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Evelyn Dudas, a “living legend” of the deep

It was June 1967, and the 22-year-old woman with a toothy smile from West Chester was aboard a smelly fishing boat with 11 men eager to dive the offshore wreck of the famed Andrea Doria, 220 feet below the Atlantic.

Evelyn Bartram Dudas didn’t recover the best artifact – the ship’s compass, which went to her future husband, John Dudas – but she returned from the trip a hero as the first woman to reach what is considered the Mount Everest of shipwrecks.

It was a defining moment in the life of the now 64-year-old scuba entrepreneur, who owns a well-known Westtown dive shop, teaches, and leads diving trips around the world, and it landed her a spot as a contestant on TV’s To Tell the Truth.

Four decades later, on a warm summer afternoon, Evelyn Dudas is back in the water – only this time, it’s 12 feet deep. In Malvern Prep’s swimming pool, she is teaching a class of mostly young would-be divers a gentle frog kick. They are probably unaware of the exploits that have made Dudas famous within the diving world, leading to her induction in the first class of the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2000.

Though she is hobbled by osteoporosis – from improper decompression in the early days, she believes – and a series of ankle, hip, and foot surgeries, Dudas still glides through water like a porpoise.

But a dive 18 months after her Andrea Doria adventure nearly ended her career – and her life.

She and John Dudas were exploring the skeleton of a World War I freighter off the New York shoreline but kept getting caught in fishing line. With an ill-fitting wetsuit and crude equipment, she couldn’t control her ascent and rose too quickly, getting the bends.

“I couldn’t grasp the anchor line, then my feet didn’t work, and now I can’t control my legs, can’t kick, and I rolled over on my back, a floating blob,” she recalled.

At one point, she went blind.

“I thought, ‘If this is what it feels like to die, it’s a very peaceful way to go,’ ” she said.

“She’s got balls. She’s a real adventurer,” said Kevin McMurray, who wrote the book Deep Descent about the Andrea Doria. He is one of many who calls Dudas “a living legend.”

Most recreational divers don’t go below 60 feet or so. Dudas and her gutsy ilk explore the collapsing hulls of ships in depths of 200 feet or more. The dangers are many, and the risk was even greater for pioneers who risked nitrogen narcosis, a disorienting condition that occurred at great depths before the use of mixed breathing gases.

But more important, Dudas is a survivor. Not only did she come back from her near-death experience, which put her in a hospital bed for two weeks and kept her out of the water for a year and a half, but she also kept going after her husband died at the same wreck in 1982, leaving her with three young children and a fourth on the way.

Diving “wasn’t something that I wanted to get away from – and I didn’t know anything else,” she explained.

Instead, as a single mother of four, she built a successful business, Dudas’ Diving Duds, around her life’s passion. Her early frustration with the lack of proper scuba equipment for women led her to design, assemble, and sell female wetsuits in the incongruous setting of an old barn on her family’s ancestral property in Westtown. (John Bartram of Bartram’s Garden fame is her sixth great-grandfather.)

Scuba diving is a relatively young sport, built upon the exploits of Navy frogmen in World War II. By the start of the 1960s, around the time Evelyn Bartram first strapped on a tank at age 15 at the West Chester YMCA, there were only a handful of active women divers. Many of those pioneers say the reason they got involved was to get the attention of a man, and Dudas was no different.

“When I went to college, I met this beautiful man with a very beautiful girlfriend,” she recalled, and she learned his hobby was diving. “And I thought, ‘Aha, this is something that we can do that she didn’t want to do.’ ” She didn’t get her man and left school, but she continued diving after returning home.

She started diving the wrecks off the Atlantic coastline every weekend and met her future husband on a trip to the Stolt Dagali, a large Norwegian freighter that sank in 1964 in the so-called Wreck Valley between New Jersey and Long Island.

That area is among the most challenging diving environments in the world, with dark, freezing, turbulent water, strong currents, and ships with live ammunition, said Hillary Viders, cofounder of the Women Divers Hall of Fame.

Dudas, she added, “is probably one of, if not the most famous female wreck divers of all time.”

Perhaps no vessel is as alluring as the Doria, a cruise ship that collided with the smaller MS Stockholm in fog-laden waters off Nantucket and then sank to the ocean floor the next morning, July 26, 1956. John Dudas had plundered its booty on an expedition in 1966, and the following year, Evelyn wanted to join the party.

“I thought I was a better diver than those men going out, so why couldn’t I go out, too,” recalled Evelyn Dudas, even though women were considered “a bad omen” on boats. On the last of three dives, John Dudas got his prize.

“John lifts the covering of the compass, sticks his hand in, and the compass comes out,” she remembered. “Why the Andrea Doria compass wasn’t bolted down, I do not know.”

Today, the compass remains on display at her shop, along with assorted ships’ bells, a captain’s wheel, and dishes and glassware with the Italia insignia.

On July 12, 1982, John Dudas was diving the Sommerstad, the same shipwreck site where Evelyn had nearly died about 14 years earlier. A companion found his lifeless body on the bottom of the ocean, with the cause of the accident as murky as the waters. His wife was seven weeks pregnant. With each pregnancy, she had mentally rehearsed standing at her sink and learning of her husband’s death. To this day, her tone is stoic.

“I wasn’t the one who died,” she said, when asked if she had considered giving up diving.

In fact, in 1992, Dudas took up cave diving – one of the more difficult forms of scuba – because she thought it would make her a better instructor. She now leads expeditions all over the world and has been back to the Andrea Doria three times.

“She is tough,” said her friend Richie Kohler, a Brick, N.J., wreck diver who was cohost of Deep Sea Detectives on the History Channel. “Any one of the things she has had to deal with would be enough to take a lesser person out of diving, yet she continues to excel.”

All four of her children dive, and one even set another Andrea Doria record. Suzy Dudas, 33, was the first woman to reach the ship with a re-breather, an air recycler that allows divers to remain underwater four or five hours, and Evelyn and she are the first mother-daughter Doria divers.

And on July 4, her son Michael explored the famed vessel “without a will, which bothers me to no end. We’re losing them left and right down there,” his mother said.

But she added, “I’d be right there with him if I could.”

Young local divers are in awe of Dudas, including Geoff Nunemaker, 17, who works in her shop. “She’s forgotten more than I’ll ever know,” he said. “I’ve been to dive shops in the Caribbean and Mexico, and they know her.”

Dudas herself rarely takes much time to reflect on her accomplishments. She’s too busy. On that recent afternoon, as her students dried off, she prepared her equipment for another class that night at the West Chester YMCA, where it all began 49 years ago.

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