Fear and Breathing on the U-853
Everyone zigs when they’re supposed to zag once in a while. It’s what you learn from it that truly defines the experience. If you’re going to live on the edge, you’ve got to know and respect your limitations. And you have to pay absolute attention to the changing conditions of the weather, the waves, and the mountains. Know your limits, pay attention to your surroundings, and be mindful of your own experiences.
When I launched Explore New England magazine back in the late 1990s, I ran a column on the back page called Live and Learn—intended to be a quick story about someone who messed up a bit in the great outdoors and what they learned. I was explaining the editorial lineup to my parents and my ever observant mom immediately asked me why I was writing the first Live and Learn column. I realized I had never told her this little story.
Here’s what happened: Two of my close friends and college roommates Bill Middlebrook and Dave Charest and I were heavily into SCUBA diving. We found wreck diving to be the most exciting. I caught wind of a wreck off the coast of Block Island, RI, that we just had to explore—the wreck of the U-853. The U-853 was sunk on the last day of World War II. The general order for cessation of hostilities had apparently been sent out, but it was either never received or ignored by the commander.
We dove on the U-853 more than 10 times over the years. On maybe our third or fourth dive, we were admittedly feeling a bit cocky. We had done this before. We had this covered. That attitude was our first mistake. My buddy Dave and I were paired up on this day. We had a relatively uneventful dive. Then we were nearing the time when we needed to ascend before having to make decompression stops. We signaled to each other to find the line and ascend. We were near the bow, so we swam toward the stern. No anchor line. First wave of panic. Now both of us needed to ascend and we were starting to get low on air. We swam for the bow again searching for the anchor line. And by the way, the U-853 is more than 250 feet long, sitting upright on the bottom in 130 feet of Atlantic Ocean.
As we passed the conning tower the second time, I rolled to the side, glanced upward and saw the line. I swam quickly to grab Dave’s fin and motion upwards. He saw the line, and we both ascended without any further issue. Here’s why all this was a big deal. We were right on the border of ascending in time without requiring a decompression stop. That’s that extent of our safe time underwater. We were also running low on air. Here’s what confused us—on some dives, we had followed an anchor line down to the wreck. Other times, there was a line tied off atop the conning tower. We assumed we had followed an anchor line to the deck.
We could have done what’s called a free ascent and just headed for the surface. In fact, we were moments from doing that. That is a last resort maneuver. It’s incredibly difficult to control your rate of ascent during a free ascent. You should surface at the same rate as your smallest bubbles. Also, in the open ocean, it’s nearly impossible to hold your chest at ten feet for a just-in-case decompression stop. Also, a free ascent from 130 feet means we wouldn’t have surfaced anywhere near our dive boat. The currents would have had their way with us. And this final element didn’t fully sink in until later—we were in dense fog that day. We would have made it to the surface, but then would have been nowhere near our boat. We wouldn’t even be able to see the boat. We would have been floating in the dense fog in the middle of Block Island Sound, which are active shipping lanes. We were never so glad to be climbing back on our dive boat. Bill’s eyes were fixed on us as we climbed aboard. He couldn’t wait to ask us what had happened.
So we learned even if you’re somewhere familiar, always pay attention. Be ready for any situation that may throw you sideways. And have all the right gear. I carried a whistle with me every dive after that. The next time we dove on the U-853, we didn’t get more than five feet from the conning tower!