Probing the Mysteries of the Lusitania
By Eric Sauder
A Report of the 1993 Expedition.
JULY 24, 1993: Up at 5:00 a.m. to get ready to leave for Ireland. Not knowing what we would find at the wreck site, I was up until 2 a.m. making sure that we had all the photos, builder’s plans, and research material necessary so we could be prepared for any eventuality during the expedition. Oddly enough, before Ken Marschall and I asked about who was in charge of coordinating the research and reference material relating to Lusitania, no one in the project had given it any consideration. On very short notice, Ken and I were able to organize our collections and bring nearly 750 photos and two dozen builder’s plans as well as a dozen specially drawn color-coordinated plans prepared by Bill Sauder.
After only three hours’ sleep, I arrived at Los Angeles International Airport and checked in for the flight to Ireland via Newark and London. As I walked to the gate, Ken Marschall came in after having been up all night taking care of last-minute preparations. The flight to Newark went well, and after about an hour’s layover, we boarded the plane to London.
JULY 25: The flight over the Atlantic passed quickly, and as we flew over Ireland, we found ourselves right above Cork and Queenstown (now called Cóbh). If it hadn’t been so hazy, we probably could have seen the small tug Alert about eleven miles from shore doing the preliminary search for the wreck.
Arriving in London and passing through Customs and Immigration, we quickly made our way to the Aer Lingus counter and checked in for our flight to Ireland. The plane departed on time, and as we flew over Cork on our final approach, we got a superb view of Cóbh and the lighthouse on Roche’s Point at the entrance to Cork Harbor.
After the flight landed, Ken and I hailed a taxi and took it to the Tivoli Dock, where the research vessel Northern Horizon is moored. My initial impression of her is that she is not as large a ship as I expected, only about 250 feet. She seemed scarcely big enough for the task that lay ahead. There was apparently some difficulty in locating a suitable ship to use for the expedition, and the Northern Horizon was found a mere six weeks ago.
Something that surprised me was the apparent lack of local interest in Lusitania. Every resident of Cóbh with whom we spoke about the expedition was just not interested. I had assumed, quite incorrectly, that it would have been a popular subject among the locals.
The first person we ran into on board the Northern Horizon was Barbara Ballard. She gave us a quick tour and showed us to our cabin, which was located all the way forward on the port side with a single porthole overlooking the bow. Because it was still afternoon, our first impulse was to head back into town to sightsee, but we decided that the time could be better spent becoming acquainted with the ship and her facilities.
Having settled into the cabin, we went out onto the fantail to see where most of the activity for the next two weeks would take place. While looking at Delta (the two-man submersible from Delta Oceanographics), David Slater came over and introduced himself as one of the sub’s three pilots. He gave us a lot of information about the sub’s performance, its capabilities, and most importantly, its safety. We asked him about the possibility of Ken and me visiting the wreck together if we were lucky enough to be asked to go. Although Delta usually only accommodates two people (one pilot and one observer), Dave said that we would probably be able to go at the same time because they had taken two passengers in the past, albeit children.
As we continued to look around the ship, we ran into Barbara again, and she asked if we would build the two models of Lusitania that had been brought along. We agreed, and Ken and I decided that the first model would represent Lusitania’s final configuration and color scheme the day she sank. We wanted the second model to represent the wreck as it appears on the sea bed, but as the days passed and the data came in, it quickly became obvious that this plastic model could not be contorted into anything remotely resembling the hulk on the bottom.
A little bit later, while talking to David Slater again on the fantail, Bruce Norfleet of National Geographic Television came by with a gentleman who looked very familiar, but I couldn’t place the face. As soon as I heard his voice, however, I realized who it was. It was Lusitania historian Paddy O’Sullivan, who had been a good friend of John Light, the man who had bought Lusitania in the 1960s. Mr. O’Sullivan had been interviewed many years before for a British documentary about the Oceaneering salvage in 1982. After showing Paddy around the Northern Horizon, Bruce asked if I would like to meet him.
