Sunday, 17 June 2001 00:00

In search of the "SS Dorrigo" - Part 2

By Trevor Jackson - Esperance Star

A few weeks after our return and our excitement was still running high. We had decided to get the divers who had participated on the first expedition together for an informal meeting to discuss what each of us had seen on the wreck. We thought that collectively we might be able to collate a big picture from our individual small ones. We came up with the idea that each of us should draw a map of where we had been, then hopefully they could be put together to tell us some things we didn't know, like the wreck's dimensions, its general layout and condition. The viz had been so bad that by the time Carl and his buddy Bob Croasdale had reached the site, they couldn't see two feet and Max and I had been separated for most of our dive. It would be a good way to discover each diver's perspective while on the wreck.

Part 1

It should probably be pointed out here that in the weeks between our discovery and the meeting, some interesting research had been undertaken. We had two possible identities for the wreck [USS Dolphin sunk July 1943 or USS Rotaki sunk the same year] plus the theory that it was just one of 4 boats that had been chained together, towed out to sea and scuttled at the end of the war. As part of the initial research into the wreck, I had heard this theory bandied around quite a bit, but there seemed to be just as many theories against it. It was, however, about to become our most likely outcome.

Max was sitting in my office penciling a map of what he had seen and it soon became apparent that he had in fact circumnavigated the whole wreck that the anchor chain from the Esperance Star had been lying across but he described only flattened plates all round. He had been to all the extremities, stern and bow, and made no mention of the "high" structure I had seen through the gloom to the left of the chain on our initial descent, in fact he had not seen that structure during the descent at all. The map Max had drawn was of one wreck, complete, front to back. What I had seen was something else, either something that had broken away, or another wreck entirely. The likelihood that two wrecks were sunk at the same spot was remote, unless they were somehow tethered together. Sometimes trawlers are sunk in close proximity to other wrecks because their nets become entangled. If I had in fact seen a separate wreck on the descent, it would appear that the scuttling theory might not just be a wives tale, either that or another vessel sunk nearby after snagging the first wreck.

The chance snagging, and sinking, of another vessel reminded me of meeting with an old trawler buddy of mine, Marty Thompson after our first expedition to the new wreck. Marty had dropped down to the jetty for a chat and we went on to discuss the sinking of his boat the "Sharon K", and how he managed to survive its capsizing.

Marty's story goes something like this: "It was a rough night, I remember feeling her going over. We'd hooked up on something and she just rolled. The current was so strong that it flipped us in seconds. I managed to grab the radio and yell, 'We're going over!' then darkness and water and diesel fuel engulfed the wheelhouse. I searched around for an air pocket and tried not to panic. The lip between the floor and the door rise was what saved me. There was a corner of air trapped there and for a few seconds I could catch my breath and get my bearings. It was pitch black. I felt around and my hand felt a tea towel rack on the wall of the cabin. It had been loose and had a rattle to it that had annoyed me for weeks, but I could feel it moving in my hand and it was that rack that led me to the surface. It was my reference point. I knew it was by a window on the port side of the wheelhouse, when we had rolled I was 15 feet away at the starboard door and until grabbing that rail I was a goner. I reached up above the rail and slid the window open and dashed out to the surface with my stomach pumping for breath."

Marty had survived! He continued "When I broke the surface, the fumes were choking and I couldn't open my eyes because they were stinging so much from the fuel on the water surface. I scrambled up onto the upturned hull and called out for my decky, Peter. He yelled back and I crawled over the top of the hull to find him still in the water, unable to climb up. Each wave swept over his head, I yelled at him to get up but he couldn't, something was holding him down, he was hooked onto something and was quickly losing the battle. I slid down into the water and reached down to feel what was holding him down. It was a piece of metal. I don't know what it was from. It was attached to the rigging and had gone through the top of his thigh, I grabbed Pete's leg and give it a pull. The metal ripped out and blood started to pour from the wound."

We climbed up to the top of the Hull and tried to figure out what to do. I didn't know if any other boat had heard me on the radio and with each wave passing, air was hissing out of the boat and she would sit lower and lower in the water. After about 15 minutes the boat rolled to an odd angle and the inflatable life raft popped up to the surface, still in its casing. We could hear other boats in the distance but we had no light to signal with. I had to swim out to get the raft as it had broken loose and was floating away in the current. The oil on the water made me puke and I couldn't open my eyes but I managed to swim the raft back. It was still in its casing and we were concerned that if we pulled the detonator to inflate it the wind might get it and we'd be buggered. Soon though, the boat was nearly gone so we inflated the raft. My mates on a nearby boat saw the flashing light on the raft's roof and came and got us."

