THE STORY OF "CHRISTINA" WRECK

 CHRISTINA

 

I.

 

 

13 September 1962

The port of Galati was hushed under the September sun. The loading was nearing its end. A total 911 tonnes of valuable wooden material –logs and boards from the old Carpathian forests, were evenly distributed in the holds and tween decks. All that remained was to fill the pressurised ballast tanks and to firmly secure the cargo with steel ropes before the ship could set sail for Italy. The captain was pleased with his crew that clearly knew its job. He himself had first set foot onboard the ship a few days ago, which he had spent getting acquainted with the vessel. His father, a fisherman from a tiny Greek island, had told him when he was a child that the seafaring vessel on which your life depends is bound to have a soul. The captain still believed in the stories of his father and this made him a good sailor. Soon they would set off, and he had a whole sea ahead of him to get to know the ship and its crew. The horizon was calm. The ship effortlessly cut through the waves caused by the light southern wind. The sky was full of migratory birds fleeing from the northern cold. A black highway in the blue sky, pointing south to eternal summer. Via Pontica – the birds’ migratory route of salvation ever since the world began. But the captain had other things on his mind. His gaze was directed to the Bosporus, which would lead him out to a more hospitable sea. He did not like the Black Sea. Everything here was unpredictable. The wind and the waves changed moods like a neurotic teenager. He had often watched the northern fronts turning these dark waters into raging storms in a matter of hours. But not during this voyage. Not now. Tomorrow afternoon he would sight the Turkish shore and he could feel his approaching homecoming. The warm autumn wind caressed his stubbly beard. The old engine droned under his feet. Everything was as it should be. It was time for dinner. Nothing hinted at the impending tragedy.

 

 

14 September 1962, 5.30 a.m.

Strong rocking woke the captain. The waves clashed steadily against the starboard of the old vessel. Hissing, the north wind made its way between the wooden logs on deck, stole through the ship’s passages and, whirling merrily, continued its restless flight. A storm. He reluctantly got out of the warm bunk. A quick glance through the porthole confirmed his fears. He dressed hastily and hurried to the captain’s bridge. It was drizzling. The sea had swelled during the night and the wind was close to 6 on the Beaufort Scale. The ship had endured many storms in its 50 years out at sea. It had been built half a century ago, in 1912, by Germans in the Szeczin shipyards. The solid steel structure was powered by a 400 hp steam engine, driven by two cylindrical boilers. The ship was 61 metres long, nine metres wide and had a 632-tonne displacement. But it had been built well, at a time when no compromises were made with materials, and when shipbuilders were as proud of their ships, as an artist with his art. Over the years it had seen many commanders. Until the war it had had four German, and after 1947 three Greek ship owners. It had changed its name six times, until its present one - CHRISTINA - had been painted on it in white paint. The gentle female name somehow seemed to fit the silhouette of the ship. The captain felt he could trust her. Although old, she was stable and gave no rise for concern. They would make it. Steadily, with each wave, they were nearing their goal. Around eight o’clock the senior mechanic Panagiotis Christoforou and engine engineer Mastaloudis came on shift. In passing, they called on the captain, who had buried his face in the sea chart calculating the position of the ship, and disappeared into the hot engine room. The boatswain Pallis was firmly gripping the helm, trying to keep course to the south, despite the strong rocking. Satisfied, the captain raised his eyes. They were in Bulgarian waters some seven miles from the lighthouse at Shabla. A few more hours and they would be able to find shelter behind Cape Kaliakra, protected from the gusts of the northern wind. The ship steadily maintained the normal seven knots. At that moment, in a split second, the captain’s experience told him that something was amiss. The swell had listed the ship strongly to starboard. The moment seemed frozen in time and the seconds dragged on like hours. Listed at about 15 degrees, the CHRISTINA did not straighten up. The captain waited with bated breath. Something had happened. Something which in this storm boded no good.

 

The 15-strong crew was experienced. Seasoned seamen, they all sensed the trouble. Down in the engine room the senior mechanic Christoforou instinctively registered the list and, fearing that the cargo would shift, ran to the door of the old coal storeroom, which was some 40 cm below the floor of the machine room. The most direct way to the tween decks and the holds passed through it. The room was seldom used and together with Mastaloudis they had to use all their strength to turn the rusty handle. The minute it gave, sea water gushed through the gap with incredible force. The door burst open, hurling the two men aside. The engine room quickly began flooding. Fighting against the water, Christoforou got inside the storeroom. It did not take him long to discover the reason. In the right-hand corner of the ceiling, next to the passage, through a piece of torn sheet iron, two-three metres long, sea water was rushing in, flooding first the storeroom and then the engine room. He quickly turned back and hopefully switched on the drying pumps. He watched them silently for a few minutes, before realising that the amount of incoming water by far exceeded that which was pumped out. The water was already knee-high. They were lost. Panic clutched at his throat, causing his heart to pound loudly in his chest. This was the end. The ship wouldn’t make it. They had to save themselves. He quickly turned towards the forebridge to inform the captain, who immediately gave the alarm signal to the crew. The tension was written in their faces. The captain ordered the senior mechanic to go down and continue to pump out the water. In his mind, Christoforou’s thoughts were running wild. One of them was particularly disturbing. When cold sea water hits the boilers, there is a potential danger of explosion. Panic has always been a bad counsel. Something had to be done quickly. The senior mechanic, accompanied by two sailors, quickly descended to the engine room and began shutting down the engine. It was a fatal decision – one of a whole string of errors which doomed the ship to destruction. The boiler burners went out, the engine slowed down, kept going for another minute and with a final hollow cough the pistons stopped moving for ever. Everybody hurriedly left the engine room and went up on deck. The door to the passage remained open. Through it the sea water continued unimpeded to fill the room. At the same time the captain was unsuccessfully trying to send a distress signal over the radio. Ships under 850 tonnes were not obliged to have a telegraphist onboard. The captain had trouble operating the unfamiliar equipment. At that moment he realised the mistake of stopping the engine. The electric tension had dropped, making the radio station futile. Clearly the batteries were not well charged either. The age of the ship was having its say. There was one last chance. The manually operated mobile radio station, which automatically transmitted the SOS signal dreaded by all seamen. He activated it, then realised with horror that the emergency equipment had no feedback and there was no way to find out whether the distress signal had been heard. The hope for rescue was frail. Was there another ship out there in this storm? Was the signal strong enough to be heard on the shore? Questions without answers. But there was something more important. The fate of the crew and that of the CHRISTINA and her cargo. Everything had developed with amazing speed. The actions of the crew from the moment the ship listed until the burners stopped and the tension dropped had taken just a few minutes.