After just a few minutes of conversation, it became very clear to me that Paddy has an impressive knowledge of Lusitania and her history, John Light and his dives to the wreck, Oceaneering and their expedition, author Colin Simpson, and many other aspects of Lusitania history. He also had brought a number of photos of the ship with him, some of which I had never seen before. Paddy and I talked at great length about the Oceaneering project in 1982, for which he served as advisor. It was from these conversations that I heard the first credible details of what we might find and what condition the wreck is in.
Paddy also told me about John Light’s proposed dives to Lusitania during the early 1970s, on which he would have accompanied John. It’s a true shame that nothing ever came of this project because of a lack of funding. John and Paddy had been working to perfect a new type of diving technology, and knowledge of the wreck and her condition would have been considerably furthered by their extended exploration.
After Paddy left, Ken, the sub crew, and I went into Cork for dinner, and on our way back, we had a nice leisurely walk through town. Got back to the ship and finally went to bed.
JULY 26: Woke up about 8:30 after a reasonably good night’s sleep and went for breakfast. Shortly afterward Bob Ballard came to find Ken and me because he was going to look through the side-scan sonar images of the wreck that had been taken the previous day.
A side-scan sonar image of the wreck. If one looks carefully, one can begin to make out a number of important landmarks on the wreck such as funnel casings, engine room casings, and the open wells of the first- and second-class Dining Rooms.
From these we learned that the wreck is indeed broken in two between the Nos. 3 and 4 funnels as had been reported from earlier dives. There also appears to be a great deal of damage to the bow. Whether this was caused by a torpedo or simply from the ship hitting bottom, we don’t know yet.
During a production meeting later that afternoon, Ballard put forth the theory that the bow is so torn up because the ship’s bow hit bottom while the stern was still up in the air. I explained that Lusitania didn’t sink with her stern high out of the water like Titanic and that nearly every artist’s impression of the sinking is incorrect. I also explained why it was impossible for her to have pivoted on her “nose” given the angle at which she went under despite everything that has been written over the years. Using some of the plans I brought as a visual aid, I was able to demonstrate why.
After dinner Ken and I got so wrapped up in building the Lusitania model that we lost all track of time and didn’t go to bed until 3:00 a.m.
JULY 27: The first thing I knew this morning, Ken was opening the curtains in front of our porthole. I imagined it was probably about 10:00, but when I asked Ken what time it was, he told me it was 2:00 in the afternoon. Eleven hours of sleep! I guess jet lag finally caught up with us. We got up and worked on the models again.
The Northern Horizon has been docked in Cork since July 23 while she is readied for the expedition, loading provisions, testing the ROVs, welding containers to the deck, rewiring for the equipment that would be used over the next two weeks, practicing the launching and retrieving of the submarine, etc.
Leaving the ship at about 5:40 p.m., we walked to the nearby Silver Springs Hotel to make a few phone calls home. We returned by taxi to the Northern Horizon and began taking some videos of the ship and the surrounding dock area. Just after we started, Barbara Ballard called us back because National Geographic wanted to have a production meeting on the fantail. During the meeting, they told us what the objectives of the expedition were and how each of us could help. After a general discussion, Ken and I left the ship to finish videotaping.
Finally departing Cork about 9:00 that evening, we sailed by Cóbh at twilight, and shortly after we passed the town, the Northern Horizon slowed to almost a stop. A boat carrying some of the National Geographic film crew came out to join us. They had been filming our departure, and after they were safely on board and the pilot had left, the ship picked up speed and quickly passed the lighthouse on Roche’s Point, then continued out to sea.
I have never been on a ship that moved so much. The rolling isn’t bad, but the pitching is almost unbearable. The drone of the diesel generators never stops, and the smell of diesel fumes is everywhere. As I write this, it is 11 p.m., and we are about half way to the wreck site. The lighthouse on the Old Head of Kinsale is ahead of us off our starboard side, its light casting an eerie glow on the water as it winks on every few seconds.
JULY 28: At the production meeting yesterday, Ballard said that he wanted Jason in the water before breakfast; so Ken and I got up at 6:20 a.m. to watch the launch. We dressed and went on deck, knowing that we were now floating over the wreck. The weather was a bit hazy and overcast, and the coast of Ireland was nowhere in sight.
