September 27, 2011 - Michael J Norwood Event 2011

To all those who are new to my blog, to get the gist of it please read, "Welcome Aboard" from the May 1, 2011 posting and peruse a few of my other Dive Blog Reports from weeks past at the side bar to the right.

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Photo of the Week
The Morehead City Waterfront as seen from the sun deck of the M/V Olympus.
The Midnight Express is the last boat on the right. (New)
     The winds blew, the seas were bumpy and the skies unloaded a deluge of rain upon the Carolina Coast this past weekend but, the divers who attended the Michael J Norwood Event of 2011 defied the adverse weather and went diving regardless and with much success. The fact that John Chatterton was the guest diver on board the M/V Olympus and Midnight Express for this years event made the diving that much more exciting for everyone involved.

John Chatterton.
Photo Courtesy of John Chatterton.
     For those who are not familiar with John Chatterton's work, he is probably one of the most accomplished divers in the world today who leaped in to the public spotlight when he assisted in the discovery and identification in the 1990's of a German U-Boat, the U-869 that was sunk off the coast of New Jersey. The story of these events was published in to a best selling book titled Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson. John was also one of the hosts to The History Channels popular programs, Deep Sea Detectives. John's many other accomplishments are too vast to write in this Blog Report so click on the links above to familiarize yourself more with his career.
    In December of 2003, while filming an episode in Palau for the Deep Sea Detectives, John's partner, Michael Norwood died while diving the WWII destroyer, the USS Perry. In his memory, his widow, Diana Norwood created the  Michael J Norwood Memorial Research Fund whose purpose was to raise funding for Diver Alert Network (DAN) to research diving related injuries. 
Diana Strauss Norwood on the left and Carla Chatterton on the
 right standing in front of the USS Schurz display at the dive shop. 
This year marked the 6th year for the 'Norwood Event' where divers sign up to go diving for a long weekend on one of Olympus Dive Centers dive boats with John Chatterton and also get to meet Diana and John's wife Carla.  (Carla Chatterton, by the way, is one of the leading volunteers for Soldiers Undertaking Disabled SCUBA (SUDS) and has committed a lot of her time and energy to the cause. To learn more about SUDS please read my Dive Blog Report July 22, 2011 - Suds and Subs.) A percentage of the proceeds from the charter fees from the weekends diving is contributed to the Norwood Fund along with additional monies raised from the auction during the Michael J Norwood dinner on Saturday evening.
Group leader for Lynnhaven Dive Center
on board the Midnight Express, Dana Chapman.
     This years turn out was impressive. Nearly every spot was booked on both the Olympus and the vessel I captain, the Midnight Express for all three days Friday September 23rd through Sunday September 25th. Taking up the lion share of the spots was the group from Lynnhaven Dive Center based out of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Since there was only one John Chatterton and more than 20 divers from Lynnhaven, the group was split up and divided on to both boats where John shared his time on each.
Captain Robert Purifoy of Olympus Dive Center.
     On Friday morning, the weather seemed to be cooperating by the looks of it at the dock but, the forecast was ominous with a small craft advisory posted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) weather service which indicated there was to be 5 foot swells offshore with some heavy winds. Based on the information we had on hand on that morning Captain Robert Purifoy of the Olympus and the proprietor of Olympus Dive Center, deemed it safe enough to head out and as we say in North Carolina, "take a look at it". I concurred with his decision and continued to load up all the divers and gear on to the 'Midnight' and head out for a days diving. My plan today was to head south out of Beaufort Inlet and go as far as allowed on a full day charter to try to avoid the low visibility conditions that have plagued us since Hurricane Irene tore through the region last month. The general rule is, the further you go offshore and the closer you get to the Gulf Stream, the clearer the water would be. With John Chatterton diving on the Olympus today, my group, headed by Dana Chapman from Lynnhaven Dive Center, and special guest Dr. Nick Bird from DAN, agreed with my idea and liked the sound of diving the wreck of the W.E. Hutton, aka Papoose 32 miles south.

