Divers symposium will raise funds for museum

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New Jersey Historical Divers Association President Dan Lieb stands in front of some new exhibits at the NJHDA’s new extended museum space at InfoAge in Wall Township. (MARK R. SULLIVAN/THE COAST STAR)

WALL TOWNSHIP — The New Jersey Historical Divers Association [NJHDA] is hosting its 18th annual symposium event this year, virtually for the first time ever, to help raise funds for its new shipwreck museum exhibits at the InfoAge Science and History Museums.

The symposium, “Heroes, Shipwrecks and a Melon Patch,” will be presented on Zoom on May 1 from 8 to 10:30 p.m. It will be the 18th installment of the annual event, which was canceled last year.

The symposium is an integral fundraising event for the NJHDA’s new exhibits and  museum space, which it hopes to complete within the next three to five years, according to NJHDA president Dan Lieb, who gave The Coast Star a look inside the museum-in-progress.

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“All the projects that we work on do require funding. We host receptions, donation jars; we apply for grants; we go after some wealth for contributions and we hold events like the symposium,” Mr. Lieb said.

The organization currently operates a smaller, 1,200-square-foot museum, but it is looking to expand into the larger 7,200-square-foot space so it can present its larger exhibits. Those include the recently acquired [and in need of work] Monomoy pulling boat, constructed in the 1930s to train Merchant Marines and Coast Guard crews on lifeboats as war loomed.

Mr. Lieb said the design of the boat goes back to the 1730s in Monomoy Island [off Cape Cod], where it was used by local fishermen. The 1730s design was commissioned by the U.S. Government in the 1880s as a lifeboat, and again as a “universal training boat”  in the 20th century to train civil mariners at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York.

He emphasized the importance of not only the boats, but also the men who trained on them through the course of the war. There are photos of men training on the boats.

“Of all the services that were employed in World War II … the highest loss of life per capita was in the Merchant Marine service … If they lost one ship, they lost a significant amount of their numbers,” Mr. Lieb said, pointing to the “1938 Merchant Marine” markings painted on the side of the boat. 

The boat is one of only a few left, and would require $10,000 for a complete restoration. Mr. Lieb hopes for now to scrape it, paint it and put it on a new pedestal. 

Other restoration projects include a 150-year-old life-saving device that could not look any less inviting, even in a life-threatening situation. Devices like it would be used at times in tandem with one of the museum’s other exhibits, a 1930s beach-rescue pull truck.

The small metal vessel would be sent out to save as many lives as possible in shore-rescue situations, typically 600 to 1,000 feet out, Mr. Lieb said. The truck could shoot the line out to sea via cannon.

“The inventor of this recommended that you pack people in here like cord wood,” he said. “Once you’re in here, you are in there until they let you out. The estimated time it would take to go from the vessel to the beach would usually [be a] maximum of two minutes,” he said. “From 12 to 25 foot seas, usually at night, crashing and bouncing around, in this thing must have been pure terror for two minutes.”

One of the most intriguing future projects the NJHDA hopes to fund is its Bathysphere of the Imagination. 

A bathysphere is a manned spherical chamber that is dropped down to the bottom of the sea in deep-sea exploration, such as that of the Titanic wreck. 

“Three people have to live in this thing for four hours down, a few hours on the bottom, and then four hours back. Before they lock you up inside here, what do you think is the first thing they ask you? They ask if you are flatulent. Because they know once they close those doors, they’re not opening for at least 10 more hours.”

Mr. Lieb hopes to create a simulation of that experience with a giant kerosene tank, complete with screens and effects that make it feel like the vessel is submerged.

“We want to build an attraction that children of all ages, including those in a wheelchair, can go inside and we do a simulated dive to the bottom of the ocean,” he said. “We’ll make it as realistic as possible.”

Other attractions that he plans for the future also include a Diving Demonstration Tank, in which a submerged diver, visible through a clear screen, can communicate verbally with audiences outside.

“These are all the different projects we need to get going here in addition to insulating and sheetrocking and putting in proper lighting and heat. That will come in time, three to five years. But right now we’re interested in getting people out here and getting people to come to our symposium,” Mr. Lieb said.

The symposium will feature Richard Veit, a professor of anthropology at Monmouth University presenting “Shipwreck in a Melon Patch: An Archaeological Mystery from Gloucester County,New Jersey”; Harry Roecker will present “Twenty Wrecks in Twenty Minutes: What A Diver Remembers, What an Engineer Sees”; and Joe Mazraani and Jennifer Sellitti, both deep divers, will present “From Ordinary to Extraordinary: The Merchant Marine’s Heroic Role in WWII’s Battle for the Atlantic,” detailing their discovery of a German U-Boat off the coast of Massachusetts.

“It’s an online event. People can’t get out what they used to but people are starting to go to more online events now.”

Tickets for the event are $20, and can be purchased at infoage.org/events or by visiting the NJHDA Facebook page.

The NJHDA is a group of amateur and professional divers, historians, archaeologists and more who identify shipwrecks off of the coast that have not yet been identified.

Mr. Lieb, 64, said he always knew he wanted to be a diver growing up.

“My parents let me watch a lot of ‘Diver Dan’ and a lot of Jaques Cousteau specials. When I was six or eight years old I knew I wanted to be a diver.”

After spending 30 years as a technical illustrator and documentation graphics specialist, he began producing illustrations and renderings of wrecks around 1995, which is when NJHDA was born. 

Now, decades later, the group’s work is worthy of a museum.

“We’ve collected so many diagrams, photographs, artifacts and documentation, we felt it was incumbent on ourselves to create a museum.”

Their work is far from finished, and Mr. Lieb believes that due to the sheer number of wrecks, known and unknown, identifying them all would take lifetimes.

“Between Cape May, Sandy Hook, Long Island and Montauk, the area called the New York Bight, there are well over 7,000 shipwrecks. Off New Jersey there are 4,200 recorded incidences in New Jersey waters be it offshore, up rivers, in the bays,” he said. “Of all the wrecks that remain off our coast, there are probably anywhere between 1,200 or 2,400 that leave a permanent mark on the bottom today and at least half of them are unknown. People have forgotten about them. They’ve slipped from public consciousness.

“If there were 20 groups like ours, we’d all have 20 years of work in front of us identifying wrecks. There’s that many out there.”

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