Someone came by and told us that the buoy left by the Alert to mark the wreck site had floated away during the night—a frequent problem experienced by past divers—and that the position of the wreck had to be reacquired.
Disappointed, we started walking up toward the bridge at about 6:45 when Dana Yoerger from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution came running down the ladder and excitedly told us, “Hey guys, we’re on it. We’re over her. It’s just coming through now on the echo sounder. Go up and have a look.”
We ran up to the bridge, and there she was. Ken took some quick photos of the echo sounding, knowing from past experience that we may never see it again, and after things calmed down a bit, we went to have breakfast. Now that the wreck has been located, the Northern Horizon is able to remain in any position over Lusitania, not drifting more than a few feet in any direction, using satellite positioning.
After breakfast we went up on deck to see what was going on, and we were told that the technicians were having problems with Jason and that he wouldn’t be launched until later. After a while Ken was getting ready to work on the model when I went out on the fantail and happened to see Jason being lowered. Why no one bothered to let the two historians know that the exploration was starting is anyone’s guess! I ran back and excitedly told Ken what was going on. We tried to get into the Control Van, which was the nerve center of the expedition, but there were so many people jammed in for the first sighting of the wreck that we went to the “War Room” instead. (The War Room was another area in which a video monitor had been set up to handle the overflow from the Control Van.) We sat down, made ourselves comfortable with our plans and archival photo albums, and started watching Jason’s slow advance to the wreck.
After a few minutes, one of the National Geographic crew came in and told us that Ballard wanted us in the Control Van. Wondering how we would squeeze in, we elbowed our way to the front of the Van and waited. At 9:14 we acquired the ocean bottom. According to the transponders that had been set down, at 9:40 Jason had been moved to a position just over 90 meters from the wreck. The cautious approach was agonizingly slow, and it seemed like we’d never get there. I asked Paul Matthias, the sonar specialist, what direction we were coming in on the wreck from, and he said the hull side. I wondered what our first sight would be. In the growing anticipation, Ken joked, “Well, I’m bored. I think I’ll go take a nap.”
At 10:05 we were 45 meters from the wreck. At 10:13 Jason stopped relaying a video image to the surface, and we thought we would have to scrap the mission for today. Fortunately, the technicians were able to correct the problem without retrieving the ROV. Over the next few minutes, we lost the image three more times. At 10:26 we saw the first few pieces of wreckage. Nothing identifiable, but obviously man made.
Finally! At 10:34:54, according to the clock in the Control Van, we saw Lusitania for the first time. We came in on the hull just under a large implosion hole. The hull is surprisingly devoid of sea life but is in terrible condition structurally. There is a great deal of damage—tears, sags, popped rivets, missing and twisted plates, etc.
My first guess was that we were looking at the hull under the forecastle, but the “experts” assured me that, according to the transponder positioning, we were closer to the stern. Not understanding how I could be so mistaken, I finally spotted the telltale knuckle that runs aft at the bow, and then, just above, I caught a glimpse of a bollard. After a few minutes, Bob and I had the chance to discuss where we were, and he agreed. It was the bow. Transponders be damned!
My first impression of the ship was simply amazement that I was actually looking at her, live. So many years of study were wrapped up in this brief moment that it was hard to believe it was happening. As we made a Jason run from just below the bridge forward along the forecastle, Ken asked Bob if we could have a look at where the ship’s name used to be. By all accounts, the letters had been removed or cut out, purportedly by the Admiralty in the 1950s. We fully expected to find large holes where the letters had been. As we moved along the edge of the forecastle, there were indeed large holes, but these were corrosion holes and not where the name was. We were too high. We moved Jason a few feet farther down the hull.
Now we were exactly where the name should be. But where were the holes where the letters had been? Jason moved closer. Soon Ken and I could barely discern the outline of the letters and knew this must be where the name had been. They obviously had been pried off and salvaged many years before, leaving the faint outline of each letter. Within seconds, though, we realized that even this assumption was wrong. We were seeing the actual brass letters themselves in very low relief. They had not been removed after all, and this was the first of many contradictions of past diver reports we would experience. It was satisfying to know that Ken and I were the first people to see her name in nearly 80 years.
