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Wreck divers try old-school diving using 1940s-style equipment

Clad in a massive antique bronze helmet and weights, Bill Pfeiffer was the kind of diver the fish had not seen in decades.

But those extra 200 pounds did nothing to stop last Wednesday’s heavy ocean swell from flicking him back down to a shipwreck, his air bubbles rising from the sea floor.

“The line that I’m on is strumming like a banjo string,” Pfeiffer recalled of his experience climbing back from a dive on the Black Warrior wreck using 1940s-vintage hardhat diving gear. “It snapped again and tossed me off. I told the deck crew, “I’m off the rope, and I’m on my way back to the bottom.’ ”

Pfeiffer was safe inside a U.S. Navy Mark V helmet made in 1943, a system so reliable that the Navy used essentially the same equipment from 1917 to 1979, said Bob Rusnak of the Historical Diving Society.

“Right after World War II you could by them for $100. They were surplus. Now they’ll cost you $8,000,” Rusnak said of the iconic bronze diver helmets. “The Mark V is one of the safest dive systems ever made. With the umbilical air supply, he could have stayed down there for two days.”

The helmets with their porthole vision are mostly museum pieces now. A hardhat diver’s ensemble stands like a statue to greet patrons at Bahrs Resturant in Highlands, and John Wayne still wears a hardhat when he fights that fake octopus in the 1948 movie “Wake of the Red Witch.”

But meanwhile Rusnak and other divers are collecting and restoring the old gear. The Black Warrior dive may have been the first recreational wreck expedition using vintage hardhat equipment, said the participants, a group of divers from New Jersey and New York.

“It was pretty intense,” laughs Maureen Langevin, who with her husband Steve lives in Laurence Harbor and runs their boat Dive Voyager Expeditions out of Shark River. They shot in-water video of the Black Warrior dive in pounding three-foot seas and rising wind off the Rockaways. “We wanted to stay longer, but the captain pulled the plug.”

The idea for the trip started when Rusnak was talking to longtime Long Island dive captain Steve Bielenda. The Historical Diving Association’s mission “is to preserve and maintain the history of diving,” Rusnak said, and the association holds weekend rallies at water-filled quarries inland so recreational divers can try out old Navy hardhat gear and other restored equipment.
“It goes back to World War II, when all the technology we use today got started,” Rusnak said. “The modern diver has no idea how we got here. They just walk into a dive shop, take some lessons and buy equipment, and go diving in the Bahamas.”

Rusnak wondered aloud to Bielenda that “it would be something to do it on an offshore wreck.” Bielenda replied, “Let’s do it” and began calling his contacts in the diving community.

The Langevins were contacted to recruit their video skills to the project, and captain Bill Reddan provided his boat Jeanne II from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn as the platform.

On Wednesday the weather was not good, but “this was either going to happen or it wasn’t” because of the volunteers’ work schedules, Rusnak said.

They headed out to the Black Warrior wreck site, where the paddlewheel steamship ran aground on the Rockaway sandbars in 1859. Its wooden hull long ago pounded into the sand, the ship’s boiler and other features survive in about 35 feet of water. It’s one of the most popular dive destinations off New York Harbor because the fine silt bottom still surrenders tableware and other ship artifacts.

Rusnak said Pfeiffer, who is president of the Long Island Divers Association, was the choice to wear the Mark V helmet and suit. “Bill has dove in this equipment, and he wanted to do it in the worst way,” he said. Conditions worsened with east-southeast winds pushing seas into the harbor approaches as the dive crew arrived, and Pfeiffer went into the water around 8:30 a.m. Suited up, he lumbered to the stern ladder, and appreciated what old-time divers carried on their shoulders and legs: “They had to be amazing athletes.” But once in the water, “the equipment is very light,” Pfeiffer said. By adjusting air controls, a hardhat diver can regulate his buoyancy. “If you want to, you can almost shoot out at the surface.” Restricted visibility is one psychological factor with the old helmet, he said. “It felt much darker underwater than with any kind of scuba gear.” The Langevins accompanied Pfeiffer with their cameras – -dodging the bucking boat and the massive helmet on Pfeiffer’s head – -while commercial diver Ray Tucker went in as the safety diver in his lightweight modern hardhat gear. Other scuba divers were ready as additional safety. Pfeiffer walked around the wreck, communicating with the deck crew and Tucker by intercom, until captain Reddan decided the surface weather was building to hazardous possibilities.

“Neither one of them wanted to come up,” Rusnak said. After the sea surge launched Pfieffer off the line like an arrow, he adjusted the buoyancy controls on his suit and slowly settled back down to the sea floor on his feet. The deck crew carefully hauled him back up by the umbilical lines.

“It was exciting,” Pfieffer said. The whole team was very professional.”

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