The Storm Petrel motored from Shinnecock Inlet out to a location 30 miles south of New York’s Montauk Point, reaching a stretch of water Capt. John Noonan had learned about a dozen years earlier. When the anchor was set, the first pair of divers donned dry suits and rebreathers and descended 220 feet to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The group’s goal on September 22, 2016, was to explore an unidentified shipwreck.
Andrew Favata and John Bricker spent a half hour looking around on the bottom, where the water temperature was 40 degrees and the visibility negligible. Fishing nets engulfed the remnants of the ship, making it difficult to even make out its shape. “It looked like a rock pile,” Favata says. As they began their two-hour ascent along the anchor line for decompression, they felt the whole exercise was a waste of time. When they resurfaced, Favata says, “we gave it two thumbs down.” They told the rest of the crew that they should go somewhere else to dive.
But since they were there, Noonan and the fourth diver on the boat, Jim DiSciullo, decided to go down and take a look. When they reached the bottom, DiSciullo says, “I swam 15 feet and saw an ink bottle laying there.” It was one of multiple bottles they found on that first dive.
At the time, the men didn’t realize they had taken the first steps toward solving a mystery that dated back to the closing days of the Civil War. It took four more dives over the next two years and then two more years of research before they realized they had found the final resting place of the sailing packet Adriatic. It was the largest and most valuable of 33 prizes captured by the commerce raider CSS Tallahassee in August 1864 in the last raid by a Confederate warship into northern waters before the end of the war. And the team isn’t finished yet. They plan to revisit the site this diving season in search of more artifacts that will conclusively prove that the wreck they located is the Adriatic.
Origins of Discovery
“Finding the wreck of Adriatic is an amazing discovery,” said Harrison Hunt, co-author of Long Island and the Civil War. “It highlights how close the Civil War came to home.”
Historians had a general idea of where the Adriatic had sunk after the Confederates set it on fire. And fishing boat captains had recorded the coordinates of an unknown wreck after their nets repeatedly snagged on it. Noonan of Hampton Bays, New York, started the process of discovery and identification when he bought a boat from one of those commercial captains.
“In the early 2000s I met a guy in a marina at Shinnecock, a 70-year-old fisherman whose boat I had admired for years,” says Noonan. “We became friends and went out fishing together.” In 2003, the captain told Noonan he was moving away and asked if he wanted to buy his 32-foot Pickerell. He did, and re-christened it Storm Petrel. “It came with a list of [fishing net-snagging] hang numbers to different wrecks that he had compiled over the years,” Noonan says. “There was one particular set of numbers that seemed interesting, so I went out to the wreck in 2004 and spent about 30 minutes ‘mowing the lawn’ trying to find it. Soon, the structure began rising on the sonar screen.”
At that point, Noonan began in earnest to examine the layout of the bottom structure using sonar and GPS. There appeared to be approximately 8 feet of relief and well over 100 feet of length to the unknown object. “I immediately began to wonder what lay on the ocean floor approximately 220 feet below the boat,” says Noonan. “At the time I wasn’t a certified diver, so the next year I got certified and worked up to the point where I could do a deep dive.”
By September 2016 he had gained the necessary experience to help him explore the site. Noonan had sold his first Storm Petrel three years earlier and bought a 31-foot BHM built in 1980. The seller had stripped the boat to undertake a complete makeover that never happened. “This was the perfect situation because it allowed me to customize the boat to suit my needs,” Noonan says. He had the boat rebuilt out of state, a decision he came to regret because the work was never done on time or properly. Noonan brought it back to Long Island and hired an experienced repair man. The boat was outfitted specifically for diving and renamed Storm Petrel.
Building the Team
With the new boat in functional shape, Noonan gathered a team of experienced divers for exploring the shipwreck. There were six men, although not all of them were on every dive. The divers, all but one from Long Island, New York, all worked as mates on commercial dive boats and met on dive trips. Between them they have 183 years of dive experience.
Noonan, 47, grew up on the east end of Long Island and spent much of his youth fishing, boating with his family and snorkeling around Shinnecock Inlet. After getting certified in 2005, he began wreck diving and crewing part-time on dive charter boats on Long Island. He obtained a Coast Guard captain’s license in 2008. His diving explorations have taken him to the Philippines, the Seychelles and Scotland.
Ben Roberts, 37, became a certified diver at age 15 after scaring his parents by building his own scuba rig and submerging in Lake Tahoe. He completed technical diver training in 2008 after moving to New York City to begin a career in corporate finance and investments. Soon after, he began crewing on dive boats. He became increasingly focused on shipwreck hunting, assembling a database of 60,000 underwater obstructions, acquiring a boat and sonar imaging system, and founding Eastern Search & Survey, a provider of diving services. A resident of Amagansett on Long Island’s east end, he has participated in many dive expeditions in the 200- to 300-foot depth range, including USS Monitor, World War II Japanese vessels in Thailand, and many historic wrecks along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. He has also worked as a commercial diver.
John Bricker from Bay Shore has been diving the waters off Long Island since 1983. A decade later he began working on local dive boats, eventually obtaining his 100-ton master’s license in 2001. The 53-year-old’s diving experience includes time spent in the waters of the Philippines, and he has visited more than 100 wrecks, including the Andrea Doria.
