Five recreational scuba divers from Massachusetts have become the first people to lay eyes on the wreckage of the SS Portland, which sank 110 years ago and is New England’s worst maritime disaster.

“There are more artifacts than I’ve ever seen on any wreck. They’re everywhere – plates and dishes and mugs and sinks all over the bottom,” said Bob Foster, a leader of the three dive expeditions to the wreck in August and September. “You realize what a violent storm this thing must have gone through. All the upper decks were gone.”

Foster, who has visited numerous other New England wrecks, announced the dives this month and posted new photos of the wreck site at www.bostondeepwrecks.com. Officials with the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, which contains the artifacts, said the divers’ photographs and descriptions match information gathered by remote controlled video cameras sent to the ship since its location was confirmed in 2002.

The Portland is the Mount Everest of New England shipwrecks, according to sanctuary officials, because of its historical significance and the technical and physical challenges of reaching such an extreme depth.

“It’s putting your life at risk to some extent. It’s a very, very difficult dive,” said Matthew Lawrence, an archaeologist for the sanctuary.

Any divers who do reach the wreck are not allowed to remove or disturb any artifacts because of the historical value, as well as its status as a grave site.

Nearly 200 people perished when the ship sank Nov. 26, 1898 in an intense blizzard that would become known as the Portland Gale. Many of them were Mainers, either employed as members of the Portland-based crew or travelers on their way home from Boston after the Thanksgiving holiday.

The Portland was one of the last of the luxury coastal steamers and was furnished with chandeliers, red velvet carpets and fine china. It was propelled by paddle wheels on its sides and stuck to calm coastal waters.

The steamer left Boston Harbor and headed north as two major storms were about to collide over New England. While no one predicted 100 mph winds or 60 foot waves, other vessels were returning to port to avoid the weather and the captain’s decision to make the voyage remains a mystery.

Based on the ship’s final location – about north of Cape Cod – and the amount of damage witnessed by the divers and the remote-controlled cameras, experts believe the ship tried but was unable to return to Boston and then struggled for hours to ride out the waves and wind, getting battered to the point that it likely lost its power or ability to steer. The above-deck structures either were swept away by the storm or broke off as the ship sank.

The sight of dishes and furnishings strewn around the ship far as he could see was clear evidence of that struggle, Foster said. There also was obvious damage to the paddle wheels, one of which is now enshrouded in a fishing net.

Around the staterooms, the divers saw a scalloped sink and a soap dish, among other artifacts.

“There are personal effects laying all over the place,” he said. “They’re all reminders of the people who were on the ship.”

No human remains were visible and the divers did not try to go inside the fragile wooden ship, Foster said.

“The wreck is covered with and is full of silt,” he said. “If there are remains still in the ship, they are buried.”

The five men who dove to the Portland this summer are friends who get together to explore various wrecks, sometimes identifying sunken ships for the first time. “We like to explore. We like to figure out what these things were,” Foster said.

In this case, they planned and prepared for what was by far their deepest dive, Foster said.

“Most of the preparation is really involving the amount of gas you take down with you,” he said. At those depths, the gas in the tanks is so compressed it gets used up faster. Each divers began the descent with several tanks, some of which were positioned along the way in case anyone’s equipment failed.

“We were very careful to stage extra bottles of gas up and down a safety line,” he said.

It would take so long to decompress on the way back to the surface that divers could only spend 10 to 15 minutes examining the wreck on each dive. “For 10 to 15 minutes on the wreck, you’re talking about 3 hours in the water,” he said.

The pressure became so strong, three of the team’s underwater lights imploded as they neared the wreck, Foster said. The loud boom, he said, “practically made my heart stop.”

The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is in the midst of creating guidelines for monitoring and tracking dives on Portland and other wrecks, said Craig MacDonald, superintendent of the sanctuary. As long as the dives are done responsibly, he said, they could help explain what happened to ships such as the Portland.

“They may be able to look at parts of the wreck we can’t get to” with remote-controlled submersibles, he said. “As long as it’s kept intact, it is going to continue to be a beacon for divers.”


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