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Searching for an unknown ship near Alcatraz

February 28 2015
Take an openROV to the site of a ship that sunk near Alcatraz and ID her

February 28 2015


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Preparation Stage

Preliminary Dive for Sophia
Hospital Cove on Angel Island
Sunday May 3, 2015
Windspeed 30-35knots
Weather: patchy clouds and intermittent sun

TIME to FLY Sophia

Crew members:
Capt. Ron...
Gilligan his mate...
Mark, just along for the ride
Thomas the master pilot
and ...
ME the inexperienced yet enthusiastic new pilot

We hurridly left Paradise Cay Marina to try to outrun the wind... HA! Headsail was set and we were off and running gunnels down, the sail singing it's heart out! I love that!

Since the wind was up we opted to run to Hospital Cove and dock instead of deploying Sophia in the bay near the wreck site. The docks were crowded and the ROV garnered a lot of interest.

Boot up was slow and we had a couple of issues with the gamepad. Once calibrated though she was fine. We had 3.52 meters of depth where we were in the marina so really couldn't do much of a depth test but we did do several bottom inspections on boats in the marina. Several people were startled at first then curious as we flew around their vessels. Batteries died quickly (turns out they weren't fully charged) so we packed it up, had lunch then sailed home.

Another test drive is in the works


You already know how much I love this! See anything interesting under the boats? Barnacles, shiny props?

Barnacles, lots of sand and some seriously murky waters. Hard to even see the boat and we flew all around and even under one.

Hi! I've been reading up on your project and am fascinated. I'm a science writer (I live in Berkeley) and would love to talk more about your project and what's in store for its future. If you're interested in sharing, feel free to get in touch - sarah dot scoles at gmail dot com!

After a short sabbatical, I’m back at it, re-inspired and ready to deploy SOPHIA!!!

Sitting at lunch last week with Nick Hollis, CEO of Oceanic Worldwide, Billy Snook of Mission 31 and Jonathan Knowles, Strategic Initiatives Director of Autodesk talking about my expedition.

We were brainstorming about descent rates and the currents in the area of the wreck. Since there is a limited battery life for the small ROV, concern has been growing regarding how long the descent will take vs the actual time for ID'ing the wreck? We need to factor in the currents, tide, visibility, weather etc... What would work for a weighted system? How long would a “Lifesaver” take to disintegrate? Rocks tied to the ROV? How would we disengage them? A myriad of questions yet to be answered…

Billy and Nick both suggested at the same time, “Why don't we use a diver/s to descend the ROV and be its buddy during the dive...DOH! WHAT A GREAT IDEA!!!!

What would that take? How many divers? We would need to set a descent line due to the currents in that area. But it would eliminate battery use during descent which would give us more bottom time!

We might even be able to wrap this into a media promo for Oceanic and us the Hollis boat for deployment… OK this is getting interesting!

Jonathan then suggested more than one ROV be used, each performing its own set of studies... ANOTHER DOH!!!! Gotta LOVE brainstorming with people who know how to think out of the box!

More to follow…SOON!!!


Sophia was water tested today at The Berkeley Marina. She passed!

Conditions: Murky water, wind 3-7 knots out of the NW, water was a bit choppy, low tide, and a sunny day. We had a connection problem with the adapter for Erika's laptop and the ethernet cable. Sophia was submerged for a little over 25 minutes with no visible leaks. Slight condensation in the electronics tube which can be fixed with desiccant packs.

Overall a successful test. Next week we begin putting the plans together for mission deployment.


Nice. I hope to see more videos of your test underwater!

Did you get accused of fishing?

But of COURSE!

We are on the dock at Berkeley Marina with Elise's new ROV Sophia. We set up a Google hangout on Air to test our ability to live stream a dive in the field by using my iPhone as a hotspot for data.

I'll post a link to our hangout in a second when we get back to the shop!

Getting tons of emails from people who watched! Whoa!


