HAVE YOU EVER WONDERED WHAT HAPPENED TO ALL THE SAILING SHIPS Back when UK ship-owners were replacing their sailing fleets with steam, when a sail-powered merchant fleet became uneconomical or simply unfashionable
Some were scrapped, some were simply left to rot, and some were bought up at bargain rates by enterprising ship-owners from Ã…land.
Ã…land is a group of islands in the Baltic spanning the gap between Stockholm and Helsinki. Internationally Ã…land is considered part of Finland, but it has its own government, a bit like Finlands equivalent to the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man. The language is Swedish and the letter Ã…l is pronounced awe, so Ã…land is pronounced Aweland.
For some reason of economics and labour, or perhaps just persevering nostalgia, running a sailing merchant fleet was still worthwhile for Ã…land ship-owners. Through the 1920s and 30s the last great sailing ships would run from Europe to the Far East or Australia and back, then sail home to Ã…land with local cargo, or in ballast for the winter.
All this is explained to me by Ville and Christian from the OxygÃ¨ne Ã…land Dive Centre, as they show me round the Mariehamn Maritime Museum. This is a wonderful collection of memorabilia from the great age of sail with, among other things, the re-built captains cabin, wheel and binnacle from the Herzogin Cecilie. On the wall is the figurehead, the duchess Cecilie herself.
South Devon divers will know the name, because the sailing ship Herzogin Cecilie was wrecked in Starehole Bay outside Salcombe in 1936. The ship was owned by Ã…lands Gustav Erikson, once the biggest ship-owner in the world, and captained by Sven Erikson.
Many of the fittings were salvaged from the wreck and returned to Ã…land. The steel hull was partly salvaged, slowly broke up and sank into the sand. Now only a few scraps of metal stand proud to provide scenery to a shallow training site.
On the water in front of the museum we tour the Pommern, a 2376 ton four-masted barque. The Pommern has a steel hull, but everything else is wood.
The difference between a barque and a ship is the way the aftmost mast is rigged. There is a lot of work going on, because the ship is being spruced up for her centenary celebration later in the year.
So why am I touring the museum Its all part of a dive briefing for the wreck of the Plus, a three-masted barque that sank in the approaches to Mariehamn on 14 December, 1933.
The Plus had been held up in London until 30 November by adverse winds, then, arriving outside Mariehamn, signalled for a pilot.
He was busy, so the captain of the Plus decided simply to sail in. He and the crew were after all local and knew the harbour. Twelve of the 16 men lost their lives in the freezing water.
The Plus is owned by the museum, which has a model of it on display, as well as the ships bell and one of the pumps.
As I soon find out, everything else remains on the wreck.
Its the reason for travelling to the northern Baltic. The water here is cold and brackish, salinity is just 5 parts per million compared to the 30 parts per million found in the open ocean, there is no shipworm and the wooden wrecks are wonderfully preserved.
We descend a buoy to the rocks, then follow a line down the slope to the stern of the Plus, just short of 20m. Ville leads us down the shallower port side to the bow at 33m, then back along the starboard, zig-zagging across the deck.
But for the masts and rigging collapsed to starboard, its a picture of a sailing ship. Its not just the intactness but the detail. Intricate wooden carvings, blocks, dead-eyes, skylights, gratings, rigging - all are present under a fine dusting of silt.
In some ways the wood is better preserved than the iron. The few iron fittings are dripping with rusticles, fingers of rust that would never survive in anything but a dead still sea.
I surface bubbling with enthusiasm. Its so different to any wreck I have dived before and fulfils all the promise of Baltic diving. Even if the rest of the trip were blown out, it would have been worth it for this one dive.
In fact I almost didnt make it to Ã…land. I missed the ferry.
I made it to Newcastle in time for the DFDS ferry to Gothenburg. I drove from Gothenburg to Stockholm comfortably, with three hours to spare. Then I got tangled in a confusion of traffic jams, roadworks, diversions and obscure road signs. I followed the signs to Finland ferry terminal, only to find that the company I wanted was on the opposite side of the town.
More diversions and jams ensued and I screeched into the Silja Line terminal just as the ferry door was closing. I was lucky; there was space on the next ferry four hours later. Rather than arriving in Ã…land in time for bed I arrived at a sleepless 3am. But with such a successful first dive and a bright sunny day I can leave the stress of the missed ferry behind me.
