October 21, 2011 - 'Irene' Reeks Havoc on the 'Yancey'

October 21, 2011  •  Leave a Comment

This message doesn't get any clearer.
Olympus Dive Center, Morehead City, NC 2011.
     As the Fall season of 2011 at Olympus Dive Center comes in to play the dive conditions offshore have improved since the numerous storm systems such as Irene, Katia and Lee that rolled through the region since August have dissipated. With reports of visibility as high as 60 feet and temperatures still in the high 70's the diving has been looking up somewhat. Unfortunately, the winds have increased prohibiting charters from going out on many of our scheduled days. Many I say, except last weekend when the Midnight Express conducted an expedition to the wreck of the Yancey on Sunday, October 16. In this Blog Report read about the dive conducted on this historical deep wreck dive 40 miles off the Carolina Coast. I do not have any still images to share with you from this dive but, I do have a video short available. (Read on for the link) Also, my Photo Tips of the Week has returned in this issue. I discuss the use of Photoshop and like software systems on your photos to enhance their quality as well as the ethics of using them in photography.
The sinking of the
SS President Coolidge.
     With the dive season slowing down for me here I will have less and less to report on for NC diving. That does not mean an end to my Dive Blog Report. Stay tuned for new future stories on an inside look at the making of my documentary films on Truk Lagoon and the SS President Coolidge plus a bit on Mike's Top Ten Dives of all time. For any photo buffs out there keep in mind I offer courses for all levels of enthusiasts both in person and live online with web cams. If your getting bored this fall/winter and want to fine tune your photo skills or learn some new ones contact [email protected] for more information on how to sign up. 
     Our season here is not over in NC. My vessel the 'Midnight' has full day trips and half day trips scheduled this weekend October 22 & 23 as well as the weekend following that one. Olympus Dive Center and the flag ship M/V Olympus will have trips running all the way through the end of November with a Lobster Excursion coming up as well. So don't hang you gear up yet because you could miss something special diving the Outer Banks of NC. Give the shop a call at 252-726-9432 to find out what is available and when.

