Cheating Davy Jones of Three Hundred Ships (Feb, 1930)

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Cheating Davy Jones of Three Hundred Ships


Captain Whitelaw, dean of salvors, wrested nearly 300 ships worth $50, 000,000 from savage seas. He here tells of many ingenious means of raising ships and the dangers encountered.

MORE than sixty years ago, a boy of twenty, sitting on the rim of a dry-dock in San Francisco Bay, saw a small vessel rammed and sunk only a few hundred yards away. He had been working about a year as a carpenter on the drydock, putting on patches, stopping leaks, doing rough work with hammer and nails and saw. It was his first job, taken when he landed, a tenderfoot from New England, inside the Golden Gate. He knew nothing of the top of the sea, far from its bottom, but when the one diver in San Francisco died trying to save the sunken schooner, he rented his diving suit, went down and stayed down four hours on his first trial, patched the broken hull so that it could be towed into the drydock, and received $200 for the job. A professional diver would have received $1000.

There was made the greatest ship-salvor of them all. Combining his knowledge of carpentry with a speedily acquired skill in diving, the then “Tommy” Whitelaw began a career, not yet ended, in which he has rescued more vessels from the sea than any other man, living or dead. He is today Captain T. P. H. Whitelaw, still in San Francisco, known from Point Barrow to Sydney and from Seattle to Shanghai, up and down and across the Pacific, as the record “lifter” of sunken and stranded ships.

Under his magic hands, 290 hulls have been saved from destruction. Entering on his eighty-fourth year, he plans to “make it an even three hundred.” He has returned more than $50,000,000 worth of property from the sea to its owners, and vessels he salvaged half a century ago still are moving up and down the trade-lanes of the seven oceans. His long, black, cutaway coat and his huge “iron hat”—he buys them by the dozen—are as well known on the Embarcadero or on California street, in San Francisco, as they are on his own tugs and barges. He never has regarded a wrecked ship as a “loss” unless she went down in water so deep that his divers could not reach her, and in his sixty-three years of beating the hungry sea, he has failed to return to their owners only three vessels of all those he has attempted to save.

“The problem of all ship salvors, and, strangely enough, the underlying principle of the saving of all vessels, is to make the wrecked hull float itself,” said the captain. “Wrecking tugs and barges cannot get sufficient ‘purchase’ on sand or rocks, or surface of the sea to lift several thousand tons of water-filled hulk. It is, therefore, necessary that the ship salvor do the same thing the ship builder did, i. e., create an artificial buoyancy within the hull sufficient to make the vessel lighter than the water whose space she occupies. His task is ten thousand times more difficult than that of the ship designer or builder. In each wreck, the salvager meets a different problem. I never have seen two wrecks exactly alike, and the salvager must be able to devise, quickly and surely, new methods for each condition, remembering that he may succeed only by making the hull lighter than water.

“They told me I could not save the oil tanker, ‘Rosecrans’, which went on a reef off the Oregon coast, with loss of twenty-five men, but I did save her, and with peculiar methods which would not have salvaged any other ship unless it had been in exactly a similar position. Waves rolled continuously over her topmast, one hundred and forty feet up from her keel, so that at times we could not see her at all from the barges which we brought up for the rescue.

“About ten feet of solid stone pinnacle, about ten feet wide at the base, projected into the tanker’s hull, holding it firmly on the reef, yet giving the heavy seas just the resistance they needed to batter the ship to bits in a very short time. The situation was full of danger for the ‘Rosecrans’ and of peril for the salvors. The stone spike could be reached only from the inside of the hull, but the opening into the particular tank in which the reef projected was too small to admit a fully-uniformed diver.

“The only way to move or save the tanker was to remove this rock. After long study, during which I .walked over every foot of the sea-drenched deck, with a lifeline tied about my waist, I put a small amount of dynamite under one of the deck plates, directly over the rock. This plate was lifted enough by the explosion to enable four of my men to take out the bolts, and, working between waves, slip the plate to one side.

“Then the diver went down through this hole, sawed his way through the iron wall of another tank (really a bulkhead), and then he finally reached the big stone needle. For four days, he worked, with drill and hammer, driving seven small holes into this rock. In these he inserted small charges of dynamite, one-quarter of a stick to each hole. Wires were carried to a control box on my wrecking steamer, and when I pressed the switch, the pinnacle was blown up, gently and with only a muffled report, inside the hull. The ship was not damaged by the blast, but the rock was so shredded that it could be removed with pick and shovel, and placed at one side within the ship. I venture this is the first, possibly the only, time in which a stone obstacle to navigation was removed from the inside of a vessel.

“The top of the base of the pinnacle was then leveled off even with the bottom of the hull, and steel plates shaped to fit and bolted into place. Finally, we got her in tow, and took her to a dry-dock. Thus, with dynamite, cement, steel and pumps, a $250,000 ship was saved for many years’ more work on the sea.”

