The Aldebaran Bay was built in Holland around 1940 and was used as a training vessel for the German navy. It was not originally a sailboat but had been converted to a schooner with three big steel masts at some point in her life. She was powered by the original giant four-cylinder Blackstone diesel engine. The five to six foot high cylinders were impressive and capable of turning the prop at 950 RPMs for a cruising speed of about seven knots.
There were quite a few rooms onboard and every crewmember had their own quarters. Walter’s room had two bunks and a bath. A couple of the rooms were fairly decent, but the boat, interior and exterior, was still a little rough. However, it suited their needs and seemed to fit the rag-tag crew.
The ship was staffed with nine crewmembers plus the British captain and owner, Bill Sutton. John, another Brit, was the engineer and his girlfriend was the cook. Tim was from Virginia Beach and arrived with two other dive friends, all three in their early 20s. Aside from 25-year-old Walter, there was one other British diver/deckhand, Dave, who was accompanied by his American girlfriend, older than he by ten years. Bill, the captain, was in his 50s or 60s and had also brought his girlfriend, who looked to be in her 20s.
For this four month expedition Walter packed his wetsuit, scuba gear, handmade fishing rods, spears, and Hawaiian slings. He packed jeans, swim suits, t-shirts, and shorts, and also brought along his camera.
On June 3, 1983, the Aldebaran Bay entered Bahamian waters at Nassau where they were granted a cruising permit. They stayed in Nassau for a week before continuing on their voyage. Before they left, they were boarded by the Bahamian Defense Force who checked them out and asked what they intended to do in the Bahamas. Bill Sutton did not want the Bahamians to know they were treasure hunting, and so told them they were planning to begin chartering the vessel and were taking her for a shake-down cruise. This satisfied the Bahamians, who then left.
The Aldebaran Bay reached Hogsty Reef on about June 12th. The weather was fairly decent with about 2 ft seas. The ship was anchored in 20 ft of water inside a grand horseshoe-shaped reef. Walter jumped in to check that the anchor was set before grabbing his spear and sling to find something for dinner. He couldn’t help but marvel at the spectacular reef which looked like a huge amphitheater built of coral heads. On one side the top of the reef was quite shallow, but dropped off dramatically to a depth of about 70 ft. There was one nice sized grouper on the reef and Walter shot it. The 10 lb fish would feed a few of them that evening.
Based on the account of the sailors who survived the shipwreck for which they were searching, they located a likely area for the wreck and began to grid out the reef. This exercise was practice for the salvage diving they would do in Turks and Caicos. Teams of two to three divers searched each grid. Using underwater metal detectors, they found bronze spikes and various parts of sailboats that could have been from the period of the ship for which they were searching. The men also located small cannons and rigging from old ships. Several of the reefs had metal in them, but it was hopelessly encased in coral rock. Ballast stones were also found in these grid areas. No gold was found. However, as part of their searching, they took the metal detectors to the little islands located on the reef and here they found two silver bars.
One day they spotted what looked like submarine conning towers. They got on the radio and called repeatedly. Finally, the sub answered and the Aldebaran Bay crew asked if they were Germans, but the sub responded that they were Russian. The crew also saw an ocean going tug boat in the area. They figured this was the tender that supplied the sub.
A huge freighter, which ran aground on the reef years earlier, was clearly visible. In Bill’s research of the area he learned that this wreck was the Russian freighter that carried the first nuclear missiles to Cuba.
On the morning of June 18, the captain decided to salvage the bronze shafts off an obvious wreck on the north end of the reef that was exposed at low tide. The wreck had a big boiler just below the surface and the remainder of the ship was located in deep water. Walter, along with the other divers, took their small boat and placed big orange buoys at the shallow part near the boiler, and another one in deeper water where they felt the boat should anchor. The plan was to use primer cord and blasting caps to try to break off the shafts. At that point they would use the windlass to pull the shafts onboard the Aldebaran Bay.
The captain brought the Aldebaran Bay from inside the reef and took it out around the reef to approach the wreck. The divers were in one of the small boats waiting for Bill to get the boat in position and drop the anchor at the orange buoy. When he came around and approached the buoy, the boat slowed down but continued moving forward into the wreck. The divers gestured wildly for him to stop, but the ship struck and rode over submerged wreckage. The captain explained that the main engine had failed to come astern on the approach to the anchorage. Pulling the schooner off the wreck, the divers worked with Captain Bill using the little boat, while the engineer worked to get the reverse operational. They finally freed the vessel from the wreck. This occurred at 11:30 a.m.
Walter and the other divers offered to take a look at the damage and see what could be done. Walter suggested taking it up on the protected sandy area and repairing it with welding tools. However, Bill refused to allow this and informed them he intended to take the boat to Acklins Island, some 50 miles away. The British engineer was the only person the captain consulted with before making this decision.
Privately, the crew deduced that if the Captain took the ship back into the protected and shallow reef area, the insurance company would send salvagers to repair it so it could be towed out of there. Then the insurance company would likely not provide Bill with the full insurance value.
Bill was after treasure, they knew, and he had more to gain by sinking his ship and collecting the insurance money than by hunting for elusive treasure scattered on an ancient reef. The water outside Hogsty reef drops quickly to a depth of about 2000 fathoms, or 12,000 ft. At this depth, the ship would be unsalvageable. The insurance value of the Aldebaran Bay was one million dollars.