'Irene' Reeks Havoc on the Yancey
The USS Yancey. 
     The 459' Yancey was sunk as part of the artificial reef program of North Carolina in 1990 in 165' of water. Before she was sent to the bottom she served the US Navy as a fast attack cargo ship with a long and distinguished career. The Yancey was commissioned in October of 1944 and was present at the fierce battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in WWII. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1964 the Yancey was part of the blockade task force supporting the military ships. She received two battles stars for her service in WWII and three stars for the Korean War. In 1970, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge had an altercation with this 14,000 ton vessel when she collided with the bridge during a stormy gale closing the bridge for at least three weeks. The Yancey's accomplishments are vast and spanned over nearly three decades before being pulled out of service in 1970.
The USS Yancey.
     When she was sunk in 1990 as an artificial reef it was in excess of 165' of water making her one of the deepest wreck dives in the US that was sunk intentionally. The depth of this ship places her out of reach of most recreational divers but with special training and experience any diver can access this awesome wreck. The Yancey for the last 21 years has been laying on her starboard side fully intact until Hurricane Irene passed overhead in late August 2011 tearing a large section of her bow apart and strewing it across the wreck and on to the sand. Since this wreck does not get dived frequently this new facelift was not discovered until October 16 when divers on my vessel, the Midnight Express returned from a dive on the Yancey to inform me of the damage. The fact that the surge from this storm system managed to cause that much destruction in water that deep says a lot about the power of nature. Normally, wrecks that sit in depths of more than 150 feet are better protected from surge but this was not the case with Hurricane Irene with her 30' seas. This storm indeed managed to rearrange a few hull plates on the Yancey.
Head of Olympus Dive Center's
Training and Education, Jon Belisario.
    Instructor, Jon Belisario, Olympus's head of dive training and education, had coordinated a technical diving excursion to the Yancey months before in order to conduct advanced dive training with his students and to offer a deep 'tech' dive to anyone with the credentials to go. It had been planned that we would do two dives on Saturday and two dives on Sunday October 15th and 16th. On Saturday morning I checked the weather report as usual before heading down to the boat and with offshore winds showing 15-20 knots and 4-5' seas I began to think this would be a no go. Once I arrived at the boat the mass of gear had already been loaded with a few divers still bringing on additional tanks, regulators and other miscellaneous gear to conduct this deep dive. Captain Robert Purifoy of the M/V Olympus and myself put our heads together to see what we could do this day with the weather being questionable. The most recent reports showed the wind had died down some but fishing boats plying their trade offshore had reported stiff currents adding to the remaining winds. The Yancey is nearly 40 miles offshore and when you have divers descending to 165' in 4'-5' seas with strong current there is increased potential for trouble. After mulling things over for a while, Capt. Robert and myself decided that diving inshore closer to the beach would be a better bet for his charter. Problem for me was I had a group of nine advanced divers who were rigged up for a 165' dive and a 60' dive inshore just wouldn't cut it for them. Either we would make it offshore or we wouldn't go at all. Once the Olympus left the dock that morning I sat tight and listened to the VHF radio for additional news from anyone offshore and I began to get mixed reports. The wind at the dock at this point dropped off to nearly nothing and it would be a shame to at least not try it out. I had heard there was another dive boat already making way to another wreck that was 36 miles offshore so I decided we would head out and see what we would find. At this point something in my gut didn't feel quite right as I exited Beaufort Inlet on this unsettled morning. The combination of the weather offshore and the complex dive ahead of us gave me cause for concern. After listening to a few more reports from fishing boats and learning that the other dive vessel heading offshore in fact had changed their mind and never left the dock, I finally pulled the plug on this technical dive for today and indicated to Jon and the dive group that we were going home. There was a good chance we could have pulled this off but, you have to take all factors into account, the most important of which is what your gut instinct is telling you and mine was telling me it was time for a stack of pancakes at the local diner and not a 40 mile jaunt out in to questionable conditions in the Atlantic Ocean. I then turned the boat around and headed back through the inlet to the dock and could only hope for a reprieve in the weather for the next day.
The end of a day on the Morehead Waterfront.
The USS Yancey in the middle during the Cuban Missile Crisis 1964.
(Photo courtesy of the US NARA.)
    On Sunday, with a much more promising weather report, the Midnight loaded up once again and headed out to sea under the cover of darkness with daybreak nearing. The wind was coming from behind land out of the north making for flat calm conditions at the inlet. With a 40 miles trek ahead of us due south east it was time to sit back, keep an eye on the weather and get to our destination safe and sound. North winds however can be a pain in the ass to assess the sea state because the further offshore you go the further out of the lee of land you are. The seas tend to build gradually from behind you not fully revealing wave height as it would if you were heading dead in to it. This is exactly what happened on this trip out to the Yancey. The winds increased, the seas started to build and my thoughts began to wonder if this was such a good idea. Every so often, glancing over my shoulder at the incoming waves behind me, I would deem it still safe to continue on. I could only hope that the seas would stay the same or taper off by time I arrived at my waypoint. The forecast after all had called for a drop in wind speed as the day progressed. "Maybe they will have got it right for a change", I mumbled to myself while I nervously gnawed on a bag of pretzels. With five miles left to go the bow of the 'Midnight' began to plow in to the back side of the waves ahead of me causing the steering to become more difficult which indicated that it was getting squirrelly out there. Turning around at this point was not an option though. I was too close. I would make it to the wreck site and turn around in to the wind and sea to assess what I had on my hands. Besides, it couldn't be too bad, I had on all sides of me, small 20'-28' center console sport fishing boats trolling for King Mackerel or whatever else would take there bait. The one big difference between them and I was they didn't have to get off the boat and dive down 165' feet and then get back on. That changes the game just a little. As it would be, we arrived in a timely fashion and the ocean seemed to die off somewhat so I gave my mate, Clint Etheridge, the green light to tie us off to the Yancey. After coming to idle I tried to judge if there was any current but with a south ground swell, a north wind chop it was hard to determine. As far as I could tell current was minimal. I was wrong.
