John Liddiard takes advantage of some calm weather to explore the Moldavia, just one of the many interesting wrecks along this part of the Sussex coast
I am about to dive the legendary Moldavia, a 9500 ton liner that was converted to an armed merchant cruiser for World War One and sunk by torpedo in 1918. It is not an easy wreck to get to. Situated more than 20 miles offshore in 50m of water and between the shipping lanes, charter boats will attempt it only when conditions are favourable. Today the sea is glassy calm. My buddy and I roll in with heavy twin-sets and nitrox decompression bottles. A technical approach is not essential for this dive, but it does enable a good balance between bottom time and decompression stops. At the surface, the visibility is grainy, but as we descend the water clears and we can see the shot draped over the semi-intact stern of the wreck. The Moldavia lies on her port side. From the stern railing the hull slopes down below us. It is encrusted with sponges and an enormous shoal of pollack is patrolling above me. I can see all the way down past a propeller-shaft to the keel. Expecting murky English Channel water, I had decided to leave my camera at home this weekend - big mistake. This is probably my only chance ever to get real wreck pictures of the Moldavia and I have blown it. Never mind, there are plenty of cabins and corridors for me to explore, while teasing the ever-smiling tompot blennies and looking for conger eels. It is easy to get obsessed with one wreck - a sort of Everest complex, but along this stretch of the Sussex coast there are so many excellent wrecks that divers of all levels, from novices to trimix technical divers, will find enough to entertain them. Among the shallower dives is HMS Pine, an armed trawler sunk in 1944 in 15-18m of water. Now well broken up, some parts of the wreck still stick up a few metres from the seabed. Being shallow and on a light sandy seabed, HMS Pine can make a bright and cheerful rummage dive. There is a good selection of medium-depth wrecks in the 25-35m range. Consider the Jaffa, a 1400 ton steamship sunk by torpedo in 1918, or the Shirala, a 5300 ton cargo liner that was carrying a cargo of ivory, also sunk by torpedo in 1918. Tusks are still being found occasionally.
One of the more intact wrecks in the area is HMS Northcoates, another Admiralty trawler, this time lost by foundering in bad weather in 1944. The wreck sits upright in 33m. I am quite fond of diving small wrecks like this. They can comfortably be covered in a single dive and in good visibility it is possible to 'stand back' and actually see something that looks like a ship. I dived the Northcoates on another one of those days when the Moldavia was inaccessible due to the weather. It is quite a small wreck and the shot had just missed the port side, so my buddy and I started our dive by dragging it in and lifting it on to the stern deck. The ship's engine room was easily accessible through the rotting deck and the remains of the superstructure. We worked our way forwards past the engine and on to the main deck through a mass of poor cod and pouting. Moving on towards the bows, the foredeck rises a few metres above the sand with a single deck-gun standing sentry. Another wreck that I have dived after turning back from the Moldavia is the Basil, a 3200 ton steamer sunk by collision in 1917 while carrying a cargo of munitions. The wreck lies upright in 38m and the hull is reasonably intact. Forward of the superstructure is a hold just stacked with shells. Both the Basil and HMS Northcoates are excellent dives by themselves and would make worthwhile primary destinations for a day's diving. They are not just a fall-back option. Charter skippers are usually reluctant to take groups that they don't know to the Moldavia. There have been accidents in the past caused by divers pushing their luck beyond what is suitable for their level of experience. A good strategy is to plan diving for one of the more accessible and shallower wrecks, then on the day make plans with the skipper for a follow-on trip. With the strong tidal streams in the English Channel, all diving is dependent on slack water. Many divers build up long decompression stops, so it is essential to carry a reel and a delayed SMB. Some skippers prefer all divers to ascend the shotline, while others prefer everyone to fly a delayed SMB to ascend. Problems only really arise when half a group ascends the shot while the other half flies delayed SMBs. The poor boat skipper has to keep track of two groups of decompressing divers diverging in an increasing current.
GETTING THERE: Littlehampton is on the east side of the river Arun, just south of the A27 main South-coast road. ACCOMMODATION: Camping is available at both Littlehampton Marina and the Ship and Anchor Marina. For details of pub accommodation and bed and breakfast, contact Littlehampton Tourist Information Centre, 01903 713480. Most charter-boat skippers will put you in contact with convenient bed and breakfasts. DIVING: Air is available from 69 Diving at Littlehampton Marina, 01903 739090. If you talk to them beforehand, they can make arrangements to work around late returns and early starts.. CHARTER BOATS: Charter boats operate from Littlehampton Marina, or further up the river Arun at the Ship and Anchor Marina at Ford. Both marinas are on the west side of the river Arun. Boat charter costs around 20 per person per day (based on group of six). See the advertisements in the back of Diver, or visit Mat Wood's hardboat page on the World Wide Web at http://www.cs.bris.ac.uk/~wood/skippers. LAUNCHING: Slipways for launching inflatables and RIBs available at Littlehampton Marina and on east side of river at Fisherman's Quay, Littlehampton. Parking is easier at the marina. This stretch of Sussex coast is also accessible from Chichester, Wittering and Shoreham.. WHO WILL ENJOY THE DIVING: Although there are stretches of low reef, you really have to be into wreck diving. If you are, there are wrecks to suit all levels of diver.. FOR NON-DIVERS: Usual selection of seaside activities, from sitting on beach to funfairs and amusement parks. If the diving is blown out, there are good walks on the Sussex Downs. FURTHER DETAILS: Tourist Information Centre, 01903 713480. PROS: Some excellent wrecks at depths to suit all divers. Well served by charter boats. CONS: Strong tides mean that most wrecks are accessible only at slack water. The sea is inaccessible from the river Arun at low tide. These problems combined mean that the second dive of the day may be limited to a drift.
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