The captain ordered the cargo to be thrown starboard into the sea, in order to balance and lighten the ship. The sailors feverishly began to unfasten the logs and push them overboard. Soon a large part of the right deck had been cleared. Because of the rocking it was difficult to say whether this had had any effect. A ray of sunshine broke through the clouds. Hope lit up the faces of the crew. They would make it. At that moment the water tilted the ship to the right again. The rest of the ropes, holding together the logs on the left deck side, tore asunder and the timber scattered onto the cleared space. Dozens of logs thundered down three metres onto the deck, smashing against the iron starboard railing. It looked as if it would give and everything would crash into the sea. Miraculously, nobody was hurt. The captain was shouting, ordering everything to be thrown overboard. He tried to encourage the crew. He swore that the cargo would float and prevent the old vessel from sinking immediately. He told them they had time and that rescue was on its way. His voice was not confident. Besides, the experienced crew was not easily fooled. A sense of doom prevailed. It was time to think about their own survival. It was the kind of state in which mass panic blurs the mind, giving way to hasty and impulsive actions. It was every man for himself now. The boatswain Christos Pallis knew what he had to do. He quickly headed for the life raft. Guessing his intentions, the assistance mechanic Georgios Kyriakos joined him. In vain the captain ordered them to leave the raft alone. The two men cut the ropes holding the raft with a knife and with joint efforts managed to push it into the sea. Their only thought was that of their own salvation. The raft was designed for 25 persons and could carry the whole crew. The ship also had two lifeboats but they were not in good condition. Nobody remembered ever having let them to water. From time to time the sailors would freshly paint them in the hope of quickly passing the compulsory checks and setting out to sea. If the two men sailed away with the raft they would doom the rest of the crew to destruction. The captain shouted to the nearby Mastaloudis to stop the madmen. The minute he approached them, Christos pointed the knife at him which he had used to cut the ropes. His eyes were glazed. The gesture let no doubt as to his intention. The others did not interest him. Mastaloudis took one step back and looked at the captain with pity. He kept begging them not to do anything foolish. It was too late. Carried by the waves, the raft began drifting away from the CHRISTINA. At that moment the choice was clear. You either stayed and hoped for a miracle, or you took this seemingly tempting road to salvation. The nerves of another two men snapped. The sailor Ballas jumped into the sea. With a few powerful strokes he swam to the raft and had Christos and Georgios pull him out of the water. The sailor Ioannis Konstondopoulos also jumped ship together with him. The cold water took his breath away. He was not a good swimmer. Helplessly, he waved his hands and head high above the water. Terror was written in his eyes. Hoarsely he started begging for help. The tall waves tossed him like a matchstick. He swallowed water. Choking and coughing he was desperately fighting for his life. That’s when the senior mechanic Panagiotis Christoforou rushed to the stern. In passing he grabbed the lifebelt from the line and jumped into the sea with it. Clearly, his intention was not to help Ioannis, but rather to reach the life raft. The crew watched the scene. The raft with the three men and the sailor carried by the waves, alternately rose to eye level and vanished from sight. Not much time passed before they all disappeared in the distance. May God save their souls. Having lost presence of mind, the four men were on the way to their saviour.

 

 

14 September 1962, 10.30 a.m.
The rest of the crew onboard the CHRISTINA resentfully watched the disappearance of the only thing that was certain to keep afloat for the next few hours. Just in case, they decided to lower the starboard boat to the water. The constant fierce rocking made it difficult to operate the davit mechanism. The boat was lowered unevenly, tipping at one end or the other. Every time a wave hit, it clashed against the board of the ship with a hollow rumble. There was about a metre left to the water when a particularly strong wave made the crew fear that the lifeboat would splinter into tiny pieces. Their fear was justified for just minutes later water started seeping into the boat on all sides and it was quickly swallowed by the waves, amid the desperate cries of the sailors. Among the doomed seamen only the captain showed a strength of character and kept encouraging the men. Refusing to give up, he ordered the second boat on the port side to be lowered. Miraculously, it remained afloat alongside the ship. After the engine had been cut the CHRISTINA had been left at the mercy of the elements. The waves, wind and current tossed her in every direction. At that moment she had made an almost complete turn from the original course and the port side was now leeward. This protected the lifeboat to some extent. Three men entered it to bail out the water, which entered it through the boarding and due to the rain. At the same time other sailors began throwing logs and lifebelts into the sea in case somebody fell overboard. The storm did not abate. For five hours the crew of the CHRISTINA continued to look for ways of survival. The tension and fatigue went beyond human limits. They were replaced by despair. The alternative for the some dozen men to overcome the 7-8 miles separating them from the shore in these meteorological conditions in the boat, falling apart under their feet, did not bode well. At every turn they expected the CHRISTINA to lose positive floatability and to head for the bottom of the sea. At that moment the water in the engine room was covering the lid of the engine cylinders, the ship was leaning to the left, and the stern was almost completely submerged by the waves. From time to time the rear deck rose high above the water as if the doomed ship was resisting, trying for the last time to rid itself of this uninvited visitor – the salt water seeping in on all sides. Sad is the death of the old vessel.

