Free-diving in Search of the Wrecked Steamboat Swallow

By WILLIAM SHANNON

There’s a legend in the Hudson Valley that one of the large paddle wheels that once thrusted the Steamboat Swallow before its ill-fated final journey still lies at the bottom of the murky waters of the Hudson River.

That tale, as it relates to the paddle wheel at least, is likely river myth. 

Much of the wreckage from the Swallow, which took at least fifteen lives after it crashed into a rocky island off the shore of Athens in April 1845, was salvaged shortly thereafter. But two sections of its lower hull were abandoned after an apparent unsuccessful attempt to drag them to shallower waters.

To read more about the hectic loss of The Swallow, check out Andrew Amelinckx's story for this site, if you missed it: The Wreck of The Steamboat Swallow, http://bit.ly/29NIYid 

I enlisted the help last week of two fellow Hudson residents—Timothy O’Connor, a master at navigating public data and reports, and Nick Zachos, a master boatman and a founder of the Hudson Sloop Club—to locate what seem to be the remains of the Steamboat Swallow.

Looking at sonar maps, depth charts and the sonar anomaly which rests on the river bed a fair distance from what is now called Swallow Rock (and which is now a peninsula), we were hopeful that the wreck would be twelve-to-fifteen feet below the surface at low tide.

When we took off by boat from Hudson in the mid-afternoon, the ebb current was still sweeping water downriver.

We puttered around the channel off Hudson’s riverfront park for a few minutes while Nick showed us how to read the boat’s sonar. 

“Dark shades represent soft; light shades represent dense,” Nick said, as the three of us watched a small screen. “White streaks or clouds represent fish or vegetation.”

We took off and, after about twenty minutes of cross-referencing a few sources of data, we approached our target. 

The three of us watched the small screen outlining the river bottom. 

We inched forward.

“What’s coming up—look at this,” Tim said.

“Woah,” I said.

“That’s a significant—” Nick said.

“That’s it,” Tim said. “This feels completely right, from my mapping.”

“It’s right about where it’s supposed to be,” I said.

The sonar on the boat, which Nick told us reads from two or three feet below the surface of the water, flicked between a depth-reading of seventeen and eighteen feet.

With the current still pulling downriver, Nick brought the boat to about fifty feet upriver from the intriguing sonar reading and Tim threw in an anchor and let out plenty of line before tying it off to ensure a low angle, so as not to let the boat drag the weight.

After a minute, Nick asked if it seemed like the vessel was stationary.

We all watched the shore to get a sense.

“We’re in place,” Tim said.

“So, I think we’re just out—it’s over on our port here. We’re a little bit out.”

Nick started the motor again and Tim pulled in the anchor and we tried again to get directly above.

We went slightly toward shore and a bit farther upriver and Tim threw the anchor. This time Nick said to let more line out. He cut the engine and we floated inch by inch back downriver.

“Try tying off right here,” Nick said, watching the sonar. “Oh yeah. We just hit something.”

Nick prepared another anchor and rope to put in the water at the stern of the boat for a guide and plopped it in.

“Well, I’ll let you guys investigate first—I have to fill out my AARP application while I’m up here,” Tim said.

“You’re not going to come down?” I asked.

“Well, I might,” Tim said. “Let’s see. If you guys find anything, then I’ll really have a philosophical dilemma on my hands.”

Nick used a tool to show three feet of visibility in the water. “That’s at the top though,” Nick said. “The water column kind of—”

“Gets weird in the benthos,” Tim said.

The water temperature was 77 degrees fahrenheit. 

“We’re in twenty feet of water,” Nick said.

We decided we’d go in one at a time. Nick put on water sneakers and goggles and was first to get in the water.

At the stern rope, Nick went under.

His dog, Reya, who’d been sleeping through most of the expedition, perched at the stern, looking at the water where Nick had gone down.

After some time, Nick came up and Tim and I pounced for information.

“Touch bottom?” Tim asked, as Nick caught his breath.

Nick shook his head.

“Very dark,” Nick said. “Very dark. I wonder how low I got.”

Nick sent us looking for a second anchor to sturdy the rope guide.

“It’s scary down there,” Nick said, still in the water.

“I had a dream last night about skeletons coming out of The Swallow,” I said.

Nick and Tim laughed.

Nick came back aboard, brought the rope up, untied the first anchor and tied off small knots to mark roughly each third of the depth of our descent for our knowledge while we were below water. Each knot was about seven feet apart. He tied the first anchor back on and a second weight.

Nick went back in the water and quickly went down.

The wind began picking up and Tim and I watched the water.

“The ground is hard,” Nick said as he popped back up.

“Wow,” Tim said.

Reya barked.

“Not hard with like packed silt—solid,” Nick said.

We talked more as Nick came aboard and as I put on goggles and got into the water. It was such a struggle to get down there, he said, there wasn’t much time for him to do anything other than push back off. 

I kept one hand on the stern of the boat and treaded water with my legs as the current kept me near a 45-degree angle in the water.