Marty's story was gripping. The darkness, the fuel, the oil, the fear. It gave me some insight into what the sailors on the ships we were now diving might have gone through in their final moments. The 22 crew of the Dorrigo had not survived its loss, and if we were to find the ship, we would no doubt find the remains of some of them inside a rusty tomb.

It also seemed that our American wreck was not completely unknown to the rest of the world. Marty Thompson also knew some local history in the area. We got onto the subject of the scuttling and dumping of excess WW2 munitions and equipment. A couple of years ago Marty had trawled up the remains of an F4-U Corsair fighter plane and dragged it in to the beach at Mooloolaba where he promptly sold it to an interested party for $14,000, where it stood. He had come down to discuss the possibility of a joint venture to retrieve several other planes he had located with his side scan sonar. I showed Marty some of the artifacts we had collected from the American wreck, then showed him the approximate position on the chart, without prompting or any prior hints Marty proclaimed, "Oh that's the Army Boat!!" "So you know it?" I exclaimed. "Yeah I hooked up on it a few years back, ended up pulling up a crate of Machine Guns for my trouble."

This only added to the confusing aspects of the true identity of the wreck and still didn't explain the additional debris that I had seen during the descent.

Part 2

Eventually, after what seemed like months [actually only 4 weeks] we were able to make plans to steam back up to the site to have another look at the American wreck. Carl had been busy restoring the brass lights we had found and had installed them on the Esperance Star so that added to the interest during the trip out. Once there we would check out some new marks on the Dorrigo, and more importantly [I thought] check out some of the older ones a little more thoroughly. It's always a danger when you've got too much information on a site that you jump from possibility to possibility without giving any one of them a fair enough go. I was determined this time to exhaust a search area before I moved on to the next ensuring there would be no lingering doubts in the back of the mind that we had missed something. On the night of June 12 2001, we slipped quietly out of Newport Marina, took a right turn at the bottom of Bribie Island and set the pilot on due north.

On the way up, the troops were restless. We sat around the dining room table wondering whether to start off at the American wreck or to try a few new marks we had for the Dorrigo. Our arrival on site however was pre-dawn and as we idled around above the wreck it occurred to me that instead of waiting for the light here we should head up the track a few thousand metres and have a look at another spot that had seemed promising last time. It paid off almost immediately as a great big block of alien matter jumped up in red on the sounder screen. It was time to get "little Deano", our live feed underwater camera, out of his hide-hole. Pretty soon it was mayhem on the front deck. As we'd hit the spot I started yelling to get the divers up to check it out. Carl came barrelling downstairs in a stupor, "Gees I've only been in bed for an hour." "Stop ya whinging, and fire up Deano!" I said in a most diplomatic tone. Five minutes later Carl dropped Deano over and we watched on the bridge monitor as he rocketed down to the sea floor. We'd drifted down wind a bit so I put the boat in gear and putted back, as the slack took up on Deano's cable he swung around to the direction we were moving and started to "sniff', bit to the left, bit to the right, straight ahead, there! THERE!!!!!. A great big ROCK!! We searched a few other marks while the sun got high. Deano did his job well saving us a stack of unnecessary 60m sand dives but we exhausted every mark and had no result. Oh well back down the track we go!

Dropping an anchor onto a deep wreck can be hard. I'm not saying you need to be a Rhodes Scholar but there is a little bit of an art to getting it right and our first attempt was no Mona Lisa. We missed and dragged through the talcum powder sand for a couple of hundred yards. The wind was fairly stiff from the northwest and by the time we'd retrieved 120 metres of chain we were in No Mans Land. Second go was more like it. The familiar sound of chain on metal was a reassuring sound for 'mouthpiece Max' and I, so we put our gear together and after a small delay or three we jumped in and headed down.