 

 

14 September 1962, 2.45 p.m.
At first they thought they had imagined it. At that moment of apathy that had gripped them it was too good to be true. Was there really a ship visible in the distance? A second later their disbelief gave way to frantic joy. They hugged and kissed each other, moving aimlessly in the lifeboat in which the water was now knee-high, risking to upset its fragile balance. Yes, rescue was on the horizon, among the waves. The Italian vessel ADREA had heard the distress signal, sent by the sinking ship, and was coming to the rescue. Not waiting any further, the captain ordered everybody to get inside the boat and, holding the ship’s documents in one hand and hugging the ship dog with the other, was the last to leave the CHRISTINA. The hands of the ship’s clock pointed to half past three in the afternoon. Four lonely decades in the dark would pass before a human being would again touch her deck.

As soon as they got onboard the ADREA, the Greek sailors began sending signals to the coastal radio stations, nearby passing ships, rescue services and ship owners. Guided by the captain, they set out to look for the sailors on the raft. In vain they scoured the sea until dusk. Around 7.30 p.m. the Italian ship continued on its way to Istanbul, where it left the survivors. The life raft was not discovered until 11.50 p.m. by a Bulgarian patrol cutter. The only survivor, Ballas, was lying on it half-dead. Later, after recovering in hospital, he gave evidence to the investigation. He defended himself with his distrust of lifeboats, in order to justify his cowardice. He recounted how Christos Pallis and Georgios Kyriakos had lost their strength and life before his eyes. How one after the other, unable to fight, they were swallowed by the hungry sea, which covered them gently with a shroud of water. As to Konstondopoulos, he claimed that he had not been able to reach the raft and had perished soon after jumping into the water.

Nobody had seen the CHRISTINA go down.

 

 

II.

 

Forty-one years later Vlado and I were basking in the mild September sun in a Varna café, waiting for Ilia Krustev from the Institute of Oceanology. He was recruiting enthusiasts to finance an expedition for a “diving investigation and identification of a shipwreck at a depth of 78 metres”, as he had called it.

At that time the Institute was a sad sight. The remains of its former glory were rusting in the yard, and in the shabby offices the employees kept warm with bare resistors propped up on two bricks. The scuba diving equipment was on the verge of becoming a museum exhibit and, as it turned out later, was dangerous. On the other hand, the enthusiasm of the veterans from Cousteau’s time, who had divided the institute’s sectors among themselves, was alive as ever. Ilia Krustev was in charge of scuba diving, an activity he pursued together with training amateur divers in a private school at Roussalka resort. I would not think of belittling the former achievements of this dinosaur from the time of conquest of the underwater world, though. Either with knowledge or luck, and above all with the solid support of the planned economy, the Institute of Oceanology, headed by Krusev’s generation, conducted a number of underwater experiments throughout the whole period from the 1960s right up to the mid-1990s. Thus, in 1992, during one of these expeditions for the study of the northern Black Sea shelf, a side scan sonar system helped to locate a mysterious ship on the sea floor, which occupied Ilia’s thoughts during that autumn afternoon.

The conversation got off on the wrong foot. All three of us had difficult characters, with a strong sense of self-righteousness. Krustev needed 15,000 euros and a leading role, including the right to determine the method of descent. We considered the use of the Institute’s huge ship Akademik, not designed for such a task, to be an expensive mistake, and to have somebody tell us how to dive was simply absurd. Our opponent was a good example of an old-fashioned way of thinking and regarded technical diving as the dangerous whim of naughty children. We parted on the condition that Vlado and Ilia would email each other about the gas mixtures and decompressions and soon it was winter.

Although separated by a huge distance and way of life, Vlado and I simultaneously decided that under these conditions we would not take part in the Akademik adventure. A major role was also played by our lack of conviction that Ilia Krustev’s team would cope with the task. Meanwhile he had raised the necessary funds from sponsors, divers we still did not know, and the reporter of Bulgarian National Television, Tsveti Atanassova, who was to make a film about the expedition. Thus, loaded with fuel, outdated technology and an enthusiastic crew, the institute’s vessel was to set sail from Varna in the middle of next summer without us.

 

June 2004

Three days after they set off, the first alarming signals were heard about what was happening onboard the Akademik. The ship was unable to position itself above the wreck located 70 metres below the surface. The swell and wind spun left and right the institute’s ship, moored with the bow anchor, while, surprisingly, the sunken ship below refused to budge, rendering futile all attempts to be glimpsed from the diving bell swinging from the stern. Adding to this the swell  and the five tonnes of fuel which the 1,255-tonne Akademik consumed every day, the spirits on board fell rapidly in view of the looming failure. In all, a total three attempts were made to descend to the bottom with the diving bell, one of which was close to ending fatally for Rossen Zhelyazkov who soon joined our small group. During the second descent with the diving bell, which reached only to 65 metres, Rossen dived in the almost complete darkness at the 78-metre seabed, tied with the so-called umbilical cable and with a full face diving mask, in order to look for something that was actually located hundreds of metres from there. Suddenly he had difficulty breathing and realised with horror that there was hardly any gas left in the badly filled cylinders, of which he informed the laboratory assistant who, for some unknown reason, happened to be on the intercom. She greeted the news with the astounding question of “Who is calling?” Come to think of it, what could she have said? Rossen swam the 13 metres separating him from the bell in apnea, ripping the mask from his face with a final effort in order to take a gulp of reviving air. This incident exploded the anyhow critical balance of the expedition, creating great tension between Krustev and his sponsors.

