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Deep Descent: Adventure and Death Diving the Andrea Doria [Paperback]

Kevin F. McMurray
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (66 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

McMurray's is an earnest journal of deep-sea wreck diving, mostly over the Italian passenger liner Andrea Doria, which sank in a collision off Cape Cod in 1956. The Doria still draws extreme scuba divers 235 feet down to "the Everest of scuba," where, over the last 20 years, 12 divers have met their deaths. After a Night to Remember-style introduction to the ship's history, the author turns his talents as a journalist and diver (he has reached and explored the Doria hulk several times) to question why inverse mountaineers still come back to the wreck. McMurray renders a shared obsession, mostly through fuzzy sketches of expeditions to the wreck in the 1980s and '90s, and follows a dozen divers down to the Doria. Yet his descriptions are uninspiring; even the accounts of fatal dives are flat (despite a multiple-photo series of a body being hauled to the dive boat). His we-band-of-brother-divers tone can't substitute for description or character; indeed, it proves an obstacle to thoughtful storytelling. McMurray the scuba diver never quite admits to McMurray the journalist-observer that divers visit the Andrea Doria because of not in spite of the risks. 75 b&w photos. (June) Forecast: Despite the current public fascination with dangerous sport, this book won't appeal to the uninitiated. McMurray could become a sort of Sebastian Junger-esque celebrity he holds a world record for swimming around the island of Manhattan except that his book can't compare with The Perfect Storm. It is for fellow scuba samurai only.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

In 1956, on her maiden voyage to New York, traveling at 21 knots in thick fog, the passenger liner Andrea Doria collided with the Swedish steamship Stockholm and sunk 160 miles off the coast of New York. McMurray, a skilled diver and adventure journalist who has written for Outside, Yankee, Men's Journal, Rock & Ice, and the New York Times, chronicles the underwater exploration of the wreck site by amateur divers in search of souvenirs. Because the Andrea Doria lies at a depth of 235', divers visiting the wreck exceed the maximum safe depth of 130' recommended for scuba diving and must use special dry suits and exotic breathing gear to avoid the "bends" when resurfacing. Two dive boats, the Wahoo and the Seeker, specialize in charter expeditions to the site, and though they are skippered by experienced and responsible crews with the latest equipment, there have been 12 deaths associated with the wreck. McMurray describes his own underwater experiences visiting the wreck and interviews crew and dive buddies so that he can vividly re-create each fatality. The result is a good history of noncommercial deep diving and a solid account of the sinking of the Andrea Doria. Exciting and powerful, this account is highly recommended for public libraries. John Kenny, San Francisco P.L.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Clive Cussler A compelling masterwork of the greatest shipwreck killer in maritime history. McMurray involves you in the life-and-death drama as if you are actually diving in the depths.

Library Journal Exciting and powerful.

The Philadelphia Inquirer This is a book you will have a hard time putting down. Page after page leads you through adventure, mystery, suspense, and acts of heroism.

Kirkus Reviews McMurray knows his stuff...Compelling...Full of high drama in low places.

About the Author

Kevin F. McMurray is an award-winning journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, New York magazine, Outside, Yankee, Men's Journal, The Sunday Times (London), Rock and Ice, Cigar Aficionado, and other publications. An avid outdoor adventurer, McMurray is an expert scuba diver and former world record holder for swimming around Manhattan. He lives in Brewster, New York, with his wife and two daughters.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


It is not death, but dying, which is terrible.

Henry Fielding

Wearing close to two-hundred pounds of scuba gear, Gary Gilligan was anxious to make his ungainly entry into the rolling seas of the Atlantic. The neoprene dry suit and his heavy undergarments had him sweating bullets under the hot July-afternoon sun. Prior to his giant step outward and down from the deck of the dive boat RV Wahoo, Gary glanced around and surveyed his surroundings with only the narrow range of vision that his dive mask afforded him.

