It was dark and windy in Norfolk harbor on Feb. 6, 1910, as the ship, 10-foot waves washing over its decks, steamed out to sea.
But the USS Nina, bound for Boston that morning with 32 sailors aboard, had seen many such days. A 420-ton salvage ship built in the last few months of the Civil War, the Nina had worked as a tug, tender and torpedo boat at dozens of Navy yards on the Atlantic seaboard.
She never reached Boston, however, and was never found. Scores of ships searched for her from Maine to the Carolinas, and her from records still describe the Nina's disappearance as "one of the continuing mysteries of the sea."
Now, 68 years later, the mystery is over.
"We found her under 90 feet of water, 11 miles north-northeast of Ocean City," said Michael Freeman, owner of American Watersports Company in Oxon Hill, and a 30-year veteran of salvage expeditions around the world. "She's sitting upright on the bottom, and her stern's partially buried in the sand."
Freeman, Bowie oyster diver Ray Mathieson, and several Ocean City divers have been salvaging bits and pieces from the Nina since the beginning of the year. So far they have hoisted the anchor, six brass portholes, the ship's 250-pound brass bell with the works "USS Nina" etched on its side, and several glass skylights that worked as prisms to distribute light below the Nina's deck.
Freeman, 54, has also found numerous personal effects of the ship crew, including a gold pocketwatch and turn-of-the-century diving gear, such as lead helmets and 30-pound diving boots.
"We also got a leather wallet that was beautifully preserved underwater," he said. "We brought it up and put it in a bucket of water on my boat, but a cabin boy thought it was junk and tossed it overboard."
The disappearance of and search for the Nina 68 years ago was told on the front pages of countless Eastern newspapers. With the incresing use of wireless telegraphs at sea at the turn of the century, stories of darling rescues and oceanic disasters often were told side by side.
The Nina had a wireless on board, according to naval records, but no one had received distress signals from her. Weather records say southeasterly, gale-force winds whipped the Atlantic that February day from Virginia to Massachusetts and the Nina was ordered to proceeds to Boston within sight of coastal lighthouses.
Washington relatives of the Nina's crew, who were interviewed in newspapers, said they hoped that the Nina had found refuge in some coastal inlet during the storm. If the ship were wrecked, they speculated that the crewmen might have been picked up by a passing steamer that, without a wireless, was unable to tell of the rescue.
As hours became days, however, The Washington Post reported that "hope is turning to despair," and that "Navy officials are convinced that the Nina has made a trip to Davy Jones' locker."
The Nina was a steel-hulled vessel that would have sunk quickly if capsized. But she was specifically constructed to survive even the worst weather conditions.
"My theory is that she was broadsided by another ship during the storm," said Freeman. "If the Nina had simply capsized, she would probably have gone straight down to the bottom. But we found pieces of the ship and its contents strewn across the ocean floor like she was suddenly hit by something.
"Plus," he said, "there's a huge lump in the sand that could very well be another vessel."
Freeman, who has illustrated or written 20 books and produced numerous television documentaries on treasure diving, said he and Mathieson will diving, said he and Mathieson will donate most of their findings to the U.S. Naby Museum.
"So many of the things we're bringing up are simply invaluable collectors' items, though," he said. "One of the local divers discovered the ship's bell, which is the best find of any salvage operation. He was offered $1,000 for it by some private collector, but the kid just laughed in his face. It's not something you could give up easily."
Freeman's 65-foot salvage boat, the Buccaneer, also hoisted the Nina's 3-ton, solid brass heat exchanger that was used to convert steam back to water.
"It's the most beautiful piece of craftsmanship you'll ever see," he said. "An octopus liked it so much he was living in it. He wasn't too happy to have his home disturbed."
Freeman credits Ocean City clam boats for the actual discovery of the Nina.
"They've got special electronic instruments that are used to detect obstructions on the floor of the ocean," he said. "All we do is find out what blips they've got, then do some diving and investigating on our own. The clammers have got about 20 other obstuctions in the area that I haven't even looked into yet.
Freeman, who was held prisoner for a week in Cuba 16 years ago when, during a Caribbean salvage expedition, his own baot sank near Havana, said the disappearance of the Nina's crew remains a mystery.
"The two lifeboats are on the bottom with the ship," he said. "More than likely the bodies just deteriorated over time or were carried away by currents."