To kill some surface interval we pull into a small harbour on an uninhabited island. A tall house at the top of the island used to be the pilot house. Now it is unused, restored by local volunteers to preserve their maritime heritage.
For a second dive we get two wrecks for the price of one.
A little further out from Mariehamn, a sailing barge known simply as the Nederland was on the way from Holland to St Petersburg carrying cobblestones when she was blown off course and struck the rocks in December 1917.
But first we descend on the wreck of a wooden ketch-rigged yacht that sank in 1970. The ketch is intact, but modern - its a pleasant dive but overshadowed by the almost equally intact Plus with all its history.
After 10 minutes at 27m we swim on to the Nederland. The barge is one of those very simple designs that has hardly changed over the years, 35m long and a quarter that wide, and with a solid-blocky wooden construction. It has tiller steering, a hold still full of cobbles and a single hinging mast so that it can pass under bridges.
The only obvious steel is the hand-turned winch on the bow deck. The name plate at the stern gives the registry as the Netherlands - if the barge ever had a more specific name, no one knows it.
Iced over in winter, the northern Baltic is not well-stocked with fish. At the stern I find a stenbit, which translates to stonefish. It looks more like a lumpsucker, but thats the problem with local common names.
The sun is still bright as we return to harbour at 8pm. Daylight is long, though not quite 24 hours. Our latitude is about the same as Shetland, some 8 south of the Arctic Circle, but the climate is continental, with freezing winters and dry hot summers. We wear shorts and T-shirts most of the day, with a light fleece on the boat or in the evening.
Its a late night as we still have to mix gas for the morning. The only dive of the trip on which trimix is essential is the three-masted schooner Balder in 65m.
Nineteen miles out from Mariehamn are a pair of remarkably similar lighthouses. On 10 October, 1928, the outer lighthouse was broken and unlit. The Balders captain saw the inner lighthouse, reached the wrong conclusion, and sailed straight over the rocks between the two. All but four of the crew made it to the lifeboat as the Balder sank.
Nearby is the Sverre, a small composite barque of wood over iron frames. In all, more than 50 ships are known to have hit these rocks and most are still undiscovered.
As we reach open sea the wind picks up from the south. The short steep waves for which the Baltic is renowned build quickly and we soon agree that its too rough to dive. We head back and have another nice dive on the more sheltered Plus.
Ville has a tight schedule of wrecks planned for me. Missing the Balder means that we have also missed the planned second dive on the Sanny, an old military landing ship converted in Mariehamn to a small tanker for a Turkish company in 1952. The Sanny hit the rocks in fog and sank in 15m.
It takes some creative planning to have another go at the Balder early next morning.
If it wasnt for the helium I would have put it down to narcosis. The woodwork on the Balder is in even better condition than that on the Plus. Its cold, dark and clear. Temperature below the 12m thermocline is 0 or 1C, depending on whose gauge you believe.
The wreck sits upright with masts and rigging broken to port. We move quickly to the bow, then work our way back to the stern. Everything is here. Diving in Ã…land is sufficiently recent that full wreck-protection legislation and a system of permits was in place before random salvage could become a problem.
A brass compass binnacle sits on a shelf behind the wooden framework of a skylight. Behind it the ships wheel is attached to a metal shaft. Portholes look like they could be brass, but I cant bring myself to remove the fine dusting of silt to make sure. In some ways it would spoil the effect, but it would also spoil the visibility with no current to disperse the cloud.
A section of stern outside the rudder shaft has broken off, the only sign of damage to the apparently pristine wooden hull. I suspect it was pulled out when the Balder ran across the rocks. Inside the break are shelves with wooden storage boxes, bottles and other bits and pieces.
Its a relief when the decompression schedule allows me back above 12m. The temperature above the thermocline in early June is 9C, comparatively toasty.
Christian tells me that in late summer the surface layer can be up near 20C, but the bottom stays close to zero. Overheating and dehydration can become a problem on stops.
