Divernet

Every now and then, I get a bee in my bonnet about diving a particular site and it becomes something of an obsession for me. I had already dived all the usual reefs round Lands End, the Runnel Stone, Longships, Wolf Rock and a selection of lesser-known rocks. So where next
Heading out from Lands End, about two-thirds of the way to the Scilly Isles, lie the Seven Stones, made famous as the site of the worlds largest supertanker disaster when the Torrey Canyon struck the reef in 1967.
It wasnt exactly a new or original idea. Looking at it objectively, hundreds if not thousands must have dived the Seven Stones before me. Looking at it another way, I would estimate that more divers have been to St Kilda than to the Seven Stones, making it one of the more exclusive reefs of the British Isles. It caught my imagination as something different to the famous reefs of the south-west I had already dived.
I had been kicking the idea around in the back of my mind for ages when, for some reason, it became a full-blown obsession last August. Not the most practical time of year to begin planning. If inspiration came to order, I would schedule diving obsessions to arrive conveniently before the start of the UK diving season, leaving plenty of time to plan everything and make the dive during the summer.

Anyway, with the Seven Stones as my objective I needed the right boat to get there. Liveaboards to the Scilly Isles sometimes stop for a dive on the Seven Stones on the way out or back. The reef is also accessible as a day trip by hard boat or RIB from the Scilly Isles. From the mainland the journey is considerably longer, requiring a better window in the weather to make the Seven Stones a practical objective.
I got in touch with Gordon Jones, skipper of Siteseeker, a fast dayboat operating out of Porthleven. Gordon explained that the ideal tide for the Seven Stones was a low-water spring, with a good hour of slack water and the rocks exposed. As any diver knows, such tides occur only twice a month. Gordon was busy for the next few weeks, and it turned out that the first dates available were at the start of October, late in the season.
The planned date arrived. It didnt come as much of a shock to me that any chance of getting to the Seven Stones was blown out by the weather. If only I had started planning earlier in the year.
In the end it was the middle of November before we were lucky, and a period of uncharacteristically fine weathercoincided with the right tides. It was our last chance before shelving the project for the winter.

Driving down to Cornwall on the Friday evening, the wind was picking up from the north-east. On Bodmin Moor the windmills were dancing at full speed. As we approached the Runnel Stone on Saturday morning, it was obvious that while we might have been able to get to the Seven Stones, it would not have been safe to dive and the journey back would have been horrendous.
We turned back and dived the Ibis, a broken but pleasant wreck on the currently sheltered east side of Mounts Bay.
The afternoon shipping forecast suggested that on Sunday the wind could be swinging round and dropping before picking up from the south-west in the evening. Most of the other divers on the boat were from Penzance BSAC, with many years experience of diving the Seven Stones between them.
Expert opinion was that the sea was unlikely to calm enough overnight, but we were still in with an outside chance. The current north-easterly rough sea might not have enough reach behind it to last through the next day.

Early Sunday morning, Gordon got an encouraging phone call from the clifftop above Hayle. One of the local divers was checking the sea state from a vantage point where the true conditions could be assessed more accurately than from the more sheltered area of Mounts Bay. Things were looking good.
We loaded up Siteseeker and headed out across Mounts Bay. It was a clear and chilly morning and most of us huddled up in the cabin to keep warm. As we passed the Runnel Stone, the sea state and latest shipping forecast were both positive.
Our first sign of the Seven Stones was the lightship, anchored between the reef and the northbound shipping channel, slightly to the north of our course. It struck me that the Seven Stones had only ever had a lightship and no-one had ever tried to build a lighthouse on the reef. The lightship is now automatic, but in years past the lightship crew had featured in many tales of rescue and providing refuge for shipwrecked mariners.
We had to get within 1.5 miles of the reef before we could distinguish the rocks from the groundswell breaking over them. The only large-scale chart of the reef was in fathoms, based on a survey by Captain G Williams in 1863.
The Penzance divers had been plotting their own marks for the rocks using differential GPS, showing positions that varied by a few hundred metres from many of the charted locations.
The shape of the reef was recognisable but skewed - a good reason to be there at low-water spring tide when the rocks are showing. In 1863 Captain Williams must have done very well to obtain as accurate a chart as he did from this far offshore, and with little in the way of landmarks from which to triangulate.
We had discussed several possible dive sites beforehand, but our final choice was dictated more by the sea conditions as we arrived at the Seven Stones. The irony of this sort of location is that while a good hardboat is the best way to get there, on site the manoeuvrability of a small RIB would be more convenient.
Gordon wanted us to dive where surfacing divers would be carried away from the reef rather than into it, allowing him to follow them. He also wanted to avoid any danger of Siteseeker being swept onto a rock while recovering divers.
We settled for diving a breaking rock at the northern extent of a group marked as the North-east Rocks on the chart. Water to the north was generously deep enough to allow the boat to approach the rock and drop divers almost on top of the remains of the 2681 ton factory trawler Rarau.
The Rarau was built in 1972 in the Polish shipyard of Gdansk, operating with a Rumanian crew. On 29 September 1976 she drove straight onto the rocks in fog. All 84 of the crew were rescued and put ashore in Falmouth, and a week later the Rarau slipped into deeper water and sank.
We descended almost on top of a twisted hull plate, lying by itself at a crossroads of canyons in the granite. The straight-on path looked more interesting and we followed it to deeper water.
We wound our way north-west, then circled back to the east, following some truly spectacular walls of colour. In water this clear there is little surprise that even at 25m there are sizeable sprigs of kelp on the horizontal faces of the rock.
As usual for Cornish reefs, the vertical surfaces were a dense cluster of jewel anemones and hydroids, with tightly packed plumose anemones on the more exposed corners.
We passed odd scraps of wreckage, but nothing significant. We were half an hour into the dive before we came across the main body of the wreck. By that I dont mean intact, simply an area of wreckage with the occasional rock, rather than rock with the occasional wreckage.

