The Algol

June 9, 2001

The Algol is a very popular wreck dive off the New Jersey coast. It's a somewhat serious recreational dive since the wreck sits in 130 ft of water and the main deck is at just over 100ft. It's also a very large wreck - the largest in NJ waters.†

This is an example of a dive that didn't go quite according to plan.

We went out on the dive boat Diversion II to the Algol through The Scuba Connection dive shop. I was diving with my friend Jim, who I met on my Advanced Open Water course.

The captain hooked the anchor into the winch house on the Algol at depth of about 80 ft. The winch house is a tower like structure that sits forward of the main pilot house on the Algol.† I think there's another winch house towards the stern. There was a thick surface layer of green schmutz (probably plankton) which cleared up a bit on the wreck. I'd estimate the viz was about 20 ft, but it was pretty dark.

Jim and I descended to the deck at around 108 ft. We planned to stay in the vicinity of the anchor line until time ran low and then come up the winch house to the anchor line and ascend a following it.

I don't remember very much about the wreck. The deck area was pretty featureless with a few hatch openings. I peered down into one and it was black. Definitely no place I'd want to ventuure into. We cruised a bit around the deck which had a lot of mussels pretty much everywhere you looked. After what seemed like an incredibly short time, Jim signaled to me that he only had 2 minutes of no-decompression limit¬† time left. My computer still showed 6 mins. We began ascending along the nearest structure off the deck getting to the top of it at 79 ft. For some reason, I assumed this had to be the winch house where the anchor was hooked. Jim's computer now† gave him 3 or 4 minutes since we had come up to a shallower depth. We looked around for the anchor, but it wasn't there ('cause we were in the wrong place). When Jim flashed me the 2 minute sign again, I immediately began deploying my lift bag.†

The New Jersey custom for wreck diving is for the boat to anchor into the wreck and to to remain fixed there as long as there are divers in the water. Divers are supposed to go down and come up the anchor line. A "blue water" ascent is generally frowned upon because you may come up some distance from the dive boat and swimming back to the boat can be difficult especially if there's a current running.† The captain is not going to come and get you as long as there are other divers in water. Navigating your way back to the anchor line is one of the real challenges of NJ wreck diving given the often low visibility and confusing layout of some wrecks. In the case that one can't get back to the anchor or the anchor has pulled from the wreck, NJ divers typically carry an inflatable lift bag and a reel of line ( a wreck reel or a "NJ upline"). The idea is to attach the bag to the line and let it ascend to the surface. The line is tied into to the wreck and the divers ascend the line. You may come up some distance from the dive boat, but you won't be adrift.

This is what I did:

I had attached the bag to my wreck reel and ran the line under a railing on the wreck and brought the line up and back around itself to act as a brake (which is how I was taught to do it) and let the bag up nice and slowly. Jim began ascending with the bag. Once the bag stopped rising, I undid the "brake", but left the line running under the railing. I ascended slowly, letting more line out as I rose. In theory this lets you recover the line once you reach the surface, but many divers prefer to tie the line off to the wreck and either leave the line or recover it later.

I was relieved to meet Jim at 20 ft, where I did my safety stop while he headed up to the surface. I surfaced a few minutes later and found myself maybe 30 ft away from the bag and still holding the wreck reel. I was about.† 100 ft from the boat. There was no sign of Jim at the surface.

Here's where things got a little more complicated. Normally I would have swam over to the bag, disconnected the reel from it and then reeled in the slack. However, I didn't want to leave my self drifting because I didn't know how much of a current was running.

Meanwhile, I couldn't hear what they were yelling from the boat, so I pulled down my mask and hood (which turned out to be a mistake). I began back swimming to the boat letting out more line from the reel as I went. The combination of having to swim on my back (because I didn't have my mask on) and let line out as I went made it slow going. Brian, one of the mates from the boat, jumped in with a line from the boat to "rescue" me. I was relieved when he told me that Jim was already back on the boat. I grabbed the line from the boat,  but it slipped from my hand. Brian swam over to the lift bag and grabbed it, while I continued trying to swim over to the boat. Eventually Brian got behind me and helped tow me into the boat. I flopped down on the bench tired and a little strung out.

In hindsight, we screwed up in several ways. The biggest one was that we didn't carefully plan the dive: where we would go, and when we would turn back in terms of time and air left. Jim had set his Suunto Cobra computer for a more conservative setting, so he quickly ran out of no decompression† time on the computer. I didn't know about this, but we should have gone over this as part of our pre-dive planning. I also think I was suffering a bit from the good old nitrogen narcosis (this was my first time to this depth). Instead of retaining a clear idea of where the anchor line was at all times, I contented myself with thinking that I could just rise up the superstructure on the ship and find the anchor line. It turns out we came up on the pilot house and not the winch tower.

On the other hand I think there were some things we did right. Once we got to the point where we had to head up, I didn't hesitate and shooting the bag only took a few minutes (glad I practiced it the week before). Jim and I surfaced within our NDL limits with air to spare and so were well within safe limits.

I think I learned my lesson about maintaining a sense of orientation on the wreck, but it's nice to know that these emergency techniques work when you need them

I almost bagged doing a second dive, but decided it was better to get myself in the water again. This time I used the wreck reel to navigate the wreck and we turned the dive as soon as Jim got down to half his no decompression limit time

We contented ourselves with a short excursion scooping up dozens of mussels on the Algol deck, which were dee-licious. I can't wait to go back for more.

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Copyright 2002 Carl Muhlhausen