The bilge pumps were started and the ship set out to sea. Although the engineer worked to keep up with the flow of water, he continued to report that he was unable to do so. The electric bilge pump was underwater and the water level throughout the engine room had risen to three feet. Captain Bill informed the crew he had placed a mayday call on S.S.B., V.H.F., and Ham frequencies. He reported there was no response to these calls. Some of the crew questioned he ever made these calls.
At 3:30 p.m. the main bilge pumps failed and water began to rise throughout the ship. The boat started to list slightly. It became apparent the ship was going down. At this point all onboard began gathering supplies.
The ship was shut down and the three life rafts were launched. There were two 10 man rafts and one 25 man raft, along with a 15 ft inflatable zodiac with a 10 hp engine and a 17 ft dory craft with a 40 hp engine. They grabbed five hand-held radios, one for each boat. Out of the pilothouse they took the VHF antenna, Loran antenna with the Loran, and a couple of pairs of binoculars. Walter took the lounge chair mattresses and put them in the bottom of the three life rafts. The captain ordered the crew to raft the vessels together to avoid becoming separated.
Although there were ten survivors to feed for an unknown period of time, the captain collected minimal food supplies: some loaves of bread, peanut butter, candy bars, a few cans of fruit, and not much else. Bill made the decision to keep all the food and beer in the dory with him instead of distributing it equally to the others.
Walter returned to his cabin to grab his valuable hand-made fishing rods, slings, and spears. He also gathered some dry clothes and shoes and stored these items in one of the dinghys. He had not yet had time to change out of his wetsuit from the diving they had done just before the accident had occurred.
At this point, Walter’s raft was hit by an engine from one of the dinghys, tearing a hole in his raft. The raft contained a patch kit and he used this to repair the damage, but it continued to leak. He attached his scuba regulator to the hole and had to hit the air occasionally to keep the raft inflated. The inside of the raft was like a big waterbed. He loaded it up with some supplies as the ship continued to settle lower and lower into the water. Walter remembered he had a couple of cases of Gatorade in his room and he returned to the ship to retrieve them. He and the other two men in his raft would need something to drink.
Walter’s cabin was located two flights below decks in the very bowels of the boat, below the portholes. As he descended, the boat creaked and groaned loudly. The noise was ominous and unnerving. He fumbled hurriedly in the pitch black darkness. Water was everywhere. He reached his cabin and yanked open the door. The room instantly flooded up to his knees. From the short time since he had last been in the cabin, the water had risen considerably. The old ship was going down quickly and he definitely did not want to be caught in that cabin when she began her final downward descent. The boat shrieked unrelentingly, loudly protesting her undeserved fate. Down in Walter’s dark and flooded cabin it was eerie and frightening. He needed to get out of there and fast. Walter felt around for his Gatorade, some water, his camera, and began making his way back up to the deck.
There were 40 cases of Old Milwaukee beer on the ship and this was offloaded mostly in the 17 ft dory, though Walter managed to store some of it in his raft, along with his Gatorade and a little water. He also had the raft kit which held a dozen terrible tasting glucose bars, a little fishing kit, and some canned water. All these provisions appeared to have been stored in the rafts since the vessel’s launch in 1940. There were two other men in the raft with Walter. Although it was a ten-man raft, he considered how terribly uncomfortable it would be with ten men in it. They would have all been in the fetal position sitting up. Miserable. But, with only three men, they had enough room to be somewhat comfortable. He hit the scuba regulator again and refilled the leaking raft.
The captain and the engineer were the last to get off the sinking vessel. A strong suction is created when a large vessel sinks, and anything too near a sinking ship will be sucked down with it. When all had abandoned ship, the rafted boats pulled a safe distance away, about a quarter of a mile, and began drifting to the northwest.
The crew watched, mesmerized, as the Aldebaran Bay settled lower and lower in the water. The captain ordered the crew not to take any photos. But Walter and his two raft mates weren’t keen on following this order and used Walter’s rescued camera to shoot what are probably the only pictures of those final moments in the life of the Aldebaran Bay.
Once the stern started to go under, Walter could hear the water rushing in and the air being forced from the stern through the inside of the boat as it was compressed and forced out of the boat. She screamed and screeched loudly, yet continued to settle further and further below the surface. It was eerie to watch the stern sink beneath the sea as the bow tilted 30 ft high into the air, bottom showing. The gallant old ship gave up a mighty groan as she breathed her last with a big gush of water and air as the bowsprit reluctantly slipped beneath the waves and disappeared forever.
Aldebaran means “The Follower.” On the infamous Dragon’s Teeth reef, it was this ship’s destiny to follow where so many other ships had gone before her.
A few years ago, our son David was in the Bahamas on a spearfishing trip with an old guy named Glenn. He began to tell Glenn the story of his dad’s experience while treasure diving on Hogsty Reef, and how he was shipwrecked. Glenn, 79, perked up and asked David to follow him.
David followed the old salt back to his cabin where he watched Glenn dig through a drawer and pull out a big sack. The old man felt around in it for a while before drawing out a large, ancient, and intricately carved gold cross. This, Glenn said, he found on Hogsty Reef years ago while pulling a lobster out of a hole. He described reaching in the hole and then he saw something inside the hole gleaming in the sand. He pulled this treasure out of that lobster hole.
David studied the cross, which was covered completely in a very detailed hand-tooled rope pattern. It was very beautiful, he later told us. Hogsty Reef, a centuries old graveyard of shipwrecks, is a veritable treasure trove to those who are willing to take on the challenge and the risk of diving there.