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Best Diving on the Block: Rhode Island

Text and Photos by Michael Rothschild
Originally published in Northeast Dive News Magazine, October, 2012

Cover photo by Michael Rothschild

Docked at the peaceful marina of New Harbor, watching the sun set over the yachts with a tasty mudslide in my hand as the band bar pumps out a cool Reggae beat, it’s easy to forget that a big part of World War 2 ended just outside this safe little cove. And not just any part, but the one that touched our shores directly, when Nazi U-boats struck terror in our merchant fleet and warships alike, within sight of American beaches. On one spectacular summer weekend this year, our dive club - the New York City Sea Gypsies - came to Block Island to visit the last two casualties of that era, a freighter sunk after the war was supposed to have ended, and the sub who sank her, sent to the bottom with all hands after a long night’s game of cat and mouse.

By the time the average New Yorker has spent a couple of hours on the Long Island Expressway, through the dense traffic of Nassau county, past the ritzy boutiques and palatial mansions of the Hamptons, to end up in Montauk - 120 miles from Times Square - it would hardly seem reasonable to keep heading east. But that is exactly what we did, and we found some of the east coast’s best dive sites in the waters around this little known New England gem.

Block Island is part of Rhode Island, sitting about 14 miles from the tip of Long Island and 13 miles south of the mainland coast, just outside the channel between the Atlantic Ocean and the Long Island Sound. “The Block” is popular with summer tourists for it’s beautiful New England shore-town architecture, it’s wonderful seafood, and its pristine natural habitats. The large protected harbor was the perfect place to dock our comfortable dive charter - the John Jack out of Manasquan, New Jersey.

Our captain had moved his boat to these waters for the brief window of the Andrea Doria dive season, but we were happy to have her for the weekend, spending days on the local wrecks and nights on this amazing little island. Showers, barbecue grills, a swimming pool and terrific dining were all available right at the end of the dock, if we didn’t feel like hiking or taking a quick taxi ride into the quaint town of New Shoreham on the east coast. We also discovered that ferry service is available from Montauk and from Point Judith, Rhode Island to bring non-diving friends and family in to visit during your surface intervals.

Block Island makes a great home port for a dive trip, as there are a number of wrecks within a few miles of the harbor. As I mentioned before, two of these are forever tied to each other in history - they are the U-853, and her last victim, the SS Black Point.

A week after Hitler’s suicide and the day after the new Fuhrer, Admiral Donitz, gave the order to cease hostilities, the 853 continued to fight (her captain ignoring or possibly not receiving the command). She found the Black Point off Narragansett on May 5th, 1945, carrying coal from New York to Boston, and sank her with a torpedo to the stern, blowing the ship in two, and taking the lives of 12 of her 46 man crew. The bow rests upside down in 100 feet of water with 40 feet of relief, while the stern is a separate dive site - shallower at 85 feet.

The U-853 made for open water, but was soon located by a quickly assembled hunter-killer group of US warships. Tracked by sonar, over the next 16 hours the submarine was attacked by four ships and three blimps. When she could not outrun the task force, her captain tried to hide silently on the bottom, but the U-boat eventually succumbed to the massive assault, taking all 55 of her crew with her. The wreck is in 130 feet of water with the top of the conning tower rising off the sandy bottom to 100 feet.

For divers with technical training, another submarine waits on the bottom a bit deeper, at 155 feet. The USS Bass met her end just a few weeks before the Black Point and the U-853, not in combat but as the test target for a new type of naval mine. She is in two pieces, with her conning tower having the most relief at 120 feet.

Great diving is also found at less notorious sites. We had several terrific dives on the Grecian, a steam powered passenger and freight ship that sank in 1932 after colliding with the SS City of Chattanooga in a dense fog. At this point, the most recognizable elements of the wreck are the four large boilers, sitting on a lawn of low lying twisted metal plates, and forming a dramatic ten-foot wide canyon between the two pairs. But the main attraction here isn’t the shipwrights art, but rather the profusion of life that calls this wreck home. Eelpout, scorpionfish, crabs and hake all stalk the wreckage in large numbers, and the occasional dogfish shark may also be seen in this area. The nooks and crannies of this relatively shallow wreck (around 90 feet to the sand) seem to keep producing surprise after surprise for the curious diver.

One site that we did not hit on this trip, but which deserves mention, is not a shipwreck at all - it is a geological wonder. The Pinnacles are massive boulders pushed through the area by a glacier eons ago. These stones form huge underwater cliffs and swimthroughs, as well as a home to a wide range of marine life, rising fully half way to the surface from the bottom in 75 feet of water.

At the end of the dive day, there was always plenty of opportunity for fun on Block Island - the friendly party atmosphere makes it clear why this place is known as the Caribbean of New England. As soon as we tied up, we were welcomed back to port by live music and those famous mudslides. So take a trip this summer to Block Island and discover all the wonders of this great destination, below and above the water!