full wet suits, including gloves, boots and hood. On top of that went the B-C (buoyancy compensatory), the tank with pressure gauge and primary and secondary regulators attached, weight belt and mask, snorkel and fins. At least one member of each team wore a watch to keep track of bottom time and a depth gauge to regulate descent and ascent.
Jarvis, Sandra Sills and I were first off. We inflated our B-Cs, held primary regulator and mask in place with the right hand, locked the left thumb in the harness to steady the tank, and stepped over the side into 85 feet of water 10 miles offcoast.
The inflated B-C held us on the surface as we snorkeled to the front of the boat to follow the anchor line to the bottom. One more check to assure that everyone was all right and we left behind sky, sun and air.
Considering how close we were to New York City and the alleged miles of sludge that ooze south along the Jersey coast, I was surprised at how clear the water was. At about 20 feet the surface faded away, and we swam down in a cloud of diffused light that provided about 20 feet of visibility up and down the anchor line, with neither surface nor bottom in sight. It was just space and quiet, broken only by the hiss of air intake and the gurgle of exhaled bubbles.
At about 70 feet the bottom came into view like a camera into focus. I had wondered what it would be like; suddenly sand and starfish were clear, and we were amidst the encrusted remains of a ship.
We paused to be sure everyone had made the descent comfortably, without ear-pressure or equipment problems, and checked our pressure gauges for the first indication of how long we would be able to stay down.
Then, always within sight of one another, we began to explore the wreck. Jarvis found the first brass, an 18-inch spike protruding from the bottom. He tugged. For a moment it held fast in a mass of beams beneath the sand. Another tug and it was free, a souvenir for the National Diving Center on Wisconsin Avenue, where he works.
In every nook and cranny of the wreck were ling cod and sea bass larger than any I had ever seen in the store. Jarvis clamped onto a cod and stuffed it in the bag.
For 20 minutes we gathered brass and fish until our air pressure dwindled to 500 pounds. As agreed, we headed up.
For our next two dives Larsen and Follmer headed to the Logwood and the "120 wreck" -- both lobster wrecks in about 90 feet of water. Our first task was to calculate on dive tables how long we had to stay on the boat at sea level before diving again for a planned 15 minutes on the bottom. A diver's body needs to rid itself of nitrogen that builds up in the blood in all but very shallow dives.
Jay McKeever, a diver who more than most seems to understand lobsters, was my buddy on the next two dives. "Lobsters are nocturnal," he said. "When they're not out searching the bottom they hide in holes.The trick to finding lobsters is to look for the tips of their antennae or claws sticking out of crevices in the wrecks. You'll be wasting your time if you aren't shining your light into some hole. For a split second they'll freeze at the light. That's when you grab."
A common fear of any novice lobster diver, including me, is of a pinched or broken finger. McKeever said the fear is almost groundless. Heavy gloves cushion any pinch, and lobsters over five pounds -- the only ones that can threaten injury -- are rare. Big lobsters can be easily taken by grabbing their claws from above or by thrusting past them to sieze the thorax; the claws don't open wide enough to grab a suited forearm.
McKeever's strategy for getting more lobsters than other divers is simple and all business. He maximizes his bottom time by descending fast, at about 75 feet per minute, so we were constantly clearing our ears. Once on the bottom he gets neutrally buoyant so he can quickly peer deep into the holes formed by the remains of the wreck. Where I'd miss the telltale tips of claws or antennae amid the fragmented and encrusted remains, McKeever would sometimes thrust his arm into the wreck up to the shoulder, struggle for a few moments, and haul out a three-pound lobster. SONE OF THE WRECKS
African Queen didn't go down in Lake Victoria. She sank in a storm off Ocean City in 1955. She now sits on one end and lies bottom-up as close as 30 feet from the surface and as deep as 180. She hosts thousands of fish, and is ideal for novice divers and photographers.
Sunken Spanish gold is more myth than reality, but would you settle for German silver? Scuba divers do and still take bowls, cups, saucers, and flatware made of the nickel-silver alloy from the S.S. Mohawk, which sank off Manasquan Inlet, New Jersey, in 1935. "The Mohawk is a giving wreck," one dive boat captain told me. "She'll also give you brass portals, lanterns and what's left of a load of chrome-plated brass hubcaps."
Then there's the "china wreck," an unknown vessel that opened her seams off Cape May and scattered a load of cheap plates, saucers and cups across the ocean floor. The china has little value ashore, but to the divers who find it on the bottom it represents the priceless experience of retrieving what seemed forever lost.
Maybe it was the two steam locomotives that caught the eye of the German U-boat commander and prompted him to slam seven torpedoes into the side of the 450-foot S.S. Arundo during World War II. She lies off Long Branch, New Jersey, at 130 feet. That's deep for a recreational dive, but the locomotives are still chained to the deck and attract lobsters, fish and experienced divers. AND HOW TO FIND THEM
Captains John Larsen and Joan Follmer run the dive boat Deep Adventure II out of Brielle. Larsen has been doing it for 18 years, Follmer for five. They can put you on brass or bugs. For $22.50 each they put me and 19 others on both.
The lobster and sea bass weighed up to four pounds, and the two-foot brass spike, which once held together the wooden beams of a lost ship known only to Larsen and Follmer and the divers who charter with them, now shines in my living room like a fool's gold.