Thursday, 26 July 2007 00:00

Pushing the Coolidge

By Colin Warren

During August 1999, our intrepid little group of divers left Frog Dive in Sydney for the warmer climes of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu, (Santo as it is commonly known). Like so many before, we were bound for the best, most accessible shipwreck in the world, - the SS President Coolidge. However, this was not going to be an ordinary visit to the 'Coolidge'.

The genesis of this 'expedition' was some eighteen months before, during a visit to the 'Coolidge'. Dennis McHugh and I had entered the ship via Hold Number 2 and were exploring the 'A' and 'B' deck accommodation spaces, through which we arrived in the aft or 'Tourist' lobby. Time running short, we exited the ship and returned to the bow to start our decompression. During the 'coffee and buns' session back at Allan Power's house that afternoon, the question was asked of Allan "Had anyone ever entered the stern hold and made their way all the way to the bow inside the wreck?". Allan thought about this and replied that he didn't believe it had been done. He also said that he didn't believe that it was possible, as he did not believe there was a connection through the entire ship to do this. So there it was, the challenge was set. Shortly after this dive we had to leave Vanuatu and the 'Coolidge' but it wasn't long before we were planning our next foray back to Santo.

Part 1

For the next few months, much planning and dreaming went on, numerous - probably hundreds of ideas and routes we considered and rejected. There was nothing else for it. We just had to go back and have another look. As time passed and the 'team' was being assembled, it became obvious that everyone wanted the 'luxury' and safety of Nitrox decompression. This presented us with a small problem, how were we going to get the gas?

We contacted Allan Power and his team at "Allan Power Dive Tours" in Santo and briefly outlined our plans. I am sure he thought us to be quite stark raving mad, but told us he could get us the oxygen we needed, but that he had no way of mixing the Nitrox for us. "No problem!" I said, a plan already formulating. Allan had already indicated that he wanted to be able offer Nitrox to his customers, so I thought, "Why not put together some mixing gear, and train Allan's' staff while we are there?" Allan was agreeable, so the next phase of our little expedition was underway. As I was the only TDI (Technical Diving International) Instructor in the group, I was given the task of getting qualified as a Nitrox Blending Technician Instructor and as an Oxygen Equipment Service Technician Instructor. For this, I contacted Richard Taylor of TDI Australia & New Zealand. Although busy with preparations for the Oztek conference and his duties with TDI, Richard kindly found the time to provide the excellent and comprehensive training I required for these qualifications. Thankfully, mostly due to Richard's' training, I passed. During this time Dennis and Bob Taylor designed and assembled the mixing gear in the workshop at Frog Dive at Willoughby. Things were really starting to come together.

The SS President Coolidge sank on 26 October 1942 after hitting a 'friendly' mine in Segond Channel between Espiritu Santo and Aore Islands. She was carrying a huge amount of war materials and about 5000 officers, men and crew. The Skipper, Captain Henry Nelson had been given no indication that the approaches to Espiritu Santo were mined and so navigated his vessel through the largest entrance to Segond Channel, known as Scorff passage. This entrance was, unfortunately, mined. Upon impact Captain Nelson decided to beach the ship on the coral beach nearest him on Espiritu Santo. For us, this was a fortuitous decision. Due to Captain Nelson's quick actions, all but two of more than 5000 personnel were safely evacuated before the 'Coolidge' slipped back under the waters of Segond Channel. For anyone interested in a complete record of the history of the SS President Coolidge, may I recommend Peter Stone's book "The Lady and The President"?

By the time we had the necessary gear, plans and travel plans in order, we had assembled a very keen team of eight divers. Dennis McHugh (Team Leader), Colin Warren (Technical Instructor), Neil Starrett (Boat Wrangler), Dr Jeff Hughes (Medical Officer), Grant Reed (Dive Controller), Robert Wolff (Stills Photographer), Brian Tillotson (Support Diver), Ian Foo (Support Diver). We were joined in Vanuatu by one of Allan Powers' dive guides, Tim Gilder. A finer crew of wreck rats you are unlikely to find. The entire crew regularly dive together on the deep wrecks off Sydney. As a team, we are not afraid to plan a dive to within an inch of its life which, for what we were about to attempt, was a good thing. In addition, all but one of the team had made multiple visits to the 'Coolidge' before.

Our first few days in Santo were spent divided between dives to re-familiarise ourselves with the wreck and the tedious job of cleaning cylinders, valves and regulators for oxygen use. This also began the process of training the staff in Santo in the wonderful world of Nitrox.

