Barnegat Light — “Dolphins off the port side!” shouted a jubilant Capt. Dennis Smith from the wheelhouse to crew and divers aboard the Dina Dee II. “One of the many perks to owning a dive boat,” Smith said, “is how much marine wildlife can be witnessed.” His nephew and partner, Capt. Francis Gary Smith II, stood starboard side just outside the wheelhouse, where he could keep a vigilant eye on the water, the radar and the redundant navigation system.
The ocean was socked inside heavy fog, and the prior evening’s thunderstorm had created a light swell. The captains and fellow divers were unfazed by the conditions. Capt. Dennis blew the horn and ceased forward momentum. Capt. Gary threw in a buoy and a line, which diver and shipmate Mike Martin followed down with hopes of securing it to the Charlemagne Tower Jr., otherwise known as the Cedar Creek Wreck, off Island Beach.
According to Capt. Gary, this wreck was a large wooden schooner that sank in rough seas after a close but failed attempt by the captain to beach it in 1888. Nineteen people were rescued, leaving no casualties. Unfortunately, Martin returned to the surface quickly to report extremely low visibility, so the Dina Dee II carried on to the next wreck site, the Northwest Barges. The Northwest Barges is a series of seven to nine sunken wooden barges. Visibility was ideal, so the divers geared up and went exploring.
The Dina Dee II is a 42-foot Coast Guard-inspected vessel, docked in Barnegat Light. It has a 1935 Detroit Diesel engine, which was constructed for military operations, and has earned a reputation for reliability. The Smiths started diving on this boat many decades ago, and they purchased it from Roger Hoden of Manahawkin in 2017. In addition to being one of the pioneer divers in the area, Hoden was a Rutgers marine biologist. “Roger is in his 70s now, and he was either going to hang it up, or we were going to keep it moving,” said Capt. Gary.
With a great deal of TLC and many helping hands, the Smiths restored the Dina Dee II to her optimal seaworthiness. “We put our heart and soul into this boat,” said Capt. Dennis.
He said there were seven dive boats on LBI when he started diving, and now the Dina Dee II is the only one left. “Diving is an industry lost in time,” Dennis said. “Most of the divers are the same old guys. We just come out here for the love of being on the water.” As a matter of fact, even in his 70s, Hoden still dives with his friends on the Dina Dee II occasionally.
Dennis explained that his brother, Divemaster Francis Gary Smith I, was one of the pioneers, starting a dive team in Lacey Township in 1967. He inspired Dennis to start diving in 1986. “He was a key figure. He was responsible for so many divers.” His son, Gary II, said, “He was definitely one of the oldtimers, and very well respected in the sport.” Gary I was also an active member of the Lanoka Harbor First Aid Squad, and founded the Underwater Search and Rescue Team in Lacey.
Gary I died suddenly aboard the Dina Dee II in 2010 after a routine dive on the Great Isaac wreck. He was only 61 years old. His son and brother find solace in knowing he died in his favorite place with several thousand dives under his belt. “He was a legacy. I would have loved for him to see us own this boat,” Dennis lamented. To commemorate him, the Garden State Reef Program named a wreck after him, “The Gary Smith Barge,” and Gary II made an honorary dive to spread his father’s ashes there.
Gary II was the first mate of the Dina Dee II for 10 years until he and his uncle purchased it. He affirmed his father’s legacy and aims to perpetuate it. “I’ve been on boats since I was 5 years old. I got my SCUBA certification when I was 12 and never stopped. I’ve been diving all my life.”
He has been diving long enough to have experienced the deterioration of shipwrecks over time. “For example, the Great Isaac wreck from the early ’50s, you had to go in through the smoke stacks. Now, the whole thing is like Swiss cheese,” he explained.
His father collected artifacts throughout his dive career, many of which can be seen at the New Jersey Maritime Museum in Beach Haven. Likewise, Gary II has acquired a lofty collection of his own. Just off the top of his head, he rattled off an impressive list. “I’ve got portholes, deadeyes, junction boxes, china and silverware …” He went on to describe the possibility of finding war memorabilia, such as ammunition, ax handles, etc.
