The Wreck of the Jessica Ann
A near tragedy becomes the newest Northeast dive
Every drunken skipper trusts to Providence. But one of the ways of Providence with drunken skippers is to run them on the rocks.
--George Bernard Shaw, Heartbreak House
By all accounts, the night of January 20, In the last year of the 20th Century was cold and clear as the Jessica Ann pulled her lines and silently slipped away from a pier in Portland Harbor. No wind, and the air was brittle, as cold winter nights in Maine ofter are. A short time later, the only evidence remaining of the Jessica Ann was a slight sheen on the surface of the ocean several miles away.
The Jessica Ann was owned by Gulf of Maine Trawlers, a Delaware corporation. The 80 foot diesel-powered fishing trawler was registered in Maine and based out of Massachusetts. She carried a crew of five, Captain Zenon Gogola, who was the sole owner of Gulf of Maine Trawlers, Ken Davis and three other sailors.
Gogola and Davis each had 28 years experience at sea.
According to court records, on the night of February 19th, 2000, Gogola, Davis and other crew members were gathered at an unnamed Portland pub to eat and drink. The crew’s beverage of choice was beer; according to later tests most of the crew apparently enjoyed a lot of beer that night. Around midnight, the captain and crew left the bar and headed back to the ship.
Gogola later said he stayed up to mend nets and drink more beer while Davis and the others hit their racks to catch a few hours sleep. At around 0200, Gogola roused Davis, told him to get the ship underway, and then hit the sack himself. Their intended destination was the Wilkison Basin fishing grounds which runs offshore from Southern Maine to Cape Cod.
They never made it.
The Final Resting Place
Davis piloted the Jessica Ann in calm seas with no wind and good visibility through the dark and cold. The trawler chugged along at 8 knots, fatefully carrying thousands of gallons of diesel fuel. After clearing Portland Harbor, Davis switched on the auto-pilot. He never took a manual fix to ensure the ship’s position on the charts. The ship’s compass had a deviation card nearby, something used to correct the built in error in the compass. Davis admitted he did not check the card and did not know if the card was dated or when the compass was last calibrated.
At about 0400 Davis heard a loud cracking sound. The Jessica Ann had struck Alden Rock in Casco Bay and had only minutes left on the surface. Captain Gogola heard the collision and ran to the Pilot house just as a bilge alarm began blaring. The captain descended to the engine room and to his horror found a cracked seam below the starboard fuel tank. He immediately started all bilge four pumps but they were no match for the icy Atlantic water rapidly flooding his ship.
The situation aboard the fishing trawler was dire; the boat was taking on water from a cracked bulkhead and sinking rapidly. The water was frigid and the air temperature was about ten degrees Fahrenheit, meaning death by hypothermia was a very real threat. It was about 0430 and Captain Gogola gave the order to abandon the Jessica Ann. That’s when he discovered the radio was not working.
One of the crew managed to shoot off three flares before abandoning ship. Then crewmembers donned survival suits and climbed into a life raft. A short time later the Jessica Ann silently slipped beneath the frigid waves of the Atlantic Ocean to her final resting place nearly 150 feet beneath the surface where she remains today, with nearby Anthony Rock as her tombstone.
Miraculously, someone ashore saw the flares and notified the Coast Guard to a potential emergency off the coast of Cape Elizabeth. A coast guard rescue team swung into action and discovered the crew later that morning, floating in a life raft near Alden Rock. When rescue workers pulled the crew aboard the rescue craft they treated the sailors for hypothermia. Remarkably, none of the crew was seriously injured.
Shortly after 0700 the medical team tested Gogola and found he had a blood alcohol level of 0.11. When they tested Davis a few minutes later, his level was 0.12. The legal limit of blood alcohol concentration for someone operating a commercial vessel is 0.04. Only a single member of the crew did not have alcohol in his system according to the tests.
Eventually Gogola and Davis were charged with various crimes related to the sinking of the Jessica Ann. Both pled guilty.
The Jessica Ann Now
Today the Jessica Ann rests in her cool watery grave in remarkably good shape a few short miles off the coast of Cape Elizabeth, Maine. She landed intact on her starboard side and her bow is points approximately southeast, although it is likely that north Atlantic storms will alter her orientation from time to time. The wreck still bears the fishing nets that were her purpose in life and her wheel house is attached.
