Finding the R-8

A major upgrade to side-scan sonar helps the crew of Tenacious locate a sunken World War I submarine in Northeast waters
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The 186-foot-long R-8 is believed to be the last missing American sub in diveable North Atlantic waters

The 186-foot-long R-8 is believed to be the last missing American sub in diveable North Atlantic waters

Joseph St. Amand, sitting across from the helm aboard the 45-foot Tenacious, was the first to see the seafloor change. The images flashed on his sonar monitor for a total of 30, 40, maybe 50 seconds. He couldn’t be sure what they showed, but he knew they looked dramatically different from the previous images. “We’ve got something,” he remembers saying. “We’ve got something big.”

Capt. Joe Mazraani, watching his own monitor at the helm, remembers the moment the same way. “We knew we had something,” he says. “We had an idea. But it wasn’t until a little later that we realized we had the actual target.”

The target was the 186-foot-long R-8, one of 27 R-class submarines the U.S. Navy commissioned during World War I. The Fore River shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, had built her in 1918, and she’d gone on to transit the Panama Canal and become part of the Pacific Fleet before returning to the East Coast. In 1936, after she sank in the yard, the Navy raised her and used her for an aerial bombing test. The munitions delivered R-8 to a spot off the coast of Maryland that, until the magic moment aboard Tenacious in late November, nobody had been able to pinpoint.

Exactly how Mazraani, his crew and the Tenacious ended up there almost a century after the R-8 sank is a story that begins a decade ago—with Mazraani taking a chance on a boat that needed some love.

Joe Mazraani decompresses after a dive.

Joe Mazraani decompresses after a dive.

Mazraani, who is a criminal defense attorney in New Jersey, has long spent his spare time underwater. He explored wrecks as a recreational diver, then started doing salvage work. Today, that work through Atlantic Wreck Salvage helps to pay the bills while funding his passion for finding vessels lost to history.

In 2010, a broker showed Mazraani a listing for a Novi, which is what Canadians call the Downeast-style fishing boats around Nova Scotia. She’d been built in 2003 and had a ton of deck space, which Mazraani needed for his dive and salvage efforts. The vessel also, he recalls, “was on her way to becoming another dilapidated fishing boat. It was a good time for her to retire from fishing and get handed over to somebody who would just do a number and turn it around.”

For the next decade, Tenacious got a slow-motion makeover. The four bunks belowdecks were removed to make room for six new ones, and the head was moved outside to the spot of the old station for hauling lobster pots. Mazraani installed a foldout bench abaft the helm, creating space for two more people to sleep. He changed out the captain’s chair, added a rubber sole atop the fiberglass decking inside, and repainted everything. He also redid the hydraulics so the boat could lift 2,000 pounds.

“The idea was to build this boat that was a serious working dive boat, a serious salvage-dive boat,” he says. “We wanted to have the range to be able to reach far, far from shore, and to get there safely with the right equipment.”

The crew, with Mazraani in center, waits for sonar to pick up signs of the wreckage

The crew, with Mazraani in center, waits for sonar to pick up signs of the wreckage

All that work paid off big time when, in 2012, Mazraani and his team discovered the remains of U-550, the last German U-boat believed to remain in diveable North Atlantic waters. That success got him and his mentor, Eric Takakjian, thinking that they should next look for the R-8, which is believed to be the last missing American submarine in diveable North Atlantic waters.

“There are many submarines out there, but we’re aware of them. We know where they are and what they are,” he says. “With R-8, we thought it was in waters that were able to be dived.”

Yet another upgrade aboard Tenacious proved Mazraani and his team right. In
August 2020, he and St. Amand went to Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey to collect crates so big, they needed two pickup trucks to haul them out to Montauk, New York, where Tenacious was positioned. It then took the team two days to sort through everything in the crates, eventually putting together the Klein System 3000.

The Klein System 3000 is not new tech—according to its manufacturer, navies and underwater surveyors have used it since 2002—but it’s tech that Mazraani says can cost upwards of $50,000, and that doesn’t find its way onto most salvage boats that people use to find shipwrecks as a hobby. Its components are a computer that the crew uses to interface with a black-box processing unit, which in turn connects to a cable that contains wires. Those wires deliver instructions to, and information back from, “the fish.” The fish is what the crew calls a side-scan sonar device about 4 or 5 feet long that gets towed behind the boat, collecting imagery from the seafloor.

Sonar image of the R-8

Sonar image of the R-8

This system takes at least two people to operate. Mazraani, in the skipper’s chair, watches a monitor and maneuvers the boat to make sure the fish stays about 50 feet off the seafloor. St. Amand, from his own monitor across from the helm, adjusts the range the fish is scanning and, thus, the types of images coming back.

At the start of a search for a target like the R-8, the team “mows the lawn,” setting up a search grid for where they think the target might be, based on historical research, and then cruising up and down that grid at 3 to 4 knots. The first pass usually reveals a few things they want to get a closer look at, so they go back and collect more data at around 3 knots.

During the search for the R-8, they repeated that process for three days, with no major results. Then, on the first day of a second trip, came the moment when they saw something big on the monitors.

They never can tell what they’re seeing for sure, they say, until the imagery gets processed back at home. St. Amand uses software called SonarWiz that, much as with Adobe Photoshop and a photograph, lets him “clean up the noise” to get a better look. The team then matches the details in the sonar imagery with historical photographs, working with other experts to confirm the discovery. “On this one, there were the spray rails on the conning tower,” St. Amand says. “That’s a very distinctive feature.”

R-boats, all fitted with gun platforms, are nested together in May 1920.

R-boats, all fitted with gun platforms, are nested together in May 1920.

For now, that’s as good as the information about the R-8 will get. The Tenacious team isn’t revealing the sub’s exact location until they get a chance, during the June-July weather window, to dive and see her with their own eyes. Between now and then, Mazraani says, they’re kicking around ideas for wrecks they think they can find next. He’s also looking to upgrade the engine aboard the boat from a 400-hp Cummins inboard to a 700-hp Cummins, which will shave time off cruising to and from promising sites.

Mazraani says he knows, as a boat owner, the upgrades will never be done, but after a decade with Tenacious, he is now finally where he dreamed he could be. “I’ve always had the vision of getting to this point,” he says. “It just takes a while to get to that level.” 

This article was originally published in the March 2021 issue.

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