How to Catch a Porthole

Life would be pretty boring if we were relegated to walk only the same path...
fortuna juvat.


How to Capture a Porthole
by Gene Peterson
Artifacts recovered and properly restored by wreck divers generate great enthusiasm for wreck diving. Self-regulated activities need to promote safe procedures and accepted methods to maintain our wreck diving freedom.
The number of portholes that are recovered from the vast variety of shipwrecks throughout our waters would certainly overwhelm most museums. Such objects displayed in homes, private museums or in public areas will have little effect changing the history of our nation. In fact, such displays encourage enthusiasm, further curiosity and inspire others to our maritime past. Properly restored, labeled and displayed objects ensure the wreck divers place supporting the welfare of shipwreck history. One might argue that few get to see private home collections, or these items will be sold for personal gain. That may be but, it is better to be rescued, restored and privately displayed, than to end up crated in some government archive, due to the lack of museum space or lost forever destroyed by nature and man.
Reflect on the curious disposition of the U.S.S. Monitor, where the dive sight was destroyed by N.O.A.A. to recover the anchor, turret, prop and other assorted key components. A gutted skeleton is all that remains of a once exciting intact underwater monument. The American people paid millions for the salvage by the Navy. American citizens continue to pay to maintain the recoveries and for further decimation of the site. If you want to see it, you must pay a fee each time you go to dive the exploited wreck or to visit the hulk’s bones in a museum. Non-divers are wowed by the recoveries, but it is ironic that only the government knows what is best for the people? There is no virtue in government, only a cloaked carpetbagger selling snake oil.
Portholes remain the most meritorious reward among dedicated wreck divers. Portholes are simply windows made for ships. Windows are designed to endure great effects of wind, wave and most importantly remain watertight under tremendous force. Most portholes are numbered and cut to fit in specific locations. When put in place, they are bonded with a watertight sealant, a rubber gasket and/or caulk. They may be attached with steel or brass bolts, which may be square, hexagon, rounded or riveted. They can be located above the waterline for cabins, galleys, or are attached to the wheelhouse or deck houses above the deck. Most are round, yet many are oval, rectangular, square or custom shaped to fit in specific areas. Experienced porthole collectors can identify the specific design characteristic of various wrecks.

There are few human experiences that parallel the sensation of sending up a fifty-pound brass porthole on a lift bag. Hundreds of portholes are just waiting to be recovered off the Jersey coast. A porthole enthusiast will find no better hunting grounds than the North Atlantic coastal waters, where thousands of ships terminated their voyages. Victims of winter Gales, collisions, wars, poor decisions and fate, these shipwrecks remain testimony to man’s vulnerability to nature and him. What remains of these noble, stalwart vessels will soon be but memories or written notations. The caustic effect of salt water, combined with the devastating effect of ship worms, the plowing by draggers and the voracity of storms will leave little reminders of these lost time capsules.

To appreciate the art of porthole recovery, one must first know the basic parts of the typical round porthole. A circle is cut into the ship’s hull plate at a designated location. There, the backing plate which is the inner ring of the porthole is attached directly to the ship’s hull. It is fastened to the hull with eleven or more bolted nuts and sealed with watertight gasket and sealer.
Dogs are round or oval shaped nuts attached with bolts pinned and able to swivel on the backing plate. There may be one to five of these which lock down the glass window or swing plate. The swing plate holds the thick glass hinged to the backing plate with a brass pin locked in with cotter pins or pin with a head and one pin. An additional storm cover may be hinged over top of the swing plate to further protect the swing plate in severe conditions. All these parts may be brass or steel depending on the cost of metals at the time of manufacturing. Toward the end of World War II many liberty ships, tankers and colliers were fitted with steel portholes, covers or metal frames sealing the glass call dome ports. Brass and copper were being conserved for munitions. In other case’s portholes from more luxurious ships or yachts may be coated with chrome.
Portholes open inwards. The swing plate and storm cover are found on the inside of the hull. To recover these on an intact wreck, you need to penetrate the wreck. On scattered, broken up wrecks, portholes may be found loose in the sand or attached to the hull plates facing upwards as the hull opens up. They may be exposed or buried under twisted metal or sand. The unique circumstances of each recovery offer an unlimited opportunity to capture the brass ring or the possibility of failure.