Patrick Rooney, 57, started working at age 13 on fishing boats, which sparked his interest in diving. He was certified at 15 and has been a member of many deep diving expeditions, including those that located the submarines U-869 off the coast of New Jersey in 1991 and USS Spikefish, sunk as a target off Long Island in 1964. This tile setter from Copiague earned his 100-ton captain’s license in 2011.
Brooklyn-born Andrew Favata, 52, is Noonan’s rebreather instructor and an elevator constructor from Bethpage. He made his first dive in 1982. After three years as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, he got married and settled in Brooklyn. He began working on dive boats in 2007 and earned his 100-ton master’s license in 2014. The wrecks he has explored include USS Spikefish.
Jim DiSciullo, 45, began diving in Long Island Sound in 1995. He has worked as a commercial diver and crewed on several dive boats. A firefighter from the Crestwood neighborhood in Yonkers, just north of New York City, he is currently a captain on M/V Tempest out of Freeport. His dive travels have taken him from Scotland’s Shetland Islands to Truk Lagoon in the Pacific.
Because the wreck was deep, the dive team used rebreathers and inhaled a special breathing mixture that replaced much of the nitrogen in air with helium. Nitrogen becomes toxic at the higher pressure of a deeper dive, so the helium-heavy mix helped prevent decompression sickness, commonly called “the bends.” The rebreathers added oxygen periodically so they could reuse the mixture instead of exhaling it into the water, making longer dives feasible.
The men discovered that diving on Adriatic was difficult, even with the aid of bright lights and electric scooters. “Murky water from the silty ocean floor, total darkness due to the depth, entanglement hazards from derelict nets, lengthy decompressions and curious sharks made for challenging conditions,” said Noonan. “But it was worth the effort once we saw the mid-19th century cargo and realized the site had historical value.”
Over time, the divers found stoneware ink bottles, rolls of zinc and iron railroad rails, and even lead ingots with the name of the manufacturer emblazoned on them. About a dozen of the artifacts—mostly ink bottles of different sizes but also a lead ingot and a piece of a broken Oriental china bowl—were brought up as keepsakes and to aid in the identification of the ship. Roberts made a side-scan sonar sweep of the wreck on June 19, 2019, to help in the identification of the site. After diving on what they thought might be the Adriatic, the divers began to research the history of that ship and the Tallahassee.
Story of the Adriatic
In August 1864, the Union blockade had closed off all but two Confederate ports and the South was starving. Tallahassee’s skipper was Commander John Taylor Wood, a nephew of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He joined the U.S. Navy at 16 and fought in the Mexican War. He was a gunnery officer aboard the ironclad CSS Virginia and fired the first shot during that ship’s 1862 battle with the Union ironclad USS Monitor.
Wood had watched the blockade runners coming and going at Wilmington, North Carolina, the only port other than Charleston still open in the South. In 1898, he wrote, “I had long been on the lookout for a suitable one which would answer for a cruiser [raider], and finally selected Atalanta, an iron twin-screw of 700 tons gross, and 200 feet long. She had been built at Millwall, below London, and was a first-class, well-constructed vessel, and fast, making fourteen and a quarter knots on her trial trip.” The ship was equipped with three large cannons. After its conversion to commerce raider, barely clearing the sandbar at the mouth of the Cape Fear River after multiple attempts and eluding several screens of Union blockade ships, Tallahassee headed north uneventfully for several days. Its first prize was captured off New Jersey, followed by more off New York Harbor and Long Island.
On August 12, Tallahassee encountered the 181-foot Adriatic carrying 190 passengers and crew. In a story published in Century, Wood described the capture. “The passengers were nearly all Germans, and when told that their ship was to be burned were terribly alarmed; and it was sometime before they could comprehend that we did not intend to burn them also. Three hours were occupied in transferring them and their effects with our boats. After all was safely on board the Suliote, the Adriatic was fired; and as night came on the burning ship illumined the waters for miles.”
Tallahassee’s daring 19-day cruise north took it as far as Halifax, Nova Scotia, before running the Union blockade again to get back into Wilmington. Wood was promoted to the rank of captain and served on Davis’s staff for the rest of the war. Tallahassee was renamed CSS Olustee and with a different captain captured six Union vessels in 1864.
Because the divers hadn’t found an artifact to definitively identify the wreck as Adriatic, they continued their research. Roberts made two visits over two years to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Finally, he found what Bricker described as “the silver bullet,” damage claim records detailing Adriatic’s cargo filed in 1864 and published in 1872 as part of the famous CSS Alabama court case in which ship owners sought compensation for cargoes destroyed by Confederate raiders. In the Alabama documents, Roberts found a couple of “smoking guns,” including a merchant’s invoice for ink bottles found on the wreck.
The divers are planning to revisit the wreck this summer, and they have several goals. Among them is to search for an artifact bearing the ship’s name, such as a bell, capstan cover or builder’s plaque, to conclusively identify the wreck. The men also plan to further explore the bow area. “We haven’t spent much time there,” Roberts says. “We have found partially buried anchor chains in the side-scan surveys but have not yet traced them back to the windlasses. If time allows, they’ll also do a partial excavation with scooters of the stern area. “The outlines of the hull in this area are visible in some of the side-scan images but were not initially apparent to us underwater,” Roberts says. “In particular, it would be interesting to find the remnants of the steering gear and maybe even the helm and ship’s compass or binnacle. Bells were sometimes mounted near the helm on packet ships, too.”
There are many reasons for the team to revisit the Adriatic, Bricker says. “It still has a story to tell.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue.