By Gene Peterson
Let’s start this story where the hunt began. In the early eighties, Gary Gentile invited some hearty north-east wreckers to explore shipwrecks along the rocky coast of Nova Scotia. The saturation of nautical history and the number of lost ships in the approaches to this rock laden port is vast. Haligonian divers had become accustom to hiking long, steep, unstable trails to reach divable areas. At the time, converted fishing/dive boats were sporadically available. Gary had researched new areas to explore. He promised adventure, discovery and arduous days bouldering up and down cliffs to search for barely visited or virgin sites. He kept his word; many perilous treks and exhausting hikes brought those divers to several concealed wrecks. Deep diving beyond one-hundred-thirty feet was also in its infancy. Many wrecks in Halifax Harbour were past the sanctioned limits of the sport diving community. The area was ripe for deep wreck hunting.
Sources were limited for those researching. In the seventies and eighties, there was no internet, any research was accumulated by days of examining news articles, scanning microfilm, or reviewing dusty charts and manuscripts in libraries, museums, and other nautical sources. Wreck researcher, Jack Zink presented two volumes of books on Nova Scotia shipwrecks. These remain a canonical source even today. Gary had a few hand drawn maps, he sketched out as he rediscovered word of mouth sites from locals and old charts. Steve Giza, a local diver and the owner of Timberlea Divers was a great source of information. He made suggestions where to look for undiscovered sites and revealed his own discoveries. Steve owned the salvage rights to the La Tribune, a British, 36-gun frigate wrecked off Herring Cove, Nova Scotia on November 16, 1797. Steve worked the site for several years uncovering museum pieces and spent countless dives looking for her treasure. In his quest he became familiar with many local wrecks. The sites were often found by searching beaches for the remnants of wreckage tossed up on shore. Physical markers included iron breecher buoy rings tamped into rocks where rescue and salvages were attempted.
|Shipwreck stories first hand.|
|On the rocky beach after a mile hike.|
With the landowner’s permission, we started our arduous journey down to the beach through their back yards. Our first trip was exploratory, investigating the hull tossed on the shore. More notably, we searched for a route amidst the ragged rock face where we could safely make the dive. In order to take advantage of the deeper unexplored wreckage, we armed ourselves with double tanks, twice the normal weight. Additionally, we hefted our drysuits, underwear, regulators, weight belts, mask, fins and assorted gear. Typical of September, when we started, the morning air was cold, a brisk fifty degrees. As the day progressed, the temperature rose into the seventies, with as the sun reflecting off the rocks. Starting off in coats and hats in the cold, after our second or third commute, we stripped down to shorts and t-shirts. The route to the beach was only a direction not a trail. We gingerly walked down a slippery path shaded by pine trees that ended a few hundred feet before a cliff. At the edge, we lowered our tanks down a six-foot ledge. Here your imagination improvised a trail. Gigantic boulders were strewn in our route blocking a contiguous direction. After a few football fields bounding from rock to rock, we slid down a gully onto a beach made up of large four to five-pound egg-shaped stones. Each stone was weathered into this shape after centuries of wave action. This was the location of our base, where we prepped for the dives. We made several grueling treks to this base hauling all the essentials. By the time we had organized all our gear and suited, several hours had passed. The entry and exit spot were a rock pitched valley between two humongous rocks. You had to carefully time your entry to avoid being crushed by the breaking waves. When returning, you planned your escape with trepidation or risked being pitched onto the slick kelp covered ridges of jagged rocks. There was no mercy for a faux pas. Despite these obstacles, after lunch, we made a second dive. When I view that shoreline today from a modern dive boat, I shake my head and wonder how we negotiated down that steep cliff to the beach. It is so much easier walking six feet off a boat and falling into the ocean.
The round five-pound rocks we
found on the beach fit nicely hidden in the bottom of a dry suit boot. After our final dive, John Moyer and I
instinctively and unbeknownst to each other, placed a rock in each of Eric
Garay’s boots. Eric was twice our age,
but he too made the arduous hike hefting his doubles and gear. Passing Eric on
the steep incline, I felt guilty and confessed my digression. John too
announced his culpability to Eric. Eric’s suit was draped over his shoulder
wedged in the top of his tanks. Indignantly he stopped, wiped the sweat from
his brow and protested that he was quite capable of managing the hike. When he
reached his car, Eric felt the clunk of the rocks bang against his trunk. Later
that night, John found the lumpy rocks stuffed in his sleeping bag… Touché
The hearty maritime history of Halifax Harbour is motivation for any wreck enthusiast. After numerous trips to the port, I became enchanted by the endless number of sea dramas that took place there. How close the U-Boat war came to the east coast during World War II is well documented. Hunting for the lost tanker British Freedom became an obsession of mine after researching her history. The story of the tanker’s slayer, the U-1232, remains extraordinary. Halifax was a priority target as many convoys sought refuge in its sheltered harbor. Although the war was closing, this thrilling battle ensued in the harbor at the end of World War II and captivates the imagination. Under the command of Kapitän zur See Kurt Dobratz, age forty, one of the oldest U-boat commanders of WWII, U-1232 cruised out of Horten, Norway in November of 1944. It reached Halifax Harbour in mid-December. Charging his batteries at night and slipping beneath the surface during the day, Dobratz eluded the Canadian and American patrols while Christmas and the New Year passed. He had attempted several attacks expending two torpedoes on distant targets, but now on the evening of January 13, 1945, a sensational shooting gallery was approaching Halifax Harbour. Through his periscope, the Convoy BX-141 appeared on the horizon. The U-boat commander patiently waited on the morning of January 14, 1945, as nineteen ships entered the harbor. As the ships lined up, the U-1232 slipped into the eastern edge of the harbor. Dobratz was about to attempt a daring attack, that unforeseen by him, would evoke a remarkable counterattack. The story of his dramatic attack escape and survival would soon be muffled by the drums of his conquerors.
