Wreck Diving Brings IBMer Face to Face With Lost History
John Eells examines the exterior of the U-352 submarine, which was sunk off the coast of North Carolina during World War II. Photography by Dan Wright
About 130 feet beneath the waves rests U-853, the last German U-boat sunk as World War II ended. It’s off the East Coast of the U.S. about seven miles from Block Island, R.I., and not far from another wreck, the SS Black Point, a commercial collier the U-853 torpedoed a day earlier, May 5, 1945, at the Battle of Judith Point.
John Eells has seen both wrecks. A certified technical diver, he’s a member of IBM’s z/OS* technical marketing and strategy team in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. In his spare time, he wreck dives mostly in the North Atlantic along the coasts of New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey.
First certified to scuba dive in 1972 at the age of 15, Eells took a long hiatus from diving until about eight years ago. “Then my youngest son—he was about 15 at the time—came down from the attic one day with my old gear and said, ‘What’s all this stuff?’ ” The teen was eager to learn and earned his recreational diving certification soon after.
The father and son’s first wreck dive was the Raleigh, a steamer that sank in 1911 in Lake Erie near Port Colborne, Ontario. It remains the oldest wreck Eells has explored—and the shallowest, at about 25-30 feet under water. “I just got hooked,” he recalls. “People had walked the deck of this ship. To see and touch it firsthand was remarkable.” To dive much deeper wrecks, Eells and his son underwent further training and earned a variety of technical diving certifications.
U-boats, however, hold a particular interest for Eells. He wants to dive the U-869 wreck, which was sunk off the coast of New Jersey and rests at a depth of about 240 feet. Previously believed to have been sunk near Gibraltar, the wreck of the U-869 was initially nicknamed U-Who because its identity was in question. Then in 1997, wreck diver John Chatterton discovered an artifact that verified its true identity. The events were documented in several books, including the “The Last Dive” in 2000, and “Shadow Divers” in 2004.
“It’s definitely on my bucket list,” Eells notes. It would be among the deepest wrecks he’s attempted. “My certification limit is 330 feet,” he says.
To go that deep, divers often use applications to help calculate decompression time, how much gas they will need, and when to change the mix of oxygen, nitrogen and helium they breathe. At certain depths, the percentage of oxygen in air becomes toxic, Eells explains, which is one reason divers must adjust the gas mixes during a dive. Also, they often need to make decompression stops as they ascend to avoid decompression sickness, which can be fatal.
In addition to specialized equipment and careful preparation before a dive, you must plan for contingencies, Eells says. “Also, in technical diving, you have to get comfortable with the idea that many important things are not truly absolute, and that you must often rely on approximations. It takes a certain mindset.”
So why do it?
“Just curiosity,” Eells says. “It’s like when people ask, ‘Why climb Mount Everest?’ It was there.”