Four Lives of a Ghost Ship
The Texas Clipper was commissioned by the US Navy as the USS Queens (APA-103) in December 1944. During World War II (WWII), she was used as a troop transport ship into the South Pacific and as a floating hospital and transport after the battles in Iwo Jima. Before being decommissioned in 1946, the Queen was also part of an American occupation in Japan.
In 1948, the Clipper's name was changed to the S.S. Excambion; and from 1948 to 1959, she served as one of the post-war four aces for the American Export Lines. The original Four Aces were ocean liners that routinely crossed the Atlantic to various ports in the Mediterranean. But when WWII broke out, these ships were sold to the US Navy and converted to troop transports. Unfortunately, three of these ships sank in battle including the original S.S. Excambion. To replace the lost vessel, the American Export Lines purchased the USS Queens and quickly converted her to a cruise liner to continue their business abroad.
Seeing a massive ship lying on the ocean floor is a truly surreal experience. There is just something foreign about leaving the ocean's surface to find a ship crippled and dead on the bottom. I have had this deep fascination with diving wrecks ever since I first saw the art of Ken Marschall. His visions of these underwater graves are inspiring and his images are haunting to say the least.
The sinking of the Texas Clipper took place in November of 2007 off the coast of south Texas, and ever since she went down I have dreamed of diving her. Once the State of Texas lost the USS Oriskanyto Florida, local divers have eagerly awaited the sinking of the Texas Clipper. With only smaller wrecks along the Texas coast, the Texas Clipper's the only large, fully intact wreck that offers much of the same intrigue as the Big “O” or even some of the larger albeit deeper wrecks off the east coast.
Once her service with the American Export line ran its course, the S.S. Excambion lay at anchorage in the Hudson River Ready Reserve Fleet for seven year. It was not until 1965 when the next phase of her life was determined when the federal government lent the Excambion to the Texas Maritime Academy. Once at the Academy she was renamed the U.S.T.S. Texas Clipper; and from 1965 to 1996 she spent summers at sea providing an educational experience to hundreds of student.
Finally, after more than 30 years of service with the Texas Maritime Academy, she was placed on reserve mooring at the port of Beaumont in Texas. For 2 years her future was undecided but in 1998 the final phase of her life was resolved. She was to be given to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to use in their Artificial Reef Program. She was to offer 76,000 ft2 of hard surface to enhance the growth of marine organisms and an underwater ecosystem that would include barnacles, oysters, mussels, moss animals, sponges, and various forms of corals. Her high vertical profile would also attracts many fish species such as Atlantic spade fish, red snapper, barracuda, almaco jack, cobia, and various sharks.
The Texas Clipper was reefed on November 17, 2007, 17 miles off South Padre Island. The location of the site was selected because of the depth it could provide above her highest most feature and because it would offer clear water for divers most of the year. The reef site is located in federal waters in the western portion of the Gulf of Mexico. The ship was placed at a depth of 134 ft giving it a minimum depth of 62 ft.
While at anchorage in Beaumont, the ship had to undergo considerable hull modifications to ensure she met the depth clearance requirements, while also retaining as much of the ship's original external features as possible. Modifications were also made to ensure divers could make limited penetration through large openings to better provide for their safety. Once the modifications were made and all pollutes removed, the ship was towed to south Texas and eventually the reefing site in November 07.
The plan was to flood the Texas Clipper in a way to make her bottom heavy which would sink the vessel in an upright position. Unfortunately, as she sank, she filled with water in such a way as to make her port side heavier causing her to land on her port side instead of her keel. If she had stayed upright, her upper most structure would have been relatively shallow at about 50 ft. Because she is on her port side she is just a little deeper at around 62 ft. This is still shallow enough for recreational divers but just a little more disorienting than planned.
Living in Austin, Texas, the 6 hour drive to get to South Padre Island is far more manageable than the 12-13 hours needed to get to Pensacola to dive the Oriskany. The dive operator I use is American Diving. I have used this operator before and they always proven themselves to offer first class service. I had signed up for the "Tons of Steel" trip which meant we could either spend 3 dives on the Texas Clipper or 2 on the Clipper and 1 on a nearby rig. I had settled on the 2 dive option leaving one for a rig dive on the way back to shore. My reasoning was based of my experience on the USS Oriskany. Because of the depth of the Oriskany, I learned that 2 dives on the coning tower were more than enough. To really enjoy the Big "O", you need more bottom time, more depth and mixed gas. Getting ready for the Texas Clipper, I assumed that 2 dives would be enough so I wanted to make sure and utilize the 3rd dive on a rig. What I had not considered was because of the shallower depth I would be able to see more of the wreck each dive. Having now dived the Clipper, I could have happily spent all 3 dives on her remains.
On the way out we had relatively calm seas (2- 4 ft). Still, many on board did get seasick. The dive boat, Diver I, is 60 ft long but a little unsteady. Most divers made at least 1 if not all dives. The water was comfortable in a 3 mm wetsuit and the water temp was in the high 70s. There was one heavy thermocline down deep which did drop the temperature significantly but still manageable.
Surprisingly, the Texas Clipper has already started growing a substantial amount of coral and many other marine organisms are now calling this dead ship home. There are lots of blennies, arrow crabs, snapper, butterfly fish, damsels, queen triggers and other large marine life coming every day.
On my first dive, I immediately headed for the bottom. I hit the seafloor at 134 ft. Visibility was great (75+) down to 120 were it turned milky (5-7 ft) down to 134. I then came back up and swam forward through the promenade deck to the bow. As I glided through the water I entered some of the outer deck passages and into several cargo holes along the way. It is impressive how well the ship had been prepared for divers, with minimal entanglement hazards and large holes cut for immediate access. There are also plenty of opportunities for the more experienced technical wreck penetration divers. Technical dives can be setup as well so make sure and contact Tim. Don't forget to ask about his Technical Wreck Penetration Course.
As mentioned, our last dive was made on the Seana's Rig. I said above I could have dived all 3 dives on the Texas Clipper and I meant it, but I am sure glad we didn’t. After leaving the Texas Clipper, I started feeling a little seasick and had decided not to make the last dive. I had dived many rigs in the past and didn't mind giving up this one. Just after Tim O’Leary hit the water to tie off the dive boat, however, he immediately came back up and yelled, “whale shark!” Seasick or not, I grabbed my equipment and jumped into the water. The dive on the rig was very shallow which was perfect because of the main attraction. I hit a max depth of 75 ft but most of the dive was spent between 16 and 35 ft just following the whale shark around the legs of the rig. I was later told he was a juvenile male and he looked to be around 25 ft long. He stayed with us the entire dive (50 min) coming within inches on many occasions. It was truly a memorable experience all around.
Tim O'Leary and his crew run a great operation. They are safety conscious and eager to please. I cannot recommend them enough for their diving operations or if you are looking for more technical dive training. I plan on going back to get Technical Wreck Penetration certification in the near future and can't wait to get further inside this underwater oddity.
If you are interested in making this once in a life time dive, please contact:
Telephone (956) 761-2030