Meanwhile Vlado and I paid a visit to the wonderful house in Kavarna of our friend Vladimir M. Zhivkov, another keen scuba driver. Nearby he had discovered a promising object at a 50-metre depth, which turned out to be a mysterious 30-metre ship to which we dived two days in a row. On the third, the swell of the sea forced us to remain on dry land and the three of us took a stroll to the estacade at Shabla, where I clearly remember us watching the Akademik, at a distance of some 15 miles, though a telescope with the feeling of children not invited to the hottest party of the season. It continued until half past six the next morning when we were suddenly called by Ilia Krustev who, having exhausted all his resources, was asking us to join them to try and dive down to the mysterious vessel. In view of the mutiny ripening on board, the actual diving system was suddenly no longer important. A little later we met the grumbling participants in the adventure, Rossen Zhelyazkov and Zhelyo Bourilkov, who had demonstratively left the Akademik in their little boat blaming the organisers for their failure in no uncertain terms. Frankly, the expression “little boat” does not do justice to an actually quite solid fishing vessel, recently bought in Turkey and deftly run by the old sea wolf Ivan. For some unknown reason, the 17-metre vessel did not have a proper name and we all called it Takata. Thus, at the break of dawn the next morning, after hectic activity getting together a tonne and a half of equipment, we were ploughing the waves with the Takata to Akademik, which was looming on the horizon. The weather was good for the moment, despite the clear signs of worsening conditions, common at the height of summer. It was obvious that we had to hurry. We were confident of our success until the minute, about two miles from the spot, the captain of Akademik announced on the radio station that there were scuba divers in the water and that we would have to wait for them to descend before coming any closer. Thus we spent the next few hours bouncing on the rising waves. When we finally got the go-ahead to approach, the wind force had risen to 2 on the Beaufort scale. We planned to use a well-tried way of action in such cases, trawling the seabed with a stockless anchor until we could fasten it to the wreckage below. The success of such an undertaking depends on the idea of the approximate location of the sought object to the four directions of the world. Preliminary information made it clear that it was lying west to east on the seabed, which forced us to pull the anchor perpendicularly, i.e. north to south and back, until we achieved the desired result. This was all very well until we realised that this was impossible due to the Akademik, huge in comparison with the Takata, standing in the way. The next few hours passed in desperate manoeuvres between the buoys, scattered everywhere in the attempt to localise the sunken ship. Dusk was falling but so far our efforts had been futile. The swell was rising and in this frustrating situation we decided to head back to Kavarna. Our tacit desire to demonstrate our system of diving had to be postponed to a more favourable time. We headed for the shore and soon learned that the group on the Akademik, too, was calling it quits and returning to Varna. The next day we met with Tsveti Atanassova and her TV crew who were on the brink of despair due to the lack of material for a television film for which they had received money under various programmes. Miserably, they were even contemplating to change the subject to “how an expedition fails”. This is how this stage ended and soon we were all back to our own lives.

 

 

III.

 

Rossen has always been the straightforward leader of our expeditions. We’ve got to do it, at such and such a time and we will succeed! With these brief but clear instructions he mobilised Vlado and me, and once the two of us get going, there’s nothing to stop us. It is probably this combination of characters and viewpoints that makes for the chemistry of our success. Often in constructive disagreement, the minute we decide something, we cannot go wrong. It is probably this that helped us during the years following this story to dive to other unexplored shipwrecks lying at great depth.

And thus, pushed by Rossen to forget our initial disappointment, at the beginning of October we decided to return and complete what we had started. We invited our Polish friend and follower Anjey Kruchkovski to join our newly formed team and there we were, back in Kavarna. Vlado M. Zhikvov was kind enough to let us stay with him again and soon his delightful home was turned into a tourist dormitory. In the adjacent storeroom wetsuits were drying, gases were mixed, charts were compiled, the merry roar of the compressors and pumps complementing our enthusiasm. We were lucky with the weather. Indian summer was at its height. The autumn hues vaguely hinted at the end of summer and the temporary postponement of the November cold. The sea water was still 17C in the surface layer, which would make the compulsory long decompression easier. This time the sea elements were on our side. It took us about two hours to hook the anchor to the sunken ship. To the other end of the rope we tied large buoys, which we threw into the water. It did not take long for the current to carry them and to stretch the 100-metre rope taut like a bow-string. Our plan was to position the ship below us on the first day and to attach the diving rope, in order not to waste time the next day and to start the descent as soon as we had reached the designated spot. The Takata was not the speediest of boats and the 17 miles from Kavarna took her some four-five hours each way. Thus, starting off at eight o’clock in the morning, after five hours getting there and three hours of trawling, it was nearly evening. The sun was rapidly falling behind the horizon. A decision had to be made. The sight of the taut rope and not knowing what the anchor had caught forced us to prepare for the dive. We risked having to start all over again the next day if the anchor was to detach itself and start drifting on the bottom. If we wanted to start without delay we had to descend and tie the shipwreck to a thick chain. Soon Vlado, Rossen and yours truly had dived into the dark water.

 

 

22 October 2004, 4.30 p.m.
We follow the white rope, disappearing in the dark abyss below us. These are moments of almost automatic movements and control thoughts. Is the air turned on? Inflate the dry suit. Telling bubbles from the equipment that should not be there? Switch on the lamp. Is it fully charged? Inflate the buoyancy compensator. A bit more, a bit more. Equalize ear pressure. Again. Breath out through the nose to equalise pressure inside the mask. Checking with the others, followed by a short OK. The colours disappear one by one. We are surrounded by a monochrome environment. Around 20 metres underwater we enter the thermocline. The water temperature instantly drops from 17C go 5C. It is lonely around you and only the lamps of your mates remind you of the familiar world. The great adventure awaits us somewhere down below.

The outlines are clear and after another dozen metres or so further down various details are discerned. The visibility is over 20 metres. Amazing for the Black Sea as we know it. Luckily, the remains are lying on an even keel, which immediately allows us to date the ship’s construction as typical for the beginning of the 20th century. The superstructure is in the middle with holds in the bow and stern. It is not particularly big. Our first impression is of some 70-80 metres. It is clearly not the Black Prince.

 

 

IV.

 

The story of the Black Prince and how it came to be near our native shores.

