This last Sunday, a group of us met up at the Pier in Port Townsend to dive the Wreck of the SS Governor aboard the Lu Jack's Quest, Captained by Phil Jensen. The trip was planned by Ron Akeson, of Adventures Down Under, in Bellingham, Wa.
The Divers were Ron Akeson, Randy Williams, Dave Hancock, Rob Wilson, Paul Hangarter, Dan Warter, Mark Theuney, Dale (?), and myself, Josh Smith. Benjamin (BJ) Nussbaum was our excellent safety diver and deckhand. Interestingly, all the divers were on Megalodon closed circuit rebreathers except for Paul and BJ, who dove open circuit. This was to be my first dive on the Governor. I have dived wrecks this deep before, but not under these conditions. I've been hearing stories about how difficult this dive can be for years, and my anticipation was matched with an equal measure of apprehension as we got started loading the boat- I hadn't slept as well as I would have liked the previous night.
After loading the mountains of gear required for dives like these, we motored out onto the water in near ideal conditions- bright and sunny, but not too hot, with calm seas!
Arriving over the wreck coordinates, we had a little time to wait before slack, so we idled around the general area while everyone went over their equipment, talking and cracking jokes. The wreck site is very close to the inbound shipping lanes, and we saw several huge cargo ships go past while we waited for the "pool" to open. Even though we had cleared these dives with the Puget Sound Vessel Traffic System, the proximity of these huge ships to the dive site presents a potential hazard. The wreck of the Governor is not the deepest wreck in the Sound, at 240' fsw, but she is widely regarded as one of the most challenging; perhaps only eclipsed by the Admiral Sampson.
The Governor sank in 240 fsw in March of 1921 after colliding with the West Hartland after a series of pilot errors. For some good background information on the wreck, as well as film clips of this, and other Seattle area wrecks, please visit http://www.dcsfilms.com.
BJ and Captain Phil were able to set the hook in the wreck fairly easily, and we attached the buoys and deco station. We quietly watched the current sizzle past the floats, creating a wake behind them, and creating the illusion that the floats were moving quickly through the water. This site is located at the entrance to Puget Sound, off Point Wilson, between Port Townsend and Whidbey Island. The currents here are notoriously strong. Typically, this wreck is only dive-able 2 or 3 days a year, and trips are planned well in advance. Ron Akeson has spent huge amounts of time studying the local current patterns, and has an excellent track record for predicting the time windows for good diving....but the currents can still be very treacherous and unpredictable. A diver who looses the line will be in a very hazardous situation, and at risk of drifting into the shipping lanes, or swept off to god knows where!
Gradually, the currents seemed to ease, and we started gearing up. Teams of 2 and 3 went in, one at a time. Paul, Mark, and myself were the last team in, and we ran a little late due to some gear issues with the divers in front of us. As we began our descent, it quickly became apparent that what was going to pass for slack was a fairly stiff current. We had to power down the line hand over hand, and it was a chore, to say the least- I'm thinking more than ever about getting a scooter, now. As I approached 200' the wreck came into view. She has collapsed somewhat over the 87 years since she went down, but the large steel ribs that framed the hull are still mostly intact- they look almost like the ribcage of a whale, sticking up in the green-black water. The wreck seemed absolutely massive-stretching off as far as I could see, or my light could penetrate, in all directions.The other teams had moved away from the line, but we could see their lights dancing around the wreck off in the distance. Visibility was decent- I'm guessing it was 30-40'. I was breathing a little harder than I would have liked from the effort of pulling myself down the line, so we took a minute at the tie-in to collect ourselves.
After tying off our reel, we started to move away from the line, and almost instantly, we came across a large pile of china and other glassware. Apparently, a storage cabinet had been in this location- the wooden cabinet long gone, the contents spilled out into the wreck. The owner of the wreck does not allow any trophy taking or salvage from the site, so we left everything where we found it. I was moved by the sight of all the tableware sitting there, thinking about the well to do passengers who had held these same relics, sipping champagne and enjoying fine dining, the people who had washed them, put them back in their proper places on the ship, and the others who had lost their lives in the collision.....all those years ago. It made the wreck seem all the more "alive" to me, in some way. We had a small tangle in our guide reel, and after sorting it out, I looked at my computer and saw that we were very close to 20 minutes of bottom time, and the current seemed to be increasing. I decided that I would rather do the deco on the 20 minute profile we had cut, instead of the 25 minute one, under these conditions, so I thumbed the dive.