Reya leaned over the stern and tilted her head.

“You worried about Billy, Reya?” Nick said to his dog. “He going for a shipwreck?”

I took a deep breath and went under. 

I pulled up too hard on the anchor line going down and it gave slightly, picking the anchor off the bottom perhaps an inch or two.

The rays from the sun made the water bright green toward the surface. But as I pushed the water up with one hand and held the rope with the other, it became darker and colder. 

Buoyant from filled lungs, the descent was very slow. 

The water became so dark that everything around except for the white anchor rope in front of my face became a nearly black shade of green.

I pulled too hard again on the rope.

Using one hand to push myself down was taking too long.

My heartbeat hastened as the water grew colder and each additional foot of depth became a feat. I was going too slow. 

The weight from the water above pressured my eardrums.

All around was nearly black now. 

I pulled myself back up the rope.

With all the surrounding stimuli of the free-dive, I’d forgotten to be mindful of the knots in the rope, so I can’t say what depth I reached on the first try.

I surfaced and took in air.

“Make it?” Tim said.

I shook my head.

I took one more slow and unsuccessful attempt going feet-first and coughing as I resurfaced, before I switched strategies to what Nick said he’d done on his second attempt.

For the third try, I took my goggles off, since they were doing me no good, and put them on the stern.

I breathed deeply and adjusted my ear pressure. I closed my eyes and swam downward.

I swam something of a crawl stroke straight down, reaching out to touch the rope every few feet.

The water became cold much quicker this time and when I sensed I was getting close to twenty feet, I uprighted myself. 

I let my momentum guide my bare feet downward and I let out some air.

My right foot gently touched a hard surface.

I gripped the rope with my left hand and stood for a moment.

I curled my toes and I did something of a hop to the side with my right foot on the surface.

Time was short and had been spent mostly on the descent. After a few seconds I began pulling my way up the rope.

“What’d it feel like for you?” Nick said after I resurfaced.

“Feels hard,” I said.

“Like a rock?” Tim said.

“Felt, almost like wood with stones in it,” I said.

“Wood with stones in it,” Tim said. “We may have touched The Swallow.”

I came aboard and Tim went into the water.

Reya licked the top of Tim’s head as he treaded water at the edge of the boat.

“Now what you guys did was open your eyes,” Tim said. “I am not going to freak myself out.”

He slipped under.

“There he goes, he just went for it,” Nick said.

“Oh, man,” I said.

He was under for a minute or so.

“Oh, he’s got to hit it,” Nick said.

Just then, Tim popped back up to the surface.

“Got it!” he said.

“What did it feel like?” Nick said.

“Felt like a rock ledge. I stepped on it a few times a few different ways. It was sharp too.”

As Tim climbed aboard, he pulled up the bottom of his foot, and blood was streaming from between his toes.

“Look at that, I cut myself.” 

In the few minutes since I’d gone down, I hadn’t looked at my feet yet. Pulling up my right foot, I saw lots of tiny slices, a couple of which with a small amount of blood surrounding them.

Tim, though, had some deep slices in his foot.

“Crap—I cut my foot on the thing?” Tim said as he used a disinfectant swab from Nick’s first aid kit. “You’re the one with the bad dream,” he said to me.

Tim had used both feet to step around the immediate area and, he said later, “I found that I was standing with one foot down a step-like structure, and the other just above it,” with eight inches or so of height between his feet.

It’s hard to say with absolute certainty that what we touched is the remains of the Steamboat Swallow.

Mark L. Peckham, a historic preservation program coordinator with New York State, said in a 2002 letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which at the time was preparing to dredge in the Athens area) that, “Two hull sections lie side by side,” in the spot that Tim, Nick and I pinpointed last week. “Both hull sections feature heavy keelsons and flat-floor frames. The inshore hull section features a slightly inclined sternpost with butterfly irons attaching it to the keel assembly. The arrangement is strikingly similar to the remains of the Ticonderoga (a War of 1812 steamboat-turned-schooner that sank and was raised and is on exhibit in Whitehall, N.Y.) but some parts have clearly suffered from erosion. Contemporaneous accounts suggest that Swallow was raised soon after the incident in an effort to ground her on the flats, but that she sank again.”

The state, in its 2002 correspondence at least, hesitated in claiming that the shipwreck that lies where we dove last week, is definitely The Swallow. But, according to another 2002 letter signed by Peckham and Robert D. Kuhn, then an assistant director of the state’s historic preservation office, “In our experience, the framing of these sections appears to be similar in scale and design to other early-generation steamboats we have looked at.”

The day of our dive, we dried off and Reya lied back down on the boat, the worrisome activity of the humans halted for the day. We pulled up the anchors and took a boat ride upriver to explore a section of the shore.

***

 The remains of the Ticonderoga, to which the hull remains off Athens are said to bear a striking similarity.

The remains of the Ticonderoga, to which the hull remains off Athens are said to bear a striking similarity.