Dive mate, Mike Phillips
on the deck of the
Midnight Express with ominous
cloud cover in the background. 
     The ride out was uneventful the first 25 miles with a modest ground swell and 10-15 knots of wind chop on top beating in to the 'Midnight'. As the last seven miles ticked off my GPS on my way to the final waypoint, the seas began to pick up some what and the swell heights increased. "This day might prove to be a little more challenging than I had hoped", I thought to myself. The conditions were still within limits with the skill set of the divers I had onboard so I would continue on. Not having any idea what the visibility would be today I discussed with my mate, Mike Phillips what to do in the event of low 'viz'. I said, "If you can see more than ten feet we will give it a try". As luck would have it, Mike called up to me on the head set that the viz was about 10-15 feet. I was pleased as punch. 10-15 feet of viz on an average day would be terrible but compared to what it has been it was pretty good. 
Divers preparing for a dive on the deck of the Midnight.
     I gave the heads up to all the divers what the skinny was with the dive and fortunately I heard no grumbles from any of the them. They were here to dive and "to hell with the visibility", seemed to be there silent motto. With sunlight overhead, clear water beneath and decent size waves tossing the boat about the divers one by one disappeared over the side and headed down the anchor line to get a glimpse of the Papoose lying in 120 feet of sea water below them. The crew and I sat back and kept watch while we waited for the divers to return. Soon enough the tell tale sign of bubbles could be seen rising up from the anchor line below the stem of the 'Midnight'. As each diver made his and her way back on to the boat I asked them, "how was your dive and what would you say the 'viz' was?". Each and every one of them reported they had a great dive and they could see at least 20-25 feet. You would think I was the one returning after a great dive based on how excited I was to hear this news.

The U-352. (Stock)
     Once all were collected up and roll call completed we pulled anchor and headed over the U-352 (please see previous Dive Blog Report Hunter Turned to Huntedto try our luck over there for dive number two. Another dive boat in the area had reported 25 foot of 'viz' earlier in the day so it seemed that it would be good call to dive the Sub today. Sure enough, after my last diver was up after diving the U-Boat all seemed elated at getting a crack at this epic WWII wreck. Many of the divers on board had already dived the Sub before but that didn't seem to matter. This is not a wreck dive that most enthusiasts grow weary of all too quickly. The 'viz' was reported at around 15-20 feet while others indicated it was better than that. (Visibility is one of those things that in a crowd of 20 divers you sometimes will get twenty different interpretations of the 'viz'). With a pair of successful dives under our belt and the wind blowing 15-20 knots it was time to turn tale and head for home.

Empty cylinders at the fill station.
The 5 plus foot swells at the stern of the 'Midnight' it made for a interesting ride in to shore as we surfed down the face of the waves and climbed back up the back of the next one in front. In no time at all we made it back to shore safe and sound. The divers began transporting empty dive cylinders to the fill station to top them off again for the next days diving. Stories were swapped and plans for the next day were laid down. With weather permitting we would try for the wreck of Aeolus.
     On Saturday morning at 0445 I flipped open my lap top to check the weather forecast for the day. I didn't see anything that would give me cause for alarm except the rain and storm systems I was seeing along the coastline on the radar. Once at the dock Capt. Robert and myself assessed the conditions and waited for the storm to dissipate that was right over our heads. Once this happened and the coast was clear, the 'Midnight' headed out alongside the Olympus for another go at diving the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Today however, I had the honor of John Chatterton join us for some diving. Having John on board sharing his stories, knowledge and love of diving is enough entertainment by itself. 
First Mate of the 'Midnight',
Danny Facciola.
     As planned, we headed out to see what the 'viz' was like on the Aeolus. The Olympus, being a somewhat speedier vessel, had beat me out to the dive site first and sent his diver down to tie in on the wreck of the USCG Cutter Spar which is only a few hundred feet away from the Aeolus. With the exception of the rain and occasional bolt of lighting the weather was cooperating and actually calmer than what the forecast had predicted. I stood by and waited to hear back what the conditions were like before I would send my diver in as well. As it would be, the rain was coming down heavy and the cloud cover was dense allowing for very little sunlight to poke through. It was about as dreary and dark as it can be in full daylight. I expected that with these dark conditions the 'viz' on the Spar would be low. After a few minutes Captain Robert came over the VHF radio, "my diver landed in the sand and can't see the wreck, five feet of viz and very dark, over". "Yuck" I thought to myself. I'm heading south to where I know it was decent the day before, the Papoose. If I'm lucky the extra 8 mile drive due south might bring us out of the rain and darkness. So without delay I headed over to the Papoose once again. Unfortunately, when we got there the rain continued to come down but it seemed as though there was a tad more ambient light now than earlier. I dropped my new first mate, Danny Facciola (John Thompson sadly had to pack his saddle bag and move on) on to the wreck to tie in and reported similar conditions from yesterday but darker due to the cloud cover.