During the ROV runs, Barbara Ballard kept a fairly generic, non-descriptive log of what was seen, which wouldn’t be of any use to us for future research. Ken and I naturally assumed that we’d be able to view that day’s video each evening and make more complete logs, but we soon discovered that we couldn’t have been more wrong!
Jason surfaced at about 4:45 p.m., ending our first day on the wreck. Tomorrow we are going to have a look at the superstructure side. One of the most annoying things that happened today was that the National Geographic photographer was so wrapped up in getting pretty pictures of Ballard’s reaction to seeing the wreck that he missed some incredible shots of the wreck itself! When we finally did get him to take pictures of the ship, he insisted that every shot be full of fish! Uh, excuse me? I thought we were here to document the wreck, not to take pictures of sea life!
We went to have dinner and then to be filmed by National Geographic at a roundtable discussion with Ballard. We talked about what we had seen today and came up with a plan of action for tomorrow. After the meeting Ken and I sat around with the people from Geographic talking about the ship and showing them our research albums and builder’s plans. We asked Barbara Ballard if we could review the videos Jason took today, but there was a problem with the time codes. It has to be postponed until tomorrow.
JULY 29: It has been a long, exciting day of watching Jason examine the superstructure debris! Up at 6:10 because Ballard wanted Jason in the water before breakfast. For some reason, though, the launch was delayed. We went to take some videos and pictures of the Irish coast, which we could see at last. I was quite surprised at how small Ireland seems even though the shore is just over 11 miles away.
After taking our photos, we went back on deck to find out when the launch would take place. It was delayed again; so Ken and I went to the cabin, picked out the plans of Lusitania that we would most likely need over the next two weeks, and hung them in the War Room. These were the 1/4” to the foot Promenade Deck and 1/8” Shelter and Main deck plans. Jason finally hit the water at 8:30, but because of a faulty flash unit, he had to be retrieved. There sure have been a lot of problems with the equipment. I wonder if the expeditions are always like this?
Jason was launched again shortly thereafter, and at 10:00 we were 80 meters from the superstructure side of the wreck. The very first piece of wreckage we came across that we could identify was a lifeboat davit. Big and beautiful, there it was. After such a good start, I thought that finding identifiable items would be a piece of cake. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Although there were a number of things we recognized—light and air shaft portholes, ventilators, pieces of skylights—most of the superstructure is now a decayed tangle of giant steel pick-up sticks, much of it beyond recognition.
As we worked our way aft, Ken and I were able to identify a number of other pieces of wreckage but not nearly so many as we had hoped. Among them were the base of No.1 funnel with its vents and light and air shaft openings still visible; a large waste steam pipe from a funnel; four or five boiler room vent collars (without their hinged lids); a lifeboat winch and its neighboring vent just aft of the bridge; a mosaic tile floor from a bathroom forward on Promenade Deck; five or six Boat-Deck windows with their decorative filigree; first-class public room windows; the gallery of arches from the second-class Lounge, which were added to help reduce vibration; and at least a dozen lifeboat davits.
We videotaped the retrieval of Jason and the first dive of Delta, piloted by Richard Slater. The passenger was Mark Shelley, who was shooting underwater footage for National Geographic. Not knowing how long the dive would last, we waited a while for the return of the sub, but because everyone began to disperse, we figured that it would be a while before they surfaced. In the meantime, Bob Elder from Woods Hole gave us a “tour” of Jason and explained the ROV’s features and how they work.
The three vehicles used during the expedition. From left to right are Homer, Jason, and Delta.
