Travel

How a Scuba Diver Found Thousands of Sunken Ships Around a New England Island

Stories from a lifetime under the sea.

Photo courtesy of Chris Mongeau
Photo courtesy of Chris Mongeau
Photo courtesy of Chris Mongeau

On a midwinter day, with the wind howling and temperatures frigid enough to freeze the sweat on their skin, twenty-year-old Jim Jenney and his friends went out to sea on a patched-together inflatable life raft. They’d found the 32-man boat discarded behind the US Navy base in Newport, Rhode Island and outfitted it with a makeshift transom and mounted an outboard motor. The group shoved out from the northern tip of Jamestown, where Jenney was born and raised, and into Narragansett Bay. They were on the hunt for the 188-foot tugboat Mount Hope, which struck a shoal and quickly sank during a 1968 storm.

“With the top on, [the raft] looked like a floating tent,” Jenney recalls. “I’m surprised nobody called the Coast Guard and said they saw survivors of a shipwreck or something.”
 The men eventually found the wreck, and the inflatable vessel became their transportation of choice to a variety of other watery graveyards. With this raft, the group hunted for the Lightburne, a steamship that ran aground beyond the towering bluffs near Block Island during storms and heavy fog in 1939. “We had a terrific day diving,” says Jenney. “Then we came back and realized we had to lug all this stuff (tanks and equipment) back up a 300-foot cliff.”

Photo courtesy of Jim Jenney
Photo courtesy of Jim Jenney
Photo courtesy of Jim Jenney

Jenney could tell vivid stories about his scuba diving adventures for hours, and no wonder: he’s spent most of a lifetime under the sea. He got his start in the sport at age eight, when his diver father popped a respirator in his son’s mouth and led him into the water. Jenney never looked back-only down, at the thousands of wrecks that litter the ocean floor off the coast of Rhode Island.

As an adult, Jenney parlayed his passion for the deep into a career in professional wreck diving. He has made and guided hundreds of dives around Jamestown and its rock-strewn, scenic sisters, Newport, Watch Hill, Narragansett, and Block Island. In the process, he’s become the foremost authority on Rhode Island shipwrecks.

Photo courtesy of Chris Mongeau
Photo courtesy of Chris Mongeau
Photo courtesy of Chris Mongeau

The severe beauty of the New England coast has proved a prolific muse, bringing Jenney face-to-face with the skeletons of eighteenth-century fishing schooners and privateers, turn-of-the-twentieth-century steamships, two-masted yawls, and other ghosts that list, rusted and hole-ridden, along the ocean floor.Before the state passed legislation awarding itself ownership of any items lost to the silt and surf for 50 years or more, Jenney salvaged a variety of items. Some of his favorites include a collection of 400 nineteenth-century bottles, found in different spots around the coast, including off the old ferry landing on the east side of Jamestown.

He’s especially proud of having raised cannons from the Minerva. The Spanish brig struck Breton Reef in 1810, off the coast of Newport, in an area where wrecks are torn to pieces by brutal ocean currents. “That one was pretty special,” Jenney says. “We spent a lot of time trying to work under the radar, because people knew we were looking and would have followed.”

All the ghostly, watery secrets Jenney amassed over the years are pretty rare-so much so that the diver used his firsthand knowledge to write nine books about wrecks and diving, including In Search of Shipwrecks. And he’s helped compile a shipwreck database for the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum in Jamestown.

 Shobeir Ansari/Moment/Getty Images
Shobeir Ansari/Moment/Getty Images
Shobeir Ansari/Moment/Getty Images

The historic lighthouse complex, located on the arrow-shaped southern tip of Conanicut Island, includes the red-roofed keeper’s and assistant keeper’s houses, plus a striking, late-1800s square granite tower with a cast-iron top. It replaced the original 1749 light tower, which was damaged in the disastrous hurricane of 1938. In addition to its fourth-order Fresnel lens (that’s naval-speak for the enormous light that formerly sat at the top of the lighthouse), the Beavertail Museum presents artifacts, videos, touch-screen educational displays, and a variety of descriptive signage on wrecks around the state, many of which were based on Jenney’s original research.The museum also has an exhibit devoted to the 1938 storm. Dubbed the “Long Island Express,” the hurricane came on without warning and whipped itself into a fury of 60-mile-per-hour winds that engulfed beaches and coastal communities in tidal waves 30 feet high. Boats were set adrift. Homes and businesses were smashed into toothpicks. Hundreds of people were lost.In the West Passage, a notoriously difficult and low-visibility place to dive in Narragansett Bay, the hurricane tore the top portion of the cast-iron Whale Rock Lighthouse from its foundation and swept it, and its lightkeeper, out to sea. The lower floor collapsed in on itself shortly after. Today, a crumbling foundation atop a hump-backed rock bears witness to the disaster.

The wind and currents move in opposite directions in this area, creating what sailors and divers call a confused sea. This treacherous stretch has claimed hundreds of vessels, including the early 1800s schooner Providence Journal and an unnamed circa-2000 barge, both of which capsized and sank in the bay.

Photo by Chris Mongeau for Thrillist
Photo by Chris Mongeau for Thrillist
Photo by Chris Mongeau for Thrillist

These and other ill-fated ships have been captured in Jenney’s extensive database of 3,400 wrecks, found at the museum and online-the most comprehensive listing of maritime events in Rhode Island waters from the Colonial era to today.

 Some seven decades into his wreck-diving career, Jenney is still motivated to uncover the story behind the haunting majesty of a sunken ship. “Every wreck has a different story. That’s what got me hooked on maritime history, 24/7, 365 days a year. It’s been my life’s work.”

Of his hometown, Jenney says, “The best place for scuba near Jamestown, particularly if you’re interested in wrecks, is around Beavertail.” Because competition with fishermen here can be problematic, he also recommends heading toward Newton Rock, about a quarter mile off the coast of Jamestown. Beyond that, Jenney names the area around nearby Block Island, which has better visibility, as his favorite for Rhode Island diving.

After seven decades spent in and around the sea, Jenney still hasn’t gotten his fill. “To this day I cannot say there is any place I would rather be than underwater,” he says. “Scuba diving in Rhode Island is one of the greatest pleasures anyone could experience.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Robin Catalano is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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