The Wreck of the Andrea Doria Part 3: The Wreck

July 2022

We continue our mini series on maritime disasters with the third part of our episode on the wreck of the magnificent Italian passenger liner the Andrea Doria. Launched in 1953 as a means to rebuild Italy’s reputation and status on the world stage after the Second World War she enjoyed a splendid career for just three years before she sank in 1956 off the coast of Massachusetts.To find out more about the wreck of the vessel itself Dr Sam Willis spoke with the underwater explorer John Moyer who has has dived over 120 times on the Andrea Doria wreck, one of the most dangerous wrecks in the world.

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast, and in particular, welcome to episode three of our investigation into the remarkable story of the wreck of the Andrea Doria, the magnificent Italian passenger liner that went down off the coast of Massachusetts in July 1953.  Episodes one and two both included accounts from people who were actually on board. As a historian I love being able to say that, so make sure you listen to that. And in particular to episode two where I got to interview a man called Mike Stoller, something of a legendary songwriter, who helped to pen some of the most famous songs in the history of rock and roll, including Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, and Stand By Me.  I was slightly surprised I was able to get any questions out at all during that interview, I just wanted to sit there and clap. But today we hear a man who has the most intimate knowledge of the wreck itself, John Moyer. John is a very well known underwater explorer and has dived over 120 times on the Andrea Doria wreck, which as you will find out is no mean feat. And I’ll tell you one thing I’ve learned from speaking with him, and that’s that I will most certainly not be attempting to dive on this wreck. It’s deep, it’s dark, and it’s exceptionally dangerous. I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it. In fact, the best thing you can do is to put your feet up, turn up the volume, and listen to us talk about it. So without further ado enough from me, and as ever I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking with him. Here is the brilliant John. John, thank you very much indeed for talking with me today.

     

    John Moyer 

    Sam, it’s my pleasure.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well, let’s hear a bit about your background. How did you get into diving in the first place?

     

    John Moyer 

    Oh, well, yes, I was interested in diving ever since I was a kid. I can remember in grammar school going to the library, reading books about scuba diving and treasure hunting. And back in, this would be in the 60s, there was a TV show called Sea Hunt, very popular here in the United States. All about a guy named Mike Nelson going scuba diving. He had all kinds of adventures. And then of course, Jacques Cousteau had his series on TV. So yes, in the early days that’s what really got me interested. My mother and father were both in the Navy and World War Two and they met in the Navy. So maybe that has something to do with it too.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Wonderful stuff, always being inspired by your parents. So you’re talking about the 60s era, it’s quite easy to forget the fact that the ability to scuba dive properly as we understand it is actually quite a recent invention relatively, it hasn’t been around forever at all. Right?

     

    John Moyer 

    Yes, it got developed during World War Two and in  the 40s.  And then sport divers, a little bit of sport diving in the 50s. And then in New Jersey off the Jersey coast in the 60’s, it got developed. I took my basic scuba course in 1975. And when I took that course I met a lot of divers who had been diving in the 60’s and and the early 70s. So they were my mentors, they would go out and dive on wrecks.  Typically the fishing boats, fishing trawlers, would get snagged on something and these early divers would go out on the fishing trawler, dive down, and it might just be an old barge or wooden  ship or might be a big freighter. And that’s how they identified a lot of the wrecks.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s interesting how the relationship between maritime history and maritime archaeology does revolve a great deal around fishermen who’ve been finding stuff for years, and without these people who’ve been harvesting the sea for its fish there are so many discoveries which we would have never come across.

     

    John Moyer 

    Oh yes, that’s absolutely true. So, really, these divers, they’re not really discovering the wrecks, the fishermen discover them. The divers just go down and identify them.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, it’s a wonderful job to do. Before we talk about the Andrea Doria give us a flavour of some of the wrecks that you’ve been lucky enough to dive on.