There was a production meeting just after dinner during which we discussed what had happened that day and what we would like to see happen tomorrow. A little later Bob Ballard came back and talked to us for a moment as we built the model. “So, gentlemen, what caused this ship to sink? There definitely was not a second torpedo.” We gave him our impressions even though we really hadn’t seen enough of the wreck to make even a preliminary guess. Before giving our thoughts, though, we made sure there were no cameras around. In this environment, especially when the camera crew has itchy shutter fingers, speculation is one’s worst nightmare. Better to wait and be sure of your theories and hypotheses because anything you say on camera can come back and haunt you—and sometimes does, depending on whether the director likes you or not! Worked on the model for a few more hours before retiring.
JULY 30: Up at 7:30, but Homer was already in the water. This is the second ROV that was brought along. Smaller than Jason, Homer is able to get into places that Jason can’t fit. Ken and I tried to rush through breakfast so we wouldn’t miss anything, but Ballard came in and sat down. We knew that because Ballard was about to eat nothing important could be going on. After breakfast, we went out on deck to see what was happening. The weather is beautiful with a crystal clear sky, but the sea is a bit rough. With any luck the weather for the next few days won’t become any worse than this. Ballard asked us to come into the Control Van while Homer was looking for the area of the port bow and bottom of the ship that had been blown out by the second explosion. To our utter disbelief, we didn’t find any hole.
Of all the discoveries we made, this was the most astonishing. For years we had heard that it was the second explosion that literally blew Lusitania’s bottom out and caused her to sink. In the space of a few short minutes, every description of the wreck had become suspect, and every theory as to why the ship sank had to be reevaluated. We were back to square one.
After Homer had been retrieved and still pondering our dilemma, we went to work on the Lusitania model again. Peter Schnall, director of the National Geographic Explorer program, wanted to film Ken working on it; so I left for a while. After Peter had finished with Ken, we ran into Jonathan Blair, the National Geographic still photographer, who told us that he had heard unofficially that the highest point on the wreck is about 15 feet above the bottom. We knew that there was no way this could possibly be true; so I went to find someone who would know.
I found Paul Matthias, and his best guess is that the wreck is no higher than 30 feet, but later I heard from Dana Yoerger that the highest point is probably 45 feet. They couldn’t really give me an exact number because all the data wasn’t in yet, but judging by what we have seen, Dana’s figure seems to be the most reasonable. In any event, the news is staggering. That means that Lusitania has collapsed to at least half of her original width of 88 feet. Previous divers hadn’t reported any of this damage either. [N.B.: Our final analysis showed the maximum elevation of the wreck to be about 45 feet above the seabed in the vicinity of the Engine Room.]
Even though we had been above the wreck for several days, we were all very surprised that there had been not one word from the British Admiralty. Sometime between 4:30 and 5:00 p.m., however, we felt that all that was about to change. A ship that looked like a British Naval patrol boat appeared on the horizon. As the vessel approached, it slowed and made leisurely circle to port, coming directly towards us. At first we thought it was the British Navy coming out to put a halt to our probing of the wreck. Disappointingly, the ship turned out to be an Irish Fishery boat making sure we weren’t fishing without a license!
JULY 31: Another exciting day of discoveries. As Ken and I watched the live video from the bottom, Cathy Offinger from Woods Hole came into the War Room and introduced us to two people, one from the Irish Underwater Archeological Society and the other from the Kinsale Museum. She presented us as their “incredible historians”—a very nice ego boost.
Cathy was finally able to have a look at the photos I brought of the Lusitania artifacts that had been salvaged in 1982 and was very interested in them. She remarked what a good job we had done putting all the albums together. Together, Ken and I brought over 750 photos of the ship (divided into eight albums) and about two dozen builder’s plans. The problem was that almost no one cared.
As Jason explored the midship section of the wreck, Martin Bowen, the principal Jason pilot, got some excellent footage taken through the break in the hull showing a boiler inside the ship. At about 2:40 Jason became caught in some fishing net, and I guess he was snagged pretty good because they tried to untangle him for a while, and they weren’t able to.
They finally just started the winch and hauled Jason up. After a few tense moments, he came bobbing to the surface with the net trailing along. Some of us cut out pieces of the net as souvenirs.
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All images courtesy of the Eric Sauder Collection unless otherwise noted.
© 2005 Eric Sauder
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