Wreck Diving from the L A Times

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Posted by Kevin on September 06, 2001 at 13:09:41:

A great article on some local wrecks, hope you all enjoy !




Or jsut the text:


From the day it crashed in the fog below the cliffs of Palos Verdes Estates, the 441-foot Greek freighter Dominator has stood helpless against the onslaught of surf and salt winds.

The wreck has been a landmark for 40 years, eerie and ever-corroding. Its ruptured hull once rose in bold contrast to the yellow-white cliffs at Rocky Point. Young surfers, boaters and lobster trappers of the Cold War years have grown to middle age while watching the Dominator slowly break up, shift on the rocks and melt away.
Scarcely a fraction of it remains visible on the rocky beach: mainly the bow, a remarkable piece of debris that is warped, guano-streaked, rusted through in places, and yet still clearly discernible as the front end of a ship. The bow section rests on edge, 10 feet high and perhaps 60 feet long, right at the surf's edge. It is angled keel seaward and to the sky, allowing you to walk up the side of the hull where it once knifed through the swells.

Or you can stand on the rocks and explore a small section of the deck now turned vertical. Like old cheesecloth, the deck is badly eaten and missing in places. Still, the huge bollards remain, where lines were tied to secure the ship in port; the hawse pipes are there too, deeply scored from the travel of the anchor chairs they used to guide.

Slip through the missing part of the deck and you can examine the gears of the machinery that raised the anchors. Here and there on the rust-stained rocks are other items of interest--big, porthole-like scuppers where deck water drained back into the sea; metal panels, pipes and girders so badly corroded they have lost every straight edge, scattered like forgotten Dali art.

"This is one of the last of a breed," says Phil Bergeron, a devotee of shipwrecks, after climbing down a perilous cliff-side trail at Lunada Bay. These days, sophisticated navigational instruments and stricter maritime laws make shipwrecks extremely rare events--a loss of mystery, in Bergeron's view.

"In 50 or 100 years, this won't be here for people to see and wonder about," he says as he combs through the wreckage.

The Dominator was a sensational story at the time it went down after striking a reef one early evening in March 1961. It carried 29 crewmen and 9,000 tons of grain. There was no difficulty in saving the crew, only in saving the ship. Tugs struggled for several days, trying to free the freighter from the rocks as crowds gathered to watch from the cliff tops.

Heavy waves and high winds quickly began to break up the vessel, causing water to flood the hold. That swelled the grain and burst the ship at the seams.

As the vessel continued to come apart, the bow section was driven toward the beach. The rest, including the engine and boiler room, sank offshore. That part of the wreckage lies in water only 20 feet deep, making it a prime attraction for scuba divers despite swells and currents that are sometimes dangerous.

Bergeron, 50, figures he has negotiated the hulk's metal shards and surrounding kelp forests about 100 times. "It's one of the few wrecks along the coast . . . ; a diver can actually go inside and be enclosed within part of the wreck," he says. "You're actually down in what they would call the bilge area, the bowels of the ship."

His early dives there a decade ago got him so jazzed about shipwrecks that he joined the California Wreck Divers, a club created in 1971 to explore scores of wrecks up and down the coast, including Navy destroyers, schooners and steam ships dating to the 1800s.

Most cannot be seen from the surface, but the Wreck Divers are compiling maps and case histories and gradually making those available on the club's Web site, http://www.cawreckdivers.org.

So far, at least eight significant wrecks have been identified in the waters of Santa Monica Bay and the Palos Verdes coast. Among them is a 268-foot side-wheeler, the Sacramento, a steamship being used as a fishing barge when it foundered in 1968. Another wreck is believed to be the Newbern, a coal-burning ship carrying 61 passengers and a cargo of silver bullion, hides and sea turtles when it hit the rocks in 1893 near the future site of Marineland.

Ten more wrecks have been logged from San Pedro south through Orange County. Seven more around the Channel Islands. Eight near Santa Barbara and Ventura. Four near Santa Catalina Island.

A lot are barely recognizable, covered in sediment and marine life, but to divers they evoke fantasies of pirates and treasure, of storms and other disasters.

Bob Frank, president of the Wreck Divers, remembers exploring a sunken vessel for the first time 15 years ago. It was the Sue-Jac, a large sailboat that rests on a steep bank 70 feet deep off Catalina. It had gone down in a storm.

Frank stared in amazement at the deck railings, the curving hull. He worked his way below deck, into the engine room, where he marveled at the engine and found a small chisel, its blade rusted. The plastic handle was chipped.

"I still have that to this day," he says. "I came up from that wreck; and it was like, 'Wow, this is too cool!' "

The Dominator is one of Frank's favorite places to train beginners. The shallow waters allow virtually unlimited diving time because it is so easy to return to the surface.

"What's neat about diving there . . . is the wreck is heavily overgrown with kelp," says Steve Lawson, who compiles the Wreck Divers' Web site. "On a calm, clear day, it's like flying through a forest."

Lawson, with 750 wreck dives in almost 20 years, has gone to Florida to help excavate a Spanish galleon, one of the great finds of modern times. That one sank in a hurricane in 1622 while hauling gold, silver and emeralds.

Though the charting and investigation of shipwrecks may never be complete, Lawson hopes the Web site will offer the same level of detail found on tourist maps of Egyptian antiquities. Already there are pictures of the Dominator, and you can watch the sinking of the Moody, a 314-foot destroyer blown up in 1933 for the filming of "Hell Below."

Or you can read about UB-88, a World War I German U-boat ceremonially sunk off Los Angeles in 1920. That is considered the area's great undiscovered wreck.

"There's all kinds of rumors of people diving it," says Lawson, "but no one can provide any tangible proof."

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