In the spring of 2009, a team of highly experienced divers from Maine Divers Scuba Center in Portland made several trips to the wreck of the Jessica Ann aboard the m/v SeaQuest to prepare her as a new dive destination; in the process, they became the first known recreational divers to reach the trawler. Team members included Captain Bill Thornton, George Rothweiler, and Jim Ouellette from Maine Divers; commercial diver Steve Harmon, technical divers Scott Heffernan, Scott Adams, Jim Dougherty and Luis Heros; and photographer and dive journalist Jeff Toorish.
Scuba in the Gulf of Maine is for hearty divers, and this is one of the best wreck dives in the area, perhaps the best. The trawler is in excellent shape with intricate growth along its length. It is important to point out that, as George Rothweiler puts it, this is a “varsity dive.” Anyone interested in this wreck needs a minimum of advanced open water and should have experience in cold water dives and decompression theory.
Getting to the Jessica Ann dive site takes about a half hour from Sunset Marina in South Portland so it is a very manageable day trip even with two dives. Because of the depth, divers should consider doubles or a rebreather. At the very least, a large single tank and pony bottle are required.
One of the problems associated with the Jessica Ann shortly after its sinking was the large store of diesel fuel on the boat. The coast guard estimated the trawler carried between 8,000 and 12,000 gallons of fuel at the time of her sinking; the Environmental Protection Agency suggested the number was 10,000 gallons. Coast Guard rescue workers reported seeing a sheen on the water as they were rescuing the Jessica Ann’s crew members. A ship leaking thousands of gallons of fuel in the Gulf of Maine would be an environmental nightmare.
According to EPA documents, the leak was plugged and later the trawler’s fuel tanks were pumped out. The environmental clean-up cost nearly a million dollars and was the subject of a heated court battle between the government and the Jessica Ann’s insurance company.
No member of the Maine Divers team reported detecting any leaking fuel either in the water or during subsequent inspection of diving gear.
Diving the wreck is an exercise in classic northeast diving. Water temperatures on the surface can rise to the 60’s briefly in summer, but temperatures at depth are unlikely to ever hit 50. Staying warm is very important. A rebreather helps keep retain warmth because it supplies warm moist air, as opposed to open circuit’s cold dry air. Another option to help with warmth is using a regulator with thermal transfer technology such as the Aqualung Legend Glacia that actually transfers warmth from the water to the diver.
Descending on the mooring line affixed to the bow, divers can expect very low visibility until about 100 feet after which the water is likely to be clear and will certainly be very dark. Thanks to the work of the Maine Divers team, the primary descent line on the bow is complimented by a safety line on the stern so in the event a diver finds himself or herself in the aft part of the ship and needs to ascend, there is no need to return to the bow.
Because the original nets still cling to the Jessica Ann, along with ghost nets lost by other fishing boats, there are some significant entanglement hazards. Coupled with the relative dark, this is not a dive for novices. However, it is an excellent dive for experienced divers, preferably with at least some technical experience.
This is also the near perfect dive for divers and instructors looking for a technical training area. The wreck offers exactly the kind of location suited for practicing the techniques of technical diving. It is only a short boat ride from shore, has uplines from both stern and aft, is in the technical range and offers clear challenges for technical dive students.
The wreck of the Jessica Ann sports abundant life. The Maine Divers team reported Rose Fish, Cod and Sea Bass that apparently have made the trawler their home. The sides and rails of the boat teem with anemones and other sea plants which give it the look of a Caribbean reef in places. The propeller assembly is large and intact and makes for a fascinating part of the dive.
Because the wreck is only about 80 feet long, it is very manageable to swim its entire length on a single dive, especially in doubles. Because the ship is lying on its side, the superstructure over hangs the wreck in a dramatic fashion. This can cause a bit of disorientation so be aware of that feature when you are planning your dive.
Maine Divers Scuba Center is the only dive operator currently making trips to the Jessica Ann. They are also planning to search for additional wrecks in the area to encourage more technical and advanced open water diving off Maine’s storied coast.
For divers planning a trip to the Jessica Ann, a dry suit is your best bet for thermal protection but a thick wetsuit may get you through in late July and August. Bigger is better when it comes to tank sizes and you should have some serious candle power with you to best enjoy this wreck. Be prepared for an excellent dive to New England’s newest divable shipwreck.
Jeff Toorish is an experienced technical diver and has numerous expeditions to his credit, including cave exploration in the Yucatan Jungle and altitude lake diving in Guatemala where he has worked to discover and document Mayan archaeological relics. He is a certified rebreather diver and advanced open water and specialty instructor. He is the Chief Photojournalist for Advanced Diver Magazine and the scuba expert for the Club Med Website, www.clubmedinsider.com He lives in Maine with his family of avid divers.