As with most wreck divers, he is intrigued with the history concealed just below the surface. “There are over 4,000 documented obstructions, and new ones are discovered every day,” he said. “The scallop draggers catch their nets or dredge on something, and they mark it down. Then we get those numbers and check it out.”
Gary said one of his favorite things is exposing new divers to the subaquatic world and the history that exists there. He is excited to share this experience with his daughters, who he says are just beginning their diving careers this year.
Gary II also enjoys sharing with divers an immersive experience with wildlife. “Tomorrow, we’re taking people out for a night dive. We’ll anchor up at twilight. So much of the sea is nocturnal, so we’ll see a lot of marine life that you don’t ordinarily see.”
Aboard the Dina Dee II on Friday was an experienced group of divers. Among them was Alan Bull of Tenafly, a veteran who had sailed with his naval fleet into the Mediterranean on the USS Algol AK-54, otherwise known as “The Steamin’ Demon.” About 30 years later, he dives that very oil tanker. It was sunk after nearly 50 years of military service, in 1991, as part of New Jersey’s Artificial Reef Program.
Bull has about 400 dives, predominantly on Jersey wrecks. “The wildlife here is incredible. This is a good boat full of good people. Great captains. I really enjoy diving with these folks.”
Kenny Lownes of Barrington was also on board. He is a retired divemaster who said he has been diving since 1975. He considers the Smiths good friends and diving companions. Lownes is also an experienced “first aider.” He also dives and spearfishes in the Delaware River, but the Dina Dee II has a special place in his heart. “This boat has been on a lot of wrecks. It’s time tested. I would go anywhere on this boat, with this crew,” he said with a smile.
Mike Martin of Cedar Bonnet Island was tasked with anchoring the boat to the wreck. Martin is one of two mates on the Dina Dee II. (Nick Grotts, the other mate, was absent Friday). Martin explained that he grew up in Miami free diving until relocating to LBI four years ago and becoming a certified SCUBA diver. In addition to spearfishing, he also enjoys collecting artifacts and wood to repurpose into functional art. For example, he will recover shipwrecked wood, treat it for months, and construct a wine rack from it.
Divers on board the Dina Dee II emerged from the sea with small treasures they collected, in addition to some fish and lobster that were freshly spear caught. Of course, the sea collects its taxes on that booty. Dennis lost some minor gear items, to which he shrugged, “The downside is when a piece of gear goes overboard, but I’ve found so much in this water, and now somebody will find mine. Ashes to ashes.”
As both captains prepared for departure, Dennis exclaimed, “Now it’s back to ice cream duty!” On land, Dennis is celebrating his 10th season as owner of Jeffreeze, the beloved ice cream stand in West Creek, known for serving up colossal ice cream sundaes since 1992. Dennis made sure to point out that, despite the unbelievable serving sizes, a treat is a treat, and treats are not part of an everyday diet. Like his brother, Dennis is dedicated to the health and safety of his community. He has been a paramedic in Ocean and Monmouth counties for 34 years.
In the spirit of community service and support, both Dennis and Gary II encourage the community to consider contributing to their fundraiser to support local girl Ayla Gilman of Manahawkin, during her courageous battle with cancer. They have organized a bus trip to the Jimmy Buffett concert at PNC Arts Center, in Holmdel, on Aug. 6. It is $100 per seat, and anyone can purchase a seat to benefit Ayla, even if they decide not to attend the show. Dennis expressed many thanks to Patty Manzoni, general manager of Durham School Services, for approving the donation of the school bus, as well as Wayne Dilbert, who has volunteered his time to drive the bus to and from the venue.
To learn more about the Dina Dee II, visit dinadeescuba.net. To contribute to the benefit for Ayla, call Dennis at 609-336-7730.
— Monique M. Demopoulos