Our second dive is on the Hindenburg. At 43m it is a bit deep, hence the early start to allow a good surface interval. Ville takes it easy on the 30-mile boat ride back past Mariehamn and on to Skeppsvik, where we collect three more divers who have just arrived from Stockholm. The Hindenburg, my first steel wreck of the trip, is an ice-breaking tug that struck a frozen-in mine while clearing the way for a German convoy on 9 March, 1918. Three were killed in the explosion but the rest of the crew simply stepped onto the ice and walked to the next ship in line.
I have never dived an ice-breaker before. The propeller is massively oversized for a 50m-long tug, big enough for several thousand tons of freighter.
The upper works are protected from shards of ice by a substantial ledge projecting round the top of the hull. The bow is cut back along the keel to ride over the ice and crack it with the weight of the hull. Unfortunately, the Hindenburg went down bow-first, so this feature is buried in the silt.
The superstructure has been damaged but there are the telegraphs, steam whistle and steering binnacle, all of shiny brass with a dusting of silt.
As with the sailing ships, a lot of wooden detail survives that I have never seen before. Towards the stern Christian shines his light through a skylight into the galley, where plates lie in a wooden crockery rack attached to the wall.
Next morning the sea is oily smooth, broken only by the wake of passing ships. Perfect for the 30-mile journey out to the steamship Helge.
With no wind or current, shotting the Helge is not what I am used to. Christian jiggles the throttle backwards and forwards until the boat is stationary above the wreck and we sit there while Ville throws the shot. By the time everyone has kitted up we are still only metres away.
The Helge was a victim of U26 in 1915. The submarine surfaced alongside, ordered the crew to the lifeboats, then scuttled her with explosives. The seabed is at 53m, but I dont get past 45m on the deck.
The Helge is so similar to many wrecks I have dived round Britain, a fairly typical early steel steamship, built in Glasgow in 1862. The revelation is all the wooden detail missing from its contemporaries in the Channel . What would have been just square holes in the deck are guarded by wooden skylights.
Steps leading down to the cabins are sheltered below a bell-flared deckhouse. The auxiliary steering and main ships wheel are intact. The bow is reminiscent of underwater sequences of the Titanic wreck, pristine and decorated by rusticles. The bell sits where it fell from the forecastle.
There is no second dive today. We refuel, load up with food and sleeping bags, and head east to Sottungan at the opposite end of Ã…land. Its an evening of beautiful sunshine as we wind between the islands. Navigating the coastline is an adventure in itself. There are 6000 named and 12,000 unnamed islands in Ã…land, which translates as land among passages of water.
You can sail from Stockholm to Helsinki without ever getting more than a few kilometres from land. In winter they mark out ice roads and few locals bother with ferries.
We pass over numerous wreck sites on the way. Ninety of Ã…lands 500 or so wrecks have been identified. Among them are the Burakov, a WW1 Russian destroyer, torpedoed and levelled in 22m; the 30m ketch Alice that hit the rocks in 1963 and rests from 10-18m; the Skiftet, an ice-breaking passenger ferry that hit a mine while full of German soldiers in 1917.
Most intriguing is the site of a sea battle at FlisÃ¶, where in 1739 Sweden destroyed more than 30 Russian galleys for the loss of three ships. Archaeologists have yet to find more than a few burned remains in the shallows.
Next morning, my last Ã…land dive is on the Notung, another familiar design of steamship, built in Middlesbrough in 1882. She was in Finnish use when torpedoed by a Russian aircraft on 24 January, 1942.
Overnight the wind has picked up from the north, driving a surface current between the islands and blowing in some dirty water. At 48m, the visibility is down to 3-4m.
The dive is reminiscent of the Helge, though the Notung was a little more recent. I revert to being a metal wreck-diver, and the woodwork is overshadowed by the steering binnacle, telegraphs and lamp-locker.
Later, in Newcastle, I check the cars odometer. I have driven fewer miles than on a trip to Scotland, as most were covered by the two ferries. I have broken the journey to dive on Swedens west coast and on some freshwater wrecks in Lake Vattern.
It would have been nice to catch some of Ã…lands shallow wrecks, but I wouldnt have missed any of the deeper ones.
A few weeks later I am in the English Channel. The wrecks are fewer, but in my minds eye I can see more. Memories from Ã…land let me appreciate the bits that are no longer there.