When we left off the bark had burned in the harbor at Acapulco, Mexico in 1908, considered a total construction loss to her owners. The hulk was sold for $3,500 to John H. Rinder, an American citizen living in San Francisco, California, on behalf of Shipowners & Merchants Tugboat Company. The American tug HERCULES towed the bark to San Francisco arriving in May 1909. Western Fuel Company of California purchased the hulk for $7,750, later selling the former bark to Union Oil Company for $21,000. Moore & Scott Iron Works of Oakland, California entered into a contact with Union Oil Company in 1913 to convert the former steel bark into an oil carrier at cost of $173,450.80, with additional equipment added later for a total conversion cost of $184,095.11. With the cost of her rebuild, plus the $21,000 Union Oil paid to purchase the former bark, when completed for all intents and purposes she was now an American-built vessel, without register from any nation. Pending congressional action in order that the ship might obtain registry and not be idle, the oil-carrier once again changed ownership being sold for $4,500 to a Canadian corporation having a capital stock of $5,000, divided into 200 shares. The Union Oil Company just happened to own 195 shares, of which 5 shares were held by C. Gardner Johnson of Vancouver, British Columbia to act as managing owner. In September of 1913, the vessel goes ashore on Punta Gorda, California….. stay tuned.

Photo: Tug HERCULES, circa 1908, was ordered by the San Francisco based Shipowners and Merchants Tugboat Company to join the Red Stack fleet. Today you can visit HERCULES can at Hyde Street, she’s part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park’s floating museum ships.


What an interesting history! What caused the jump from the arrival price of 7750 to 21,000? Was there a significant amount of refitting done in the interim or just smooth business?

In the historic accounts there's no mention of further modifications, so apparently Western Fuel Company of California made a nice profit.

She’s waking up!

Finished the electronics of Sophia’s brain section, put the gaskets on the main end caps and put together the main tube. The seal would not hold. Thomas said that was probably because there might still be a slightly sharp edge somewhere on the edge or lip of main tube causing the gasket to roll when being sealed and the try to roll back once seated keeping the tube from sealing and being waterproof. (Wow! what a mouthful) So…. I re-sanded the edges and lip of the main tube again and…VOILA! We have seal and she maintained pressure!!!

Next up putting her all together!


This is bomb! Nice work!

Battery Terminals ready to Rock!

Measured the wiring for the placement of the battery tubes, cut and soldered them all together, got them all put in place (NOT AN EASY TASK) and finished the last of the potting (epoxying).

There is a time frame to get this done and I am way beyond it. This is due to life in general. However once this is complete I can finally move onto the planning of the expedition, setting up transportation, looking at the expedition environmental issues (ie. Currents, temperatures, timeframes, transportation, lighting, underwater obstacles etc….)

Nothing much…really!


Chassis Complete
Today I got the wiring put in place for Sophia, soldered all connections, mounted the propellers and completed the chassis. Soldering is an interesting skill. Learning to be patient, wait till it looks “right” and THEN pull the heat away without pulling the connection apart. AND not touching the soldering iron to anything else in the vicinity while doing this (of course you are working in very close proximity to other wires etc..) is a talent… SHEESH. Ahhhh but the satisfaction of completion, of seeing that your work is moving forward and successfully at that! I am becoming more confident and at ease working building. I can hardly wait to get Sophia in the water.


Today I am back to building the ROV. I spent all day today working on the electronics, wiring, propellers and brain of Sophia. Yes Sophia is the name of my darling 2.7 openROV. She is going to be a smart and elegant little mermaid.

Despite my thought that being an Octopus with several sets of hands would come in handy during this build out I feel I have managed quite well thanks to assistance from both Erika and Thomas here at openROV. I have also come to the conclusion soldering is definitely an art and one I am not adept at...yet… I can operate most power tools on the market, construct tables, raised garden beds and furniture but building a VERY small ROV has required my becoming proficient with a new set of power tools… Magnifying glasses mainly… Sheesh I am getting OLD!

I am developing a concern around lighting on Sophia. We will be diving in strong currents and most likely the very turbid waters in the bay and I suspect the lighting currently mounted on Sophia might not be strong enough. Time to begin an investigation into a stronger yet lighter(weight wise) lighting attachment.

Suggestions welcome!


Hi Elise,
As a diver and underwater photographer for abot 10 years, I can advice you about light and bad vis waters.
If you expect bad vis waters, don't try to put more power to your lights. Mor light in bad vis is more reflection from particles. Try to use difussers in front of the lights.

Great advice! THANK YOU I'll look into that!

Girls in Ocean Sciences Conference

I spent my Valentines Day in Dana Point, CA with Erika Bergman at The Ocean Institute’s Girls in Girls in Ocean Sciences Conference. With 100+ girls in attendance, this conference was a HUGE success!

The girls got to meet women scientists from all over the nation, hear about their experiences and how they became scientists, take a ride on the institutes 70’ research vessel Sea Explorer, collect samples for study, whale watch and fly an ROV. They were divided into groups and attended different workshops throughout the day.