|Dobratz on the U-1232|
Now the U- 1232 repositioned itself to fire another fish. As Dobratz calculated his next target, he suddenly saw the HMCS Ettrik frigate rushing towards the sub at full speed. The Ettrik steamed in releasing a barrage of depth charges and knifed directly at the U-boat. Dobratz fired his readied torpedo defensively and then abruptly turned diving below the impending frigate. The sub narrowly escaped being cut in two but still took a powerful blow. The Ettrik rammed the U-1232 bridge, bending the attack periscope, and knocked Dobratz from his seat. Glass shattered, gauges smashed, and the conning towers antennae was busted off. The U-boat rolled on its side throwing all the submariners to the deck. Immediately, the subs crew felt the concussion of the Ettrik’s depth charges as the attack frigate released more explosives. Ettrik’s crew felt the brush of the sub under her stern. The attack was short lived as the Ettrik’s damaged propeller and running gear forced her return to port. Several other cutters were released in the hunt, but the U-1232 passed directly under the fleet and then hugged the western shore. Amazingly, despite the damage, the sub fled by dead reckoning along the coast until it was able to sweep to east and gain access to the open sea. Over 134 depth charges and numerous aerial bombs were dropped attempting to annihilate the invader, yet the sub fled unscathed. Dobratz crew counted 66 near misses as they evaded their attackers.
The British Freedom and the Anthelviking remained afloat until they were targeted and sunk to prevent further collisions and losses. The Martin Van Buren ended up on Duck Reef, near Sandy Cove just inside of Sambro Island after an attempted tow failed. Kapitän zur See Kurt Dobratz returned to base in February 1945 and received the Knights Cross for his campaign. He replaced Donitz as the last Kommandierender Admiral der U-Boote during the final days of the war. After Germany surrendered, he spent nine months in military detention. When the war ended, he returned to Germany where he practiced law. U-1232 was captured by the British in the port of Wesermünde, Germany in May 1945 and sank while in tow for the scuttling grounds. In May of 1996, a small group of Haligonians and Americans finally dived the stern of the British Freedom for the first time.
Shallow Steps Lead to Deep Wrecks
By Gene Peterson
Finding a suitable boat for offshore expeditions in Nova Scotia was a challenge. Although knowledgeable captains were available in the eighties, their vessels were too small and not appropriate for a group of more than four to six divers. Steve Giza, owner of Timberlea Divers, provided sales and air fills, but had no charter services. It was customary for local divers to hike to the known wrecks, and then get their tanks filled at Steve’s afterward. Steve always kept a pot of coffee on and would entertain those chilled divers with his stories. While sipping one of Steve’s potent brews, he recounted the sinking of three ships he observed during his youth. During World War II, the ships had lined up to enter the harbor in a convoy and were torpedoed. Steve witnessed the Martin Van Buren sink close to shore. After learning how to dive in the fifties, he went back to the spot where it sank and dived it. Located just inside of Sambro Light, he explained it was broken up and often covered with kelp in the shallow water. The other two wrecks, the British Freedom and the Anthelviking, sank offshore in very deep water. Steve felt these would be good dives if we could find a boat to look for them. It was not feasible at the time for such a search because we did not have an adequate boat. I made a mental note of his narrative, believing that someday I would be able to explore them. Steve knew we were interested in deeper sites. He was excited about our Andrea Doria discoveries and searches in deeper water off Halifax. Our group enjoyed hanging out with Steve and sharing many great conversations over the years. Sadly, Steve passed away on a caribou hunting trip in the fall of 1987. His family started a dive club to honor him that continues to inspire others to this day. Steve’s diving legacy lives on.
In1989, I contacted Neil Connors a commercial dive operator in Halifax. Neil bought Steve Giza’s inventory when he passed away. He and Steve had been good friends and they shared a mutual interest in shipwrecks and Navy diving. Neil had a couple work boats used in the harbor for pipeline work, inspections and ship husbandry. This was the perfect platform for an expedition to look offshore for new wrecks. A first-class operation, his captain and boats were certified to take larger groups safely to any location on the coast. Captain Jim Smith was the best part of the whole deal. As an experienced commercial diving supervisor and compressor specialist for Neil, Jim was also a superior boat handler. He was well qualified to search for wrecks with an in-depth knowledge of the rocks and ledges of Halifax Harbour. Only a few boats had ventured beyond the entrance to this harbor and many new areas remained unexplored. At that time, every site was pristine beyond a dozen miles. Finding wrecks was a wager. Only a few folks had guesses where wrecks were located outside the shoreline. Most of the local divers hiked to shallow beach wrecks or dived for scallops. Descriptions of sinkings from books and newspapers articles were often erroneous. Salvage companies documented only what was reclaimed and were ambiguous about locations. There was no reason for recording more than what was required by insurance companies. Neil passed on to Captain Jim many areas he had worked as a salvage diver in the Navy. Still, there was much more research work needed for a successful hunt. That winter, I made numerous contacts and visited several libraries to seek more knowledge of the shipwrecks.