I once witnessed a diver work feverishly attempting to recover a porthole stuck under a titanic, teetering boulder. The more the diver pried, the more unstable the boulder became. Eventually the exhausted diver abandoned the project to avoid being crushed by the behemoth pebble. The following year when he returned, the porthole and the rock were both gone. Either the Jolly Green Giant got the porthole, or a storm washed it down the rocky cliff, uncovering it for some lucky diver.
Other similar hindrances may complicate the recovery. Divers have discovered loose portholes with steel I beams through the center. These rogue porthole puzzles have become legendary. In this case the porthole remained for more than twenty years until a magician’s touch captured the find. Numerous portholes lie just out of the diver’s reach on a large upside-down wreck. Frequently visited, creative divers have fashioned special hooks tethered to plumber's snakes and have retrieved the prizes much to the chagrin of others who found their arms too short.
Happening upon an exposed porthole on a deeper wreck, two divers worked as a team to remove it. Narcosis hindered the recovery, when they broke it free and finally shot the lift bag to the surface. After they filled the bag, they were so excited about their perceived handy work, they drunkenly shook hands and ascended. Neither realized they had failed to tie the porthole to the lift bag. Fortunately for them, another, more sober comrade completed the task. This benevolent diver sent it to the surface for them with no questions asked.

Without complications, some lucky divers have done little more than unknowingly land on a loose trophy. Having found a loose porthole, I observed two divers digging feverishly at the bottom of a washed-out area below me. I could not resist rolling the porthole down through the wreckage like a wheel just above them. As they rummaged through the silt, I rolled the brass wheel stealthily into their hole, when they were distracted. As the silt cleared, you could see the two celebrating their find.
Diving on a virgin wreck gives one a greater opportunity to score. When opportunity beckons, don’t hesitate. Take advantage of the moment and the environment. I once unbolted a porthole using the tools I luckily found from a toolbox inside a recently sunken tugboat. They were better tools than what I went down with. I remember tossing out my rusty bag of worn wrenches and quickly upgrading to a sleek set of Snap-ons ratchets and a generous number of sockets.
Recognition is your best tool. Marine life camouflages the wreck with coral, anemones, mussels, kelp and other growth leaving hunters confused and bewildered. Look beyond this proliferation of tissue and understanding ship construction can help guide you to your treasures.
Locating a porthole
Locating an intact porthole can be a difficult task. The easy finds are already cleaned and polished. Often discouraged divers happen upon an attainable find but fail because they are unprepared. Those who seek will find. Sand shifts, structures break apart and growth cycles change to unveil virgin areas open to discovery. Pay your dues. Luck is on your side if you are properly equipped and dive often.
Once discovering that elusive porthole, anxiety may reduce your potential. If you have planned for this moment, the probability of success is great. First analyze the situation and the territory surrounding the goal. Safety is your primary consideration. Check you gas, decompression debt and any possible obstacles that may cause a hazard. I once found a loose porthole on a deep wreck. When I wiggled it free, I also pulled down a wire fence which rolled over top of me and snared my tanks. If not for the assistance of two other divers, I would not be writing this. I did not make the recovery. More importantly nor was I recovered. Again, be wary of your surroundings. No piece of brass is worth getting hurt for.
The right tools will increase the potential. A five to an eight-pound hammer, a heavy-duty coal chisel and two foot plus crowbar will get the hunter started. Additional tools include channel locks, a drift pin, breaker bar, various sockets from 3/4 inch on up and don’t forget your plumbers snake and your car jack. Creativity and thinking beyond the curve will increase your prosperity. In most cases a crowbar may be all that is needed . . . If it is tangled in wreckage or buried under a boiler you may have to get creative. Look at all the possibilities first. You may not need any tools at all to procure your porthole.
On a steel-hulled ship, gently tap open the dogs and turn them counterclockwise until swing plate and/or the storm cover can be opened. You may have to carefully pry open them with a chisel or with a crowbar. Next pull the cotter pins with vise grips and drive out the hinge pins with a drift pin. It will move easier if you rock the plate and cover as you drive out the pins. Once the pin is removed, you can lift the outer plates from the backing plate. That sounds pretty straight forward but be aware that you may be hindered by coral growth, poor visibility, narcosis and increased air consumption. Dropping tools can ruin your plans. I spray all my tools’ florescent orange to help find them quickly in low visibility. Keep focused, stay organized and keep calm.

