Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Captain Bill Palmer: Indiana Jones of the Sea

Shipwreck explorer, Captain Bill Palmer

Captain Bill Palmer: Indiana Jones of the Sea
Lisa Saunders

Need adventure in your life? Shipwreck explorer Captain Bill Palmer of Wallingford, Conn., not only offers sport fishing and shark cage diving from his charter vessel, but he’ll take you down to the tangled wrecks off Watch Hill and Block Island, R.I.

An Army paratrooper during the time of the Vietnam War, Palmer is now one of New England's leading authorities on underwater wrecks and has videotaped dozens of submarines, U-boats, and sunken vessels lost in East Coast waters. His expertise (and dramatic eccentricity) is highlighted in the best-selling book Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson because it was his advice the divers sought to identify a particular submarine. (Palmer told them to look in the electric motor room for a box of spare parts normally carried to make repairs. Those boxes have identifying tags on them specific to that particular boat.)

As owner operator of the charter vessel Thunderfish out of R.I. and Mystic, Conn., Captain Palmer has been diving since the late 1960s and knows the exact location of wrecks, including those where there was a large loss of life, such as the Metis and the Larchmont.*

Of the Metis, sunk in 1872 off Watch Hill, Captain Palmer said, “There’s not much left of her except for the machinery because worms in the water eat the wood. But beneath the sand, lies her cargo. I’ve found china, and friends of mine have found luggage tags with brass numbers on leather. One friend found a safe with steamship tickets inside.”

Even more souls were lost on the Larchmont one bitterly cold night in February 1907 when the steamer, bound for New York from Providence with 200 passengers, collided with a coal-laden schooner four miles southwest of Watch Hill Light. The vast majority of its panic stricken passengers were doomed when thrown from their beds as the bow of the schooner plowed deep into its hull. The few able to make to it to a lifeboat were largely underdressed and unable to survive the freezing temperatures to the shores of Block Island where many were found encased in ice. Palmer said you can still see the Larchmont’s paddlewheel sticking upright, looking very much like a Ferris wheel. He has found dishes and various ship fittings at the wreck site.

Palmer mentioned that in addition to the artifacts he’s found on shipwrecks, he has also discovered the skeletal remains of German sailors on the WWII submarine sunk seven miles off Block Island moments before the end of World War II in Europe. Highlighted in his new book, The Last Battle of the Atlantic, The Sinking of the U-853, which is packed with underwater images, he hopes the German remains will one day be returned to their families. 

Captain Palmer introduces his book, The Last Battle of the Atlantic, on his website: Out in the cold Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Rhode Island, lies the remains of what was once a feared and mighty hunter. …It's what men feared the most when they went to sea aboard their vessel back in the World War II years. It's a German Submarine called a U-Boat. The U-853 was the last German submarine sunk in World War II. She was sunk with all hands just minutes before World War II ended. The once mighty hunter feared by all who put to sea, now lies in 130 feet of water off the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island, her grave marked only by a circle on the nautical charts, DANGER Unexploded Depth Charges, May 1945.” His book is available in area shops.

If you’re not a diver, you can still negotiate around a wreck’s numerous hazards and squeeze through a submarine’s deck hatches with Captain Palmer through his diving documentaries made by his production company, Thunderfish Video.

A noted story teller, Palmer enjoys giving the history of the people behind the maritime disasters and is a regular lecturer at venues such as the Beneath the Sea conference in N.J. Palmer also shares his advice willingly to would-be shipwreck discoverers looking for clues on where to find wrecks. For example, one place to start is to ask fishermen where their nets have been snagged or lost.

Captain Palmer is a licensed Coast Guard Captain and a dive instructor specializing in advanced wreck diving. He is an associate member of the Boston Sea Rovers and a member of the American Society of Oceanographers. His award-winning films have aired on the Discovery Channel, A&E, and Connecticut Public Television.

For more information about Captain Bill Palmer, his films, book, or to reserve your adventure aboard the Thunderfish, visit: or call (203) 269-0619.

*Author’s Note: The Metis and Larchmont shipwrecks are discussed in my book Mystic Seafarer's Trail and in my TV interview with Captain Bill Palmer, which includes clips of his dives  (you can locate the interview on YouTube by searching "Lisa Saunders and Captain Bill Palmer" or click on:


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