|Captain Jim Smith|
Hundreds of ships struck the rocks coming into Halifax Harbour. Incredibly, ships lie on top of ships on many of the rocks. To get a sense of the scale of these shoals, the rocks range in size from that of a house to an underwater mountain range. These ledges bear cautionary names like, Mad Rock, Black Rock, Shag Rock, The Bull, Broad Breaker, Devils Rock and more. One such ledge, just below the surface, is a notorious obstruction at the mouth of the harbor known as “Blind Sisters Ledge”. These barricades are above the surface or obscured by boiling waves at low tide. At high tide, they remain hidden below the surface, especially when the sea is calm. In foggy weather, they are a treacherous obstacle for captains and pilots entering the harbor. Numerous ships have crashed on these shoals including the British sloop HMS Atalante. President Madison declared war on Great Britain on June 14, 1812 after maritime trade with France was being hindered. On the morning of November 11, 1813, the HMS Atalante sailed to Halifax Harbour after a successful blockade campaign having captured several American ships. When the fully rigged sloop reached the harbor, heavy fog set in. Although Captain Frederick Hickey put extra lookouts on watch and lowered sails to cautiously enter the harbor, hidden below the surface, the jagged Blind Sisters ledge cut into the hull as the 18-gun ship passed Sambro Light. Despite the ship tearing in half over the shallow ridge, there was no loss of life due to the wise actions of the captain and crew. Local fisherman brought the sailors to Portuguese Cove where they were fed, and then were able to make their way to Halifax. Even today, vessels remain wary of these dreaded ledges.
|Seal lounging on Sambro Island|
photo taken by Steve Seeberger
Sambro Light, erected in 1758, is the oldest lighthouse in North America. Today, operating autonomously, it remains a warning to mariners of the treacherous approaches to Halifax. Just outside the light lies one of Nova Scotia’s most tragic wrecks, the S.S. Daniel Steinman. The steamer built in 1857, was 177 feet long. While sailing a regular trip from Antwerp, her homeport, to New York, on April 3, 1884, one-hundred-twenty-four mainly German immigrants and crew were lost. Entering the harbor after a routine voyage, dense fog and high winds engulfed the vessel. The passenger-steamer struck Broad Breaker rock, then lost her rudder and propeller. Unable to steer or make any headway, she then careened into Mad rock after an attempt to anchor failed. The steamer was soon swamped by waves and sank in ninety feet of water less than a mile from Sambro Island. Most of the passengers, already standing on the deck, were overcome by the breaking waves consuming the ship. Remarkably, Yohanna Niederman, a 26-year-old Bavarian who was not a swimmer, survived by holding on to the rigging below the water as the ship settled. He pulled himself up the mast after being submerged for over two-minutes and lashed himself to the rigging. After a punishing night, he and Captain Schoonhoven survived by clinging to the mast sticking out of the sea. Only eight others were rescued. As the ship sank, five crew and three passengers rowed way from the panicked horde in a jolly boat. Struggling passengers leaped toward the boat grasping onto others as they tried to claw their way to the overloaded dinghy. Miraculously, Florentine Von Geissel, a crew member manning the boat, had survived several other sinkings including the Manderin in which over 300 passengers perished. Captain Schoonhoven, although severely censured by the press, was not charged with any misconduct after a formal inquest. Although caution was taken approaching the harbor, Captain Schoonhoven confused Chebucto Light for Sambro Light ultimately condemning the ship. The testimony of the survivors favored his actions even though he miscalculated his position entering the harbor due to the bad weather and dense fog. The fact that there were no lifeboats on Sambro Light could have certainly changed the outcome of the lives lost. This was also taken into consideration during the inquest. It is unlikely even if there were boats, that the outcome would have changed. The huge surf made the Steinman unapproachable in the storm. The sounding whistle alerted three rescue tugs, which were immediately dispatched from Halifax. Overcome by the high seas and dense fog, they only made it as far as Herring Cove before they were forced to turn back. Two years before the sinking, in June 1882, the steam-ship Daniel Steinman, lost her propeller and was towed 600 hundred miles to New York by the White Star liner Republic. On March 29, 1884, the district court of New York ruled a $25,000.00 award to the White Star line for the service. Unbeknownst to Captain Schoonhoven, the ruling was made just a few days before the Daniel Steinman sank off Halifax.
|Diving the S.S. Daniel Steinman|
The Steinman had only been dived by a handful of locals prior to our first exploration. One of those provincial divers came along on the search to put us on the wreck. He had only been to the wreck once before but thought he could find it. Regrettably, we spent the entire day hunting with no success. I made half a dozen descents ranging in depths from forty feet to one-hundred-twenty feet. The frustrated guide also made a couple descents but to no avail. The next day we returned. Ruling out all the areas from the previous search, Captain Jim dropped the anchor in a place described from a newspaper published a few days after the sinking in 1884. Once again, I descended into the clear waters hoping to chance upon the lost ship. At first, I could only see rocks. Continuing into the current, some unusual debris appeared on the seafloor. A trail of coral-covered bottles sporadically lay mixed amongst the rock and kelp laden terrain below me. The further I swam, the greater the number, until there were piles of three or four bottles in one spot. Then a large cask shaped form appeared ahead in the distance. It was once a wooden barrel, but the wood had long since been eaten by Teredo worms. Now only a solidified plaster form remained. Swimming further, bits and pieces of wreckage started to accumulate. On my left, a rock wall began to form. Then, conclusive evidence lay a dozen feet ahead. A pile of twisted rigging made up of coral covered cables, pulleys, and deadeyes had gathered. Swimming another few dozen yards, a large fantail of a ship emerged near the rock wall. A place to make a secure tie-in for the anchor line was just ahead. On top of the engine, high above the hull, I attached the boat’s tether. There was no doubt this was the steamer Daniel Steinman. Hundreds of barrels had rolled off the hull into a debris field scattered throughout the dell below. Numerous piles of green, coral covered ale bottles and crushed case gin bottles were fused inside the cargo hold.
