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Graphic: Deconstructing the Dive: Craig Sicola (40K)

The Life and Dives of Craig Sicola
By Joe Haberstroh
Staff Writer

CRAIG SICOLA burst into LBI Scuba, a block from the beach in Ship Bottom, N.J.

He always talked loud, the result of workdays punctuated by the crack of nail guns and the screech of power saws. But that day his voice seemed to boom.

He was headed back to the Andrea Doria, and he made his agenda clear.

"I'm going to look for china," he told shop owner Carole Branco on the morning of June 22.

Craig's stepmother, Susan Sicola, who collected antique china, had mentioned to him a few times that she would enjoy a plate from the wreck. So had Karen Moscufo, the local elementary school teacher with whom Craig had been involved, on and off, for eight years.

Neither of the women were putting in orders. A lot of divers' friends asked for china. It was a way of telling them, "Go for it!"

Branco gave Craig a pair of Harvey's Titanium gloves for the trip, his second to scuba diving's Mount Everest. They would come in handy at the wreck, where the water temperature hovers in the mid-40s, even when it's in the 60s on the surface.

The gloves are made of the synthetic rubber neoprene around a thin layer of titanium. Craig was one of those divers whose hands were always cold.

Craig built custom homes on Long Beach Island, and Branco respected him as a fellow business owner. It wasn't always easy. After the tourists cleared out, the place was empty all winter. And Branco had what amounted to a big-sister relationship with him. She knew he would go after china no matter what. Still, she cautioned him to execute a conservative dive plan.

"Yeah, yeah," Craig said. "I got my plan squared away. Got it squared away."

"Who are you diving with?" Branco asked.

"Well, I'm not going to dive with anyone," Craig said.

"You're diving alone?" She remembers she said it flat, to indicate her disapproval.

"Yeah," he said, " ... all those guys out there dive alone."

Craig turned to go.

"Don't forget, Craig," Branco said, "no piece of china is worth your life."

She just meant that she loved Craig and wanted him to be careful. But when she said it, Craig was on his way out the door.

She's not sure if he even heard what she said.

THE SEEKER had been making dive trips for three weeks to various Northeast wreck sites, but they were mere warm ups for skipper Dan Crowell. On June 23, he would make his first trip of the season to the Doria.

It was like a new shipwreck every year. They'd be the first to see how winter storms had peeled open new sections of the Doria. Things would be different inside, too, as the pressure crushed more walls and opened new crevices to explore.

Crowell billed his charters as "dive adventures," and that wasn't just a marketing blurb. The Doria meant more to him than his livelihood.

"This is what we love to do," he said.

Crowell joked that he was "only a bus driver," but he was much more. He was a deep-wreck explorer himself, an instructor and a professional diver, trained for underwater construction work of every description.

Crowell, 40, grew up in National City, Calif., a scruffy border town squeezed between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. He and a buddy "bor- rowed" the friend's father's diving gear one day, and Crowell has been diving ever since.

His father was a commercial artist, and the younger man inherited the gene for proportion and line. He spent one year at the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan and still freelances the odd airbrush job. He designed the Seeker's T-shirts and the boat's bold red logo, which depicts an abstract anchor planted in the sea bottom.

WHILE he was running his own home-improvement company in Staten Island in 1986, Crowell finally got around to actually being certified to dive. He met his girlfriend, Jennifer Samulski, in the late 1980s, when they both worked on a boat called Jackpot.

Eventually, he crewed aboard the Seeker. When the Seeker's legendary owner, William Nagle, died, Samulski and Crowell bought the vessel in 1995.

Under Crowell, the Seeker emerged as the boat making the most trips to the Doria. Each June, he sails the Seeker from its home port in Brielle, N.J., to Montauk to be closer to the wreck. Last year, he took 11 charters to the Doria in six weeks. Usually aboard are a few of his cronies, who serve as mates, and that creates for some visiting divers a feeling of us- and-them.

"The Seeker is like a boat for Danny's friends to dive off, pretty much free, as mates, or whatever, while other people charter the boat," said Santiago Garcia, a diver who owns a hardware store in the Bronx.

Like a lot of commercial boat captains, Crowell can be a hard character, an intensely critical person who is not trained in the office-park art of consensus building.

"If you're not at dinner, with all of them, they look around and say, ‘Who can we trash?' And if everyone's at dinner, they trash everyone," said diver Tom Surowiec, a New Jersey police officer. "It's callous and wrong."

Yet, even Garcia and Surowiec praise Crowell for running a consistently professional charter trip on an always superbly maintained boat.

"You're going to get egos on the Seeker," Surowiec says. "You go into a major league locker room -- you think these guys don't have big egos? How do you hit the water with a doubt in your mind?"

Not long after Craig Sicola said goodbye to Carole Branco at LBI Scuba, he was at the wheel of his black Ford pickup. He was heading east on the Long Island Expressway.

IT WAS A SIX-HOUR drive from Long Beach Island to Montauk, where the Seeker was based at the Star Island Yacht Club. Craig loved the telephone. He had five in his house and a cellular in the truck.

"Hi, guys! I'm on my way," he said on a message for Karen Moscufo and her son, Chris. "I have a long drive in front of me. See you guys! Love you!"

He and Moscufo remained close, even though they had broken up the previous September after seven and a half years. They had met one day waiting in the check-out line at a grocery store when Craig struck up a conversation.

Craig was seeing someone else that summer, but the couple stayed in touch. Moscufo's son, Chris, was about 10 years old when they first met. Three days before he went on the Doria trip, Craig went to Chris' high school graduation.

