Growdy's first boat
  • Growdy's first boat
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From the end of the World War II until the late '60s, San Diego Bay was always full of navy ships, and there was never enough pier space at the various bases to berth them. The surplus ships had to moor out in the stream on large buoys. During their stays, the sailors on board would throw everything they could get their hands on over the side. Don't ask me why.

There were always a submarine tender and a destroyer tender in the bay. These are huge, floating repair facilities. They carry everything aboard to rebuild engines, repair electronics, or even perform major structural repairs on hulls. The two destroyer tender moorings were on either side of the old Coronado ferry crossing. The mooring on the east side of the bay, known as the Fifth Street Landing, was right off the old Rowing Club (now a Chart House restaurants); the other one was on the Coronado side of the bay, west of the crossing. The submarine tender moorings were directly in front of what is now Reuben's restaurant on Harbor Island Drive but which didn't exist at the time. The tenders would sit there for six months working on their dependents, which would be tied alongside, like so many baby ducks and their mother. Scrap would rain over the side. At the end of the six months, they would leave for the western Pacific and be replaced by sister ships who were returning from their own six-month tours.

In the South Bay, there were two strings of mooring buoys, one on either side of he channel. On the Coronado side were what we called the barge moorings, because there were normally occupied by LSTs and other types of large landing barges. On the Naval Station side, the moorings were occupied by repair ships, oilers, and cargo ships. In the North Bay, there was a string of moorings along Shelter Island that could accommodate larger ships, such as LSDs.

The first man to dive for scrap metal in San Diego Bay was Bob Gowdy, a small, quiet man from Alpine. When Bob got out of the service in the lat '40s, he went to work for a man who was going to make a fortune for himself and his investors by cleaning up the scrap on the bottom of the bay. His method was to take a large crane barge into the mooring after a vessel had departed, then grab whatever was on the bottom with a large "clam shell." The results would be dumped on deck; then whatever metals there were would b separated into various components, such as iron and nonferrous metals like aluminum, copper, brass, or cupronickel. These would be sold to local scrap-metal dealers.

Bob Growdy

Gowdy was the crane operator, and he soon recognized that this was an inefficient way to do things. At the time, the only metals valuable enough to warrant salvaging were the nonferrous ones, yet most of what came on board was iron. He decided that diving and working on the bottom was the way to go. So Bob left his job in the early '50s, bough an old Monterey-type fishing boat, and began scrap-diving with an old Alpine buddy, Ted Judd.

Diving gear, as we know it today, was not available at the time. Scuba was not yet mass-produced; wet suits had recently been invented but not perfected. The only readily available gear was Navy MK V deep-sea gear; this could be bought on the surplus market. For about 25 dollars, one would get a big box that contained an MK V helmet, a canvas dress, long woolen underwear, a weight belt, a pair of lead shoes, and a hundred feet of hose. The only thing missing was the compressor, but these came up regularly in the clam shell. bob refurbished one of these navy castoffs and was ready to go. Since neither he nor Frank had every been diving before, this venture became known as the "Gowdy Instant Deep-Sea Diving School." Many unlikely people, including me, became graduates simply by being bolted into the gear and thrown over the side. If you didn't panic, you got your diploma.

First Compressor

Judd gave up scrap-diving after awhile, and Gowdy was joined by another Alpine friend, Frank Ball. They bought a new boat at a Coast Guard surplus auction. She was a 32-foot harbor buoy-tender named Ballast Point. Built in 1906, she had been in continuous service in San Diego Bay. With a little bit of white paint, the boys changed her name to Ball Point. Gowdy and Ball performed other diving services besides scrap-diving. One of their steady clients was Tex Brock, who owned a bait barge in the bay. Once a year, they cleaned the accumulated marine growth off Brock's bait receivers. They also sold him anchors they had salvaged. one day the were at Brock's house and noticed he had a large local chart on a den wall on which he marked every obstruction he encountered while setting his nets. He did this so he would never set his nets there again; they would come up shredded if hey came up at all. On slow days in the bar, Gowdy and Ball would dive on these spots to see what they were.

There was one new mark off the ocean side of Silver Strand, which Tex had told them was a really big, bad one. When they finally got around to checking it some days later, Gowdy made a dip on it, came up, and yelled, "Jesus, Frank, it's a submarine!" The sub was lying on her side right inside the surf line, her bow toward the beach, stern seaward. A hatch just aft of her conning tower was wide open. Gowdy took an air hose down and tied it inside, then pumped air into the hull for several hours so they could stand up inside and walk around without cumbersome gear. They looked around and got some numbers from the manufacturers' plates so they could find out more about her. Later they took their information to the Navy and asked about the sub. After some weeks of checking they finally discovered it was the S37. Sometime toward the end of the war, she was being towed to Long Beach to be scrapped but had broken the tow just outside San Diego Harbor. It was a foggy night, as the story goes, and the tug lost her. She apparently just drifted into the beach. Since her after-hatch was open, she just filled with water and sank. Nobody every saw her again until Gowdy did.

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