Large freight cases strapped to the hull with metal bands were still in place. The volume of cargo packed on this little ship was tremendous. Over 2000 tons of assorted housewares, ale, champagne, gin, and hardware was packed in the ships hold. Nestled within the rocks, rising to the same height, was a large section of the bow. A part of the mast towered above the stout section of bow. Returning to the stern along the port side, the hull appeared more intact. Portholes remained loosely scattered and standing deadeyes ran in a row above the hull held up by stiff rigging cables. Piles of loose deadeyes and another mast were strewn in the shallows. The area was so pristine and unspoiled you could visualize the ship settling in the rocks after the sinking. It was thrilling to know, few before had the privilege of visiting this section. Swimming back to the stern, china cups and bowls lay under the deck cemented together in the pink coral. Lamentably, it was evident that the continuous motion of the sea was obliterating the ship. Additionally, the weight of the coral has caused the ship to flatten and powerful surges have splintered pieces of the hull throwing them far into the gorge below. Although this is still an exciting dive, recent visits to the wreck have confirmed that the caustic effect of the sea will prevail. Today, the wreck is far more dilapidated and eventually there will be less proof of this tragic disaster.
|Deadeyes on the Steinman|
Offshore of Mad Rock, where the Steinman crashed, the British Freedom lies in deep water on the inside approach to Halifax Harbour. The position of the ship was forgotten after the ship was hurriedly bombed by the Canadian Navy to keep the traffic lanes clear for wartime shipping. Finding the Freedom would be an epic adventure. It was a quest fulfilled after numerous searches and descents on the rocky approaches to Halifax Harbour. This story continues…
“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” ― Theodore Roosevelt
|Rockage covered with anemones|
by Gene Peterson
In the summer of 1998, I led a group of divers to investigate the lone St. Paul’s Island of Nova Scotia in the Cabot Strait. An abandoned island where numerous shipwrecks were lost, and hundreds of soles conceded to the elements. There is an eerie feeling rendered for those whom have explored the island. Here the souls of hundreds of shipwreck victims remain, perished by drowning, starvation, and the bitter cold. Those shipwrecked victims that made landfall onto the island in the early months of winter, were destined to fend for themselves on the frozen atoll. St. Paul’s is an exposed rock where low conifers take on elongated forms in the constant wind and deciduous trees topple in the precipitous hills. Animal life is non-existent except for the marine life of the surrounding sea. Rabbits were once introduced to provide sustenance for the shipwreck victims, only to become nourishment for the Bald Eagles that scan the shore. Victims built bonfires to signal the shore residents. Regrettably, the winter ice flows prevented any chance of rescue during those harsh winters. Victims were forced into starvation on the desolate isle until the spring thaw. Then, evidence of cruel losses would be discovered, where desperate souls were reduced to eat their belts, shoes or to chew on roots and bark until their demise. It wasn’t until the later 1800s when lighthouses were constructed on the North and the South points in an effort to prevent further tragedies and provide stores for survivors.
Our group was briefly marooned on this deserted island when a violent storm engulfed us. We were wafted by 60 mile per hour winds, and mountainous seas that broke over the small island. The two boats that transported and supported us left for safer shelter on the mainland. Due to the treacherous seas and riotous conditions the crew was unable to contact us. They were forced to depart without being able to retrieve our group. The night of the storm our only zodiac was located at the bottom of a forty-foot cliff on a spit of gravel beach. It was securely anchored and tied off to the shore, but If the tide rose, it would take a beating in the rocky surf. We believed this would be unlikely because of the prevailing wind direction, but I remained concerned. Our only means of transportation back to the boats and safety could be destroyed with a change in wind direction.
At one o’clock in the morning, my anxiety was realized. The wind direction did change. Gusts near hurricane force had blown down several tents and snapped poles. The rain was relentless and those of the group in conventional tents were soaked while struggling to hold down their temporary shelters. Throughout the night, one could hear recurrent cursing and tamping of hammers. The construction work of our fellow camp neighbors was constant, as they attempted to rebuild their makeshift dwellings. Lines were tied to trees and rocks were used as ballast to secure stakes and poles. The modern expedition tents designed to withstand higher winds were flexing to the ground and popping out their fasteners. My tent partners’ Lynn DelCorio, Gary Gentile and I were awakened and unnerved by mother nature’s unleashed fury. Several times wind gusts flattened our tent and snapped down upon our heads. When subsiding, it would then spring back into position. The effect was like being in a parachute collapsing and inflating. The whipping lines pounding against the tent’s shell sounded much like the lashing of sheets on a sail boat bashed by a storm. Blowing off the nearby cliff could be a reality, if the wind got more intense.
