|Finding new wrecks is a skilled business. You need to know roughly where to look and what to look for long before you ever get wet. You read old shipping records or war diaries for details of the vessels which went down, correlate these accounts with newspaper reports and insurance details to get a probable location, then mount a search expedition using towed sonar arrays, magnetometers and remotely operated vehicles, only deploying divers when youre sure youve found something.
Or you can just cruise around and look for bits sticking out of the water.
Dont knock it, this was the way that Cousteau found the Thistlegorm, and it was the way we found our Suez wrecks. On the whole, I reckon even my old dive club could have found them, though if it had, wed still be arguing about exactly where to tie in.
My home for the week was the mv Cyclone, and she looked just fine as I stepped aboard, but I had been up since 1.30 that morning, so Dans welcome briefing largely happened to the rest of the group.
When I finally got into my cabin I hit the duvet and my personal lights just went out, though I did register that sometime during the night we pulled out from the jetty. The chugging around seemed to go on forever, but I was too tired to care.
The following morning, I staggered upright and headed for the saloon to make a cup of tea. Eyes still half-shut, rumpled and unshaven, I managed to fumble a teabag and cup into rough proximity and add boiling water without scalding myself. Result.
You can always tell a real Brit diver. Were unable to function without tea. Twenty minutes later, I was awake enough to take stock.
We Brits love our wrecks, and we love the Red Sea. Combine the two and you have the Red Sea Wreck Special, a concept that has occurred to a number of dive travel operators over the years, notably Tony Backhurst.
The problem is that there are only so many wrecks, everyone knows where they are and everyone offers dives to them. The wrecks have become so easily accessible by dayboat or liveaboard that they have become over-familiar and lost some of their allure.
Cyclones Get Wrecked itinerary includes sites that no other company visits, and on this trip special permissions and licences had been obtained to dive wrecks in the Gulf of Suez that were rarely, if ever, dived. We were going to dive them - but only if the wind dropped.
It was bitterly cold. Not compared with the North Sea in January, obviously, but this was the Red Sea, fergawdsakes! Did it not know it was supposed to be warm and calm
Tell that to the guy who had seen his dayboat wrecked in the marina overnight. What I had thought was manoeuvring had been our skipper keeping us afloat in the worst weather anybody could remember.
So we needed to mark time, and did so with some great dives. Day one found us at Ras Kati, the Dunraven, Shag Rock and Shaab Na. On day two we dived the Rosalie Moller - fantastic, remind me to tell you about it some time - Ulysses and whats left of the barge at Gubal.
Cyclone was recently voted Diver readers liveaboard of 2003 and I can see why. It was great - large, spacious, stable, comfortable and clean, with a first-class crew and a decent chef. Her dive-guides, Dan and Kerry, turned out to possess both the abilities I cherish: drawing briefing maps that look like the dive site, and having the confidence to leave competent divers to it.
Then, at 4.30 on the morning of day three, the skipper decided that it was calm enough and put the pedal to the metal. We powered north, excitement mounting. Fills were topped off and kit checked and rechecked. Virgin wrecks were in the offing!
First up was the Attiki (or possibly Attaki), a Greek-owned freighter of 3360 tons and 340ft long. She was built in 1966 and ran aground on 24 April 1978 while carrying bags of cement to Port Sudan.
The holds and engine room flooded, she was abandoned and later caught fire, at some stage breaking in two. Not surprising that she sank, then.
We were searching for the bow section, and found the very tops of her ribs just proud of the surface, three and half hours steaming from Gubal, not far from Ras Dib and only 50m from the reef line. Maximum depth was only 10m.
I know a lot of divers get sniffy about shallow dives, and Ive heard a lot of bull about depth (generally accompanied by exaggerated claims about beer, for some reason - we supped 18 pints each then did 54m) but a new wreck in bugger-all depth means plenty of time to explore and plenty of light for snaps, so Im all for it.
The bow was striking in the sunlit water, square and intact, with hatches leading into an empty forecastle, though the wreck became increasingly broken as we swam aft. The engine was still in place and marked the limit of the wreckage, the hull being flattened at this point and missing from here aft. The Attikis cargo was largely where it was when the vessel went down, with sacks of cement solidified into high walls by the sea.
And, a remarkable bonus, we were diving Nudibranch Central. I saw more species of these little beauties on this wreck alone than on the whole of my previous trip. I was in digital imaging heaven, and had to be attached to a lifting bag to get me out of the water when our dive-time ran out.
An hour or so further north is Shukier Bay, a wide expanse of water littered with the sticky-up bits of ships sitting on the bottom. Never mind the guide drawing a neat diagram of the wrecks, we only had to look across the water to be able to see em.
We tied up between an oil industry work barge and the wreck we called Unknown One, got rubbered up (great expression, thanks Dan!), and hit the water.
Unknown One is about 165ft long and lies on its starboard side in less than 8m of water, intact and open from stem to stern. I know that because Neil and I ducked through the first opening we saw and made our way down the full length of the wreck.
