Massachusetts Divers Become First to Dive Steamship Portland Shipwreck

Five Massachusetts scuba divers have become the first visitors to the remains of the steamship Portland since it sank in a violent storm with all hands in 1898. The ship lies in 460 feet of water in what is now Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary – twice the depth of the famous and nearby Andrea Doria shipwreck.

The Portland, a luxurious paddlewheel-driven ship 291 feet in length, was carrying approximately 192 passengers and crew when it left Boston bound for Portland, ME on November 26, 1898.

Unconfirmed reports put the ship well south of Boston during the night, but the ship was never seen again. Pieces of the upper decks along with 38 bodies subsequently washed up along the Cape Cod shore, but the location of the shipwreck itself remained a mystery for nearly 100 years. The storm, one of the worst in New England history, later became known as the Portland gale.

Approximately 150 additional vessels were lost in the hurricane force winds and over 400 people died in the storm. Wind and water from the storm destroyed dozens of homes and even changed the course of rivers.

The wreck was discovered in 1989 well north of its presumed location near the Cape, and was positively identified in 2002 during a government sponsored survey using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Its extreme depth has prevented any human visitation until now.

"Equipment and techniques have improved substantially in the past 20 years, making this type of dive by non-commercial divers possible" says Bob Foster, one of the divers. "But that’s not to say it was easy – we trained as a group for over two years prior to making this dive." That training was undertaken with well-respected TDI instructor-trainer Tom Huff out of Northeast Scuba.

Diving from the charter boat Donna III out of Beverly, Mass., Foster and fellow divers Vladislav Mlch, Dave Faye, Don Morse, and Paul Blanchette found the wreck stripped of upper decks and the main deck littered with artifacts including china dinnerware, bottles, decorative glass in brass frames, and brass fittings. "We came down on the Portland in an area near the former galley. It was both exciting and sobering when one thought of the people who last used these items and who were claimed on this ship" said Faye. Removing any artifacts from the site is prohibited by federal law.

Due to the extreme depth and frigid water temperatures, divers are limited to only about 10-15 minutes on the wreck and must endure up to four hours of decompression time before surfacing. "It’s a lot of effort for a little time to explore the wreck" adds Foster, "but even a short visit to the Portland is absolutely worth it".

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