Unable to sleep, I abandoned the tent and took vigil crouched over the cliff with my spotlight. I scanned the jagged shoreline below me. Destructive forces were bearing down on our little craft. White breakers were crashing over the rocks taking gigantic leaps as the wind power-washed the cliffs eroding the shore line. It was a fearful demonstration of an incredibly violent sea. Like a vision, I momentarily imagined the terror shipwreck victims must have experienced after their sturdy vessels careened into the ominous rocks and then were pounded into splinters on the shore. An estimate of more than four hundred ships had met their fate on the rocks of this island. One such ship, the Norwegian, a steamer, had driven itself up on the rocks on June 14, 1863. Five hundred passengers survived by scaling the treacherous high cliffs, including an immigrant woman in labor. That night miraculously, she gave birth on the barren island and all five hundred-one souls were saved.
Other ships that struck the island were not so lucky. With fully rigged sails they smashed into the piercing rocks, split open their hulls and left the shores littered with dead. Some were lost in fierce storms during hostile cold months making their rescue impossible.
|Landing on the cliffs of St. Paul's|
Now, we would be tested mentally and physically by similar forces. By mid-night, the storm had reached full intensity. The ocean now washed over the beach and was smashing the zodiac with its motor up against the razor-sharp walls of the beach crevice. Decisive action needed to be taken at this moment or the vessel would be obliterated by the crashing surf that was devouring the shoreline. Without a signal, the group was on hand. Apparently, a mutual anticipation of the necessary duties was realized. In the pitch-black, all able bodies were perched over the cliff gazing down at the riotous sea attempting to crush the boat. Instinctively, we knew what must be done. Unrehearsed, yet working in regimented unison, my comrades began the arduous task on the dangerous glassy rocks. Equipped with grapnel and lines, the team scaled down the sheer granite wall, as the rolling surf broke over us. We held fast in our tenuous positions, anchoring lines and hauling up gear mechanically. The earsplitting wind, rain and showering waves were thunderous. Essential commands were shouted to reinforce the safety of those dangling precariously on the cliff.
Boldly, in the tumultuous storm, members bounded like mountain goats
securing and fastening down lines. Momentary
lulls in the wave sets allowed for a short struggle to gain ground and
stabilize the zodiac. John Galvin seized the moment, jumping into the wobbly
boat as it buckled and pitched with each bounding wave. He decisively
unfastened the motor mounts as ferocious waves pounded the zodiac against the
rocky cliff. The beach was gone, and the water had risen over our heads as we
held the boat off the rocks. We barely managed to stabilize the boat as John
hefted the heavy 25 horse motor over his shoulder. Incredibly, he bore all the
weight of the unwieldy motor. Pure adrenalin coursed through his veins as he
and the rest of the group hauled the burden up the cliff. His amazing strength
Now to save the boat itself, the whole group simultaneously pulled and lifted the vessel up the rock wall inch by inch. Ingeniously, Greg Modelle drove a grapnel into the earth and anchored the boat into a position safe from the savage sea. At ease, we stood in awe of the amazing feat we had just performed. There was no doubt of the necessity of this risky undertaking. Afterwards, we smirked at each other upon seeing the unique sleeping attire that some of us remained in for the event. Appreciating that our task was complete, we retired to our shelters with pride. The comradery we shared on that cliff will long be remembered.
Nearly 250 miles to the south, a granite monument marks the area overlooking Sandy Cove. Here, just south of Halifax Harbor marks the site of one of Nova Scotia’s most tragic disasters, the wreck of the S.S. Atlantic. Considered one of the finest luxury steamers afloat, the Atlantic was 435 feet long and displaced 3,707 tons. She had a 41-foot beam and a hold depth of 36 feet. Her hull was framed with angle iron, three iron decks eight feet high reinforced by wooden bulkheads and there were seven watertight compartments in the ship. The vessel was powered by four, two-cylinder steam engines and could average better than 12 knots on Atlantic crossings from Europe. In addition, she was stepped with four auxiliary, ships rigged masts 150 feet in height. Her interior was securely fitted, making the long passages relatively comfortable, despite the large volume of passengers she regularly carried.
Her master, Captain John A. Williams was considered one of the most competent officers in the world and was well liked and respected in Europe and America. Her crew was well disciplined and there were four other officers on board at the time of the sinking. There were 931 passengers on the ill-fated voyage from Liverpool, England to New York.
Her departure was on March 20, 1873. The seas were calm, and the trip was uneventful for the early part of the crossing. Then, on the evening of the fourth day, a storm developed. The ship began to pitch and heave with greater intensity each hour. The ocean became mountainous, raging furiously for the next three days. To maintain the speed in the storm more coal was used. After four days of pounding at sea, the coal bunkers were dangerously low, and Captain Williams diverted the ship to Halifax to take on more fuel.
On the night of March 31, the Atlantic steamed toward the red light of what Captain Williams believed was Sambro Lighthouse. Captain Williams failed to consult his chart and he mistakenly headed his ship toward the jagged rocks of Peggy’s Point Lighthouse.
At 2:40 a.m. on the morning of April 1, 1873, the steamer crashed into the rocks off Peggy’s Point Lighthouse. The horror of the disaster was unfolding below deck as the hundreds of mostly women and children desperately failed to reach safety as the steamer rolled over on her port side toward the sea. More than 300 hundred drowned almost immediately and another 262 succumbed to the bitter cold and dropped from the decks, rigging and spars into the icy water. It is most unfortunate that the ship rolled toward the open sea instead of the rock covered coast. Some of the domed may have been able to reach safety had the ship rolled toward the shore.