The element of personal danger never is absent from the world of the ship salvor. On one occasion, when Captain Whitelaw was supervising the raising of a small vessel, sunk in Puget sound, the diver called for an extra line. This was passed down, retained a few moments by the undersea worker, and the signal given to haul up. When the line was pulled in the dead body of a man was attached to it. On a second signal, the diver came up, towing another short line, to which was fastened the body of an octopus with 12-foot tentacles. The diver’s story was that he had encountered the devil-fish, standing on its tentacles, over the body of the man. With his long, sharp, narrow-bladed spade, he had attacked the octopus, which stood on three tentacles and fought him with the others. He finally succeeded in chopping these off, one by one, with the exception of a single ‘arm’, which gripped him about the middle.

Drawing his shark-knife, the diver at last severed this tentacle, though the piece, about five feet long, wrapped round his waist, had to be pulled off after he had been hauled onto the ship. Meanwhile, the devil-fish refused to leave its prey, and it was not until the diver, one Gluberson, had chopped into its body that he was able to attach the line to the dead man, who, by the way, never was identified.

As may be imagined from these incidents, the diver in this work is a highly-specialized workman, as well as an independent technician, who frequently is confronted with under-water problems which he must solve, instantly, without reference to higher authority. He is paid from $25 to $50 a day, rarely works more than four hours, unless it is imperative that a particular piece of work be completed at once, when he may remain below six hours. And the supply of men competent to do this diving is always far below the demand. Such men not only are the highest trained of all divers, and the most capable, but they also must be able to handle explosives; cut, fit and place steel plates after they have burned holes in hulls; mix and place cement under water; and do all manner of heavy carpenter work at all depths to 100 feet. They also must be familiar with the principles of ship-building, have at least elementary knowledge of hydrostatics, and be able to estimate quickly and accurately the strength of bulkheads, plates and supports necessary to withstand water and air pressure.

“I recall vividly the most thrilling salvage job of my 63 years of work on top of and beneath the sea,” Captain Whitelaw said, “and it was not out in the ocean, but on San Francisco Bay. The full-rigged ship ‘Blairmore’, British by registry, suddenly turned over and sank, while lying alongside the dock. For some time, the cause of her disaster was a mystery, but it afterward developed that the stevedores, in removing her cargo, failed to substitute ballast in the lower holds. Her topheavy masts, beaten by a sudden wind, coupled with an unusually strong tidal current, tipped her over as neatly as if she had been picked up and dropped, masts down, into the water.

“When I was called in, ‘Blairmore’s’ deck was completely under, and only a small section of her keel, amidships, was visible, rising like the back of a huge whale, from the surface of the bay. This situation presented still another problem in salvaging, and one which had to be solved immediately, both to save her owners from heavy ex- pense, and to get the ship out of the way of other vessels wishing to use the same pier. The vessel had to be righted before she could be pumped out; because, if we pumped her out, the air, rising inside her, would keep her floating, keel uppermost, in spite of anything we might do to right her.

“I took two hours out to study the situation. The result was that we built, on the exposed part of the hull, a little to one side of the line of the keel, a platform, running lengthwise of the ship, and extending out about 40 feet, at an angle of 45 degrees. This, as you doubtless have seen, formed a long and powerful lever, with the water on the same side of the ship as a fulcrum. If we could apply enough ‘power’ — that is to say, weight— to the outer end of this lever, we could turn the ship over. So, at the outer end of the platform, we built four, large, water-tight, wooden tanks. Divers then attached strong lines to the three masts on ‘Blairmore’, well down toward their ends, near the bed of the bay, and carried them to three tugs, on the side opposite our ‘lever’.

“We then pumped water into the tanks, and as we bumped, the tugs pulled on these lines. Slowly the ship turned, on her longer axis, as if rolling in a trough, or on bearings, until the tanks on the end of the platform-lever were touching the surface of the bay, and the ship rested on her side, instead of on her masts. Then the tugs moved up closer, held her by her masts, while we emptied the tanks and moved the platform further up the hull, toward the deck. By pumping water into the tanks again, we lifted her until she was half-way righted. Then we pumped some of the water out of her hold, leaving merely enough to give her ballast to counterbalance her lofty masts, and she slowly came up to an even keel. Thereafter she was towed to shallower water, re-ballasted with stone, her masts repaired, and she was towed to the dock again, where her outbound cargo was stowed, and she went on her way. So far as I know, she still is in service, though she may have been lost, or left the seas before the economic pressure of steam-driven vessels.”

But there are times when the best efforts of the most skilled ship salvors go for naught. The mighty hand of Neptune reaches into the midst of the most carefully prepared plans and seizes the vessel even while the salvage gangs are at work. There was the big ship, “Drumbarton”, wrecked on Point Pedro, on the California coast. Captain Whitelaw’s fleet of tugs and barges, and his small army of divers and salvagers gathered around her. There was nothing particularly difficult about the job in hand, since the ship was hard and fast on a point of rock, which was firmly wedged into her hull. It was a matter of breaking out the rock, patching the hole, pumping out some of the water, and towing the vessel to dry dock. Suddenly and with no previous groans or cracklings, there came a thunderous crash and the hull split across and lengthwise, the parts falling into the sea.

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