The cool, dense fog off the waters of Washington's Olympic Peninsula made even the brightest of lights appear dim as the 326 foot Diamond Knot slowly steamed her way through the Strait of Juan de Fuca toward Seattle. Most of the crew was below deck, with only a handful on watch peering into the darkness. Under charter to the Alaska Steamship Company, the ship was fully loaded with a cargo more precious than oil, gold or jewels to a hungry post World War II world population. The 5,525-ton freighter carried more than seven million cans of King, Chum and Cohoe salmon from Bristol Bay, Alaska, a huge part of the annual catch that was worth millions of dollars on the world market.
Although the fog was particularly thick this night, the Diamond Knot was not unaccustomed to hazardous voyages. During the war, the little freighter and her sister ships had endured potential air attacks, submarine infested waters, invasions and numerous storms. Although she had survived those threats, she would not survive the events of this particular night – August 13th, 1947.
Steaming in the opposite direction of the Diamond Knot toward the mouth of the strait and the Pacific Ocean was the 10,681-ton freighter, Fenn Victory. Outbound from Seattle, she had off-loaded much of her cargo and only carried approximately 200 tons. Lightened of much of her load, she was riding high in the water and moving fast. Unknown to the crews and captains of both ships, the two vessels were on a collision course.
To the crew of the Diamond Knot, the first sign that something was amiss was when the bow of the Fenn Victory suddenly appeared to starboard, like a huge apparition through the thick mist. At 1:15 A.M., the Fenn Victory's bow crashed into the starboard side of the smaller freighter, slicing more than 14 feet into her and locking the two vessels together. In the abject stillness of the thick fog the huge jolt and the shriek of tortured and twisting metal awakened the crews, plunging them into what would prove to be a night of both terror and desperation. At this time, the two ships were approximately six miles North of Port Angeles in the shipping lanes mid-way between the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island.
Distress calls immediately went out from the two vessels, and tugs were hurriedly dispatched from both nearby Port Angeles and Victoria, British Columbia. Upon arrival, the tugs found a scene of complete confusion. Everything seemed to be in chaos as both crews struggled desperately to cut their ships free – hacking, clawing and fighting the entangled booms, masts and crosstrees. The Fenn Victory had cut so deeply into the Diamond Knot that the smaller freighter's main deck was awash and her holds were quickly filling with the bone-chilling waters of the strait. While the desperate battle to save the ship and her cargo continued, the ebb tide pushed the interlocked vessels steadily westward. Finally, after long hours of struggle involving the cutting away of huge chunks of entangled metal and jettisoning of debris, the two ships were finally free of each other. The Fenn Victory, in no danger of sinking, was able to manage to limp back to port under her own power.
For the Diamond Knot and her crew the struggle had just begun……
In a desperate attempt to save the vessel and her precious cargo, the tugs placed the Diamond Knot in tow, stern first, and headed directly south toward Crescent Bay, where it was hoped the sheltered waters would serve as the ship's salvation. The intention was to beach her before the sheer weight of the onrushing frigid water pulled her down into the depths. This proved to be a forlorn hope as the combination of the seawater rushing through the huge gap in her side and the massive currents at the mouth of Crescent Bay finally came to be too much for the Diamond Knot and those who struggled to save her. Only about one quarter mile from shore, the freighter began to roll on her side, allowing an additional massive influx of water into her remaining holds. At 8:57 A.M., the Diamond Knot sank below the surface, coming to rest on its starboard side in 135 feet of water just off of Tongue Point.
This was one of the largest cargo losses ever on the West Coast; and within hours salvage efforts were being organized. Because of the type and value of the cargo, new methods of salvage had to be tried and tried fast. Time was the primary enemy as the precious cargo of canned Salmon would not be able to long endure the effects of pressure and corrosion. Surface-supplied divers cut their way through the sides of the vessel into its holds to gain access to the precious salmon. Huge siphons were devised that were used to vacuum the cans to the surface and onto waiting barges. It was one of the greatest and most innovative salvage jobs in history. By the end of October, more than 5,700,000 cans had been recovered to help feed an impoverished, war-torn world. Finally, after weeks of intense labor in and above the cold waters of the strait, the successful salvagers were able to return to their homeports and the wreck of the Diamond Knot was left to the ravages of the sea.
Amidst the huge triumph of the salvage operations, however, one more tragedy still remained to be played out …..one night shortly thereafter, haunted by what had happened and the role that he had played, the Captain of the Fenn Victory shut himself in the cabin of his ship and quietly hanged himself.
Today, the Diamond Knot has become a gold mine for Pacific Northwest Technical Divers and advanced recreational divers who have the knowledge and skills to experience her. In addition to the damage inflicted by the collision with the Fenn Victory, the massive cutting operations involved in the salvage efforts further weakened the hull and much of the wreck has collapsed upon itself over time. Penetration of the wreck is still possible at some points, but such a venture requires extreme levels of training, skill and caution.
Time and the nutrient-rich waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca have taken their toll on the Diamond Knot. The vessel is enshrouded with a thick encrustation of anemones, scallops, sponges, giant barnacles and hundreds of other underwater denizens of the Pacific Northwest. Throughout most of the wreck, it is only the straight and regular edges obviously created by man that mark it as a sunken ship and not a marvelously intricate rocky reef. Serving as an artificial reef, the Diamond Knot hosts huge numbers of various species of Northwest Rockfish and Greenling that often will curiously approach divers. The Diamond Knot is a dream for both the macro and wide-angle photographer, with life literally covering almost every square inch of the wreck. The invertebrate population quite literally consists of everything from the tiniest of single-celled creatures to the giant Puget Sound King Crab and virtually everything else in between. Huge Ling Cod, Cabezon, Red Irish Lord and Wolf Eel can be found on the wreck and make marvelous photo opportunities when they can be convinced to pose. A healthy population of Giant Pacific Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) can also be found living amongst the nooks and crannies of the wreck, feeding on the vast quantities of crustaceans to be found there. Each season individual Octopuses of great size are reported by visiting divers and underwater photographers.
Visibility on the Diamond Knot is never constant and is heavily dependent on the season as well as both current and weather conditions, occasionally dropping to 10 feet or less (at times, far less!). Divers would do best to explore the ship with the attitude of accepting whatever visibility "Old Juan de Fuca" decides to allow, planning ahead for all possible conditions.
Just as they brought the Diamond Knot to her eventual demise, today the tidal currents sweeping over the wreck can still be fierce, and dives should be planned for slack water or periods of low tidal exchange. While exploring the wreck, structure can be used to block much of the force of the current. However, divers need to be constantly aware that those same currents can drastically affect their ascent and should plan accordingly. While the Diamond Knot can be planned as a non-decompression dive, those divers planning decompression stops using an anchor line would be well served to carry JON lines as part of their equipment and be thoroughly acquainted with their use in high current. Additionally, a solid knowledge of reel and lift-bag decompression techniques and skills is also recommended should a decompressing diver be swept off the anchor line. Divers and boat crews should discuss and anticipate such events and plan for them before they occur.