The bridge still had the ships wheel in place, and the compass binnacle was intact, though some sod had taken the compass away. Mind you, some other bugger has had the steering wheels out of the Viscount cockpit in Stoney Cove, so what can you expect
The telegraph lay on the seabed just below, next to a pair of mast lights. A spare propeller was still lashed in place near the bridge
On the starboard bow the letters Wood...ll were just distinguishable in the gap between plating and the shingle bottom. The foremast had broken and sloped down to the seabed, but the funnel still stood and the wooden planking of the stern deck was intact and clean. Beneath the hull, the prop and rudder were intact.
Oh, and the water was green and the viz no more than 6-8m. It was just like diving in dear old Blighty, though Ive never been circled by a shoal of small barracuda on a British wreck, or experienced water at 20C.
Unknown Two was closer to shore, and we had a short RIB ride to drop next to it. This small tanker had its forecastle and afterworks clear of the water.
Its deck was the most incredible sight, intact and covered with a dense shoal of small fish packed so close together that Neils fin strokes sent them whirling and tumbling in his wake.
The hatches covering the various access points into the hull stood invitingly open. They would be a squeeze, though I reckoned they would be easily passable for a diver willing to slip off his or her kit and follow it in, but sticking a head as far down as possible suggested that there would be nothing to reward the effort - and I didnt have a torch anyway.
The forecastle was completely open, with a single ladder leading to what was the forward deck. Light spilling down a ladder from the open hatch above always makes for pictures oozing atmosphere, and here it was enlivened by a moray eel undulating around the rungs.
Back we went to the aft accommodation, where a great horizontal gash provided easy access to the engine-room and crew quarters. They must have been a clean bunch, judging by the number of sinks installed around the place. It felt like a great adventure, penetrating into the deepest, darkest guts of an unknown wreck in the fabulous Red Sea, and so it was, even if we only managed 6.4m!
The prop and rudder were intact here as well, and the whole wreck was alive with life. There must have been at least half a dozen pepper morays, and we spotted a tiny juvenile boxfish hiding under the starboard side and looking like nothing so much as a bright yellow dice, less than the size of a thumbnail.
All in all, this wreck was so intact that we reckoned any halfway-decent dive club equipment officer could have had her afloat again in no time.
Back on Cyclone, we learned that Phil had spotted the name Laura on the wreck, though small freighters like this one can change their names as often as I change my underwear.
Looking shorewards, and presumably even shallower, sat a third wreck. It made me wonder just how many there were out of sight.
For our night dive, we returned to Unknown One. Have you ever noticed how shipwrecks grow in the dark This one had. Id swear it was twice as long at night, and no sniggering at the back.
Perhaps it was because Neils torch and mine both died, so we dived pretty much in the dark. Well, it was moonlight and only 7m deep, so it would have been a waste of batteries anyway.
Our final Suez wreck was the Elliott, a 2874 ton freighter which had been delivering 3500 tons of chick-peas. Wherever the chick-peas were going, they needed them in a hurry, because she was obviously going at a fair old lick when she hit the reef, judging by the shattered bows and intact stern.
The engine-room here was a delight, broad and open, and the machine shop nearby was stuffed to the wotsits with spanners, drill-bits and so on, all still neatly hung up where the last engineer had left them.
As our eyes adjusted to the darkness of the engine room, we saw a pair of BCs floating at the bottom of a ladder. Cue the da-da, da-da music from Jaws, until we realised that John and Nigel had simply ditched their kit to go for a stroll around the superstructure. All they saw was guano.
I was all for nicking their fins, but theyre big lads so I was persuaded to leave them be.
This wreck also had a spare prop, and a scraping knife blade turned up bronze. So, a spare bronze prop and the main prop, presumably also bronze, still in place. We wondered why they hadnt been salvaged.
Between dives, we put together sketches of the wreck sites, which Kerry carefully drew up into her personal dive-guiding notebook. This area is unknown diving territory, and these are now the only maps around.
Then it was back south to Thistlegorm, Ras Mohammed and Tiran to finish the week and reflect on what we had seen.
Our Suez wrecks were shallow and very intact. They clearly see very few divers, and had great marine life, and the thing is, there were more of them than we dived.
This area is a long steam from Sharm and may be easier to access from Hurghada, but whichever way you go, wreck fans will find it worthwhile.
|Kerry Wynns sketch of the wreck |
|Divers view of the Attiki |
|cement bags from the cargo set into a solid wall |
|Unknown One, a wreck that lies in just 8m of water |
|part of a very intact freighter which may or may not have been called the Laura |
|the Laura is popular with marine life |
GETTING THERE: Mike Ward flew with Monarch to Sharm el Sheikh from Gatwick. There are also flights from Manchester at a supplement of£20-50 per person.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: This part of the Red Sea is a long steam north, so you would need to get a group together, book the whole of mv Cyclone or another liveaboard and agree the itinerary with the tour operator in advance. Mike Ward travelled with Tony Backhurst Scuba Travel, 0800 072 8221, www.scuba.co.uk.
WHEN TO GO : Year round, though these shallow wrecks are very weather-dependent, so be prepared for potential disappointment.
MONEY: Egyptian pounds, but sterling and US dollars accepted for tips.
COST: A week on Cyclone costs£795-895, depending on time of year and itinerary. Only extras were alcoholic drinks and a tip for the crew (30 per person was recommended).
FURTHER INFORMATION: 020 7493 5283, www.touregypt.net.
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