Ayuruoca Stern Helm Recovery

by Harold Moyers


This is a rather long “trip report” but I wanted to write it up as a shout out to our friend Joe Mazraani who announced several years ago (while he was a captain on Gene Holmes dive boat Homewrecker) he was going to “go get” the massive 6 ½’ diameter Oil Wreck helm.  The helm project eventually required 3 years of work which all culminated into two days of shaft cutting.

Recovery Team of the Ayuruoca Stern Helm, Clockwise from top left: Joe Mazraani, Steve Gatto, Paul McNair, Luis Jimenez, Harold Moyers, Tom Packer, Mike Dudas, Pat Rooney, Bart Malone

The Ayuruoca lies in 176 FSW in the New York Mud Hole.  The “Hole” is the long flooded ice age Hudson River Valley about 8 miles off sandy Hook.  Mud Hole wrecks are silty and very dark from the constant flow of ooze from the Hudson River.   The helm was the rear most auxiliary station located near the very tip of the stern.  It’s impressive diameter and oversized shaft is due to the fact that it was intended to turn the rudder with muscle power in case of a steering failure.  It was contained on three sides by doghouses, and forward by a steel shroud which covered the wheels shaft and bearing.  Overhead was a gun tub placed there during the Second World War.  The wheels only access was through narrow companionways port and starboard.  The gun tub made Brocco cutting problematic.  Hydrogen gas pockets could develop and explode in the confined space.  It would be “safe” only for a hardhat diver.  None of the regulars involved in the project dove hardhat and the team wanted to do it on SCUBA by us as opposed to hiring a contract hardhat diver.

During the ’08 season Paul McNair devised the concept of using a wheel puller.  If you could put a puller on the hub and torque away on the shaft then the helm should come off just as it was put on.  At the end of the ’08 season Tom Packer and Joe Mazraani removed the retaining nut on the end of the shaft (using a pipe wrench and lots of leverage).  They made (over the course of many dives) accurate measurements and then fabricated a puller in Tom’s shop.  Due to machining constraints the puller was made out of what we would soon learn was woefully thin material (thin in spite of being 1/4” thick and very heavily reinforced with angle iron).

In early 2009 puller number one bent around the wheel hub instead of pulling it off as pressure was applied.  Rustin Cassway had a shop with equipment that could cut and weld far thicker steel.  Rustin, Packer, Mazraani, and myself designed and fabricated from 5/8” thick plate a puller that was an absolute work of art.  The center contained a 1 ¼” diameter bolt with 9 threads per inch.  Theoretically with the puller we would be able to impart hundreds of tons of pressure to the shaft simply by turning the bolt with a lever.  With the device clamped to the back of the hub the helm should slide off.  Between the spokes of the wheel we set 12 clamps, each with a capacity of 1,600 pounds.  The clamps turned to taffy under the enormous pressure; the wheel didn’t even budge.

We needed stronger C clamps.  Not much however was commercially available (Mazranni purchased 5,000 pound clamps that we were unable to fit between the hub and shroud).   Cassway offered leftover armor plate from an armored car job he had completed.  On a CAD plasma cutter he cut out 48 – ¼” “C” shapes made from the super strong armor.  Rustin and I welded them together into 12, 1” thick, super clamps.  Teams of divers were needed to place our new set up into position.  First we had to hook the wreck.  A team then had to tie in and then swim a separate down line to the exact place we needed to work so gear could be sent down.   No simple task in the Hole.  Then the 12 clamps had to be set in position on the puller and in between the spokes of the helm.    It was almost over before it began as the 50-pound puller separated from the down line as we sent it down.  Mike Dudas swept the bottom and miraculously located it in 176’ of black, silty, billowing mud.  He swam it back up the side of the wreck and installed it.

Team after team went about applying torque to the bolt and into the shaft.  We initially used a 3’ pipe wrench.  The clamps held against the force but unfortunately so did the helm.  We returned on another trip with a large industrial ratchet wrench with a 4’ pipe extension.  With over 6’ of leverage imparting scary force we stalled out.  Two men heaving up on the pipe couldn’t budge the wrench, let alone the wheel.  We did however manage to split in half the heavy steel shroud covering the shaft bearing, all that energy had to give somewhere.

Joe Mazraani decided he needed more gear to get the job done.  15 years earlier Steve Gatto had done research on underwater hydraulic saws that are used extensively in the Gulf.  He provided Joe with part numbers and supply contacts.  Mazraani purchased everything he needed for underwater cutting; a circular cut-off saw, 600’ of 1” hydraulic hose, and all the fittings.  He only needed one more bit of gear, a boat!