Captain Williams was severely censured for his neglect of duty and lost his license for two years. A lenient penalty was imposed on him for his noble efforts to save lives after the disaster and for his previous unblemished record. The tremendous loss of life, over half of the passengers on board, made the Atlantic’s sinking the greatest sea tragedy to occur at the time, in North America.
In September of 1981, John Moyer, Gary Gentile and I boarded a lobster boat owned by Harry Bartlet in Propect Cove. I researched the Atlantic’s sinking and we traveled over 1200 miles to this remote harbor to explore this famous wreck. I was anxious to see the wreck site of the once luxurious White Star liner that was now lying in these shallow waters.
|with Gary Gentile and John Moyer over the Atlantic|
Harry Bartlet’s boat was unique. Unlike the typical dive boats of modern times, Harry’s boat had little in the way of comfort, shelter, or space. It did feature a sapling ladder, a moss-covered bow and a weathered life ring for safety. Harry would often tow a smaller skiff, just in case this sturdy craft foundered. The best thing about Harry’s boat was the location. It was a 15-minute ride to the wreck of the Atlantic and a buoy was in place marking the site. We suited up, lowered our gear with a hoist, donned our doubles at the dock and enjoyed the short ride. After Harry lassoed the buoy, we rolled off the stern and plunged to the wreckage scattered below. Here wolf fish postured themselves at high points on the rocks where the broken hull extends from the waist high shallows to depths of ninety feet. Piles of broken china lay strewn mixed throughout the rocks and wreckage. Occasionally, an intact piece of china or a crest washes out from beneath the sands. Dead eyes, portholes, marble decorations, organ keys, assorted brass valves and assorted parts lie strewn in the rock crevices. Ironically, several St. Christopher metals have been discovered. The most exciting discoveries have been the occasional gold coins.
On a later occasion, Harry failed to lasso the buoy after several attempts. Feeling Harrys growing dismay, Gary Gentile touted the phrase " Harry, if you can hook it, we can dive it". With breakers surrounding us and a distressed captain manning the helm, we bowed out lest we sink our boat over the wreck. Gary was referring to the noted quote by the “Grandfather of wreck diving” Mike DeCamp. Mikes exclamation was denoting the swaggering attitude of New Jersey wreck divers. It doesn't get much better than this when creating a legendary adventure.
Over the years, I have returned to the wreck on several trips. Surprisingly little has changed, although sadly, Harry, “host of the SS Atlantic” has long passed. Today the waters are consistently clear, cold, and the intimidating wolf fish that guard the wreck remain.
|Tom Fagan over stern gun of British Freedom.|
Finding the Freedom, the Discovery.
By Gene Peterson
Within view of Sambro Light and Chebucto Head, Nova Scotia an intense sea battle had ensued. A couple miles east of Mad Rock, near the location of the S.S. Daniel Steinman, lies the oil tanker British Freedom. It is on the edge of the separation zone for outbound shipping traffic of Halifax Harbour. On the cold winter morning of January 14, 1945, villagers of Halifax Harbour witnessed the battle as the British Freedom, the Martin Van Buren and the Athelviking were torpedoed by the U-1232 during one of the final sea battles of World War II. The attack was audacious, and the U-boat commander earned an Iron Cross for his merit. The desperation of the collapsing German war machine was obvious when the sub returned to the pier in Saint-Nazaire. It was sparsely lighted and only a few of the flotilla’s brass found time to greet the returning protagonists. The daring attack made by the U-1232 and its remarkable escape during a counterattack, are previously noted in part one. In 1995, the tanker British Freedom was found by the Canadian Department of Natural Resources while side scanning the harbor. The site, in 220 feet of water, had remained undisturbed for over 50 years. Currently, a wreck symbol indicates its discovered location on the latest charts.
In contrast, two previous attacks were also within the harbor view in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. The bold raids took place in Conception Bay near the village of Lance Cove. The following narrative is not amplified. On September 4, 1942, the U-513 crept in with the convoy and settled near the Wabana anchorage. Like a plot from a Hollywood war movie, the German sub U-513 tucked itself under the stern of the SS Evelyn B and trailed it into harbor. Allied ships sailed here for the ore extracted from Bell Island’s deep iron mines, crucial for making steel and thusly for the war effort. Before the war, the Germans traded with Canada for the iron commodity. Aware of the valued war asset, the German command sent U-boats to plunder the allied supply ships at the start of the war. On the morning of September 5, Captain Rolf Ruggeberg of the U-513 waited for the ships to be fully loaded, then fired upon the Lord Strathcona two torpedoes. The German torpedo crewmen failed to arm the torpedoes which did not damage the ship but did alert the harbor of the invaders. Immediately, the Evelyn B detected the sub and opened fire as the U-513 plunged beneath the surface safely avoiding the intensity of the deck gun.
