For years I thought it was just a rumor, or if it did exist, it was at the bottom of Davey Jones’s Locker. But some intrepid Forgotten Fans have found the vessel that was launched long ago to recover the contents of the Andrea Doria…the Yellow Submarine of Coney Island Creek.
The story of the Yellow Submarine begins in 1951, when the jewel of the Italian Line ocean liner fleet, the SS Andrea Doria, was launched in Genoa (she was named for a 16th Century Genoese admiral). The Andrea Doria had a gross tonnage of 29,100 and a capacity of about 1,200 passengers and 500 crew, (as well as three outdoor swimming pools) and was a source of considerable national pride for Italy in the post World War II era. Like the Titanic it was considered the safest passenger vessel of its time, with a double hull, radar, and eleven watertight compartments. Nevertheless it was saddled with several design flaws, the most noteworthy being a tendency to list.
It had its first passenger run in 1953 to New York City.
The Andrea Doria sinks on July 26, 1956 after being rammed by the SS Stockholm.
The Andrea Doria’s reign lasted just over three years. On the night of July 25, 1956, bound for NYC, it collided with a Swedish liner of comparable size bound for Gotheborg, the SS Stockholm, in extremely foggy weather in the North Atlantic off Nantucket. There was no radio communication between the vessels, and though radar indicated theirships’ presence to near each other, Captains Piero Calamal and Harry Gunnar Nordenson were unable to adjust their courses and prevent fatal contact.
46 passengers of the Andrea Doria were killed at the area of the Stockholm’s impact while ten crew members of the Swedish vessel died. Half of the Andrea Doria’s lifeboats were unlaunchable due to the list the vessel had after the impact. The Stockholm sent several lifeboats to the Doria’s aid after the crew determined the Swedish ship was in no immediate danger of sinking. There were other oceangoing vessels in the immediate vicinity (unlike the Titanic tragedy 44 years earlier) which prevented a large number of fatalities.
Enter the Quester I
Jerry Bianco launches the Yellow Submarine, October 19, 1970
The scene shifts to 1963, when a Brooklyn Navy Yard ship fitter named Jerry Bianco hatched a scheme to salvage the treasures of the Andrea Doria…as Terry Berkson reports in the September 14, 2006 Richfield Springs Mercury (the town is in upstate New York between Schenectady and Utica):
The Andrea Doria was known to be bountifully loaded with such diverse items as a $250,000 solid silver statue of a mermaid; thousands of cases of liquor; tons of provolone cheese; 200,000 pieces of mail that the federal government would pay 26 cents a piece for; the ship’s bronze propellers, worth $30,000 each, paintings locked in air-tight vaults; industrial diamonds; the ship’s $6 million metal scrap value; passengers’ personal property left in several vaults and more.
Bianco believed he could build a vessel strong enough to descend to 240 feet of water, where the liner rests at the bottom off Nantucket, and could actually raise the sunken vessel by filling it with inflatable dunnage bags; when filled, the bags would lift it off the bottom or to the surface — or so the theory went.
Berkson: He began work in 1966 raising money for the expensive equipment and materials needed by forming a corporation, Deep Sea Techniques, and selling stock over the counter at a dollar a share. “Friends, neighbors, local police and firemen all bought into my dream of raising treasure from the ocean.” A dollar bought a piece of the submarine and a share of whatever she salvaged.
Bianco did the designing and most of the welding himself but also employed workers as need arose and money allowed.
His two sons also contributed their efforts. Raising money was always a problem. One had to be a dreamer to put faith in a captain who had never even piloted a sub before. Bianco’s simple mousetrap approach, “My sub wasn’t made for speed or beauty,” attracted small waves of stock investors.
After four years of hard work, a 40-foot, 83 ton Yellow Submarine squatted beneath The Burns Bros. Coal silos on the shores of the Coney Island Creek ready to be launched.
The Quester I (the submarine’s official moniker) was coated with yellow zinc chromate paint, the most economical Bianco could find.
Bianco says the vessel passed coast guard inspection with flying colors and a $5,000 examination by the Navy rated the sub as capable of withstanding pressures at depths of 600 feet. When the boat was completed, the stock soared to $4.75 a share. At the time of launching, Deep Sea Techniques had $300,000 invested in the 5/8-inch steel-alloy plated Yellow Submarine. Another $600,000 would be needed for a mother ship to which the sub would be tethered for air, electricity, communications and supplies.
“For the sake of simplicity, my sub was like a stripped down economy car with no extras.” Also, flotation, the thousands of dunnage bags that were designed to cushion shifting freight on ships and trains, would be a major expense.
Finally, on October 19, 1970, the sub was ready to be launched. Bianco’s daughter, Patricia, broke a bottle of champagne across the bow before a giant crane lowered the craft into the creek.
Unfortunately that was as far as it went. The crane engineer lowered the sub completely into Coney Island Creek, disregarding Bianco’s instructions. Bianco had removed the ballast from one side of the sub to save money, since the cost of launch was calculated by the pound, and the engineer was told to lower it only partly into the creek. Like the ocean liner it was supposed to help salvage, the Yellow Submarine listed severely in the water and couldn’t be launched. Biano later refilled the ballast and tethered the sub, but his backers’ enthusiasm waned, and he could never return to the project. Eventually some of the sub’s parts were stolen, and it got loose from its moorings in 1981.
“Building that boat was one of the happiest times in my life,” said Bianco, as he momentarily looked towards the sub’s old launching site. “I still think my idea would’ve worked. I could’ve been on easy street. I think it would work even today.”
Yellow Submarine to raise Andrea Doria [Richfield Springs Mercury]