Droning with Tom: Lessons From a Sunken Submarine

Tom texts me: There’s a sunken submarine off Coney Island!

I respond: A sunken submarine off Coney Island??!!

Tom thought he had discovered a weird part of Brooklyn history that no one knew about listing in the waters where the Coney Island Creek empties into Gravesend Bay.

It turns out nearly everybody and their cousins all over the world have heard about the submarine. There’s a rowboat tour out to it. If you do a quick google image search, you’ll even see evidence of several brave souls standing in the turret.

I guess we should have figured this out. It’s hard not to notice a rusty submarine sticking out of the water off Calvert Vaux Park. Even if we did, though, Tom and I are nothing if not intrepid and would want to see it for ourselves.

Off we go.

The main worry is that it’s early in Tom’s broken foot recovery, way before the liberating boot. He’s stuck with a strange half crutch that makes him look like a peg-leg sailor. We’re a little concerned about his balance but what the hell. On the way, Tom tells me what he knows about the submarine.

Jerry Bianco, a retired 74 year old former ship-fitter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, got it into his head to build a submarine. It would have to be seaworthy enough to sail 298 miles up the coast from Brooklyn to Nantucket and then strong enough to dive down 250 feet in the Atlantic Ocean where it would somehow salvage treasures from the wreck of the luxury liner, the Andrea Doria.

Bianco began building the sub in 1967 from scrap metal he gathered from the Navy Yard, along with some from his own scrap metal business. He painted it yellow because it was the cheapest color paint he could find. After he completed it in 1971, he hired a crane operator to lift his 40 foot long, 83 ton creation into the creek for it’s maiden voyage. His daughter bashed a bottle of wine against its hull to christen it the Quester I (there were plans to build a sister sub). The crane began to lift the sub into the water. Things did not go as planned.

The best way to hear what happened next is for Bianco to tell you in his own words, recorded in 1994 during an interview for the old Brooklyn Local newspaper. “What happened was the crane operator said that they couldn’t pick up anything heavier that seventy-five tons.”

He and a bunch of friends lightened the submarine by removing enough ballast from one side of the boat.

“I told the guy, ‘Don’t put the sub all the way in, we wanna put the ballast back.’ But he doesn’t listen, and she turns over in the water. I found out later that the son-of-a-bitch could’ve held a hundred tons!”

The ship hit the water and, as Bianco predicted, it immediately pitched over.

But he didn’t give up. He righted the sub, got it working, and took it out to chug around the creek. Five years later a storm ripped the Quester I from its mooring and it drifted down the creek until it beached where it remains today, never having seen the sea at all.

I find a parking space near a flat enough path for Tom to remain upright and walk close behind, trying to figure out how I’ll catch a 170 pound man if he stumbles. Praise the lord I didn’t have to and we successfully arrive at a large flat rock that he can lean against as he launches the drone.

Out it goes over the water.

The creek is somewhat of a ship graveyard.

Tom directs it across the creek until it is hovering right over the turret.

I imagine Jerry Bianco drove people, especially his family, nuts with all his daily banging, a constant firework of welding sparks flying all around him. So single-minded in devoting hours, months, years to his work, he surely heard his efforts laughed off as a crazy pipe dream. Yet, I’d be surprise if his idea hadn’t haunted him during his whole time at the Navy Yard, always mapping it out in his head, tenaciously believing he could make a submarine where there never should have been a submarine.

Shore and skyline, the little sub peeking up right of center

Accounts of the Quester always seem to position it as one man’s folly. It’s very easy to dismiss it as little more than a curious failure. But the longer I stand on the shore and gaze out at it, the current rippling against its sides, birds taking flight from its deck, I begin to see it completely different. It may have broken Bianco’s heart that the Quester never reached the sea. But what a lucky man he was to see his vision come to life.

Consider how the submarine remains alive today. A manifestation of one person’s inner striving to create something uniquely bigger than himself. An inspiration beyond its physical existence, Bianco’s sub reminds us to doggedly pursue whatever we want to do no matter it’s very slim chance of being appreciated.

His submarine is a wonder. A sheer work of art.

Pat and Peg-leg Tom

The photography in the drone series is by Tom Doherty, a man of infinite curiosity and talent.

Let us know what you think about the series and, if you have suggestions for where you’d like us to shot and fly in the New York City/tri-state area, write us a comment and we’ll get on the road.

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