FROM 8 MILES AWAY, THE DERRICK BARGE WOTAN is a barely discernible smudge crouched low on the horizon.
Overhead, the sky stretches out in a fathomless canopy of robin's-egg blue, while the sapphire-colored sea below rolls on as if it were eternal. But not everybody aboard the crewboat Emmanuel has the strength to notice.
In the unpredictable waters off Cape Hatteras, N.C., the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current meet in an endless shoving match, churning up swells of 8 feet and more with little or no warning. Even the lesser seas here can exact a sickening toll, prompting veteran sailors to embrace the rail and hurl their half-digested breakfasts into the Atlantic Ocean.
On one particularly bad-tempered morning, half a dozen passengers fell ill during the nauseating, 16-mile voyage from Hatteras Inlet to the barge. Though most were landlubbers -- and a few were journalists -- no one familiar with the often gut-wrenching rigors of the trip questioned the spectacular reports of their ordeal.
At the helm, Capt. Mickey Readenour peers through the spray-splattered windshield, his crinkled blue eyes scanning the oncoming swells for any signs of trouble. Today, the sideswiping, southwesterly seas measure just 4 feet high. But since steaming up from the Gulf of Mexico oil fields a week ago, the soft-spoken Cajun has learned to expect surprises.
"I've been out here some days when there's not a breath of air -- and suddenly there's a wave from out of nowhere," Readenour says.
"It's no wonder that this place is so dangerous -- with the two big currents and all. But I still wish someone had told me before we came up that this was the Graveyard of the Atlantic."
Hundreds of shipwrecks litter the bottom here, helping explain why Readenour -- despite the relatively friendly conditions of early summer -- has turned his 105-foot-long vessel around more than once while making his daily delivery of passengers and provisions.
More reasons can be found in the strange absence of depth information encountered on several key portions of his navigation chart.
"Hatteras Inlet is subject to continual change," one footnote reads. "Entrance buoys are not charted because they are frequently shifted in position."
"Hydrography is not charted on Diamond Shoals due to the changeable nature of the area," another explanation warns.
"Navigation in the area is extremely hazardous to all types of craft."
Despite such omens, nothing more than a bad case of seasickness strikes the wayfarers aboard the Emmanuel on this particular morning.
And when the Wotan finally comes into view, even some of the stricken are compelled to look up as the once tiny, far-off smudge grows into a sea-faring monster.
Eight yellow buoys mark the 1 3/4-mile perimeter of its immense floating mooring, each one tethered to the ocean floor by a 20,000-pound anchor. Dead center within this floating picket line lies the Wotan itself, looming from the early morning haze like a steel oasis in a desert of water.
Rooted in a massive machine house, an enormous, red-painted derrick spans the 300-foot-long vessel, hovering over the diving stations, the stacks of container-sized living quarters and the elevated helicopter pad like some sort of protective arbor. Bare-chested men move about the equipment-strewn deck like swarming ants, each intent on some essential task in a complex and mysterious operation.
Some pause to peer down over the side, straining to follow nearly 20 multi-colored electrical cables, high-pressure water hoses, winch lines and umbilical connections as they plummet to the bottom. And like all good fishermen pursuing a long-sought prize, they don't bother to look up as the Emmanuel crosses the buoy line and eases off its throttle.
Still, there's no mistaking the identity of the famous naval silhouette that stretches across a banner dangling from the Wotan's side. More than 140 years ago, some smart-mouthed Yankee newspaperman described the USS Monitor as "a cheesebox on a raft," and here the low-slung profile of that celebrated Civil War ship has become both mission statement and tribal emblem.
For five summers now, a determined corps of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration archaeologists, Navy divers and civilian consultants has struggled against the notorious currents here, trying to raise the most historic parts of the sunken ironclad.
If they succeed in retrieving its pioneering, 120-ton gun turret, they will have saved one of the largest archaeological artifacts ever recovered -- and the heaviest to be recovered from such depths. But the strain of reaching down 240 feet in such inhospitable conditions makes the attempt both dangerous and uncertain.
"My greatest fear is that the turret will come apart when we try to lift it," says chief scientist John Broadwater, head of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, during the months of planning that preceded the expedition.
"I don't want to be the one who has to bring one of the most famous icons of naval history back in kit form -- with some assembly required."
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