Navy divers wasted little time descending on the Cape Hatteras, N.C., wreck of the USS Monitor last week, after a 10-day delay in their effort to save the ship's historic revolving gun turret.
With its huge 500-ton crane repaired by a Norfolk shipyard, the derrick barge Wotan was towed into place over the grave of the Civil War ironclad just after 3 a.m. Wednesday, said John Broadwater, head of the Newport News-based Monitor National Marine Sanctuary team supervising the $7.1 million expedition.
The first divers entered the 240-foot waters less than an hour after the giant barge was winched into a precise position parallel to the wreck using a satellite-guided eight-anchor mooring system.
"Our guys were more than ready to go. They've been ready to go all week," said Cmdr. Bobbie Scholley, head of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit #2, the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base group spearheading the Navy's efforts.
"We really needed to eyeball the wreck, so we could fine-tune our plans. So, with the nice conditions on the bottom - and the 3- to 4-foot seas on the surface - we were really able to get down to business."
More than 80 divers from several commands are working from the barge, using the turret-recovery efforts to hone their skills with both surface-supplied and saturation diving systems.
The surface-supplied divers, who descend from the barge on a diving stage, normally log 40 minutes or less on the bottom before they must begin the one-hour-plus process of "wet decompression," Scholley said. Rising slowly through the depths, they must then spend about the same time in a recompression chamber on the barge, purging potentially fatal accumulations of nitrogen gas from their blood.
The saturation divers, however, live in pressurized quarters on the barge, descend to the wreck in a pressurized diving bell and then return to their quarters with no change from the 100-pound-per-square-inch conditions that they face on the bottom.
That enables them to work on the wreck for as much as four hours at a time, focusing on the most difficult tasks of the recovery effort.
"We've put in nearly 16 hours of bottom time with the 'sat' divers already," Scholley said. "Those guys are really hitting it hard."
Weather conditions off Cape Hatteras changed drastically Thursday and Friday - with seas that measured 6 to 8 feet - forcing the Navy to curtail its round-the-clock diving operations.
But the divers still managed to survey the wreck, lower most of their tools and then begin clearing the tons of debris and artifacts that obstruct their way to the turret.
"On the last part of my dive, I already was picking up big hunks of deck plating and chunks of wood and carrying them over to the collection baskets," Scholley said.
"We've got all our prep work done, so we just need a good window in the weather to get down on the wreck and put in some really good, solid, hard work on the bottom."
Mark St. John Erickson can be reached at 247-4783 or by e-mail at email@example.com