     

    John Moyer 

    Of course off the coast of New Jersey, there’s thousands of wrecks. There’s a wreck called the Carolina which  I think  sank around 1914. It was a World War One wreck in about 240 feet. And that was one of what they call the Black Sunday wrecks There were five ships sunk in one Sunday June 2. And so we d ove on a lot of them. Outside of New Jersey I’ve been over to Scapa Flow and Scotland. That was in 1985 or 1986.  So really not too many sport divers had dove over there at that point in time. I remember going over there, we hired a guy with a fishing boat, and there were four of us, w  had a coal stove on board to keep us warm. And he would take us out, drop us off on a wreck and then come back an hour later and pick us up. So that was you know, an adventure back then. And then probably my other favourite wreck besides the Andrea Doria is the Empress of Ireland in the Saint Laurence River.  And you know, it’s surprising tha  wreck really isn’t that well known to the general public. Even in the dive community they don’t talk about it that much. But in the early to mid 1990’s we went up there four times. It’s about 14 hours for me  because I live in Southern Jersey. And that’s off Rimouski in Canada. So we went out there four years in a row for a week or 10 days at a time. So I got in about 40 total dives on that wreck.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That’s a lot. Well, maybe I should come back to you and talk to you about the wreck of the Empress of Ireland. So for our listeners, we have featured the Empress of Ireland on our maritime disaster series. So do please go and check that episode out. So John, now to the Andrea Doria.  How did you get interested in that ship, particularly that wreck?

     

    John Moyer 

    Well, when I took my basic scuba course in 1975, the guy who taught me took me to a dive show put on by a group called the EDA Eastern Divers Association. It was a diving club. And those were the guys who were diving on all the wrecks off  New Jersey at the time. And they went out and dove on the Andrea Doria in the  early 70s. And so when I’m at that dive show I met a bunch of guys and they were telling me about this big giant ocean liner that was in 250 feet of water. The closest point of land was 50 miles from Nantucket Island. They were telling me that there were rough seas, that there were strong currents, poor visibility, it was covered with nets and was a big wreck over on its side so it was easy to get lost in, but with in telling me all about that I wanted to go out and see it for myself.

     

    John Moyer 

    So that’s the kind of of thing that would make me not want to go

     

    John Moyer 

    I mean that’s  the first time I heard about the Andrew Doria, and that’s really what got me started. So that was in 1975, and then it took me about six or seven years to build up the experience to handle that type of dive. So my first dive on the Andrea Doria was in 1982.

     

    Sam Willis 

    OK, and has the wreck changed much since  the 80s.

     

    John Moyer 

    Oh yes, quite a bit.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Let’s go back to the 80’s. First off, after the collision she rolls on her side and then she sinks in 200 feet of water. Does the vessel end up like that  on the seabed?  What actually happened in the sinking process?

     

    John Moyer 

    Well, it took 11 hours for her to sink and immediately after the collision took on a 20 degree list. And the collision happened at 11 o’clock at night and overnight the list increased. And then eventually it was over, all the way over, on its starboard side.  About 10 o’clock the next morning, the bow sank first, went down bow first.  The ship is 700 feet long so the bow actually went down and hit the bottom. And then slowly, the stern sank after that. And so it’s over 90 degrees on its starboard side. So the decks back in the day were perpendicular to the sea floor. When I first dove in 1982, the funnel and bridge and two or three of the upper decks were already gone. So when when we hit the wreck we saw the big hull which was intact, and the promenade deck and the upper deck were still intact. But like I said, the top decks were already gone. And it stayed basically in that condition for 10 years, it didn’t  really change a whole lot. And then I guess, into the 90’s, early 90s, we started noticing more decks, more of the upper decks falling off. In the early days it had a bridge wing on the port side. And we would use that as our landmark; when we saw that bridge wing, we knew exactly where we were on the wreck. But then one year we went out there, I forget what the year was, 1994 or 1995,or something like that, and the bridge wing was  gone, and that section of the wreck had started to fall apart. And in the 80’s there’s a small crack, maybe like two inches wide, that ran from right in front of the bridge, down thehull to to the bottom of the hull. This is near the bow. And every year we could see that crack getting a little bit wider and wider. So now the entire bow has basically fallen off, and that crack is like 20 feet wide. So it started like a couple inches and now it’s about 20 feet wide.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Amazing. Very strong currents down there.