The inside of the
W.E. Hutton aka Papoose on
a clear day. (Stock)
    After giving yet another briefing, I opened the 'pool' and let everyone jump in for a dip. The long short of this day of diving is, everyone had a great dive and managed to see the local residents on the wreck, the Sand Tiger Sharks. The dive was good enough where all listened to my recommendations and stayed here for the second dive as well. When conditions are adverse and unknown elsewhere you stick with what is good and what works. That's a rule to live by in this business. After the diving was completed we turned for home with a boat load of water logged divers tucked away below. The forecast for tomorrow once again did not look promising but being that it was far from accurate the last two days I wasn't making plans to lay on my couch and take a day off. I stayed optimistic and hoped for a go the following morning.
     On Sunday AM, the rain continued to come down but the wind was almost non-existent. Swells from an unknown storm system far offshore were predicted to build more from the day before. Many of the divers on board both boats, the Olympus and Midnight were feeling as though they had enough diving in these conditions. Captain Robert picking up on this vibe did the noble thing and allowed anyone who wished to, to back out of the last days diving. With about half of all participating divers calling it quits the remaining divers were moved to the 'Midnight' including John Chatterton who had no interest in staying at the dock on this day. After settling everyone in, dock lines were cast off and we pulled away from the dock. My intention was to head over the the USS Schurz to try our luck out on this famous WWI US warship. The Schurz is only three miles from the Papoose making it likely that the conditions would be about the same. The worst thing that could happen is if the dive on the Schurz was no good due to low viz we could easily head over to the Papoose.
The USS Schurz when the water is more than 20 feet of viz. (stock)
     The ride out yielded once again torrents of rain interspersed by drizzling rain with a touch of showers mixed in for flavor. I kept joking with my mate Danny by saying every hour or so, "It's raining out". Despite this depressing weather the moral of all the divers on board as well as the crews was high. It seemed that nothing would get this group bummed out. On the ride out, as I looked at the ships radar set on 24 mile scale, all I could see was a large blob on the display that indicated rain with the 'Midnight' right in the middle of it. As the last ten miles ticked off I noticed an opening in the radar that showed the promise of a break in the rain. As I got closer I could start to see the semblance of light way ahead as it continued to pour on us. Within the last mile, the "Midnight' poked her head out from the rain clouds to discover the first signs of the sunlight in a partially cloud covered sky. My crew secured the boat to the wreck and radioed up to me that the 'viz' was pretty decent at around 20 feet but still a little dark. It was a go! I hurried to the back deck, briefed the divers and said the light switch was in the on position but it didn't look like for much longer so hurry up and get in the water.

