Bike race on the bottom of the sea

Thursday, I mentioned in passing a bike race on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. How, you might wonder, could one mention a bike race on the ocean floor in passing? An oversight on my behalf, so I’m back today with a rebroadcast of a story I wrote for The News & Observer in 1996 on the 13th annual Underwater Bike Race on the Indra. It’s a tale that needs no more introduction, so without further adieu, a trip down memory lane — not to mention down 60 feet below the surface of the Atlantic — for the 1996 Independence Day running of UBRAI.

For a bike race with only five contestants, event organizer Eva Oberdoerster was having one devil of a time getting it under way.

Simply gathering everyone at the starting line had taken a good 20 minutes, what with the riders drifting off this way and that. Then there was the fact that no one — Oberdoerster included — was quite sure where the starting line even was.

But that was nothing compared to the woes encountered once everyone was assembled. One contestant couldn’t keep her bike upright and another was having trouble figuring out how to put his feet on the pedals. A third couldn’t get pointed in the right direction, and then there were the two riders whose rear ends kept floating off their seats.

“It was mass confusion,” Oberdoerster later admitted. But certainly understandable, considering that none of the five had bothered to train — or had ever raced before, for that matter. Understandable, too, considering this particular race happened to be on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Thirteen years ago, when dive shop owner Debby Boyce thought up the idea for an underwater bike race the concept made a modicum of sense. The old steel girder bridge linking Morehead City and Atlantic Beach had just been replaced with a modern, four-lane concrete span. Rather than disassemble the old bridge, the engineers simply sank it, sending the structure — marked roadway and all — to a new home on the bottom of Bogue Sound, in about 50 feet of water.

Roadway? Underwater bike race? Made sense to Boyce, who was always looking for offbeat ways to promote her business, Discovery Diving of Beaufort. The roadway may have made sense to Boyce, but it didn’t always make sense to the biking divers. “Some stuck to the actual road, but most preferred to ride along the top of the steel framework.”

Enthusiasm for those early races was hampered by Bogue Sound’s limited visibility, typically less than 15 feet thanks to the turbidity encountered when river and ocean meet. So when Boyce heard that the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries was planning to add a surplus military ship to an artificial reef not far offshore, she decided on a change of venue.

The race’s gain marked an ironic end for its new host, a 320-foot landing ship/repair freighter called the Indra, which managed to survive three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam — only to be scuttled as a peace dividend. In 1992, the 47-year-old vessel joined several boxcars, an F-14, two C-130 aircraft and some concrete pipe as part of Artificial Reef 330, about 10 miles off Emerald Isle. The reef is one of 38 such man-made fish habitats created by the state for the benefit of sport fishermen and divers.

Relocating to the Indra gave the already quirky event another twist. It also gave Boyce a better platform for promoting what few people realize is one of the world’s premier spots for wreck diving. Before the advent of sonar and modern meteorology, more than 600 ships fell victim to the coast’s violent weather, surreptitiously shifting shoals and warfare. (During a particularly deadly stretch of World War II, from January through June of 1942, German U-boats sank at least 29 ships off the North Carolina Coast alone.)

Add to these wrecks the coast’s proximity to the Gulf Stream, a river of warm water that snakes up the coast from the Gulf of Mexico, bringing with it the tropical fish and other marine life that make Caribbean diving so popular, and the Graveyard of the Atlantic was actually a playground for scuba divers.

Two years ago, the race took on a sense of purpose when it hooked up with Mile of Hope, an Atlantic Beach charity that sponsors a weekend beach vacation every May for about 40 juvenile terminal cancer patients at East Carolina University’s Medical Center and their families.

Through it all, though, Boyce has tried to keep the annual Fourth of July event fun and noncompetitive, and Thursday’s race appeared to be no exception.

That is, until someone broke out the WD-40.

A couple of hours before race time, two women were sitting outside Discovery’s shop on the Intracoastal Waterway, waiting for a morning charter to return. Their conversation eventually turned to the race. “How will it work?” one asked. “I mean, how do you ride a bike underwater?”

As the competitors began gathering mid-afternoon, none of them seemed to have an answer — at least one they were willing to share. And even if they did have a particular strategy in mind, it likely changed when they got a look at the selection of bikes.

Largely unnoticed to this point was a pile of mud-encrusted metal framework heaped at the far end of the nearest dock. Dive shop employee Dion Viventi had been poking through the mess, which from a distance looked like a tangle of crab pots, or maybe salvaged reinforcing bar. “Come on and pick out your bikes,” he finally yelled.

The offering was a motley collection of 10-speeds, three-speeds, three-wheelers, balloon-tire cruisers and a various kids’ bikes. The handlebars were askew on most, missing on some. Rims were impossibly bent, chains rusted to sprockets. The primary determination for race-worthiness: Whether they could be extracted from the pile.