Land had long since disappeared over the horizon, and no other vessel was in sight. The glare of the sun reflecting off the glassy seas made him wince behind his faceplate. He of course was aware of the activity around him. Getting into the water is always a major hassle for deep divers, and attendance by crew members and fellow divers prior to entry is a necessity, not a luxury. Still, it was tough for Gary Gilligan to be patient, overburdened as he was with gear, not to mention with anxiety. Gary had to remind himself to be cool: getting all bent out of shape before entering the water was a bad idea, he knew. It had a way of biting you back in the ass.

Gary tried to maintain his balance, but he felt encumbered with all the hardware, encased from head to toe in the suffocating dry suit. It was not easy what with the three-foot swells gently lifting up the fifty-five-foot fiberglass boat, only to drop it back down into the following trough, making the deck of the vessel an unstable platform. The cerulean skies high overhead, Gary noticed, still had contrails vectoring eastward to Europe, left behind by the streaking Concorde whose sonic booms had rocked the boat just minutes earlier.

Then the dorsal and caudal fins of the circling blue sharks and their ominous forms beneath suddenly disappeared. They had descended into the depths, Gary thought, knowing full well that he would catch glimpses of their skittish shadows on his long swim to the bottom. Steadying himself on the gunwale, he was relishing the thought of immersion in the cold, blue-green waters of the Atlantic. Finally he would be on his way down the distance of a seventeen-floor skyscraper to the wreck of the Andrea Doria.

Gary checked to see if his buddy Sally Wahrmann was ready. They gave each other the thumb-to-forefinger salute indicating that everything was okay. Gary pressed his mask tight to his face, snugged his double tanks to his back, and entered the ocean.

With only twenty-five minutes allotted for bottom time, Gary and Sally quickly emptied their bloated dry suits of air and kicked hard for the bow anchor line that led down to the sunken luxury liner. Gary was surprised to see three divers lingering on a line running from the anchor line aft at the fifty-foot mark.

Kicking down past them, Gary gave a quick glance back up. He could see the three men were having difficulties. Just a mere hour ago the three had rigged the two long sets of hoses and breathing regulators that were hooked to a tank of pure oxygen aboard the Wahoo and had secured them to a weighted line amidships at the desired depth of twenty feet. Gary could now see that one of those divers, twenty-seven-year-old John Ormsby, one of the charterers of the trip, had gotten hung up in the traverse line. Another diver, Billy Deans, had come to his aid to untangle him. Gary could see they were handling the situation and continued his descent.

In deep diving it was a radically new practice to use supplemental oxygen in water. Breathing pure oxygen after a dive was always known to be beneficial, but using it underwater had only recently been advocated, by Billy Deans of Key West, Florida. Deans knew it was a quick way to expunge the nitrogen gas that had been absorbed by the blood and soft tissues under the crushing load of the ocean. The tiny nitrogen bubbles released by the rapid reduction of pressure, if not compensated for by a slow ascent and a supply of oxygen, could spread through the body, crippling or even killing the diver. Divers called it getting "bent," but the medical community referred to it as decompression sickness.

Sally Wahrmann never saw the unfolding drama above her. She was focused on the dark abyss beneath her. Only later would she hear the story and think about how it was a tragic foreshadowing of what was to happen just minutes later, more than two-hundred feet beneath the surface deep within the holds of the sunken steel sarcophagus of the Andrea Doria.

No one would ever guess that Sally Wahrmann was a pioneer in the world of deep diving. At thirty-nine, Sally looked more like the accounting professor she actually was in the professional world. Only five foot five and edging precipitously toward two hundred pounds, Sally was one of the most accomplished scuba divers -- male or female -- in the rarefied world of deep-wreck diving. She had logged over sixty dives alone on the Doria.

On July 31, 1985, Sally was again on the Wahoo. She was more excited than usual as several Florida diving luminaries were also aboard.