I am often asked whether there are any treasures in the Black Sea. I always say yes. Yes, there are treasures, but they are historical, linked with the extremely rich past of this part of the world. Shipping in the Black Sea dates from pre-historic times, but it had its heyday when the Greeks migrated and colonised its shores, starting already at the end of the 8th century B.C. Settlers from the shores of Asia Minor and a number of other Greek cities founded towns like Apollonia Pontica, Mesembria, Odessos and Tomi on its western coast and Dioskuria and Phasis on the eastern coast. During the next two centuries their merchant skills in combination with their navigation abilities made them stunningly rich. It suffices to recall the story of Jason and the Argonauts, whose aim in pursuit of the Golden Fleece was the ancient Phasis (known today as Poti), in order to realise how central a place our Black Sea occupied in the ancient world. Jason fled with Medea to Greece across the lands of present-day Bulgaria. For a time our sea was the centre of the world, at a time when Constantinople was the biggest, wealthiest and most developed city on earth. A large part of the population’s food supplies, such as wheat and fish, came from the Greek colonies. The timber for construction and heating travelled by sea from the forests of the Strandja mountains. Local craftsmen built ships and boats. Thousands of vessels travelled along the coast, carrying various kinds of cargo. Some ships even ventured to cross the sea, encouraged by the constant currents, losing sight of the generous shores.

At the end of the 13th century, returning from the court of the Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan, Marco Polo crossed the Black Sea on his way to Constantinople. In his book The Travels of Marco Polo, he later wrote that the Black Sea was so well know that there was no need to describe it, since all who visit and navigate it every day – Venetians, Genovese, citizens of Pisa and many others, know well what awaits them. The Italians ruled the seas during the Middle Ages and part of the Renaissance. The importance of the Black Sea declined during the Ottoman Empire, when it turned into an inland sea, and the Straits were closed for political reasons. Throughout the preceding period many thousands of courses were travelled in one of the least hospitable seas known to mankind. A sea in which the wind wave rises in an instant, forcing seamen to fight for survival against the elements with hardly any chance of shelter. There are only five islands in the Black Sea – all in the region of Sozopol. Its shores are bare and the few bays are seldom protected from the prevailing winds. The ships of the time were fragile and dependent solely on the will of the winds and the courage of the crew. An iron crew in a wooden hull in contrast to today’s more common wooden crew in an iron hull. There must have been many shipwrecks throughout the centuries. Did these ships carry anything valuable? I would rather say no. This region of the world was as poor in antiquity as it is today. What is there to be found in a contemporary shipwreck besides the captain’s sweaty shirt? Nothing. Why expect rich finds from past ages? Neither the gold and jewels of the South American galleons, nor the fine porcelain from the China Sea is found here. True, a Greek merchant vessel laden with 2,000 amphorae is priceless from an archaeological point of view. This is a time capsule like Pompeii, containing plenty of information about the life of our ancestors. But it is a historical and archaeological treasure. Unfortunately the remains of such ships near the shore are subject to the fierce coastal waves and winds and the equally damaging couldn’t-care-less attitude of people in our administratively weak and uninformed states. The only ancient and until then untouched shipwreck near the Bulgarian coast was discovered by Robert Ballard in 2003 during a joint expedition with the Institute of Oceanology. On board the Akademik the discoverer of the Titanic disposed over state-of-the-art sonar equipment which caused the seabed to reveal its secrets. Ballard considers the Black Sea and the layer of hydrogen sulphide, preserving organic matter from rotting, as the richest museum on earth. His colleagues from the Institute of Oceanology regarded Ballard as a treasure hunter and geophysical American spy. In 2004 Ballard continued his studies near Sinop in Turkish waters, while the local bandits trawled the seabed around the antique vessel in the hope of finding an amphora, committing an irreparable world crime. Basically, the amphorae are the equivalent of today’s bottle. I wonder whether in 2000 years a bottle will be traded for 1,000 leva, the price of an exquisitely shaped clay amphora today. Lots of money for a bit of clay. People have always been thrilled with the sound of another type of matter. Gold. The treasures are looked for in quite a different place. The archives. A professional will spend 70 percent of his time there. Laboriously rummaging in dusty documents and testimonies from past times. And when fate smiles on him and he finds irrefutable facts that sometime somewhere some ship has sunk, on board of which, among the general inventory, figure also the exact figures of the riches carried by it, the easier part remains, i.e. to embark on a physical search of its remains. Most underwater treasures have been discovered in this way in the last decades. This kind of search is hard work and involves enormous expenses. This is why the balance between the likely costs and potential profits is also important. This rational way of thinking is not common to dreamers or adventurers and non-existing treasures often cloud their eyes and minds. They are so captivated by the chance to get rich quickly that they ignore the obvious contradictions and irrationalities. The legend of the Black Prince is a typical example of this. Why is Black also  one of the many questions left unanswered in the legend enveloping it. In 1853 the frigate Prince was let to water in the Thames. A few years later it was one of the many vessels hired by the British government for ferrying troops, munitions and sundry cargo, supporting the expedition corps during the Crimean War (1853-1856). The plain facts confirm that Prince arrived in Balaklava in the Bay of Sevastopol from Istanbul on 8 November 1854. On 13 November, during an unusually violent storm, 34 vessels sank in the bay, including the Prince. The existing inventory of the objects on board at the time it sank lists everything necessary for the army during the coming winter, such as blankets, coats and woollen socks, and nothing about any mythical millions of gold as pay for the soldiers. How and why in the years following the shipwreck, right up to today, legend has turned Prince into Black Prince, and how enormous amounts of pounds sterling or roubles materialised onboard, is anybody’s guess. Being a rational nation, the British themselves have always regarded this story with slight contempt. In contrast, the French, Italian and Norwegians frantically searched the waters outside Balaklava before the Soviet revolution. The Legend continues with Lenin who created EPRON (Expedition of Special Purpose Underwater Operation Work) - the still existing specialised military unit for underwater operations, in order to recover the immense riches of the Black Prince for the revolution. After great expense and yet another failure, the work was continued by a Japanese company, leader in underwater operations at the time. Another fiasco followed. The attempts have been continuing for the last 150 years until the present, when the Ukrainian President Kuchma is looking for traces of the non-existing pay packets of the ghostly British armies. What has been discovered so far? One English gold coin, one French and two Turkish ones. The expenses probably already exceed the actual costs of the Crimean operation. And as if this was not enough, we Bulgarians, too, decided to embellish the legend still further. But instead of going and diving headlong underwater, the group around the leadership generation of the management of the Institute of Oceanology decided to bring the ship closer to Varna. No doubt, for the sake of convenience. Thus the native version of the legend is complemented by the theory in which the badly damaged Black Prince was gently pushed by the Black Sea current for hundreds of miles to find its doom somewhere opposite Cape Kaliakra, amid the bones of the Bulgarian virgin maidens who jumped off the sheer cliff to escape the forceful conversion to Mohammedanism, and the mysterious Turkish ships scuttled by Admiral Ushakov. Bulgaria is a party to the legends. Captivating myths mixed with mellow Dionysian wine to the soft sounds of Orpheus’s lyre. Reality is a privilege of the British, who officially announced in the 1960s that the gold had been unloaded in Istanbul, their main base during the Crimean War. Unrealistically, hardly believing our ears, Ilia Krustev was persuading us that there, in the water opposite Cape Kaliakra, the priceless treasures of the legend were probably awaiting us, glittering in the dark.