Viventi had already undertaken this process. An orange three-speed, a green 10-speed with curled-under handlebars turned up, a banana bike and a once-proud baby blue Schwinn Le Tour appeared to be the best prospects. Pam Williams thought so as she went directly for the banana bike. Low to the ground, much like herself, she thought; perhaps she could bypass that cumbersome pedaling and simply scoot it along.

“That one’s spoken for,” Viventi informed her, nodding toward a tall, long-legged competitor walking back to the dive shop. About then Pam’s husband, Johnnie, caught up to her. “This one looks good,” he said, wiggling the bike’s butterfly handlebars.

“It’s that girl’s,” Pam snapped. ” ‘That girl’s’ — listen to me!”

Pam settled on the Le Tour, a curious choice considering the large frame would be impossible for her to straddle, let along ride underwater. Curious, unless she was expecting help. Immediately, the Smithfield couple, both of whom are certified dive instructors, began trying to straighten the bent rear rim and free up the rusted chain.

Johnnie was joking about the chain — until he noticed Gordon Thompson generously applying WD-40 to his own selection. “Let me try a little of that when you’re done,” Johnnie asked. Then, as if the lubricant was equally effective at freeing inner thoughts, Johnnie confided, “I’m planning on pushing her.”

It takes about an hour to reach the Indra, and after the dive boat, Outrageous IV, had cleared the Beaufort Inlet and reached its cruising speed of 17 knots (about 19 mph), a calm settled over the boat. Including riders, race officials and spectators, 19 were aboard.

Word from a previous charter was that conditions on the Indra were good: water temperature about 80 degrees and visibility about 50 feet — a statistic of particular importance since that was roughly the length of the race course.

The calm seemed to cause other riders to drop their guard. Gordon Thompson let slip that he and Lori Ezman planned a strategy similar to the Williamses, while rumor had it that Renate Eichinger was using some sort of newfangled underwater walkie-talkie. She and Viventi would be in communication throughout the race, though it wasn’t clear how this might aid their effort.

Pam Williams, meanwhile, appeared to be meditating, her eyes shut behind clouded sunglass lenses. “She getting psyched for the race?”

Johnnie glanced at his wife. “She’s sleeping.”

At the race site, two crew members unceremoniously heaved the bikes overboard as Discovery’s Bill Thompson offered the lone pre-race instruction: “You can cheat, but it’s gotta be fun.” Then, one by one, the divers plunged off the back and left side of the boat, looking something like penguins waddling off an ice floe.

With so little formality, the chaos at the starting line wasn’t surprising. And when Oberdoerster finally got everyone pointed forward, their butts as firmly planted in their bike seats as buoyant salt water would allow, it wasn’t surprising either that when she flashed the “OK” sign to see if everyone was ready, Pam assumed the race had begun. Johnnie emerged from the wings, grabbed the bike seat with his left hand and started pushing Pam’s back with his right.

In the slow-motion way that events take place under water, Oberdoerster motioned them to stop, but had second thoughts as the other riders stirred to life. Fins began thrashing, bringing up silt from the Indra’s deck. The few spot and spadefish that hadn’t been scared off by the initial ruckus now scattered, the thousands of finger-long bait fish that had been circling 20 feet overhead fled, and even the 4-foot barracuda — which never threaten, but rarely give ground, either — backed off. It was roily mayhem, but mayhem for naught: the Williamses’ fast start provided an insurmountable lead. Within about four minutes, their relatively effective technique spirited them across what was believed to be the finish line.

Despite the dubious nature of the start, there was no heated scene at the finish line, no getting in Oberdoerster’s face mask, no kicking sand on her fins. Instead, the also-rans as well as the spectators scattered across the Indra, some exploring her hold, some content to swim among the gradually returning sea life. Still, the competitive juices prevailed for some, and their persistence may have yielded the winning technique in next year’s race: hands on handlebars, body horizontal to the bike, flippers in full kick — something akin to E.T. beyond gravity.

Topside, as the divers slipped out of their gear, Boyce made it official: despite their questionable team approach and early start, Pam and Johnnie Williams had won Discovery’s 1996 underwater bike race. She also announced that the event had raised $100 for Mile of Hope.

As Outrageous IV headed back to Beaufort, the Williamses had that contented, reflective look of competitors basking in the glow of victory. “Nope,” Johnnie corrected, “we’re just watching the sunset.”

Surely, though, they had plans for some sort of celebration. After all, how many people can claim to have won a bike race on the bottom of an ocean? Asked how they planned to observe the occasion, Johnnie replied like you might expect a self-respecting Smithfield celebrant: “I’m gonna have a barbecue sandwich.”

Photos by Dale Hansen. For more photos of the race by Hansen, go here.