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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

06 December 2011

❖ SALVAGE OF DIAMOND KNOT'S CARGO ❖❖ by R. H. "Skipper" Calkins

Moored Seattle, WA.
Undated, original photo #3061-9 signed by Joe. D. Williamson
From the archives of the Saltwater People Historical Society.©
"During the many years I covered the Seattle waterfront, I wrote numerous shipwreck and cargo-salvage stories but none equalled the dramatic recovery of much of the valuable cargo of the Alaska freighter DIAMOND KNOT which sank in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, half a mile from the protected shores of Crescent Bay, 13 August 1947.
      It was men against the sea, victory over baffling handicaps in one of the most hazardous and difficult savage operations in the annals of shipping.
      On her ill-fated voyage, the DIAMOND KNOT, a motorship owned by the US Maritime Commission, was en route from Bristol Bay, Alaska, to Seattle. The 5,525-ton freighter made her way through choppy waters of the Straits of Juan de Fuca with her valuable cargo of choice red, chum, king, and coho salmon. En route to sea from Seattle was the 10,681-ton freighter FENN VICTORY. This vessel had only 200-tons of freight and her bow was high in the water as she steamed for Cape Flattery and the open sea.
      In the early morning darkness, with the Strait of Juan de Fuca covered with a shroud of fog, the two ships collided at a point about three miles off Race Rocks.
      The bow of the FENN VICTORY cut into the DIAMOND KNOT a distance of more than 14-ft on the ship's starboard side between No. 1 and No. 2 holds. It was evident that the FENN VICTORY had struck a fatal blow. The decks of the DIAMOND KNOT were awash. The bow of the FENN VICTORY, riding high in the water, had become entangled with the heavy cross tree on the main mast and rigging of the DIAMOND KNOT and the two ships were held in a death grip as they drifted down the strait with the fast-ebbing tide. On the rescue tug SALVAGE CHIEFTAIN, which had answered the distress calls of the two ships, was burning equipment. It was taken aboard the DIAMOND KNOT and the two ships finally were cut free.
      The MATHILDA FOSS and FOSS 21, the first tugs to find the distressed ships in the early morning darkness, placed lines on the DIAMOND KNOT and began towing her, stern first, toward the protected waters of Crescent Bay, Olympic Peninsula. It was planned to beach the DIAMOND KNOT and save her precious cargo. However, water rushed into her No. 2 and No. 3 holds, posing a serious problem.
      There was further trouble ahead for the rescue tugs. The strongest currents in the Strait of Juan de Fuca are at the entrance to Crescent Bay and off Tongue Point, which forms a gateway to the east of the entrance. Of almost equal strength are the currents that run their course off Crescent Reef, guarding the entrance to the west.
      Caught in these vicious waters, the mortally wounded ship rolled over on her side and disappeared in 135 feet of water, only half a mile from the shores of Crescent Bay, at 8:55 a.m. On that 13th day of August 1947, the tired and anxious crews of the MATHILDA FOSS and FOSS 21 watched the sturdy freighter go to her death.
      The sinking of the DIAMOND KNOT resulted in the largest collision cargo loss in the waters of the Pacific Coast.
      News of the ship tragedy immediately was sent to the Seattle branch office of the Fireman's Fund Insurance Co, one of the principal underwriters, where machinery instantly was set in motion to indemnify those assureds who had sustained economic loss of staggering proportions. The initial Insurance Co. work led to the prompt payment of a claim to one cargo owner in an amount totaling $982,258.55. This payment was made jointly by the Fireman's Fund Insurance Co and the Sea Insurance Co, who with their re insurers, share this business of the shipper. In quick succession, a second check was issued through the Seattle office of Fireman's Fund in the amount of $2,053,365.68. Four days later, a third principal assured made claim to Fireman's Fund and promptly was paid in the amount of $369,767.10. Under a separate cargo policy, Fireman's Fund provided indemnity to the owners of the fishboat RUTH B. which was lost from the deck of the DIAMOND KNOT. The claim, an amount exceeding $16,000 was paid for the RUTH B, and miscellaneous under-deck shipments. Under a second seaman's form of policy, Fireman's Fund also paid claims totaling $12,000 for the personal effects of the crew of the DIAMOND KNOT.
      Fireman's Fund then turned to the possibility of recovering and restoring the lost cargo of much needed food to the world's critically depleted markets. For this task, a salvage team had to be selected.
      Walter L. Martignoni, of Pillsbury & Martignoni, was hired to direct salvage operations. Next assignment, as prime salvage contractors to supply equipment and personnel required for the operation, went to the Foss Launch & Tug Co.
      Extraordinary daring of 16 deep-sea divers under the direction of Walter A McCray of Seattle, stocky, dynamic, adventurer, who was in charge of all undersea work; and the unexcelled skill of Walter L. Martignoni of San Francisco, who contrived two giant siphon pipe lines, which literally sucked canned salmon cargo from the holds of the DIAMOND KNOT, were responsible for this spectacular salvage feat.