 

 

V.

 

What I see does not correspond to the description either as age or as cargo. Instead of gold, I see a cargo of wooden logs. I follow Vlado and Rossen, who are tying the diving rope to the wreck with a solid chain. It is a superb moment and I delight in it, anticipating the adventure awaiting us in the next two days. At that moment I routinely check the manometer and depth gauge. Reality sharply shakes me from my reverie. The gas mixtures in the two 15-litre cylinders are dwindling unusually quickly 76 metres below the surface. The water is pressing down on us with 9 bar. Robert Boyle’s principle is definitely valid here, i.e. that “ if a fixed amount of gas is kept at a fixed temperature, pressure and volume are inversely proportional”. In other words, while one increases, the other decreases and vice versa. The amount of air our lungs needed remained the same at this depth. Nor could the volume of air decrease in the cylinders, which are compressed under much greater pressure than that which surrounded us. Usually a scuba diving cylinder is filled to 200 bar. For comparison, think about car tyres pumped up only to 2 bar. A standard 12-litre, 200 bar cylinder holds 2,400 litres of air. More or less, as much as a telephone booth contains. In amateur diving to 20-metre depth, this amount is usually enough for remaining one hour underwater. The gas in the tanks on our backs reaching our mouths was reduced by the pressure valves of our regulators. In this way only about 10% of the available air reached our lungs. We had some 20 minutes before we had used it all up. By then we had to have reached a 57-metre depth, where we could switch to the first of the three side-mounted stage cylinders, filled with decompression gases of differing composition. We had agreed beforehand on a short dive with the sole purpose of providing a stable connection between the wreck on the seafloor and the buoys tossed by the waves on the surface for the following descents. Despite this, I could feel that my mates were eager to start investigating the remains immediately, but nightfall and the rhythmic pull of the diving rope, boding an approaching storm, caused me to quickly hurry them along with the torch light, reminding that it was time to head back. Strict discipline in following the diving plan is a must for the safety of technical divers. With visible regret in their eyes the two followed me. Soon we were undergoing compulsory decompression on the way up. Each of us carries laminated charts, prepared in advance, showing in minutes how much time to spend at what depth, in order to successfully cope with the bubbles of nitrogen circulating in the blood. It is calculated exactly how many minutes after starting you have to arrive at a certain depth and exactly when to leave it, in order to rise to the next mark. I looked at the charts and felt like a tram driver, the only difference being that if I am behind schedule I will not be faced with angry passengers, but with death baring its teeth. Such merry thoughts occupied me during the next hours. At the time I was not yet using dry gloves and I had a hard time clinging to the rope with my numb fingers. I was relieved to pass the thermocline around the 20th metre. The water temperature to the surface was 17C, which felt like a warm bath to me. I could sense the euphoria of well-deserved success after a job well done. On the surface dusk was falling. The Takata bounced awkwardly on the waves, trying to approach in a way as to enable us to haul ourselves up over the high boards. One after the other we handed the cylinders to the assistants bent over us. There was a slight commotion, in which either I badly handed up one of my tanks, or else the assistant failed to catch it properly, at any rate – it was swallowed by the water, making it the first due we paid to the sea during the expedition.

In the evening in Kavarna, tired but happy, we mixed the new gases late into the night. Early the next morning we travelled back and down. We were beginning the actual research. There are several sure places where you can find the name of a sunken ship. They are on the two sides on the boards and the stern, where you look for letters written in white paint. If you’re unlucky one last chance remains. When a ship is built, a specially made brass plaque is usually mounted in the engine room, near the engine, showing the name of the shipyard, the year of construction and the number of the hull. It is unique for every ship and the only one of its kind in the world. To find it, nailed to the walls covered in silt and encrusted with mussels, is no easy job. Quite often this room is also one of the most difficult to access. We decided to look on the port side and luckily we discerned letters under the layer of molluscs that had stuck to the ship over the years in the water. We cleaned it as best we could. The name appeared letter by letter. Another minute and we would decipher it. Suddenly I sensed that there was something wrong with Vlado. After diving for many years with the same partner, you imperceptibly start thinking the same way and sense the state of the other. Many times, almost automatically, Vlado and I had exactly the same thoughts or did similar things at exactly the same time underwater. We often joked that we were like an old married couple that no longer needs to speak but understands each other perfectly with nods and gestures. Only divorce and dividing joint property seem out of the question. But this peculiar feeling of motionless startling I sensed in Vlado was unknown to me. He was absolutely stock-still, staring fixedly at the just cleared board of the ship and I suddenly realised that instead of the joy that was to be expected, his whole being emanated sadness. And perhaps also the feeling of fateful injustice. A fin stroke placed me in a good position to look over his shoulder at the now clearly visible sign. CHRISTINA. Everything suddenly became crystal clear, just like the surrounding water. Christina was the name of Vlado’s long-time girlfriend, with whom he had recently broken up and for whom he, typically, was still silently suffering. And here, 80 metres underwater and thousands of kilometres away from her, a shipwreck was cynically reminding him of his own drowned love. This theme was even unexpectedly continued – in a few years Rossen would share his life with a girl of the same name. The vicissitudes of love are unfathomable both above and below water.