The USS Yancey.
     With my mate prepared to jump with the hook, I pulled up over the waypoint and marked a very huge object on my sonar. "Jeeze, she is a big one", I thought. The 459' Yancey is indeed a large shipwreck. Once overhead of her I told Clint to go. With a flash he was over the side on his way down to what I hoped was the top of the port side forward of the super structure. After about 4 minutes he called up on the radio from the bottom that all was ok. After my crew and I took up the slack from the anchor line I called back down to Clint to get the condition report. "We have about 40-50' of 'viz' with a decent current ripping down the wreck", he piped. "Is the current to strong to dive in", I inquired. "Negative", he replied. "But, they better be aware of it", he finished with a grave tone. With a strong wind from the north and a stiff current from the south the 'Midnight' was forced with her starboard side up in to the waves by the pushing current making for and uncomfortable side to rolling motion. Conditions were border line acceptable and I briefed all nine divers on what to expect and the layout of the wreck. The schematic I drew of course showed a fully intact 459 foot long freighter laying on it's starboard side. Little did I know that my drawing would prove to be obsolete due to Hurricane 'Irene'. My main concern was the current though. If a diver at that depth has any trouble and must ascend away from the anchor line he could potentially drift a quarter of a mile or more before his head breaks the surface at the end of the dive. Drifting in 3 foot seas 40 miles offshore is not such a great idea really when you think about it. "Go down the anchor line, come back up the anchor line", was my simplest and most valuable piece of information I could bestow on these divers.
     With that said it was time for them to make the jump. One by one divers lugging about 150lbs of gear each leapt off the side or should I say dropped off the side of the boat and vanished down the line. With a dive this deep none of them was expected to return for at least 60 minutes due to a fare amount of decompression required at the end. The penalty for diving this deep is having to  hang on the line in the ripping current for 30-40 minutes with the equivalent of a small dive shop attached to your body. 
Captain Tony Elliot at the helm of
the Thomas S. (stock)
     As each diver returned they all indicated it was a good time down there with while some dragged their feet somewhat after the laborious dive. Capt Tony Elliot of the 'six pack' dive boat, the Thomas S with Olympus Dive Center returned to the Midnight about the same time as Jon Belisario and both made note of the newly found damage to the Yancey bow. "She is tore up pretty bad", said Tony in awe, who has been on this wreck before with Jon and knew something was different right away. I could only hope the other divers, who have never been on this wreck before, would figured out that a part of the ship was missing after I told them it was fully intact. A diver could easily lose his way with this kind of information. After all returned safe and sound no one indicated they had any trouble with navigating. "Good news", I thought to myself as I started to get my own gear ready to head in for a short dive on the Yancey. "These guys aren't the only ones who are going to have a bit of fun today" I smugly said to myself.
    My goal for my dive was to try to capture the extent of the damage on video rather than with a still camera. With the visibility only around a dark 40 feet, getting wide angle still images would be difficult if not impossible. With a video camera I could take pan shots of the effected area. With camera loaded I jumped over the side and started to head down the anchor line. The full extent of the current came to my attention immediately. A hand over hand descent down the line would be required today which is easier said than done when your carrying a 30 pound camera system in one hand. I also noticed how dark it was and that the first thirty feet of water was dirty and colder than below where the temp climbed to around 77F. The top dirty layer also shut out a good portion of sunlight making it darker than usual at 150 feet. Once I arrived on to the wreck I let go of the anchor line and immediately began to drift at high speed across the port side super structure at 145'. I turned my body around and began kicking into the current and sizing up the wreck. With a sturdy kick it wasn't much trouble making way. When my eyes adjusted to the low light I could clearly see an entire section of the wreck peeled away exposing unknown machinery below deck. Time was limited as was my air supply so I had to work quickly. I began taking pan shots of the superstructure and the missing section while highlighting the steel plates that were ripped apart like a shredded piece of paper. I also managed to get a shot of machinery below deck which may be fuel transfer pumps but I cannot say for sure. Lastly, a jumbo sized Lionfish caught my attention and was worthy of a quick shot before making my way back to the anchor line. After about 18 minutes of humping that camera around in a stiff current I was ready to head back up the line. With each kick of my fins it seemed like I was gaining only inches towards my destination. Focusing my attention on long strong kicks and deep steady breaths I soon was able to grab the anchor line and slowly head on up. 
     It was at this moment I realized a small error on my behalf. I usually never dive with a lanyard attaching my camera gear to my body since I prefer to hold my camera at all times. This was a problem today since letting go of the anchor line was made difficult due to the 'Six Flags' style current breezing passed me on the line. The entire ascent I had to hold the camera in one hand while clasping a death like grip around the 7/8" thick nylon anchor line. At around 50 feet I was suppose to do a gas switch and change regulators in my mouth. (Switching to a higher percentage of Oxygen at shallower depths is a standard practice in technical diving) Since doing gas switches requires at least one hand I thought this would be an interesting trick. Wrapping my leg around the line I freed one hand up to perform the gas switch but not without some serious hassle. I felt like a tangled flag on a pole in a gale force wind with my leg twisted around that line. I have no doubt I looked a little ridiculous down there but, oh well, it got the job done. Once steady with my new regulator in my mouth it was time to complete the ascent. After hanging at 15 feet to complete my decompression requirements by off gasing unwanted nitrogen from my tissues I could poke my head above the surface, pass my camera up and clamber back on the deck. "Wow that was some current", I said aloud with a fairly weary voice while thinking to myself, "it wouldn't have been nearly so bad if I had a silly lanyard for my bloody camera". Anyway you "live and learn" or should I say "dive and learn".