      Martignoni's underwater vacuum cleaner brought up from a 135-ft depth where the DIAMOND KNOT was lying on her side, 5,744,496 cans of the 7,407,168-can cargo of the vessel, valued at $3,500,000. Total gross salvage recovery of salmon exceeded $2,100.000 in value.
      Walter McCray, a fearless, capable worker below the waters, is known throughout the entire Pacific Northwest for his daring, and there have been few underwater salvage undertakings in the history of maritime disasters in this area in which McCray's ability does not loom high. Fred Devine, master diver of the Columbia River district, was appointed to assist McCray in the undersea operations.
      It was admitted that defeat or victory in the battle against the seas covering the DIAMOND KNOT and her valuable cargo was to be determined by these carefully selected captains of the salvage team.
      Martignoni decided that cutting out the ships side and removing the cargo into barges by lifting with magnets was impractical, due to the small amount of tin in the cans. Removing the cargo by stevedoring methods also was impractical because of the vicious tidal conditions and the depth of the water at the scene, which would allow divers to work for only limited periods.
      There was only one method remaining for the salvage of the cargo--to build two 12-inch siphon pipe lines which would suck the sought-after treasure of canned salmon from the holds of the DIAMOND KNOT. Siphons had been used in removing water, gravel, and small lumps of coal and coin from limited depths, but there was no record to show that such a method would raise one-pound cans of salmon from a water-depth of 135-ft.
      The siphon plan required the creation of tremendous volumes of air to be forced into the siphons at great depth. To accomplish this, large air compressors were necessary to free the cans of salmon from their cartons. Powerful Navy fire-fighting jet pumps were obtained for this purpose. Two large caterpillar tractor-crane hoists, secured on a barge, were used to lower the cumbersome siphon pipe lines into holes cut in the ship's side.
      McCray sent urgent calls to port cities from Canada to Mexico, bringing the most skillful divers to the scene*.
Lead diving boots once used by Al Abrahamsen.
Artifact from the S.P.H.S.
Much equipment had to be provided, including decompression chambers, diver's suits, helmets, lead belts & shoes, and miles of air and communication lines.
      Finally, expert divers, including skilled burners from the Puget Sound Navy Yard, went over the side of the salvage-equipment barge and began the work of cutting the ship's skin with the latest development in underwater burning equipment. These tools consisted of a hollow carbon rod through which the diver released a mixture of oxygen passing through the carbon rod, created terrific heat, and burned away the ship's skin.
      The ingenious cargo-siphoning plan worked as divers below guided the ends of the pipelines within a few feet of the cartons containing the salmon. Out of the twisting pipes came partially disintegrated cartons and cans--golden one-pound containers of salmon--that glistened in the sun as they fell on the receiving barge.
Canned salmon salvage from the wreck of
 the DIAMOND KNOT, 1947.
Original photo from the archives of the Saltwater People Hist. Society© 
      However, it was far from a one-sided battle. The crews on 12-hour shifts fought the fury of winds and rains that rushed in from the open sea. Lines were snapped and the siphons were bent and buckled by the force of the waves. Many times, divers were forced to the surface by vicious currents that strained on their lifelines and tore at their suits as they clung to the ship's skin. These barrel-chested men would be pulled up in haste, without time to decompress and were it not for the mechanical aid of decompression chambers, their fate would have been the dreaded afflictions resulting from the bends. There were serious cases of this disease before the operation was completed.
      When tide and current conditions were at their best, divers remained below to feed the siphons sucking their way into the cargo. Under favorable conditions, each siphon sucked an estimated 1,000 gallons of water per minute and deposited c. 800 cans of salmon on the receiving barge.
      More than 90% of the port side of the DIAMOND KNOT eventually was cut away and the two underwater vacuum cleaners were lowered from hold to hold to suck at the canned salmon cargo.
      The victorious salvage operation continued until 29 October when air and water leading into the siphon pipeline manifolds were shut off and the work brought to an end. Only 10,000 cases of canned salmon remained in inaccessible sections of the DIAMOND KNOT. One of the most dramatic salvage projects in the history of the maritime industry had been brought to a successful conclusion."
Text from High Tide by R.H. Calkins, The Marine Digest Publishing Company, Inc. 1952.

*Al Abrahamsen (1909-1979) born and raised at Doe Bay,
Orcas Island, WA, was one of the divers chosen for the deep-sea work
on the DIAMOND KNOT. He was the last diver to man the business end
of a siphon hose below. Al revisited the wreck site the following year to
attempt more salvage. He succeeded in laying claim to the RUTH-B, 
renamed the SUSAN-A for his wife, and used for the next 15 years
 in his private diving business, often with his brother Harry.
Above photo from the Seattle P-I, 30 October 1947.

1 comment:

  1. I love the picture of the lead diving boots! What a treat the article is, too.


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