I follow the line of the wreck from the engine to the stern, across a jumble of plates and girders, past a large trawl winch with steel cable now rusted to the drum and sections of propeller shaft.
One large intact item I was unable to identify. In another context I would have thought Soyuz capsule. It was a cylinder almost 2.5m in diameter and 5m long, with a maze of tubing on the outside, a spherical cap at one end and a spherical indentation at the other end.
Turning round, we followed the wreck forward and over a ridge of rock. A wall of rock built on the left and soon we were in a wide gully. The wreckage fizzled out a bit, and then we encountered a familiar bent plate. We were back at the crossroads at which we had started the dive.
Continuing straight across, we were soon on the much smaller bow section of the Rarau. We had apparently begun our dive by swimming straight through the middle of the wreck!
Our decision to dive the Rarau had been pretty much dictated by sea conditions. The Seven Stones have claimed an estimated 200 ships over the years. Many of these would have been wooden ships now long dispersed by age and the sea, but there are some notable steel wrecks at comfortably diveable depths.
Further up among the North-east Rocks are the remains of the 1200 ton steamship Chiswick, which ran aground in 1891. The captain is reported to have issued the order every man for himself before electing to go down with his ship.
Beneath the Flemish Ledges at the south end of the reef are the remains of the Fantee, a diesel-driven 6300 ton cargo ship which struck the reef in fog in 1949. Hardwood from the cargo was still being salvaged as recently as 1992.

As I mentioned earlier, the most notorious wreck on the Seven Stones is the 61,000 ton supertanker Torrey Canyon. On 18 March 1967 she was en route to Milford Haven and should have been in the northward shipping channel between the Seven Stones and Lands End, but a few miles off-course she drove straight over Pollard Rock at the north-eastern side of the reef.
Attempts were made to re-float the stricken ship but without success. Then a series of storms broke the ships back and rendered any further salvage attempts impossible.
In the course of the incident almost 120,000 tons of crude oil were released into the sea, polluting beaches and marine life along much of the Cornwall and Devon coastlines.
The Royal Navy bombed the wreck in an attempt to destroy the oil cargo by setting it alight. Some oil burned, but it is generally considered to have been an unsuccessful strategy for dealing with the spill.
An estimated 25,000 birds died as a result of the Torrey Canyon oil spill; even among birds picked up and cleaned, the survival rate was only one in a hundred.
Considerable damage also resulted from the detergents used to disperse the oil. Some scientists now believe that there was more long-term biological damage from the chemical dispersants than would have resulted from leaving the oil untreated.
The Torrey Canyon actually knocked the top off the Pollard Rock, so perhaps the reef should be re-named Six Stones.
The wreck is now an extensive area of flattened steel plates, with the best diving reputed to be at the stern. There are still some unexploded bombs to be found among the wreckage.
A few years back I heard a story of an unwitting diver testing one with a lumphammer before realising just what he was hitting. Now there was a good candidate for a Darwin Award!
Only five weeks from midwinter, the daylight hours were short. It was dark by the time we were unloading back at Porthleven. It had been an excellent dive, and that was without making any allowances for the time of year.
Perhaps the best surprise came a week later when my film had been processed. It revealed a blue background of the sort more familiar from tropical water, rather than the green tinge I would expect in even the best of UK summer visibility -evidence of the lack of algae this late in the year.
I hope my inspirations and obsessions will come to order this year, and that I get the chance to return to the Seven Stones this summer. That said, I will also be keeping an eye out for winter opportunities in the future. The fine winter diving days may be few and far between, but the diving can still be good.

A
A diver examines the Raraus diesel engine
one
one of the north-east rocks of the Seven Stones just breaks the surface at low-water springs
at
at one end of the Raraus winch
it
it was dark by the time the Penzance divers unloaded at Porthleven
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an even closer look at the Raraus diesel engine
Scraps
Scraps of fishing net are caught on the wreckage of the Rarau
Getting
Getting ready to dive aboard the Siteseeker

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE Follow the M5 to Exeter, then the A30 towards Penzance. Before Penzance, turn back on the A394 towards Helston. Rosudgeon is about three miles along the road, with Porthleven another five miles on.
DIVING & AIR: From Porthleven, Siteseeker, skipper Gordon Jones, 01736 763551, www.deepsea.co.uk/boats/siteseeker. Gordon can arrange for cylinders to be pumped at local compressors. Air is also available from Bill Bowen on Penzance pier, 01736 752135.
ACCOMMODATION: B&B is available in Rosudgeon with Gordon and Kitty Jones.
QUALIFICATIONS: The diving is not particularly difficult, but it is advanced in the sense that any mistake made in navigation or decompression could potentially have serious consequences this far offshore.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1148, Isles of Scilly to Lands End. Admiralty Publication NP250, Tidal Stream Atlas, The English and Bristol Channels. Ordnance Survey Map 203, Lands End, The Lizard and The Isles of Scilly. Penzance Tourist Information 01736 362207