To view the video of this dive please visit this link, Evolution Underwater Imaging and click on the first thumbnail in the gallery.

    After all the other divers took a long two hour surface interval, the time came for them to conduct dive number two of the day. With many of the mysteries that first dives on new locations offer behind them, the second dive comes much easier. As luck would have it the wind calmed down more flattening the seas out and even the current seemed to slack off some as well. I made a point to inform everyone about the damage that had occurred to the wreck if they had not already figured it out and give them some last minute pieces of advice before cutting them lose on the Yancey. Without fail the divers made there jump, headed on down to the wreck and returned safely without incident. By time the last diver ascended the seas were near flat calm and the sun was bright overhead. "It was going to be a nice ride home", I thought. On rides like this back to shore the main concern is staying awake which is made easier by cranking the satellite radio and finishing off whatever food I can find in the wheelhouse. Nothing is safe from me if left out. Boating and diving after all makes me hungry. After an uneventful two and a half hour ride back to the dock it was time to pack up the boat and say thanks and good-byes to all the divers. Hopefully, they all had a good time and learned some new techniques while diving the wreck of the Yancey. I hope to see them all back again.

Mike's Photo Tip of the Week
Image Processing

     Although the word "Photoshop" is a genetically used term in the English language sometimes as a noun and other times as a verb it is of course in reality a trademarked high powered graphics editing program that was released by Adobe in 1990. Twenty-one years later this software technology has revolutionized the way the world creates and views photographs causing a lot of controversy and competition along the way. The ability to digitally enhance an image by changing its exposure, colors, contrast and sharpness, to name just a few, has made it possible to take a mediocre photo and turn it in to a work of art or a simply a more visually stunning image. Those that utilize this technology in the favor, love it while others, such as the film photography enthusiasts, despise it for allowing so called 'cheats' to produce imagery they would not otherwise know how to create with traditional methods of photography.
     Without creating a huge debate I will offer my two cents on this topic. In short, Photoshop when used professionally and ethically is an extension of the artistic process. Merely knowing how to tweak the settings of a photo in Photoshop or similar software systems is not enough to create a striking image. One must understand what a striking image looks like to begin with and then know how to create it. Being able to visualize your image is the first step. Second, you must have the correct hardware to take the shot with. Once you have the ideas and the correct equipment you must find the subject you are looking for and make sure the environmental conditions are suitable. After all this, you then take your photos and apply them to Photoshop. To not digitally post-process your images is like not developing your film negatives. You are doing an injustice to the final image. When all is said and done it is how one digitally processes their images that will most often separate a quality image from a poor one. I have all too often seen examples of decent shots completely screwed up by the creator in the processing stage because they became over zealous with the slide rules in the program. These sliders can over saturate an image or create loss of detail in the shadows. These problems I just mentioned are only but a few examples of what can go wrong. A photographer should have a basic understanding of color theory and understand the elements of a photo such as shadows, mid-tones and highlights and the relationship between them. My background with graphic arts in college was a huge help in understanding what makes for a quality image but practice and trial and error were just as important as they still are today. I would recommend signing up for as many courses as you can afford on the topic of digital enhancement and practice comparing your work to that of the pros to see what the differences are.

The image on the right is clearly over saturated while the image
on the left is more true to life. (Stock)
     With todays high quality digital SLR cameras on the market today it is quite feasible to take great images without doing any sort of post production processing. Place the quality setting on the camera to JPEG and the software within the camera does the processing for you when you snap the shutter and most often with very accurate results. But, if it is the extreme high end of quality that you pursue then shooting in a uncompressed RAW format, which is the also called the 'digital negative', will be where you want to start out. RAW images by design usually lack color saturation, contrast and sharpness from the image. The uncompressed file format a RAW is will allow for much more latitude in Photoshop for the user to 'recreate' the image the way he or she saw it by adding color and contrast back in to the image. I myself shoot nothing but RAW files and edit nearly all of them while some have more editing than others depending on the image itself.
    My personal rule of thumb is to never use Photoshop as a crutch in taking photos. If you say to yourself after snapping a mediocre photo, "ah, who cares I can fix it in Photoshop", you are doing yourself an injustice. By not striving to take the best quality photo possible with the hardware that you possess you are not learning to become a superior photographer. Start out with the best image possible before you edit it. My other rule to shoot by is to be as honest with my images as I can. I never change the composition of an image to improve it by adding or subtracting objects from the photo ie cloning a Sand Tiger Shark and placing him on a coral reef in the Bahamas. That would be cheating not to mention stupid because many viewers will know that Sand Tigers do not exist in the Bahamas. Your reputation will begin to founder with sad attempts like these. Unfortunately, there are many people in all branches of photography that are completely dishonest with their images just so they can make a 'buck'. The public today is all too aware of these unscrupulous photographers in turn making disbelievers out of most people when they look at a superb photo. "Did you Photoshop that?", is the question you will understandably get when skeptics look at your photos.  Like it or not that is the way it is now in this modern digital world. Photoshop, for sure, is here to stay. You can embrace it or reject it. That's up to you and the quality of the finished product you desire.

Happy Diving!

Mike Gerken

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Mike Gerken



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