John Chatterton returning from a dive.
     Without delay and with precision, all the divers made it in and headed on down to the wreck for a looksy. The Schurz is a very old wreck with a steep history (read the link) and also very low lying to the sand. Not much of her remains that is more than five feet above the sea bed. For some divers this makes the wreck more interesting while for others they would prefer a more intact wreck. Once the divers all returned and delivered their reports I don't think the latter type of diver was present. All seemed pretty jazzed with their trip down to the wreck including John Chatterton. Just as the last of the divers clambered back on board a squall made its presence known to the boat with gusting winds and you guessed it, rain! The wind and rain is usually not an issue when at sea unless extreme. It is lighting that gets my serious attention. A metal dive boat in the middle of the ocean is like a lighting rod. When a smaller vessel can avoid being in lighting it is always wisest to do just that and avoid it. So far today I saw plenty of rain but no lighting to speak of. 
Duncan Pinnock with Lynnhaven Dive Center
scored a few nice Grouper over three days.
     With that said, I would move the boat over to the U-352 once again for the final dive of the day. It was decent here two days ago and I couldn't see any reason why it would be different. My mate secured us to the wreck and indicated the 'viz' was about 15 feet in the dark. Once again it was a go. Knowing my divers as I did I knew no one would have an issue with these conditions. I made a quick brief and discovered everyone on the boat has been to the Sub before but one man. With that said I announced to everyone we had a U-352 virgin on board where an applause burst out right after. Seeing the enthusiasm the other divers had for this wreck must have excited him more than usual. 
     Everyone, especially John, made the dive on the Sub. Since John has a special affinity for U-Boats he was one of the first divers in the water. After a while everyone returned to the Midnight with a thumbs up attitude. Seriously, their was no getting this group down. There positive attitudes and enthusiasm for sport diving carried them through a three day weekend of below average dive conditions for North Carolina. For them, this final dive on the Sub was more icing on an already sugary cake. Before I started patting myself on the back, it was time to get the boat underway since the skies opened up yet again this time with angry thunder and cracks of lighting threatening us. It was a 'loot and scoot' day and I was very ready to scoot.

Chip and his helmet Go-Pro Cam. Don't knock it until
you try it. They're awesome.

In a few minutes the 'Midnight' was heading due north at a speed slightly faster then sound. I had had enough of this weather and wanted to get home sooner than later. Besides, everyone and everything on the boat was soaked and smelled like my high school gym bag after a week at football camp. The divers turned to passengers hunkered down and made themselves comfortable and in no time most all were in a deep coma probably dreaming of U-Boats filled with contraband gold.
     As I pulled the boat in to the dock and my crew secured the lines I felt a sense of accomplishment. The Olympus boats managed to safely make it out for three days of diving when weather forecasts said we could do otherwise. From my position most of the divers with us on this Norwood Foundation event had memorable dives even those who took the last day of diving off. One thing for sure is Captain Robert and myself tried to make the best of adverse weather and dive conditions and show everyone a good time but like in politics you can't make all the people happy all of the time.
Future SCUBA diver, Samantha Faatz
trying to keep dry. Photo courtesy of Scott
and Sara Faatz.
     For the next hour, divers packed bags, unloaded gear, shook hands, swapped business cards and made plans for the next dive trip back to Olympus Dive Center. Diving is more than a recreational sport it is a social culture all of its own with groups of people sharing a common interest doing what they love to do. The crew of the Midnight Express, the Olympus and all of the staff at the shop wanted to thank everyone especially John & Carla Chatterton, Dianna Strauss Norwood and Dr. Nick Bird for making this a fantastic weekend of diving. At press time it is unknown how much money was raised for the Norwood Foundation but rumor has it it was a good year. Once this information is known you should hear about it on Olympus's facebook page.

Olympus crew and friends at John Chatterton's birthday party at Floyds 1921.
    As for me, I have yet to make a dive since 'Irene' swept through and the weather conditions kept me on the deck of the boat the whole weekend. Don't feel too sorry for me though since I'm able to live vicariously off of my passengers. I still have several more weekends of charters in October so I hope to get some more video, photos and stories to share with you all very soon.  Stay tuned for more Dive Blogs in the coming weeks. I still have to report on my Top Ten Dives of All Time and the making of The Wrecks of Truk Lagoon and The Wreck of the SS President Coolidge dive documentaries.

Happy Diving!

Mike Gerken

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