What do you do when you're an accomplished wreck diver and unexpectedly come across what turns out to be not a pile of rubble but an unidentified U-boat from World War II? And not only unidentified, but also laying in 230 feet of cold water, 65 miles off the New Jersey Coast. The answer, if you're a red-blooded wreck diver or captain of a wreck diving ship, is you move heaven and earth and do not rest until you have proof positive of the boat's identity and place in history.
Such is what happened when scuba divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler came across a wreck on Labor Day of 1991, at a location where, according to official records, there simply could not be a sunken U-boat. Chatterton quickly finds a tantalizing hint, a couple of dishes bearing the German Nazi Swastika and the year 1942. This startling find sets in motion a six year story of events that bring adventure, setbacks, human drama including death, and a seemingly never-ending sequence of frustrations as the two principals -- Chatterton and Kohler -- come ever closer to finding the identification they so desire, just to be thwarted by the deteriorating hulk again and again. The quest forges powerful friendships between unlikely men, and none more unlikely than that between the scientifically minded, methodical Chatterton and the treasure artifact hunting Kohler.
Though mostly focused on the quest of identifying the U-boat, Shadow Divers provides background information as well. There are briefer portraits of other divers who participate in the frequent charter trips to the location of the sunken sub, the story of rivalries between boat captains and diving teams, relationships that begin, blossom, and die because of the dominating passion for the sport, and, saddest of all, how one of the pioneers of wreck diving and great wreck diving captains, Bill Nagle, is slowly claimed by, and eventually succumbs to, alcoholism. There's very little of the superfluous historic review of diving found in almost every other diving book, none of the typical authors' biases, and there aren't any fillers. There's just the fascinating story of the tedious, plodding attempts to identify the boat.
Much of this is actually recorded, or at least touched on, in other books. The rivalry between two of the major wreck diving boats, the Seeker and the Wahoo is legend, as is that between their captains and certain crew members. The deaths of several divers, including those of Chris and Chrissy Rouse, are well documented. Yet, Shadow Diver manages to truly take us there like none of the others. Kurson also takes great care to describe Richie Kohler's growing connection with the men who had sailed the mystery craft, and then with their families, many of whom he visits.
What sets Shadow Divers apart is that it is not just an extraordinary diving book, but an extraordinary book, period. Extraordinarily well written, extraordinarily well organized, and certainly extraordinarily well researched. Much more thoroughly than most. I enjoy good writing, and Kurson certainly has the gift. Check out the author's background and you'll find that he has a degree from Harvard Law School, but then decided to embark on a writing career instead, working as a drapery and blinds installer to make ends meet until he established himself as a writer for leading papers and magazines and contributing editor to Esquire.
And not only is Kurson a spellbinding storyteller, his multi-disciplinary background also shows itself an an extremely thorough 27 page index; two dozen pages of photographs, many in color; a detailed list of sources; and a concluding interview with Richie Kohler and John Chatterton. Yet, the book never comes across as scholarly or stuffy. This is a true masterpiece, and enjoyable reading whether you're into diving or not. -- C. H. Blickenstorfer, scubadiverinfo.com