     

    John Moyer 

    It changes, it varies, it depends on the tide in the  current and the Gulf Stream. When the Gulf Stream comes in and gets closer to the wreck site, then the currents pick up. And again it changes with the tide and the moon and whatnot. So yes, it goes everything from dead with no current at all to a ripping current that’s impossible to dive in. There’s a lot of times we’ll get out there and hook into the wreck but the current is so strong you just have to sit there and wait for the current to die down some.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I was reading about it being described as the Mount Everest of wrecks; is that a fair description.

     

    John Moyer 

    Early on back in the day because of all the hazards that I spoke about before, yes, back then it was the Mount Everest of  diving. And that was about as deep as we were diving, that was a deep wreck at 250. Of course nowadays, they are diving twice that deep, but they have a lot more better equipment, more modern equipment. We didn’t have rebreathers on our first dives, we had twin 80 cubic foot aluminium tanks. We were diving straight air, and we were decompressing on air with the US Navy dive tables. And then later on in the 80s we  learned how to decompress on 02 and made it a little bit safer. And then in the early 90s a guy named Billy Deans down in Florida, Key West Florida, he developed trimix.  And he did a lot of trimix diving down in Florida and he came up to dive the New Jersey wrecks and he essentially introduced us in New Jersey to  trimix; that would have been 92 I think.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So for those who don’t know, could you just explain what the advantages of that are?

     

    John Moyer 

    Well, we try and mix it, it’s a helium mixture. So it offsets the effects of nitrogen and essentially eliminates nitrogen narcosis. So that’s the biggest benefit of it. So when we were diving it on air, yes, we were totally knocked out. But we survived.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes,, some some didn’t though, there seem to have been many deaths on the wreck.

     

    John Moyer 

    There have been, the latest count is 18 over the years. And it’s been for a variety of reasons, no one reason, a lot of the guys really shouldn’t have been there. They just didn’t have the experience to dive on a deep wreck in the North Atlantic, and they weren’t accustomed to the conditions. So because the water is  cold, usually about in the low 40s on the wreck, and for one of the divers, that was his first cold water dive, so I think that affected him. A couple of the guys got lost inside the wreck somehow. With some of the guys we don’t know exactly what  happened. They hit the surface without decompressing, but some of it’s speculation as to exactly what happened.  Yes,  it’s a variety of reasons.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, it must have been very bewildering down there, having it on its side and then easy to get disorientated,

     

    John Moyer 

    It is easy. I mean, when you hit the hull it’s just a big massive hole, like two football fields. So if you don’t have a landmark, like the bridge wing for example, you just see holes going out in every direction, so you don’t even know which way to swim. And if you’re away from the anchor line, and you get turned around on the hull, it’s very easy not to find the anchor line at the end of the dive. Going inside the wreck, when you start to go inside, your visibility is usually pretty good. But it gets so it’s very silty inside, and as soon as you kick in or pick up some artefacts or something inside, it kicks up the silt, and you could find yourself in zero visibility, you know, instantly. Usually we don’t run a line, we swim in and essentially memorise the route in and out.  A lot of times, you just have to feel your way out because the visibility gets so bad. Other times when we were working in area making multiple dives in one specific area of the wreck inside, then yes, we would run a line to that area, set up strobes and everything, because we knew we were going in and out.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It sounds completely terrifying. I am quite happy if you stopped talking about it now.  Let’s talk about the artefacts, picking up artefacts. It’s all so easy to forget when the ship sinks like that, and it was in pristine condition when it went down, it wasn’t destroyed by a bomb or  by destruction in the war. So sure, there was a collision but a lot of the ship was in excellent condition. So tell me about some of the artefacts that you’ve come across.

