Submarine makes first dive to 1921 SS Governor wreck in Admiralty Inslet

By Philip L. Watness
For Peninsula Daily News

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PORT TOWNSEND — Wind and currents buffeted the Antipodes submarine throughout the day Wednesday as it made its first dive to the wreck of the SS Governor in Admiralty Inlet.

The weather didn’t hamper the crew of the OceanGate research vessel from their efforts to produce full-length sonar scans of the rusting hulk.

“The Northwest has wacky weather, and we sure saw that today,” said Joel Perry, vice president of expeditions for the Everett company.

“The issues are the wind and waves, but we saw nothing that caused us grief.

“We have a threshold and will abort, but we didn’t get to that stage.”

Late Wednesday afternoon, Perry hadn’t yet seen the first sonar images but was looking forward to being aboard the submarine today.

The plan over the next several days is to take videos of the 1921 wreck and make sonar scans in both two dimensions and three dimensions. The scans done Wednesday were two-dimensional.

The Antipodes, OceanGate’s 7-ton, 15-foot-long manned submersible, is scheduled to make numerous dives through Sunday to the hulk resting in silt 240 feet below the surface of Admiralty Inlet.

The submarine will be towed out each day from Fort Worden State Park to the site of the remains of the 417-foot passenger steamship that sank after being rammed by the freighter West Hartland just after midnight April 1, 1921.

Eight people died, according to City of Dreams: A Guide to Port Townsend, published in 1986.

It carried 172 passengers with a crew of 124, according to a New York Times story published the day after the wreck.

With overcast skies, rain and temperate degrees forecast for the next few days, Perry said he expects the ensuing dives to be as successful as the reconnaissance dives Wednesday.

He said the conditions of a north-northwest wind at 14 mph “was about the worst we could have, but even with that, it was lumpy but workable.”

Four submarine pilots were aboard the vessel as it took its first scans, cataloging the length of the 417-foot hull.

Among them were Chief Pilot Tym Catterson, who once operated the sub in New Zealand.

Catterson also will be at the helm today when the Antipodes dives with Perry and another former owner of the sub, Floridian Pete Hoffmann.

“Today’s dive was highly successful. We achieved all of our objectives. We made two sonar scans of the length as well as took videography,” Perry said.

“We fought against the current to get to the wreck, but then it went slack. We had great sonar conditions.”

Perry said the visibility of 15 to 20 feet was “pretty good for Northwest conditions.”

The former passenger liner sits where the ocean floor is flat, so identifying it and moving around it are not problematic.

The Governor is more an artificial reef now than a former passenger ship, Perry said.

“You see anemones, prawns in season and other sea life,” he said.

“Ships tend to become artificial reefs, so this one is biologically interesting.

“It’s been down there longer than most people have been alive, so scientists didn’t have a chance to see it turn into a reef, but other more recent wrecks are studied.”

The OceanGate expedition will test the Antipodes and its three-dimensional camera in circumstances akin to what the submarine will encounter when it dives to the SS Montebello, an oil tanker torpedoed by the Japanese off the California coast in the early days of World War II.

The Montebello has a reported 70,000 barrels of oil aboard.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has contracted OceanGate to survey the wrecked tanker to give the agency a better idea of whether anything can be done to remove the oil.

Surveying that wreck is even more challenging than examining the SS Governor because it is eight miles out at sea and 900 feet below the surface.

For more information about OceanGate, visit www.opentheoceans.com.

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Philip L. Watness is a freelance writer and photographer living in Port Townsend. He can be reached at whatnews@olypen.com.

Last modified: June 23. 2011 12:52AM
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