Diving on this wreck can be a bit hairy, the viz on the surface was about 30 metres but as we neared the bottom it was fairly apparent we would experience the same problem as last time, crap bottom viz of about 5 to 8. I say it was a bit hairy because out of all directions fires all manners of sea creatures on the hunt for potential food. It can come as quite a fright to spin around to see a 300-pound Estuary Cod 18 inches away looking you up and down and trying to decide if he can take you. The fish on this wreck have no fear whatsoever as you literally have to push them away to get a decent look at things. In fact there are parts of the engine that I just gave up on as they were just too thick. At one point a couple of bottlenose dolphins shot in unannounced out of the gloom. I had to have a double take at them to make sure they weren't the unfriendly versions of things that shoot in unannounced out of the gloom but after a few minutes we settled in to the scene and began to go about our business.

The plan for this dive was twofold. Max would attempt to get some good footage of the whole wreck so that we could get a decent look at her topside in the 'narcosis free zone', while I would try to locate some artifacts that might help us identify who she was. Scattered about either side of the wreck's engine amongst the timbers were all manner of things. A brass bilge pump, a fork with the letters 'USN' stamped on its handle, into the bag with you! Some more crockery and a few brass portholes just for good measure. The drive shaft on the wreck ran for about 25 metres to the east from the engine and I swam out there to inspect the propeller and rudder before heading back over to the anchor chain for a slow ascent. We had done 17 minutes on the bottom and at the 45th minute the 'mouthpiece' and I hit the surface at exactly the same time. Naturally his gob was in gear first. "See I told you it was a diesel engine''. "Yes Max", I conceded. Max again, "Did you see the aircraft engines? Did you see the truck?" "No Max, and I'll tell you what else I didn't see, I didn't see the rudder. It's not there, it's gone." At the end of the shaft where the prop was there should have been a rudder and a steering quadrant above and behind and they weren't there. My guess was that they were in "Dennis the Menaces" back yard. That this was the wreck he had caught all those years ago.

On the surface Carl was setting up the video so we could watch what Max had shot and we soon saw the engines and truck that he had spoken about. We still had the mystery of that 'dark shape to the left' to solve, was it another wreck in a series, or was it another half of the same one. After a three-hour interval, the 'mouthpiece' and I were ready to find out! This time Max would concentrate a search around the main part of the site and I was to zoom on out into "Scaryville" using a reel and compass to find my way in the gloom. Its probably worth mentioning here why I keep referring to the wreck as a place that gave me more than a few reservations in the bollocks department. You see this part of the coast is well known amongst pro-fishermen as downtown tiger shark city! We'd already seen one on the surface that morning and I had personal experience with one or two of them and I knew they loved to stalk about in gloomy water waiting for some slow moving mug and a solo diver in 65m might be just what the doctor ordered. Anyway bugger the sharks; we had some facts to find!

I tied off my reel at the far eastern end of the wreck and cruised on out. In the murk I began to see a monolith rise up in front. "It's not another wreck", was the first thought that came to mind, "Nor is it a structural part of this one", as the focus came I saw cargo, boxes or crates or something and they weren't small either, about 3m by 3m, stacked up on top of each other. They seemed to be of a reasonably uniform size and well sealed all round, but a quick look of the bottom timer told me it was time to run the gauntlet back along the reel line without further ado or investigation. It was about a 40-metre swim back to the wreck and further 30 or so metres beyond that to the point where the anchor chain started to rise. On the way a few thoughts crossed my mind, (in no apparent order) they went something like: aircraft engines?, sealed metal crates?, Marty Thompson?, F4-U?, $14,000?, ''USN'' on fork?, bullets? , guns?, and 30 minutes of deco to mull it over.

On the surface the weather had improved considerably and it was time to head for Brissy and time to think about what we'd achieved and what we hadn't achieved. I think we more or less disproved the 'four boat theory'. We'd spent a bit of time between dives on the other marks and came up with absolutely ziltch.

When we got back to Brisbane the next day I rang Dennis in Bowen and asked him about it. After a half an hour discussing lengths, depths, distances and the height of his radar above the water compared to mine, we both agreed that this must have been the same wreck. One mystery solved I guess but back to square one on the ''Dorrigo'' front. The search for the 'Dorrigo" would continue, as would our attempts to identify of the American wreck, but for now it was time for a rethink. We would try some other angles, do some more research and perhaps, just maybe, we had better find out the going rate on a crated up P-51. Whoops, I may have said too much there, and I thought Max had a big mouth.