Removing the backing plate is much more difficult. You may have to drive out the bolts, unbolt or crack nuts, chisel pins, or torque the plate to break it free. If you have trouble loosening nuts, a good technique is to turn the wrench, or breaker bar clockwise tightening the bolt until it breaks. If this doesn’t work, a sharp chisel and heavy hammer may be needed to cut the bolts. Once the bolts are removed, you can now pry around the lip with a large crowbar in alternating areas to manipulate and break lose the remaining plate. A crowbar will give you greater leverage, if you slide the hooked end under the lip. Be careful not to crack or break the plate. Continue manipulating the plate until you see the corroded metal smoke around the ring. Soon the entire backing plate will pop out.
To assure recovery, use the proper lifting equipment. A minimum 100-pound lift bag, an up-line reel with sisal line and 10 foot a lifting strap should be used. When you inflate the bag, make sure that all is bagged or tied up, then secure the sisal line directly to the porthole before you release it to the surface. Secure the line to the wreck, so that it won’t drift away when you make your ascent and decompression stop. Sending a bag to the surface without tying it off will insure a loss. Take care to position yourself up current of the lift bag, in case it drops back down from wave action, current or a chafed line.
When you get to the boat, run a chase line out to the bag as soon as possible. Lift bags are designed to temporarily float. Tie the chase line directly to the porthole and cut your sisal line from the wreck.
Get some muscle on the boat to help you lift your treasure onto the boat. One person should lift the top of the bag as the other lifts the porthole connected to a heavy nylon line. Get some pictures and enjoy your grab. Portholes make great memories and sharing your recovery will fodder future diver’s passion for wreck diving. It is important to document your find to authenticate it’s recovery. If you decide to donate it to a museum, pass it down as a family heirloom or sell it to a collector, a picture will add to its historic and monetary value.
Begin restoring your rescue by soaking it in freshwater as soon as possible. Change the water frequently and soak for a few months. The marine growth will brush off with as it dies in the fresh water. To encourage the process, drop your porthole in a 50/50 solution of muriatic acid. Within a few minutes to a few hours most of the light coral concretion will start to bubble off. Handle the bath with care, avoid the fumes, wear safety goggles, latex gloves and use a heavy line to lower the brass port into the acid. After the growth dissolves, remove it from the acid bath and neutralize it in fresh water. Then brush with baking soda. Continue to soak in fresh water for another month or more. This helps to release the chlorides that remain saturated into the metals.
After this second soaking, dry the porthole and begin the cleaning and polishing process. You can brush with a wire wheel checking various stiffness of wheels. The stiffer the wheel the hotter and greater change to the surface metal. Be careful not use too stiff a wheel that may scratch the metal. Proceed with different wheels and switch over to a buffing wheel with jewelers’ rouge polishing to the desired shine level. Some divers prefer to buff their porthole to glitter like gold. I like to keep my artifacts in a preserved state, clean but with a low luster. I like to leave barnacles and other concretions which indicate it is an ocean-recovered artifact. Patina also adds an element of age and beauty to certain recoveries. Your desired level of restoration will add to the uniqueness of your discovery.
Portholes can be taken to a new level by adding pictures of the wreck, your favorite underwater vista or diving friends. They can be artistically displayed in gardens, turned into clocks, lights, barometers, mirrors, display cases or tables. Use your imagination but share your passion with future porthole captures.
Whether or not you every recover a porthole will depend on many things. Research and become familiar with wreck structure. Being prepared and attentive will increase your recognition skills. Luck also plays a part, but you create your own luck. Dive, Dive, Dive often on a variety of wrecks. 

Keep your eyes open and always bring a lift bag...

Good Wreck Diving!
Atlantic Diver