|Rose Castle sinking off Lance Cove.|
|Giant anchor heaved to the center deck.|
Photo by Rustin Cassway
The U-518 continued to haunt the coastline searching for prey and covertly dropped a spy, Werner Alfred Waldemar von Janowski, alias William Brenton, in Chaleur Bay a week after the attack in Conception Harbor. Janowski was captured when Earle Annette, the heedful son of the owner of the Hotel New Carlisle noticed inconsistencies in his speech, dress, outdated money, and his Belgian matches. After following him to a railway station, Annett contacted Constable Alfonse Duchesneau of the Quebec Provincial Police. Duchesneau boarded the train for Montreal with the suspect and after some exchanges, Janowski admitted his baggage contained a radio and that he was a German agent. Janowski spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner of war in England. The U-518 escaped from Chaleur Bay and Wissmann continued to ravage the sea on six more successful patrols. On April 22, 1945, Under the command of twenty-two-year-old Oberleutnant zur See Hans-Werner Offermann, the U-518 was sunk off the Azores with hedgehogs and depth charges during its tenth patrol. The young captain and fifty-six crew members perished in the sinking.
|Werner Alfred Waldemar von Janowski|
Provincial shore divers discovered most of the coastal wrecks strewn throughout Halifax Harbour. The deeper wrecks beyond one-hundred thirty feet accessible by boat remained unscathed. In the summer of 1994, after several successful boat hunts with Captain Jim Smith, we determined it was time to start looking offshore for other undiscovered wrecks standing alone on the harbor floor. Renowned and highly sought after, the British Freedom torpedoed by the U-1232 was an elusive quest. Within the limits of technical diving, the massive tanker was in a challenging search location. Historical accounts put it within the incoming or outbound approaches to Halifax Harbour. Anchoring in the lanes was prohibited due to the volume of transportation making way in and out of the harbor. The narrow lanes allowed no options to detour shipping in the highly trafficked port. The depths would require a few hours of time to conduct diving operations with safety. Logistically, if the wreck were found in a lane, it would remain un-divable without extensive permits and possibly hazardous detours. The harbor trade is so intense, that if it was found in either lane it may not be possible to get clearance from the harbormaster to dive.Hooking up with a local captain like Jim Smith was a golden chance. Jim knew many of the regional divers and boat captains that were hunting for shipwrecks. A few co-ordinates were passed on to Jim and he knew we would be eager to check those sites. Many of the anomalies were rocks, but occasionally we happened upon a hunk of a shipwreck hull, boiler, or a patch of contiguous beams. Unlike the familiar flat sandy bottom off the Jersey Coast, the bottom grounds off Halifax are lumpy, uneven patches, filled with ship sized boulders, cliffs, pits, and dips. This made it difficult pinpointing a wreck location. A bottom scanner recorded glitches which required visual confirmation to verify a shipwreck. Plummeting a shot line marker to a 200-foot-deep rock was a disappointing affair. Divers became weary of these look and sees, mandating such exploits to one or two attempts per day. In one instance of searching, I spent nearly two hours swimming in the rocky crags off the Sister ledges. I depleted the battery in a scooter and had switched to a second set of tanks but continued to swim searching various pinnacles of rocks. Even the most faithful of divers who wait topside can grow weary of this indolence. The doldrums of staring at a blank sea caused a few to dress down in the sweltering heat. Getting a crew to bear that type of tedium is challenging. This is the wager one must tolerate if you seek to find something new. Many times, in the past, these loyalists persevered without reward. Sensing the amount of time passing, I ascended, and addressed the group. I could tell Captain Jim was also becoming drained maneuvering the boat as he and lookouts followed my exhausted bubbles. I asserted to the group that if I did not see anything within the next dozen minutes, we would head in. Dashing back to the depths, I swam with even more tenacity. Passing ledge after ledge, I was struggling to get ahead in the current. Swimming over the next grouping of rocks, I found myself on a slope plummeting down to a gap. Remarkably, lying in the gap a Scotch boiler rested teetering on the edge of a boulder. Swimming along the cliff-face below, I spotted a rows of portholes attached to a long sheet of rusted steel. I quickly dispatched a lift bag marking the spot and ascended. Waiting on the surface, the faithful crew gathered at the stern of the boat for the update. “A wreck” is all I needed to say. The elated group began splashing over the side as I boarded. I was worn out but rejuvenated by the group’s enthusiasm and the discovery. You just cannot give up. Doggedness will prevail with luck in the end. Earning the trust of a group is important for future and more daunting hunts. On the next few trips, similar searches evolved as Captain Jim and I gathered more new areas to probe. After a few more exciting discoveries in the summer of 1995, we eagerly pledged to search again the next spring. Paradoxically that fall, a government scanning project mapped the harbor and fortuitously happened upon an irregularity in the underwater terrain. An unnatural glitch appeared on the side scan, and the British Freedom was exposed. The project put investigative divers on the bow section after the discovery to confirm the structure. The co-ordinates remained confidential, but truth has a way of rising to the surface.