Part 2

Our main priorities at this stage were acclimatising to the weather and the narcosis. The wreck lies on its port side, bow towards the shore. The bow is in about 21 metres, but the stern lies in around 70 metres. This was the area of the ship where we needed to do most of our work. We had to link a path from the stern holds to more familiar areas of the ship. We had planned a fairly gradual build up (down?) to these depths and this is exactly what we achieved. All was going well, the feeling in the group was good and the gear failures had been few and minor in nature, mostly camera and torch floods. It was then that our first seemingly major problem arose. After a simple and relatively shallow dive, one of the team surfaced with a sudden and excruciating pain in his upper arm. He was given oxygen and placed under observation. Jeff, the medical officer was not convinced than the problem was hyperbaric in nature. The pain subsided as suddenly as it appeared a couple of hours later during a manipulation of the arm. The diagnosis? A pinched nerve. The day after this scare we were successful in our quest to link up the stern holds to other known passages. To say that the team was buzzing would be a massive understatement. The serious planning and practice could now begin.

We decided that Dennis and I would be joined by Tim to push the length of the wreck. This was only natural, as Tim was the one who actually located the link between the holds. We traced each section and deck change, and decided who would lead through the various stages. We also planned our bail out, escape routes and emergency procedures. We ran through the "What if's". We all felt good. All was now set.

I awoke very early the next morning. I'd like to say it was the chorus of local dogs in their early morning 'song', but I must admit, it was mostly due to excitement. After a light breakfast next to the pool at the Hotel Santo, a final check and recheck of gear, then it was time to load the bus and trailer. Once at the dock, a flurry of activity took place, while gear was assembled and then loaded onto Allans brand new boat, 'The Lady'. Then came the relative quiet of the run to the dive site. During this trip, the push divers had our final briefing where the question was asked by Dennis, "Well, this is it, do we go?" Tim's' reply of "Too right!" pretty much summed up the feeling. Each of us then went and mentally rehearsed the dive, just once more, on our own. My own feelings were simply excited anticipation, coupled with a healthy dose of apprehension.

Once we were moored over the wreck, the other divers entered the water, intent on completing their dives and tasks, the Nitrox cylinders were positioned and the support divers were moving into position. We kitted up and did our checks. It was time to go. The boat was anchored above the end of the promenade deck. We left the stern of 'The Lady' and with a very slight current in our faces we headed down and towards the stern of the 'Coolidge'. Arriving at the opening we immediately entered the rear of the hold. The 'adventure' had begun. We followed our planned, although twisting and sometimes narrow route, to the letter. Then, as planned, some 25 minutes later, three VERY excited and happy divers exited from the chain locker at the bow. Upon our return to Allan's' place for some celebratory 'coffee and buns', Allan decided to name the new dive we had opened as "Frog Haul" as indeed it had been a long haul.

Due to the degree to which this dive had been planned, the result was almost an anti-climax. Every member of the team agrees that the seeming ease with which we accomplished this dive was not due to exceptional divers or special equipment, but due to extensive and thorough planning as well as reliable and tested equipment. We would all like to say that deep diving like this is not for everyone. The problems to be dealt with are many but can be overcome. Keep in mind that at the greatest depth of this dive you have well and truly passed the safe working depth for air, and CO2 buildup can become a potential problem, not to mention the inherent risks of decompression diving. Allan Power Dive Tours now offer Nitrox for decompression to suitably qualified divers. Couple this with 'The Lady', Allan's new purpose built dive boat, and the vast experience of Allan himself, why would you dive anywhere else?

As with all trips of this nature there are so many people to thank, the whole team would like to heartily thank Allan Power and his team of instructors and divemasters, - Tony Lewis, Tim Gilder, Alfred Nikko, Gary "Glitter" and Glenn Everingham at Allan Power Dive Tours in Santo. We would also like to thank Bob Taylor from Frog Dive Scuba Centres in Sydney, Richard Taylor of TDI Australia and New Zealand, Mary-Jane, Joyce and the staff of the Hotel Santo.

We would like to extend a special thank you to Captain Henry Nelson who had the forethought to beach his stricken vessel at a location where divers could visit it. We would also like to thank the officers and crews from the USS Gamble, USS Tracy and USS Breese for laying the cordon of mines which the SS President Coolidge was destined to hit. Finally we would like to thank Mr Burton Jaquith, the titled owner of the SS President Coolidge, for not preventing divers from using his property.

In the years since this article was written diving Frog Haul on the Coolidge has become one of the sought after dives. After a visit to the Coolidge in late 2006 I was reminded of this article and decided to dust it off and present it here - Colin Warren. Photo credits to: Robert Wolff, Dennis McHugh, Brian Tilotson and Colin Warren.