Divernet

I LIKE NICE INTACT WRECKS, but Im not a great fan of intact submarine wrecks, especially small submarines. They seem like little more than a big steel pipe with torpedo tubes at one end, a conning tower and perhaps a gun in the middle, and propellers at the other end. I prefer submarines to be part-broken, with the interior exposed.
Having said all that, I find the tiny and intact A3 a perfect prospect for a late evening dive in May. At 38m deep, it should be below the worst of the spring algal bloom. At only 32m long, it would fit into a swimming pool, and the whole wreck can be examined without getting into more than a few minutes of decompression - a safety consideration with sunset just over an hour away.
The dive profile is also ideal for testing and building confidence in a VR3 dive computer that has thrown a wobbly and led to my aborting the first dive of the day, on the Elana R.
This steamship was an early casualty of World War 2, sinking off the Shambles bank after striking a mine on 22 November 1939. I had been quite looking forward to my first dive on it, as it is reputed to be moderately intact, with plenty of marine life, and it fitted my theme of collecting some of the wrecks east of Portland.
Skippers Andy and Jay hookedthe shot in. Jay would normally be skippering Maverick, but today he is getting a couple of dives in while Andy looks after the boat. I go through my normal checks and everything seems fine.
A few metres down the shotline, it is still fine but at 18m the computer blanks. I come up a few metres and it switches on again. Back down and - blank.
I toy with continuing on my bail-out plan but, not being a full dive plan, it was not designed for continuing a dive. A few more minutes convinces me that I have to abort the dive, so Jay can continue down with Adam, the third of our three-buddy-team.
Standing on Mavericks tail-lift, I guess that the problem must be connected with the battery I had changed the previous night before driving to Portland.
Back on board I remove it, clean the contacts and go through the tedious process of re-entering all my data and calibrating the oxygen sensor. It appears to be working. I am hoping it is just a poor battery contact that has given me the problem. It could happen with most dive computers, but why only at depth An easy dive on the A3 is what I need to test it and restore my confidence.
I dive the A3 with Jay and Adam. Its a different Adam, but both Adams are on the Breakwater Dive Centre staff.
The shot is hooked across just forward of the stern and I reach the wreck with everything still working. Late in the day with a choppy sea and the algal bloom above us, no light reaches 38m. Its like a night dive.
The A3 first sank on 2 February 1912, following a collision with the destroyer HMS Hazard in a naval exercise off the Isle of Wight. The submarine was raised, but rather than re-entering service was used as a gunnery target and sunk for keeps by 4in gunfire from HMS St Vincent on 17 May 1912.
I check out the stern, with its rudder and diving planes but no propeller. Perhaps someone has salvaged it, or maybe it was removed before the A3 became a gunnery target. Now I head forward. The shot is just ahead of the stern, but then, it is also just aft of the conning tower. The A3 is a tiny wreck.
If there is any doubt that the crew could fit inside, their slim dimensions are betrayed by the minuscule open hatch on the conning tower.
Its getting dark as we head back into Portland. My VR3 has behaved as well as it usually does, and our love-hate relationship swings back to love. The wind is dropping, and things look good for tomorrow.
Breakwater Diving Centre has three hardboats, all shuttling in and out for every dive, rather than full-day charters. To get a full spread I am diving from a different boat each day. While Maverick is the good old diving regular, an Offshore 105, Top Gun, is one of only a few Portland 10s that have found their way into diving charters.
Skipper Graham sets an easy pace out east to the Iolanthe. On the horizon to the south, an obvious warship is identified as an aircraft-carrier.
Then, as we approach Lulworth, the firing-range guard boat intercepts us and advises that we should divert a mile or two south. Fortunately, the wreck co-ordinates are just outside the exclusion zone.
Sunk by a single torpedo from UC-75 on 4 January 1918, the Iolanthe is also known as the Railway Wreck, after some wagons in the cargo. I reach the bottom of the shot to find the line across the boilers - or rather boiler, because this 1743 ton steamship is listed as having two, but the mounts for one of them are empty. Despite quite reasonable visibility at 45m, I cannot locate the second boiler for my sketch.
Relieved that everything is now running smoothly with my equipment,I manage to tour the wreck from the stern, with its propeller, rudder and steering gear, to the bow, with anchors and winch.
Even so, in addition to the location of the second boiler the dive fails to answer a few obvious questions, such as:
where is the 12-pounder gun
It was presumably mounted at the stern, but I dont see it. Is it still there, buried, or has it been salvaged There are also two winches by the aft mast-foot, but where are the equivalent winches for the forward mast
Back ashore, I grab a sandwich for lunch, then retire to the Aquasport Hotel for a siesta. My alarm clock wakes me for the evening slack. Top Gun is at the jetty, just across the car park.
Though the tides are an hour later, we depart at about the same time as last night. Its a bit of clever dive planning by Andy to schedule the Bennindijk for this evening. The wreck is closer to Portland, so slack water is more than an hour earlier than at the A3, and we can just fit it in during daylight.