Spencer Slate from Key Largo had chartered the Wahoo. Slate owned the Atlantis Diver Center in Key Largo, which was a popular tourist destination for divers in the Florida Keys. It had always been a dream of Slate's to dive the Andrea Doria, so he had put the group together to charter the Wahoo. Billy Deans owned Key West Diver, a dive shop and training business. Deans was a trailblazer in deep diving, and his exploits in Florida-water shipwrecks were the stuff of legend. Neal Watson, the owner of Undersea Adventures, which consisted of diving resorts in Florida and the Caribbean, also had the record at the time for the deepest dive on scuba at 437 feet. John Ormsby, Deans's best friend, dive buddy, and instructor at his shop, had the record for free diving, or skin diving, down to 170 feet on just one breath. Rick Frehsee was an internationally acclaimed underwater photographer, whose work had appeared in National Geographic among others. Also in the charter were Dick Masten, a police officer, and Lou Delotto, an airline pilot, both well-known in the Florida dive community. It was a first trip for all of them to the Andrea Doria. For all his deep-water experience, Billy Deans had never dove outside the state of Florida.

The group made the trek up to Montauk at the tip of New York's Long Island, where the Wahoo was to pick them up.

Spencer Slate, who had chartered the boat, wasn't with them. On one of his training dives for the Doria, Slate had taken a minor hit of decompression sickness in 250 feet of water off Key West, and his doctor thought for safety's sake Slate should back out of the deep Andrea Doria dive.

The Florida group was there for one reason: china. Pieces of china, crystal, and silverware with the mark of the Italia steamship company are more precious than Spanish doubloons to wreck divers. The Floridians had discussed the china the day before departure with veteran Doria diver Gary Gentile, who was crewing on the Wahoo. Gentile had already made a trip out to the wreck the week before, and he had his recovered artifacts from the first-class gift shop. Deans remembered the trinkets had stirred up "a fever, a frenzy, a rabidity," among the Florida group. On the way out to the wreck site the only topic of conversation was the Andrea Doria ship plans and how to get some artifacts off her.

Rick Jaszyn, another deep diver with Doria experience, was also crewing aboard the Wahoo. A New Jersey resident, Jaszyn was only twenty-seven years old, but he had logged hundreds of dives on the deep wrecks found in the waters of the North Atlantic. He was the only diver, besides Gary Gentile and Steve Bielenda, who knew the Florida contingent personally. He had made a pilgrimage to Deans's Key West Diver and dove the USS Wilkes-Barre with Deans and Ormsby. He had the highest regard for their diving skills. Jaszyn was amazed when Ormsby made a free dive to the top of the Wilkes-Barre, a depth of 150 feet. But on this Doria trip Jaszyn was alarmed by Ormsby's "gung ho" determination to collect some artifacts on his first visit to the wreck. It was not Ormsby's diving talents he doubted. Jaszyn knew that Ormsby's experience came from the totally different Florida environment. Up north, diving in higher latitudes was an "equipment-intensive" experience, plus visibility and cold water factored in as well. Rick Jaszyn tried to cool Ormsby's jets, but knew he had the "fever."

Having Andrea Doria china in one's collection of wreck artifacts is a testament to one's diving prowess, as close to an Olympic gold medal as a diver can get. However, diving the recumbent luxury liner is outside the realm of recreational diving. Unlike on a recreational dive, on a Doria dive you have to contemplate the very real possibility that you may not get out alive.

The Doria, as veteran wreck divers simply refer to her, lies in 235 feet of frequently storm-tossed waters. From the Wahoo's home port in Captree Boat Basin on New York's Long Island, it was a torturous eighteen-hour trip out to the wreck site. Even from Montauk it was still a ten-hour trip.

"Getting beat up" on the trip out is a rite of passage for Doria divers. It isn't just the mercurial Atlantic that conspires against you. The sleeping quarters aboard the speedy fiberglass Wahoo are laughingly referred to as "spice racks." The Wahoo's bunks are stacked like trays below the decks, and diesel fumes mingle with the odor of dozens of sweating bodies in the claustrophobic space. The smell of fear pervades belowdecks preceding any Doria dive. The common belief is that if you are not scared about doing the dive, you are either lying or stupid. Few get much sleep before the dive, and the fatigue adds to the likelihood of a mishap.

The Andrea Doria is one shipwreck the...
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