     

    John Moyer 

    So we’ve gotten a lot of dishes in China and silverware. We made a lot of dives into the first class dining room.  And to get there, there were some doors on the port side hull that were cut off by some early divers. So we would drop down in that hole and get down to  about the 200 foot level. And then there was a corridor,  you swim aft and that will put you in the first class dining room. And we just found piles of dishes in china and then we found some cabinets and everything. But again, when  you swim into that dining room, the visibility could turn to zero.  Really what we would have to do, the floor, which is now the wall, was linoleum, so when you were in there, zero visibility. If you swam and got your hands on that linoleum floor, you knew you could follow that out and that would put you out to the hole.  But so we made a lot of dives in that dining room,,and then eventually we found the second and third class dining rooms. So  we got some nice windows from the ship, from the lido deck. Big. They weigh about 75 pounds of brass, brass framed, and they opened like a car window, they had a crank on it. So  when the ship was sailing, they turned the crank and the actual window went up and down in in the window frame. So we found a lot of them. Of course, in 1985, my friend Bill Nagel put together a trip to go out and look for the bell.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Let’s talk about the bell,  that’s always important in a shipwreck. Where did you find it? Did you find it? The story?

     

    John Moyer 

    Yes and no. Our plan was to go out and look for the main bell. And of course bells are usually found in the bow of the ship. So we went out there, we anchored into the bow, and we spent three days in the bow searching for the bell. Before we go any farther on that dive I was on the trip. But I wasn’t able to dive on that trip because a week prior to going out we were testing a Broco torch in about 190 feet of water on another wreck. And I ended up getting bent and getting  the whole evacuation by Coast Guard and into the chamber. So I couldn’t dive for a while after that. But I went  on the trip anyway. So they made three days of diving in in the bow looking for the bell. We found the bell davit but no bell was hanging in it. So then Gary Gentile had this idea to move to the stern of the wreck because on a lot of ships, there’s an after steering station in the stern and sometimes they have the bell. So we move  down to the stern of the wreck and yes we found a bell there. It weighs about 140 pounds, brass or bronz, and has the name Andrea Doria 1952 on it. So  we did recover that.

     

    Sam Willis 

    How did you get it up to the surface?

     

    John Moyer 

    It was hanging in a davit so what we did was that night we found that one day and overnight we actually knitted a big net out of rope. And we took the net down and wrapped that around the bell, put a lift bag on the net and knocked the pin out and then  we sent the bell up in this net on a lift bag.  It worked.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well done. And  tell me about the ceramic panels which you’ve raised as well. They sound wonderful because, again, for those of us  who are listening and haven’t listened to the first episode, do please listen to the first episode, because we described the ship and it was a floating art gallery, wasn’t it?

     

    John Moyer 

    It was, it was advertised as a floating art gallery. It was filled with paintings and murals and sculptures and had a life sized bronze statue of Admiral Andrea Doria onboard. So yes, I knew about the artwork on board and of course all the paintings and murals they were long gone. But you know, I thought the ceramics might still be in good shape. So I knew about them, but I didn’t know where they were exactly on the ship. So I had contact with some people in Italy who had worked for Ansaldo and actually designed and built the ship. So they sent me a photograph of the panels. So I was able to look at the photograph, and I matched that up with the deck plans. So I knew exactly where these panels would have been on the ship. But I didn’t know if they would still be there on the wreck because who knows? So my friend Billy Deans came up from Florida and made a dive into the ships Winter Garden, where I thought that the panels would be. The Winter Garden was a lounge in the first class section of the ship. So we swam into the Winter Gardens and we found the two panels. They had broken free and were lying  on the interior wall, which is now the floor of the wreck. So they were lying there. So we checked them all out and of course, I couldn’t raise them on that trip, I wasn’t prepared for that. So we came back in, and later on I put  a team of divers together. I called up about 12 of my best friends who happened to be the best divers in my opinion in the world at the time, all experienced with the Andrea Doria and deep wreck diving.  And I chartered a boat, the RV Wahoo which I  knew had experience taking divers to the Andrea Doria. And so I took this team now, and we had 20 people on board total with cooks and topside crew and captains and whatnot. And the plan was to go down and raise the panels. And so yes we went in, we rig them up with heavy lifting straps. They were in the Winter Garden, you had to swim in about 20 or 25 feet to get to the panels. So there was an opening back behind that, so we had to rig them up inside and put a lift bag on them and get them neutrally buoyant, raise them up just a little bit. And then we guided them down until they were underneath the opening in the wreck and then inflate the bag more and then send them up to the surface. So there  were two panels.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Where are they now?

