Above: A replica of a Civil War-era flag waves in the breeze as the derrick barge Wotan delivers the Monitor's gun turret to a berth in downtown Newport News.
Adrin Snider/Daily Press
STUMBLING DOWN THE STAIRWAY FROM HIS BERTH, Chief Warrant Officer Rick Cavey looks like a kid who's been roused from sleep long before he was ready.

His blue diver's T-shirt crawls with a mass of criss-crossed wrinkles. His short brown hair bristles from his head at a dozen unkempt angles.

Joining him as he walks to the saturation diving station on the port side of the barge is a somewhat tidier Scholley. Yet, she, too, has to stifle an early morning yawn as the expedition's leaders wait for the last shift of "sat" divers to emerge from their pressurized living quarters after 66 hours of decompression.

Two-and-a-half days ago, these mostly middle-aged sailors played a heroic role in clearing the crucial last hurdles of the turret recovery operation. But only now -- after their gas-saturated blood has finally returned to normal -- can they join their shipmates in celebrating the success of the difficult, touch-and-go mission.

"Sat cowboys! On the surface!" Cavey barks, heralding the crack of a pressurized hatch and the appearance of several newly bearded faces.

"What's for breakfast?' asks Chief Petty Officer Keith Nelson, who steps from his cramped, boilerlike berth sporting a mischievous smile and a pair of red high-top sneakers.

"Margaritas!" answers Capt. Chris Murray, the head of the Navy diving corps, who spent many days working alongside the sailors. Then he extends his hand in a gesture of thanks and congratulations.

Moments later, Cavey, Scholley and the others head for the Wotan's galley.

Cavey sits down to a steaming, homemade biscuit, sleepily coating the surface with a golden ribbon of honey squeezed from a bear-shaped plastic bottle.

"I still can't believe how well it all went," he says, grinning as he pops a piece of biscuit into his mouth.

"I just wish this thing would go faster so we can get back home."

Cavey isn't the only one feeling impatient as the barge creeps north along the coast of North Carolina.

For more than a day, the sailors have stood at the rail, watching familiar landmarks crawl by at a frustratingly deliberate pace -- with some so close that the distance to land could easily have been bridged by a determined swimmer.

Despite the proximity of the shore, most of the cell phones on the Wotan work even more poorly now than they did in the dead zone off Cape Hatteras. TV signals fail to make their way out here, too, leaving the sailors feeling as isolated as they did out in the open ocean.

As a result, no one has more than the dimmest idea of how strongly the expedition's exploits have captured the attention of the national news media. The cable channels run reams of footage on the day of the recovery, while the networks air segments on their nightly news and morning shows. Two nights afterward, comic Jay Leno uses the expedition's notoriety to poke fun at the White House during his Tonight show monologue.

"The Civil War gun turret from the USS Monitor has been recovered," Leno says.

"President Bush was sad to see there are no survivors."

Jon Stewart of the Daily Show jumps on the Monitor bandwagon, too, staging a funny, two-minute-long segment called "You Raised My Battleship!" for the Comedy Central channel. But not until the Wotan finally pulls past the resort strip at Virginia Beach, then anchors off Cape Henry at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, does any of that media attention matter much to the sailors.

Within an hour, the barge and its historic trophy begin to draw visitors, most of them in the excursion boats that run up and down the coast. Spurred by the coverage in the press, the operators pull up alongside the Wotan as if it were a tourist attraction. Several boatloads of passengers actually stand up and break into prolonged applause.

The sailors are mystified at first, and they look at each other in disbelief as the ovations continue.

"What's that all about?" Cavey asks, as he watches from the rail.

"I think they're clapping for you," a reporter answers.

Rescuing the Monitor