We continued our research. Little remained from the superstructure on the captain’s bridge. Rotted wooden panels, doors and window frames  were haphazardly mixed together. Lone and fully intact the helm rose  among them. Compasses and board lights and lamps were lying on the ground. The telegraph, used to transmit commands to the machinists in the engine room, was wedged in by a wooden plank. Something resembling a drawer contained binoculars covered in silt. The feeling of being the first person to come in contact with this frozen world after so many years was surreal. The entire forehold was filled with wooden logs. A high mast boom pointed directly to the surface. The usual cargo winches for this type of ship were visible around the hold. We moved along the passages to the cabins, which were in disarray. The doors were gone, which allowed us to take a good look inside. The same cargo filled the stern holds. We moved back past the high steam flange. Twenty minutes pass in flash. A swift glance at the pressure gauge. Where are my friends? There’s not much air left. A thumbs-up sign. It was time to get back to the air and light. Everything was going according to plan. All we had to do was to capture what we had seen on video camera and our mission would be accomplished. That remained for tomorrow.

The next day we were again punctual for our meeting with the old beauty. That day the descent almost had a fatal outcome for me. The memory of what happened even today, five years later, is just as vivid in my mind. The diving rope, firmly tied to the shipwreck at the bottom of the sea, was sinking at a particularly acute angle, testifying to a strong underwater current – something we had got used to while diving to the Rodina ship which had gone down near Sozopol. I was rapidly pulling myself up with my hands, one after the other, trying to overcome the resistance of the water. A bit later I was staring at a rope wound around the top of the mast, which was disappearing absolutely horizontally in the darkness some ten metres away from us. I decided that the other end was hooked around the many anchor lines remaining from the previous expedition, explaining its unusual gravitational geometry. I could not have been further from the truth. After a few more pulls I found myself at the level of the board of the ship, which I could see in its whole splendour ahead of me. The lights of the other divers were already moving like glow worms around it. It seemed like the perfect background and the idea to film it while swimming towards it appealed to me. I was a few metres from the seafloor, when I let go of the rope in order to adjust the video camera and lighting. This took about a minute of turning various buttons. I smoothly lifted the camera, ready to start shooting. What I saw through the lens made my blood curl and I immediately realised the danger I was in. The power of the current by far exceeded anything I had experienced so far. The ship was moving away from me smoothly and inexorably like a train pulling out of the station platform. Gaining speed at that. I started swimming with all my strength. The first few untroubled moments were rapidly replaced by growing alarm as I realised that my efforts were in vain and the current was mercilessly carrying me into oblivion. Nobody was looking my way and soon there would be nothing to see anyway. I had already spent several minutes at a depth exceeding 70 metres, which required compulsory decompression of at least 30 minutes. This would not cause me any difficulty. We had repeatedly practised situations like this. I would have to recalculate, this time in my mind, the schedule of ascend to the surface with absolutely controlled buyonacy. In an environment completely lacking in visual references. You are enveloped in a kind of mist, in which the only sense of up and down is the direction of the rising bubbles of air which was constantly decreasing in the cylinder on my back. I was doomed to rely solely on the accurate depth gauges for the exact distance separating me from the surface. During the last 30 metres I would be aided by the buoy which I would fill with air and shoot upwards with hope. The hope that somebody onboard the Takata would notice the lone red balloon, already drifted away hundreds of metres by that same ominous current, incessant both at the bottom as well as on the surface of the stormy sea. If this didn’t happen during the time I needed to cover the last metres to the surface, my subsequent cries would be absolutely in vain. I would be completely alone in the emptiness, with 80 kg of useless equipment dangling from my sides. Drifting at an even speed to the hypotheses and multitude of questions as to why and how, which I would never be able to answer. That was it. My pulse accelerated frantically, the heightened adrenaline made me swim faster. The awareness that helped me to suppress the rising panic told me clearly that my efforts were doomed. By now I was swimming at a speed that would be the envy of any athlete. Alas, the result remained unchanged and greatly in favour of the current. My strength was diminishing. The gravity of the situation was strengthened by the fact that you should not swim with such intensity at such a depth, since the increased blood circulation additionally saturates the tissues with the free floating bubbles of nitrogen in the blood, which lengthens the time for decompression. I would not have enough air left. I was in the circles of hell. Incidentally, shortly after this incident, I learned the name of this particular current – the Devil’s current. But right now I needed solutions rather than rhetoric. Up, up. To the air and light. I was feverishly calculating charts in my mind, checking the pressure in the cylinders, trying to control the ascent as best I could. My spirits were pretty low when the end of this ordeal suddenly came into sight. It was in the shape of that horizontally drifting rope from the beginning of the story, which appeared out of the darkness before me just as I had lost all hope of a favourable outcome. It turned out that the rope was drifting freely, kept in this position only by the fierce current. I did not think twice and grabbed it. From then on the way to the mast, down to the ship and back along the diving rope was child’s play. And although it may seem funny, after this incident Vlado never lets the chance go by to tease me that I have to be very careful when and where I let go of the ropes in life.

The low autumn sun was playing on the wetsuits left to dry, seeing us off for the last time this year on our three-hour return to Kavarna port. I was armed with a wonderful memory and a name – Christina, which would send me to the next stage of the adventure with this name. The stage in which I would unravel the enigma of the question – who are you, Christina?

