Grizzled and unshaven after days at sea, archeologist Gordon Watts braced his lanky form to counter the heaving decks of this 124-foot research vessel and summed up the 1983 expedition to the wreck of the USS Monitor.
"We," he said, "are getting our rear ends kicked."
Frustrated by temperamental weather, murky water, technical glitches and plain bad luck, Watts and some 35 other scientists, technicians and government administrators are trapped in a project gone awry in view of the whole world. Their hope is to let the nation's media witness recovery of the ironclad's distinctive four-fluked anchor, a key feature of the Civil War vessel. It could be an act, the group hopes, that will generate enthusiasm and support for more ambitious recovery efforts.
Reporters the expedition has; artifacts, none. Within sight of Watts and circling him on the legendary ocean swells of Hatteras were three press boats filled with sea-green reporters seeking the story he couldn't provide.
A CBS television crew dogged his steps on board while a rushed-in flotilla from ABC Nightline clamored by VHF radio for attention. Overhead buzzed a helicopter from Channel 10 in Portsmouth, Va.
"We are naked to the world," the 36-year-old Watts sighed.
Two hundred and twenty feet below him lies the capsized and broken hull of the Monitor, the historic ironclad that ushered in the age of modern ships only to capsize in a Hatteras gale Dec. 31, 1862.
She was less than a year old when she sank but had already revolutionized naval warfare with her screw propeller, flush decks and rotating turret.
Easily outmaneuvering a ship more than twice her size, bearing 18 guns to her two, she had battled the Confederate ironclad Virginia (formerly the Merrimac) to a historic stalemate at Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862.
The retreating Confederates blew up the Virginia two months later, but the Monitor steamed on to be hailed as the ship of the future, the plucky little warship that sealed the end of naval battles by broadside and the age of sail.
The wreck of the Monitor remained lost for 111 years until 1973 when a Duke University expedition in which Watts played a key part found her capsized and broken hull 16 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras. Three major archeological investigations since have produced miles of video tape of the wreck and a dozen or so artifacts ranging from a jar of 19th-century pickle relish to the lantern that flashed the ship's last cry for help.
The last Monitor expedition was in August 1979. It lasted nearly a month and produced invaluable insights into the life and death of the famed Yankee "cheesebox on a raft" that saved the Union blockade and, many historians argue, the Union itself.
This year's expedition is different.
Unlike the others, which took years of planning, it was thrown together in four months and funded principally by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Commerce Department agency in whose marine sanctuary the Monitor lies. With less than $100,000 to spend, NOAA could buy only five days of ship time, and gambled that would be enough.
Nancy Foster, director of NOAA's marine sanctuary program also hopes publicity on the expedition will translate into public support for a network of marine sanctuaries spreading from here to American Samoa.
She and a four-member NOAA public relations staff arrived at Hatteras festooned with Monitor T-shirts, buttons and bumper stickers.
"The press just goes crazy about the Monitor," she said. "If I could generate this much enthusiasm for one of my coral reef sanctuaries I'd be in business."
Few things, however, went according to the plan.
Technical support on this and two of the three previous Monitor expeditions came from the Harbor Branch Foundation, a Florida-based underwater research center underwritten in part by the Johnson & Johnson Band-Aid fortune.
Sunday, when Harbor Branch's ship, the R/V Johnson, arrived at the NOAA-charted wreck site it found only empty ocean.
The long-lost wreck appeared to have vanished again.
Red-faced NOAA officials discovered that since the last expedition the Coast Guard has changed the local "Loran" radio frequencies through which modern vessels pinpoint their location along the coast.
The NOAA-sponsored expedition had the wrong NOAA chart.
By the time the right chart and the wreck was located, nearly a day of the five-day expedition had been wasted. Tim Askew, pilot of the Johnson's bubble cockpit submarine, barely had time to locate the Monitor's anchor 150 yards southwest of the wreck.
Recovery of the anchor had been chosen as a major objective of the expedition though Watts and other historians were equally anxious for other less camera-worthy results, such as sediment measurements around the Monitor's turret, which they hoped to raise in the future.
On Monday, diver-archeologist John Broadwater emerged from the sub on the ocean floor and, despite seas made murky by eddying Gulf Stream currents, attached a balloon-like lift bag to the anchor.
Twenty-five-knot winds and 10-foot seas soon forced suspension of the recovery efforts and the expedition fretted through another lost day Tuesday even as more TV crews began arriving.
Yesterday, though overcast and breezy, saw seas flattened to a workable four feet. Askew descended in the submarine to find water at the wreck site almost opaque, severely reducing his visibility.
"It is," said diver Craig Caddigan, "like diving in the Mississippi River."
Caddigan, however, was able to grope his way to the Monitor's growth-encrusted anchor chain, sever it about six feet from the anchor with an underwater cutting torch and inflate the lift bag.
Shortly before 11 a.m., amid much whooping from the submarine crew, the 4,000-pound-capacity bag and the 1,300-pound anchor rose from the underwater gloom, bound for the surface. They never got there.
The anchor had disappeared.
As news boats circled, radioing demands for explanation, Watts, director of undersea research at East Carolina University and expedition director, descended in the submarine to search for it.
Near the bottom, he could barely see the sea floor, then three feet away.
While the R/V Johnson tracked the sub with pinging sonar like a destroyer homing in on a U-boat, the sub tracked the anchor, which had its own radio pinger attached.
Five hours later, it homed in on the pinging signal and announced it had discovered--the anchor pinger loose on the ocean floor. Now the anchor was truly lost.
As seas began to build under a stiffening northeast wind above, Askew and Watts renewed the blind search along the bottom.
Camera crews had been circling overhead in charter boats all day.
"The only man on here who's had anything to eat all day just lost it over the side," one captain radioed. "How long do you think this is going to take?"
Fifty minutes later came the shout from the sub, "We found it!" The lift bag unexplainably had burst, dropping the anchor 30 feet from its former site.
Watts and Askew marked the location, but the sub's batteries were getting low and it was too late and too rough above for another dive.
Today a northeaster again scrubbed any recovery, and a tropical storm was approaching from the south.
The expedition would try again, perhaps one day next week, weather permitting.
In the frustrating world of underwater archeology the Atlantic Ocean appears to have won again. It has taken 35 people, a ship and a submarine, and $98,700 and five days to move a 120-year-old anchor 30 feet.