Erika spoke in 3 different sessions consisting of over 25 girls. All the girls had the opportunity to fly Erika’s robot Puck, (which was built by girls their age last month), be a tether manager and navigate the ROV while the pilot drove it in one the research tanks (empty of fish). They learned how to work together as a team while attempting to retrieve rings in the tanks. It was so great to watch these young ladies eyes light up as they realized how EASY it really is to fly a ROV. I suspect there will be some new recruits to pilot school soon!

This trip has really inspired me. Time to get busy finishing up the build out of my ROV and planning the mission!


Day 2 of building “Sophia” my new openROV. I’m still intimidated and nervous about making mistakes. AND of course I do! In the course of gluing the end caps for the electronics compartment I built one side EXACTLY like the other instead of as a mirror image…. Ooops! According to Erika and Thomas, I am NOT NEMO from The Matrix and everyone falls the first time…LOL HA! That makes me feel better. So we scrounged around for another set of end cap parts and I carefully rebuilt it, THE RIGHT WAY! Phew


And so it begins..! Today was my first day at openROV building my new ROV. Intimidated is just the FIRST thing I felt. As with anything you first step up too I was hesitant to even peel the brown paper off the acrylic. So Erika says, “the acrylic cement is thinner than water so watch yourself and keep it away from your eyes... hmmmm.. as I squirt it everywhere on my first attempt…Sheesh, Good thing there was no acrylic in the vicinity. Not wanting to make a mess, I was SO CAREFUL on gluing the first couple of pieces! Ha! By the time I was at 5-6 pieces I was in a “who cares” attitude and used it quite generously. Needless to say, nothing is coming unglued on MY watch!


Tops. Love this photo.

This ROV mission to conduct a systematic site survey of what appears to be a submerged shipwreck will serve to help positively identify the final resting place of what the science team believes is Russell & Company’s (Port Glasgow, Scotland) fastest ship of the five four-masted barks built for Gilbert M. Steeves between 1889 and 1893. In 1907, Reginald Alexander John Warnerford served as an apprentice on board the bark; later in his military career with the Royal Naval Air Service in 1915 he attacked the German airship LZ 37. Setting the airship on fire, subsequently the LZ 37 crashed over Sint-Amandsberg, Belgium. The bark’s eighteen-year career under the British flag would come to an end when sailing from Cardiff, Wales for Acapulco, Mexico with a cargo of coal. She burned in the harbor of Acapulco in 1908, considered a total loss, the owners were paid off by the underwrites at Lloyd’s. The reincarnation of the ship under American registry began to take place, but it took an Act of Congress… stay tune.


Research can be a bit tedious at times. Tidal charts, Current charts, historical records etc... This week I will be venturing down to the Port of Oakland to pour through their records and find more information on this ship. Building an information arsenal so when we DO get out on the water we are prepared. Also need to locate a boat to work from.


Beautiful looking multibeam target where you can clearly see the vessel lying on its port side and I love how it show the sand scour from the promenade current direction with the deep hole at the stern and the long trailing sand ridge off the forecastle of the wreck

Expedition Background

Nearly 280 feet in length, this steel hull sailing ship (not to be named yet) was built in 1890 in Scotland, originally rigged as a four-masted bark.
On October 29, 1929, just out of drydock, she turned turtle (flipped over) and sunk straight to the bottom of the Oakland Estuary. Deemed a navigation hazard, periodic attempts were made to salvage her to no avail.
In December of 1932, holes in the steel hull were plugged above the water line, the superstructure was cut down and air was pumped into her steel cargo tanks. She was refloated and then towed out into the deeper waters of the Bay where she was then sunk.
A multibeam sonar survey has identified a possible shipwreck target similar to the size of this ship which we will attempt to positively identify for the State of California and NOAA. Hopefully this will also lead to subsequent ROV expeditions to survey the full site. Strong tidal currents are a serious factor in mission planning, More to follow...


So cool! Excited to follow along and read more!

This is fantastic! Thanks for inviting me!

happy to follow..... :-)

Sounds awesome! I can't wait to see more!

Excited to follow this expedition

Woo hoo, let's go!

Yeah I figured you'd be on this one Samantha!!!!

So cool!! Really excited to follow along.

this looks like an amazing find and piece of history lost. I look forward to watching this unfold. I will be making a contribution as well.

Exciting! I'll be watching for updates.

Very excited to follow you expedition

Looking forward to following the expedition!

Look starboard ... I am a dolphin.

So glad to have you on my side...Gary!!!!

This is awesome. Can't wait to hear more. :)