On the wreck at 30m there is enough light to see by, though the visibility is very grainy and severely limits viewing distance. Graham has hooked the shot close to one end of the wreck, and I soon find the stern. Beneath a curved stern plate I photograph an aggressive lobster, then Jay considers adding it to his goody bag, before deciding that its hole is a little too well-defended, and leaving it be.
There are so many lobsters on this well-broken wreck that he soon catches an easier dinner.
Another big freighter sunk by mine in WW2, the Bennindijk has always been a difficult wreck to navigate, following persistent commercial salvage and repeated covering and uncovering by the shifting Shambles bank. Yet that is also one of its attractions. Even those who dive it regularly still encounter parts they have not seen before.
With the Hood still out of bounds to make way for Portland Harbours fuel jetty, the Bennindijk is gaining in popularity as the closest big wreck to Weymouth and Portland.
The Millennium Divers Dorset club has adopted it under the NAS Adopt a Wreck scheme, with one of the Adams I had dived with yesterday as project leader.
I work forward to the boilers, then across sparse patches of wreckage to another substantial section of hull leading to the bow, distracted by numerous lobsters, crabs and congers on the way. But try as I might, I cant then find my way back to the boilers.
Even with better visibility, its not the sort of wreck I can just dive and sketch. It will take a sidescan or multibeam sonar map to get me started on something this big and complicated.
Day three, and my third boat is Goose, an Offshore Evolution and superficially a re-design of the Offshore 105 for the 21st century. Andy explains on the way out to the Alex Van Opstal that there is a lot more to the boat than is obvious at first. At 40ft long, it has a much larger cabin and enough space on the rear deck for 12 divers with technical kit.
The hull is more streamlined, with a full keel that both reduces slamming and really bites into tight turns. Andy is putting his new toy through its paces.
But why Goose Andy explains. Breakwaters first hardboat was Top Gun, named by the boatyard. A few years later Maverick was bought second-hand and the name retained. It was a coincidence, as Tom Cruises call sign in the film Top Gun was Maverick. So, sticking with the film, the new Evolution was christened Goose after Mavericks buddy.
Above the Alex Van Opstal, Andy carefully hooks the shot in as close to the bow as he can. We sit and wait for the line to go slack, but, coming onto spring tides, it never really does. As the current starts to swing round, we decide to get in before it picks up again.
The shot placing could not have been better. It is hooked over a short section of mast just behind the anchor winch. I work my way slowly aft, but with the current now building, and visibility similar to yesterday on the Bennindijk, covering a 5965-ton liner from bow to stern is not feasible.
Working back to the bow, I remember my first time on the Alex Van Opstal, 20 years ago. Cracking visibility and slack water had allowed us to explore the whole wreck. We finished our deco on the last breaths of the single 10 litre cylinders on which we were diving, a dodgy and long-abandoned practice. Today, I am fully loaded for a longer dive with a rebreather, yet barely get into deco due to the nitrox advantage.
For a last dive east of Portland, I am tempted to return to the Aeolian Skye, a Greek freighter sunk after a collision in 1979, and also to have another go at the Elana R. Yet either choice would mean missing the armed trawler Arfon, sunk when it hit a mine on 30 April 1917.
I have a soft spot for a good armed trawler, I had never dived Arfon, and it comes recommended by a number of divers. It isnt that hard a decision.
We drop Jay off at Maverick. He has some skippering to do for an evening club dive. My new buddy is David Aplin, the skipper of Eclipse, a RIB as big as a hardboat that works from Selsey. His engines are broken, and while Honda takes a week or two to fix them, he is getting some diving in.
Like the A3 and Iolanthe, at 35m the Arfon is deep enough to be below the worst visibility. Its almost a silhouette of a wreck, an intact outline broken down nearly to the seabed except for the bow, boilers, engine and a section of the stern.
I spend time looking for the gun, then hear later that it was lost on Lulworth Banks during a failed attempt to salvage it several years ago. Even without it, Arfon makes an excellent finale.

Goose
Goose and Maverick at the loading pontoon
Open
Open hatch at the top of the A3s conning tower
Andy
Andy brings Goose in at night
one
one of the Bennindijks boilers
Hand-wheel
Hand-wheel broken from the anchor winch on the Alex Van Opstal
The
The Arfons propeller

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: For Weymouth follow the A37 or A354 to Dorchester, then the A354 to Weymouth and on to Portland via Chesil Beach, turning left for the old Castletown dockyard as the road climbs the hill to Portland. Breakwater Diving Centre is located at the Aquasport Hotel, on the left as you get to Castletown.
DIVING, AIR, ACCOMMODATION: Breakwater Diving Centre, 01305 860269, www.divedorset.com, www.hotelaqua.co.uk.
LAUNCHING: Slips at Weymouth, Ferrybridge and Castletown.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2610, Bill of Portland to Anvil Point. Ordnance Survey Map 194, Dorchester, Weymouth & Surrounding Area. Dive Dorset, by John & Vicki Hinchcliffe. WW1 Channel Wrecks, Neil Maw. Tourist information: 01305 785747.