The following interview – one of a series profiling influential and often little known diving personalities – first appeared in the December/January 2002 of Asian Diver Magazine.
A veteran of diving’s ‘technical revolution’, Wings Stocks is an accomplished exploration diver with a passion for discovery. Raised on Lake Michigan, in northern Indiana, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 17 and served in Vietnam before being transferred to Okinawa where he had his first introduction to SCUBA diving in a Special Forces programme.
On his return to the States in the early ‘seventies, Wings followed a career in diving. In 1981, together with Ani, his wife, he established his own business, Ocean Odyssey, at Santa Cruz, California.
Determined to offer the best in customer service and training – and to stay ahead of technology – Ocean Odyssey’s owners were at the forefront of the technical revolution that swept through diving during the early ‘nineties.
Applying his skills to more extreme forms of diving, Wings Stocks later turned to unique projects and in April 2001, he and Ani sold Ocean Odyssey in order to develop a new company, Adventure Depth & Technology, specialising in remote imaging and search and recovery. A USCG 100 ton Skipper, trimix rebreather Instructor and Dive Operations Supervisor, Wings’ had recently returned from a three-month wreck hunting expedition to the Pacific – involving CCR diving to 300 feet – when he and Ani visited and took time out to answer questions about ‘tek and wreck’.
Q. You’re one of technical diving’s early pioneers’. How do you view that period?
For me I derived much personal pleasure from being at the forefront of an evolving technology. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Working with colleagues such as Billy Deans and Michael Menduno made the effort, investment and risk a truly exciting time. Plus we gave a much-needed shot in the arm to the faltering recreational diving industry.
There were some highly motivated people, people who liked going and returning safely from where no one had been before. They weren’t death-wishers. At the time – realizing that all things should evolve – we did the best we could with the information that we had. And if you look back through history that’s how frontiers are explored: by people willing to take a calculated risk.
Q. With greater numbers of agencies offering technical diving programmes, has the focus of training changed?
Twelve years ago no agency taught tech diving. Today, yikes! Initially, divers we accepted into tech training already had a significant amount of dive time and confidence. In the last four or five years, because of its trendy popularity, having prior dive experience is down the list of prerequisites. Seems as long as you have the fancy gear and can pay the course fee, you’re in.
You have to train to succeed. In the Marine Corps, we used to say, “The more you sweat in peace the less you bleed in war!” Adaptability is survivability. As long as you keep an open mind; realise you don’t know everything; and that every time you dive you really should learn something, then the probability of getting in a situation because of blind ignorance is reduced. Additionally, today’s instructors don’t challenge their own diving expertise. They talk the talk, but are not diving the dives. The critical element is the experienced instructor. The organizations provide materials and support. When all else fails, train.
Q. You enjoy wreck diving. What are your favourite wrecks?
Deep virgin wrecks. I like treasure hunting – one mans’ garbage is another man’s treasure. Although there’s currently a lot of controversy about treasure hunting, most wreck divers I know collect and then exhibit their finds. That means they do a great job in restoration and in display. They finance it themselves without subsidies from a museum or government. They’ll put together an educational display with emphasis on mobile talks and slide shows.
The wrecks that I like best in California are the gold rush wrecks. I prefer deep wrecks because of the serenity that surrounds them. There’s a certain amount of peace at depth that, unless you’ve been there, is hard to appreciate. The first series of dives that I did on the, ‘Andrea Doria’, was one of my most satisfying and peaceful. Everything went according to plan. I didn’t push too hard. I challenged enough, but I respected that it could kill me. It was highly pleasurable.
Q. How many times have you dived the ‘Andrea Doria’?
The ‘Andrea Doria’ used to be considered the pinnacle of technical diving. My first experience was 1991. I have 23 dives on it. The thing about the, ‘Doria’, is that it’s intimidating in its size; in it’s location; and in its reputation. It’s located approximately 60 miles from the nearest land and lying on its side in approximately 240 feet of water. The weather window is really brief; June July and August with maybe a little bit of September. One year, out of the ten trips, only two made it to the Doria. That’s the risk in going offshore to remote sites – and a part of the game that we play.
Q. You mentioned treasure hunting. What’s the attraction?
Everybody has visions of striking it rich by finding exotic treasure but it’s like playing the stock market – or betting on the Melbourne Cup! Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t.
I’ve been fortunate enough to fall in with a group of people who are very honest and professional. When we find, we document every find with video, still photography, sketches and surveys. A tremendous amount of time is spent in documentation. Then, when objects are removed, they’re tagged and given to archaeologists and conservators. It’s a very legitimate business.
One of the wrecks that I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in has been the ‘Brother Jonathan’ – which is a wreck off of California.
Q. What was the, ‘Brother Jonathan’?
It was a 220’ steam side wheeler running the coast from San Francisco to Seattle via Oregon. In 1865, these areas were quite remote. The vessel was carrying pay roll and mining equipment, together with over 200 passengers and crew. The weather was blowing 40 – 50 knots with seas 25 feet when an uncharted pinnacle became known as Jonathan Rock. Since 1865 salvors searching for the wreck had focussed on the Rock, whereas it had actually sunk two miles away in 280 feet of water with – on a good day – visibility somewhere between two and three feet.
Q. What was your role in that operation?
I was on the exploratory expedition team as head of the diving division. We had five divers – three bottom divers and two support guys – and our role was twofold; sub support and recover any treasure that might be exposed.
We had one and two-man submersibles with crew who had never previously worked with self-contained tech divers. They came away quite impressed, I must say. We utilized the subs for its big lights and backup equipment
Q. What did you recover?
Somebody reported seeing a flash, perhaps a fishing weight, something like that, but they couldn’t relocate it because of the visibility. I made a point of watching every videotape whenever the subs came up, so that if and when we were needed we could traverse an area quickly. Finally we got the call.
The way that the current was pushing us, it took seven minutes to drop the 280 feet and our plan called for 20 minutes bottom time using trimix with nitrox and oxygen for decompression.
Arriving at the paddlewheel hub, I reeled out, gave the sub the ‘OK’ signal, started my time, picked up my reel and within 5 seconds I was on top of the site where I had calculated as the search area. I noticed a little piece – maybe a half-inch curve – underneath all the silt that I knew from previous experience was a gold coin. By brushing very gently, I exposed other coins and we started loading the bag, careful to not further damage the coins. Because the visibility rapidly deteriorated, the sub was unaware of our blessed event until I strapped about 50 lbs of gold coin on to it.
Minted in 1865, the coins, U.S. $20 Double Eagles, had never seen circulation. They were in groups and clusters of ten to thirty and looked as though they’d just come off the press.
On a subsequent dive, the sub took one-and-a-half to two hours to pick up 13 coins, whereas in 15 minutes on just one dive, I was able to pick up 564, providing proof of the viability of tech diving.
In May 1999, the coins that we’d recovered from the ‘Brother Jonathan’ went to auction and were sold for over 6.5 million U. S. dollars.
We could have recovered tons of china but we didn’t. We only brought a few pieces up – Hey! We are wreck divers. It’s hard to pass up china – my favourite is a shot glass from the 1860’s.
Q. Does expeditionary diving of this sort ever concern you?
You never know which day’s going to be your last day and so you always have to prepare yourself and your family. I’m not in competition with anybody, other than myself, “Can I do a better job today than I did yesterday?” I am a background diver. I get the job done. Those who need to know, know who does the work. I like recognition in a subtle way. It’s a case of getting the job done right in the best way that I can possibly do it. I love slipping beneath the waves. I’m hooked for life.