     

    John Moyer 

    Right now I have them in storage, but I have had them on display. I’ve done several Andrea Doria artefact exhibits in Philadelphia and New York. And so yes, I’ve had them on display. My goal is eventually to have a full time and permanent artefact exhibit somewhere and have them on display. So that’s my philosophy with artefacts. I  know that there’s people that say shipwrecks should be preserved and left  alone. But anybody that goes wreck diving knows that these wrecks are falling apart and they’re deteriorating. And if the artefacts aren’t recovered they’re going to eventually be lost forever. Nobody’s  ever going to see them. I like to bring the artefacts up. I’ve done dozens of artefact displays and exhibits, and the general public I think really enjoys seeing all this stuff that we’ve brought up. And then we’ve recovered the Gambone panels in 1993. And by 1996, when we went back out to the wreck, the Winter Garden where the panels were, was completely gone. It had deteriorated, fallen apart, and was just a giant pile of rubble. So if we hadn’t recovered those panels, when we did, they would have been lost and nobody would have ever seen them. So

     

    Sam Willis 

    What about more personal items, do you come across anything that’s more personal to the crew or the the passengers on board,

     

    John Moyer 

    Actually on my very first dive on the wreck, of course remember the ship was scheduled to dock seven o’clock the morning after the collision, you know it’s heading  into New York. So  everybody had all their bags packed and they were ready to be off loaded. So on my very first dive on the Promenade Deck, I was swimming along and I found two silver jewellery boxes that weren’t part of the ships outfitting, they must have belonged to a passenger, but they’re not very ornate silver jewellery boxes that somebody must have bought in Italy, and were bringing them home. I mean, unfortunately there’s no way I could track down who they belonged to. If  I could have I would have returned them but that’s one of the personal items that  I’ve recovered.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well, it’s been a wonderful story hearing it all from you, John, thank you very much indeed for sharing it today.

     

    John Moyer 

    Yes, sir. It’s been my pleasure

     

    Sam Willis 

    Thank you all so much for listening now, please don’t let this be the last thing you do to interact with the Mariners Mirror podcast, go back to our brilliant back catalogue and check out a huge range of maritime history. Yes, we have our mini series on maritime disaster, but if you’re interested in technology, or myths and legends, or iconic ships, or shipbuilding, there’s something there for you. Please also don’t just listen to the podcast but please check out all of the fantastic videos on the YouTube page where there’s loads and loads of wonderful material including the use of artificial intelligence to bring ships figureheads alive. Yes, that’s an actual sentence. But the animation of battle plans, the use of 3d modelling, and the animation of some wonderful documents bringing maritime technology straight out of the past to you in a completely new way, you will not believe your eyes I promise you. Please also note that the podcast comes from both the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and Society for Nautical research. So do please check out everything that both institutions are doing. The Lloyd’s Register Foundations Archive and Education centre can be found at h e c.lr foundation.org.uk. and the Society for Nautical Research@snr.org.uk where you can join the Society.  Please do so and become part of the Society that has been helping to preserve maritime history for well over a century. And if you’re a member, you get to come to the annual dinner on board HMS Victory and that is something you will never, ever forget.

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