To discover the name of a ship without knowing the year it went down is bad luck. That is what I was thinking as I skimmed through the long list of vessels with the name Christina that had sunk in different parts of the world. There are two reliable shipping registers – Lloyds and Bureau Veritas. Their answer to our enquiry whether they could possibly tell us the story of the CHRISTINA, lying at the bottom of the Black Sea some 15 sea miles from Kavarna, consisted of a plain list with ships of that name, the respective tonnage and the year and place they sank. We, too, had misled them as to the period. Judging by the appearance of the ship which pointed to the beginning of the 20th century, we had wrongly assumed that it had sunk after hitting a mine during World War I. There are countless ships of that name, only that they did not sink near Bulgarian shores in the first half of the 20th century. This news added additional mystery and slightly disappointed us. The cold winter was upon us, causing me to spend more time at home in front of the computer and the biggest discovery and hope of mankind – the Internet. I used it to direct numerous enquiries to specialised shipping history sites. These are often forums of people seeking their roots in the great migration processes to the two Americas during the centuries. There are innumerable sites of ship designers, sea cargo transportation companies, ocean researchers monitoring the pulse of the biggest living organism, and all sorts of enthusiasts sharing their sea passion and life in the global net for contacts between people who are sometimes divided by a wall and sometimes by a continent. I sank my enquiry like a hook into this infinite sea of information. All I had to do now was to wait and hope.

The good news arrived from England one morning in January. In a laconic and exhaustive email, as if he had devoted his whole life to the matter, the circumstances around the sinking of our ship were revealed to me by Ted Finch, the administrator of a site dedicated to the ocean elements and the fate of the people daring to oppose them. I had discovered their forum a few days earlier and here I was getting an answer to my queries. It was written by one of the most zealous researchers of marine history – Bob Sanders. With infinite curiosity, I read and re-read the some 20 lines which put an end to my long search. We had fairly accurately identified the period in which the ship was built, but we were wrong about the time it had sunk by about half a century. Christina had gone down in September 1962… Given this information, it was easy to obtain the Greek official report describing the circumstances around the sinking. Below I will briefly cite the reasons for the disaster with a verbatim quotation from the Greek document:

When the ship was loaded, the floor of the passage to the engine room was at about the level of the waterline. This was also the place of the floor couplings with the ship’s hull. Heavy, 2-3-metre round wooden logs were fastened to the passage floor. The ship swayed slightly as it left port. Consequently, if some empty spaces remained when the cargo was secured in the passages, it would have been able to shift to the left or right. During these movements the round logs may have hit the skin on the right side. These constant blows as well as the age of the vessel probably caused the couplings to loosen exactly around the waterline. Once this happened, a horizontal or vertical weld may have torn, creating an opening, through which, being at the level of the waterline, water slowly began to enter, penetrating the vessel above or below the passage. The water seeping in gradually collected inside the right-hand coal storeroom, eventually filling it with water. After leaving Galati until the time of the accident, about six tonnes of water for the boilers were pumped out from the hold and about seven tonnes of naphtha from the tanks, considering that at Galati only half the tanks were filled with naphtha, which as a whole resulted in the following consequences. The vessel became by about 13 tonnes lighter around the keel. Liquid-free spaces appeared inside the ship – in the water and naphtha tanks. At the same time, the vessel became heavier on the right side due to the water entering from the right storeroom, thus creating a space free of liquids there as well. The cargo was probably heavier on the right side and in the back of the ship where it was washed by the waves. Due to the above-mentioned facts, the ship’s initial even position changed to a new one in which it listed about 15 degrees to starboard. When the senior mechanic opened the door to the storeroom, the water that had collected there suddenly rushed into the engine room, creating the false impression of immediate danger.

The senior mechanic considered the situation as hopeless and on the basis of his impression proceeded to stop the boilers in order to prevent a possible explosion. In all likelihood, no attempt was made to pump out the water. As soon as the boilers were stopped, the ship was deprived of any means of dealing with the existing leak and was doomed. The men in the engine room then saw that the water was coming from the coal storeroom at the level of the passage. Due to the confusion, the men were left with the impression that the water appeared to rush in through a big hole at a height of three metres and from an opening of 2x0.50 metres, but if this were true, the ship would have sunk much more quickly and would not have continued to float for at least another 10 hours, which warrants the conclusion that the leak was not all that big. The rest of the crew obeyed the orders of the captain and left the ship, and in the final analysis was rescued by the Italian vessel ADREA which they reached in a lifeboat.

The men who perished became the unwitting victims of their own unstable nervous system, due to which they left the ship in panic and jumped into the sea despite the order and instructions of the captain. If they had listened to their captain and had followed the rest of the crew, they would certainly have been rescued as well. Due to the fact that the ship floated for over 10 hours after its right side listed and because of what was established afterwards, naturally the thought springs to mind that if the pumping equipment had been working normally and serious attempts had been made to use it to deal with the leak, even briefly, the ship would probably have reached near the shore or have drifted to it, as it was at a distance of seven miles from it, which would at least have guaranteed the life of the crew.

 

You know the rest. Actually, not quite. After the completely forgotten story of the CHRISTINA became generally known and was revived thanks to our efforts, a friend of mine remembered having read something similar in the almanac Far, but did not remember the year of publication. After searching for a while, in the issue from 1977, I discovered an article dedicated to the tugboat Neptune, which took part in many salvage operations by sea in the 1960s and 1970s. The story of the sinking of the CHRISTINA is quite exhaustive, with the exception of the comic ending, coloured by the ideology of the time. According to the author, after a 24-hour search in the sea for survivors of the shipwreck, the tugboat crew returned to Varna after having been informed over the radio that everybody from the sunken vessel had been rescued by a “Soviet ship”?!?! passing nearby. I can’t believe that the answer to the puzzle was lying all this time on the shelf in my bookcase.

 

Sofia-Sozopol, 2009

 

 

 

 

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