He rigged the gear to the hydraulic system of a 45’ PEI built Novi fishing boat he bought, an aptly christened, the Tenacious.  The team actually had the saw for a single dive the year before on the Homewrecker, but the gasoline powered hydraulic pump provided by the manufacturer blew up before an inch was cut.  Now the gear was properly mated to a serious hydraulic system thanks to the efforts of McNair and Luis Jimenez.

As much as 2009 was a bust, 2010 promised to be two trips and done (maybe three trips max) with all the new gear at our disposal.  The expression “failure is the chance to start again smarter” springs to mind.  We all got PhD’s on this project.   Eight trips worth of work this summer and fall were required to finally raise the helm.  We wound up having to clear the massive steel shroud covering the bearing to expose enough of the shaft to cut.  A hydraulic reciprocating saw had to be purchased by Joe because cutting away the shroud revealed an ugly 6 ½” diameter steel shaft (we had little idea of just how big it was from our previous vantage point).  There was simply no way to cut it with a cut off saw before bottoming out on the saws arbor.   Mazraani and Cassway quickly mastered the recip saw.  It wouldn’t cut without considerable down force, so Rustin rigged a pulley underwater.  In two dive rotations 1/3 of the exposed shaft was sliced through.

On the seventh trip to the Oil wreck of the 2010 season all was ready to go.  We knew how to properly work the saw, and the set up dives were now going like clockwork.  Pat Rooney and Mike Dudas could tie into the gun tub blindfolded from any point on the wreck.  Mazraani was all set on the bottom when McNair activated the hydraulics topside.  The hydraulic hose violently jumped.  The oil wreck is called so because oil continues to leak from her, we quickly noticed far more oil then usual!  The hose had split open 10’ from the tool releasing 55 gallons of hydraulic oil; the day was over before it really began.

As hard as the previous 7 trips of 2010 had been (26 in total over the 3 years), the November 15th trip was perfect.  After multiple weeks of blowouts we had good weather with no wind and residual long interval 6’ swells coming through.  By now Joe could drop the hook on the tub like his pulpit had a gun sight.  Rooney and Dudas sent the go ahead orange puck up in record time.  The visibility was dark but spectacular for any wreck, let alone a Mud Hole wreck.  McNair’s repaired hydraulics worked perfectly.  Team two, Mazraani and Luis Jimenez set the cutting gear and worked the saw for 20 minutes.  Packer and Gatto followed and continued cutting after a 30-minute overlap.  Paul McNair, Bart Malone and myself swam down the line and caught an ecstatic Tom Packer at his 40’ stop giving me the international ½” to go sign!  I reached the saw and Paul positioned himself on the other side of the shaft to work a come-along put in place to provide down pressure on the saw.  The saw itself was chained on a swivel to the shaft to keep it straight.  All I had to do was push a button and we were sawing.  McNair adjusted the tension as Bart and I impatiently tried to wriggle a still very firmly attached helm.  Soon we noticed play, slight at first but increasing.  Then suddenly the saw blade bound.  I feathered the switch once and the helm fell away!  Joe and Luis sent the wheel up after we had gorged on grilled sirloin steak during the surface interval.  It took nine of us to carry the project off the boat.

It was hard to believe it was finally off and on it’s way to a preservation tank.  Was it worth it?  Neither Joe nor the crew ever complained about the time spent on the project (and a lot of Joe’s Money).  We all have been diving together for years.  Diving is just a day spent with friends and these dives were no different.  The big helm was one of the most well known, most sought after artifacts in the “Hole”.  The other Ayuruoca helms, the Goulandris helms, and even the infamous Choapa helms disappeared quickly.  This helm resisted all efforts for over 40 years.  The team was proud to be there, and Captain Joe “Tenacious” Mazraani earned our respect, as well as his new nickname.  It took a long time but in a way we are kinda sorry this project with our friends is finished, I’m sure everybody who has worked on long duration projects know how we feel.

The Divers on the project were:  Joe Mazraani, Luis Jimenez, Paul McNair, Dave Kennedy, John Butler, Chris Tyls, Steve Gatto, Bart Malone, Paul Whittaker, Tom Packer, Harold Moyers, Mark Nix, Mike Dudas,  Anthony Tedeschi,  Rustin Cassway, and Pat Rooney.