The ascent was the toughest one I have ever done. The current had us clinging to the line and flapping like flags in a stiff wind. After we were back on the boat, most of the more experienced guys told me they had done worse on this wreck. "Really?" I said, with wide eyes. "Well, not on purpose." was the reply. I had a good laugh over that one. For the next 40 minutes or so, we gradually worked our way up onto the deco station, switching arms, using both hands, and occasionally putting the line into the crook of an elbow, watching detritus in the water fly past us. Finally, Randy, the last man up, managed to cut the deco station free from the up-line- it was rigged with a shackle, but there was so much force pulling the deco station away from the main line that he couldn't disengage it. What a sweet relief it was to finally drift free with the current, instead of fighting against it! The boat them moved into a protective posture around our floats, and a short while later, BJ came drifting down the line in his orange drysuit, exchanging "OK" signs with each diver. It's a huge comfort to know that you have an experienced diver topside with no deco obligation to worry about, who can bring you more gas to breathe in the event of an emergency! Thanks again, BJ! 90 minutes after we dropped down, we finally broke the surface.
Back on the boat, we all laughed and exchanged tales of our respective dives- a few cold adult beverages were passed around, and we pulled our floats back up and headed back to PT.
Mark had arranged for some rooms at a hotel run by a friend of his at a discounted price. (Thanks again, Mark!) After settling in to our rooms, we headed back to the boat where captain Phil was grilling a salmon- we added some burgers and corn to the mix, and had a great meal while we watched the sunset, and prepped our gear for the next day's dive. (I heard a rumor that a few of our party closed the Hotel bar down that night, but details remain vague....)
We had a very civilized departure time of 10AM on Monday, so we had time for a nice leisurely breakfast. We then headed out into an absolutely perfect day, weather-wise. Bright sun, clear skies, and just a faint breeze. Again, when we set the hook and dropped the floats, the water started to boil behind them. The current actually looked even stronger that the day before! At that point, I started to seriously wonder if I wanted to repeat the deco hang I had had the day before. But after conferring with my dive buddies, and watching the current settle down over the next hour, I decided to give it a shot. Boy, am I ever glad I did! We dropped down the line again, but this time there was no discernible current. Approaching depth, the wreck came into view again- we were tied in about 1/3 of the way back from the bow, near our previous day's tie-in. This time, the hook was set down inside the hull. We swam down into a sort of "bowl" described by the ribs of the bow. Wreckage was strewn all over, with many identifiable objects- china, silverware, brass stanchions, bottles, vases, and other, less recognizable bits of steel.... I felt as if we were swimming through an underwater museum.... Visibility was great again, and we wandered around the inside of the hull this way and that- we were briefly in and out of overheads, but it really wasn't a "penetration" dive. We could make out where bulkheads had been by the thickening of the layers of wreckage on the floor, as well as structural steel columns that remained in places. On this dive, we didn't use a reel- the strobes were suspended 10 feet or so above us, and we had plenty to explore within easy visual distance of them. At one point, we disturbed a gigantic Ling Cod that shot by us- for a split second, I thought it was a large dog running past, before my brain was able to sort it out- I had plenty of helium in my Dil bottle, but I felt hugely narced for a moment! All too soon, our bottom time was over, and we began our ascent. What a difference a day makes! I didn't feel a whisper of current this time, and I didn't even realize that the deco station had been released when that happened! It was a spectacular dive; for me, it was an epic dive. I'm glad I got to have both kinds of dives on the Governor- the easy one and the hard one. I can't wait to do it again!
Topside, there was much celebration, although a few guys said they had had better dives the previous day- they had been on scooters, and dropped down the outside of the wreck and hid from the current, apparently.
It was an awesome trip, not just because of the dives and the conditions- the people and personalities made it great as well. That many people crowded onto a smaller boat have to get along, and everyone present had a great attitude and good humor throughout.
Again, special thanks go out to Ron, for putting the trip together, Captain Phil, for superb boat handling and Salmon grilling, and BJ, deckhand and safety diver extraordinaire! (Side note- BJ just couldn't take it any more- he's headed off to take trimix this weekend! I expect we'll be needing to replace him soon!)