Craig had grown up on Long Beach Island. He moved there with his mother after his parents divorced. Always physically active, he played on the high school soccer team and surfed a lot.

He used a "long board," not the shorter, high-performance kind used to carve up waves. The long board is for extended, smooth rides, all the way in to the beach.

After high school, where he showed a facility for mathematics, Craig started working in construction as he attended community college.

Eventually, he built a home for a friend's father. Word got around, and he built a few more.

"This would have been his most profitable year," said his father, Louis Sicola.

Craig's life was beginning to acquire a distinct rhythm: He would work on the houses during Long Beach Island's off-season, then enjoy his diving and other outdoor pursuits during the summer.

Craig, 32, intended to stay a hands-on builder. He liked the tools, the different saws for different wood. He especially enjoyed the geometric puzzle involved in building curved facades. There was a meticulousness about Craig. He wasn't always gentle communicating it, of course. That's the way construction sites are sometimes. Not everyone on the job site is there for the long haul, like Craig was. You had to keep an eye on people.

"If something was a quarter inch off -- I mean, a quarter inch -- he'd say, rip it out," his diving partner and close friend, Ken Mason, recalled. "What- ever was being built was built exactly to what the plan was, more than any builder I ever worked with."

The houses would sell for $500,000 to $1 million. Craig liked to show them off at different stages.

"Even if he put a new nail in it," said Susan Sicola, "he'd take us and show us."

Craig's father wasn't entirely comfortable with his son's fascination for diving on the wrecks. He had spoken to Craig a few times about diving on reefs instead. Craig always had the same answer for his dad: "Borrrring!"

As he drove east on the LIE, Craig called his father at Louis Sicola's real estate office in suburban New Jersey.

"He was exceptionally happy that day," Louis Sicola said.

Craig told his father about the several dives he planned for the next few months. They talked about their get-together for Father's Day the previous weekend.

Louis Sicola couldn't suppress a smile when he remembered that last telephone call.

"We talked about getting together more," he said.

GENE PETERSON didn't like what he saw that evening when he spotted Craig lugging his gear toward the Seeker's berth at the Star Island Yacht Club in Montauk.

Craig had the same kind of lightweight, yellow nylon line that had gotten him into a fix a month earlier on a cold-water wreck off Nova Scotia.

Craig had spent too much time on that wreck and needed to ascend quickly. He tied the nylon rope to the shipwreck and sent a float toward the surface. But he quickly became entangled in the line and another diver had to cut him free. The nylon line didn't always stay knotted, and it was so light it whipped around in the current.

"I talked to him about it. He had some problems on other dives," said Peterson, a New Jersey dive shop owner who had organized the charter. "I told him I felt he was pushing himself. You always expect people to learn."

Craig loosened up on the dive trips -- too much, some of his friends believed. He wasn't as exacting with his dive plans as he was with blueprints.

"This is one sport where you can offer advice and guidance," Peterson said, "but the person has to learn themselves."

The next day, Craig and Paul Whittaker descended the Seeker's anchor line to the Andrea Doria. Their four-minute drop to the bottom ended where the Seeker's line was knotted into a slot along the Doria's bow.

Years earlier, during the ship's three-year career on the Atlantic before it sank in July, 1956, Doria crew members had hauled heavy rope through the hole before cinching it around giant cleats bolted to the deck.

The divers pushed off the hull and swam toward the opening in the ship's side named for department-store heir and underwater adventurer Peter Gimbel. In 1981, a Gimbel crew cut off three of the four steel doors on the port side of the Doria's First-Class Foyer.

Before the ship sank, the foyer served as a meeting place for passengers. There was a life-size, bronze- cast statue there of the ship's 16th- Century Genoese namesake, Admiral Andrea Doria. The foyer was paneled in luminous oak and bathed in indirect lighting. The appointments reflected the ship's interior design, which riotously blended cubist modernity and Roman classicism.

Here was the gift shop, where passengers could buy rosary beads made of ivory and silver teaspoons hand- painted with the ship's image. Here also were passageways to the ship's chapel and to the three dining rooms, one each for first, cabin and tourist class. Tucked off to the side was the Saletta Pranzo Bambini, the Children's Dining Room.

But today the foyer is a deep, gloomy hole.

"It's like going into a dark gymnasium," said Whittaker. "Your light doesn't go far. You're not worried about getting crammed into a tight spot that you're not going to get out of. It's more like getting lost."

Unless they've planned for it, divers generally don't go to the bottom of the foyer. That would take them to more than 250 feet. The added depth would require them to build more minutes into their already time-consuming ascents.

Deep-wreck technical divers pride themselves on the quasi-science of streamlining their gear. On this dive, Whittaker and Craig each carried five air tanks. The two big main tanks on their backs contained the men's "bottom mix," which they breathed while exploring the Doria.

Whittaker, a newcomer to the wreck, breathed normal air, which is 21 percent oxygen and 79 percent nitrogen.

To counter narcosis, the mental fog brought on by inhaling regular air underwater, Craig opted for a mixture of gases: 17 percent oxygen, 35 percent helium and 58 percent nitrogen. More and more scuba enthusiasts are using trimix, though it was once used exclusively by military and commercial divers.

Trimix has pros and cons.

It helps dampen narcosis. But divers also believe diving with a "clear head" can lead to a false sense of security. Divers overestimate their abilities, going too deeply into a wreck, for example.

So sometimes, people make bad decisions.

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