In May of 1996, I readied a group of American and Canadian divers for another search for the British Freedom. This time, we were armed with a side scan and a ROV (remote operated vehicle). No longer would I need to drop down into the cold unfamiliar abyss as a self-contained explorer lighting up giant geological abnormalities commonly known as rocks. Reaching the site where the government discovered the wreck, we dropped the ROV over the side. While Captain Jim finessed the joystick, the tethered robot descended as we enthusiastically watched a monitor in the heated cabin. The anticipation was tremendous as a huddled group viewed the seemingly endless descent into the blue emptiness. On the back deck, the umbilical was paid out following the undersea satellite to the bottom. Finally, after the long descent, fish appeared schooling in front of the camera as it neared the pale sand. Scallops lay scattered over the field ahead of the rover, while bottom fish darted out of its path. Ahead, a colossal shadow darkened the ambient light which penetrated the depth. Intently we watched, as Jim maneuvered the ROV ahead. Before the rover, a massive wall of hull stood blocking forward progress in any direction. Elevating the vessel off the bottom, we could see the sunlight streaming through the ship’s railings. Rising over the edge, we could see the intact stern as the ROV hovered above. In situ for fifty-one years, the ship remained nearly intact. One could imagine the last moments of battle on January 13, 1945. Gun shells and boxes of ammo remain strewn throughout the wreckage, the deck canted to the starboard from the explosion, the foyer deck gun and anti-aircraft guns remained pointed away from the ship. Both guns looked loaded and ready to fire. The British Freedom sank stern first, yet the bow continued to protrude above the waves blocking the entrance to the harbor. Later that day, HMCS Goderich was dispatched to sink the Freedom with depth charges as the staunch ship continued to float. Of the forty-eight crew and nine gunners onboard, there was only one unfortunate casualty. Engineer William Henderson was lost and trapped below deck when the U-1232s torpedo exploded in the engine room.
Descending in search of the Freedom
photo by Paul Whittaker
We were about to experience an epic moment. Although this was not as legendary a vessel as the Titanic or prominent as the Andrea Doria, the British Freedom was historically important. The Freedom was notable in that it was a significant loss during the last epic sea battle in one of the most protected harbors of North America. As Captain Jim hovered the boat over the site, fellow divers Paul Whittaker, Tye Zinck and Jared Rainault dropped a weighted line over the side marking the highest point on the depth sounder. Readied for the dive, I jumped into the green icy brine. Hitting the sea was punishing as I broke through the thick layer of surface slush. The freezing water instantly gave me a painful brain freeze. I fought the unsettling nausea in the cold, knowing the numbing sensation would soon ease the pain. This was the coldest deep-dive I have ever made even to this day. During my final ascent, I noted the temperature stood at 27 degrees Fahrenheit. The Canadians onboard bore huge bottles of Argon purging thicker gas into their oversized neoprene suits stuffed with thick synthetic underwear. I added an electric heat pad in addition to a heavy layer of underwear to combat the cold arduous decompression at the end of my dive. Regardless, it was still a bitter dive where your extremities deadened after ninety-plus minutes of dive time. Reaching the dive ladder to ascend, divers found themselves lifting their numb legs into place on the rungs and massaging their calf muscles to resume circulation before climbing to the deck. Once on board, the post dive elation and adrenaline pulsating through the body shunned the pain. This was a chance opportunity worthy of the temporary anguish.
Even in the frigid water, mental and visual clarity prevailed as I reached the top of the wreck. Cutting the weights away on the tie in line, I swam the boat tether to the highest point on the starboard side where a fifty-caliber machine gun tower stood. I tied the loose end of the line through the gun swivel and watched the pivot rotate as the dive boat tightened the line. You could not have asked for a better place to anchor; no matter where the boat swung in the current, the swivel would turn, and divers could easily locate the tower. Looking down from the turret, one could see the entire stern. On the starboard was an anti-aircraft gun just aft of the machine gun tower. Across the deck on the portside was another 50-caliber machinegun tower. The boilers lie just ahead of the massive exposed diesel engine. Long sections of fuel hoses lay in place on wooden rollers designed to be pulled out when connected to a huge pump system on the deck. A rectangular deck house with a galley lay ahead of a large open deck where a smaller deck house and steering station stood. Behind the steering station, a gigantic six-inch deck gun remained with its barrel pointing abaft of the stern. On the port side, a hatch was open which was easily accessible to the deck below. I swam down to the stern deck over a rubble pile of loose portholes, dishes, cups, gun-shells, deck lights, deck prisms, the ships helm and a conglomerate of assorted parts and cases of ammunition. Ducking below deck, I swam through the tight passageway where a wooden compass stand remained maintaining the ships direction for half a century. Passing around the curved corridor, gun-shells in leather protective cases leaned against the hallway walls. The starboard side was collapsed opening to a blast hole where sunlight pierced through the blue water. The shocking coldness beckoned me to return to the warmth above. My forefinger was numbed by the cold and locked on to my light. I rose to the gun tower and followed the ascent line. Waiting for my confirmations, a slate was lowered by the anxious team expecting me as I reached my twenty-foot decompression stop. I scratched a few notes, “Freedom, stern, guns, dishes, portholes, helm, Awesome! Go diving!” It was truly a spectacular experience. Being able to see and sense the aftermath of this dramatic battle firsthand is unfathomable. Watching those eager divers splash over the side was equally rewarding to me as being one of the first to see the wreck. This was a rare event which was well earned by this hardy team of American and Canadian wreck divers after numerous attempts to unveil the lost tanker.
Over the course of the next two decades, the British Freedom became a popular destination for the technical wreck diving enthusiasts from all over the world. In 2003, the powerful Hurricane, Juan, careened directly into the Nova Scotia coast, battering Halifax Harbour. The British Freedom stern collapsed in the torrent. The starboard side already weakened from the initial torpedo blast crumbled to the seafloor and the deck fell to the sand from the relentless wave surges. The wreck is now unrecognizable compared to the once intact ship. The scathing effect of the ocean and future powerful storms will certainly reduce the once vast tanker to a rust-pile. The opportunity to dive such wrecks is dwindling. I feel fortunate to have been aligned with these tough, loyal divers that shared my passion. In the most arduous of conditions they remained resolute.
“Don’t wait. The time will never be just right.” Mark Twain