|LAST TIME I WAS IN THE CHANNEL ISLANDS I dived the wreck of a German minesweeper, the M343 (Wreck Tour 81, November 2005), sunk in 30m of water between Jersey and St Malo. |
Its within day-boat range of Sark, my host Andy Leaman remarks. In fact it would be just a couple of hours away in his main boat, Starfish, but Andy is based on Sark and has a closer and more exciting target in mind, the M483.
Its another ship of the same class as the M343, but just a few miles north-east of the island.
The Kriegsmarine operated a few hundred vessels of this design, with only minor variations. Though classed as minesweepers, they were really general-purpose warships, operating as escorts, anti-submarine patrols, flak ships, raiders and anything else a small coastal warship could be used for.
In the Royal Navy they would have been classed as corvettes or frigates. Many served along the French coast and in the Channel Islands, so it is not that surprising that more than one was lost in this area.
The M343was blown in two, having been on the losing end of an action with Allied destroyers, and the M483 was sunk by air attack.
On 15 June 1943, RAF Spitfires and Whirlwinds dived at a convoy of five German ships, their bombs sinking the M483 and damaging other ships for the loss of one Spitfire and one Whirlwind.
The lesser damage becomes immediately apparent as I get to the end of the shotline at 47m. The shot has dropped into a bite taken out of the port side of the hull and into the aft deck.
The rest of M483 is remarkably intact, in a much better state than M343.
Within sight of the shot, the 105mm main gun is mounted close to the stern. Further forward, depth charges are lined up along either side, with pairs of mortars for launching them. At the bow, a small-calibre anti-aircraft gun points skywards. Many examples of this class of ship were originally fitted with a larger gun at the bow, subsequently replaced to beef up the anti-aircraft armament.
Having checked out the weaponry, I pay more attention to the rest of the wreck. Amidships, a mine-hunting fish is strapped to the deck beneath a fallen davit. Close by, the generator room is largely filled with fallen debris.
Back at the stern, I dip below to the seabed to check out the propellers and rudder. Just touching 51m is a depth I wouldnt reject doing on air, though I brought a part-full pony of helium with me.
Andy keeps a bank of oxygen in his shed on Sark, mixing nitrox for himself and other local scallop divers, but its also useful for visiting leisure divers.
Travelling across on the Condor high-speed ferry, I had left everything but my squirt of helium empty for the journey, topping up with air and decanting oxygen when I arrived.
On the M483 this gives an equivalent air depth pretty much the same as I had enjoyed when diving the M343. Fuzz-free, with visibility grainy but good enough to see across the wreck, I get on with enjoying the dive and all that armament. My last job before ascending is to clear Andys favourite shot-weight. Shotting the wreck had taken a few attempts, starting with a smaller old grapnel that Andy didnt mind losing, but it just wouldnt catch.
For the final and successful drop, he swapped the grapnel for an enormous cylindrical block of solid lead.
Its all I can do to lift the weight from the hole and drop it onto the sand below. The tide is now running, but the monster shot refuses to drag as I make my deeper stops on the line, before popping a delayed SMB to drift through the rest of my deco.
Its a relief to have completed the primary target of the Sark part of my trip. Two days on Sark followed by three days on Guernsey doesnt leave much room for rogue weather.
With slack water late in the afternoon, and the previous day being restricted by unco-operative wind and waves, it was my last chance to dive the wreck.
In fact it was a choice between using the slack to dive the M483 or the Dutch freighter Heron, sunk in 1961 between Sark and Jersey. The original plan had been to dive one each day, but with the strong wind we had stayed inshore.
Not that there is anything wrong with the sheltered inshore diving. In fact its exceptionally good, with big reefs and walls rising from the depths, clear visibility and currents to feed the marine life. With the island providing shelter, there is somewhere to dive pretty much whatever the weather.
Just out of the harbour we had dropped in on Grune de Nord, one of those rocks that just begs for a ship to get wrecked on it. In fact old wooden ships had done so, but there is nothing left of them but the odd scrap of pottery.
More interesting are the anemone-painted walls and canyons leading down to a deeper rocky slope, inhabited by prowling pollack and curious wrasse.
Its classic crawfish country.
Although Andy dives commercially for scallops and anything else that can be dished up in local restaurants, he restrained himself from bringing back the bug he found to model for me.
Almost by definition, any local diver is a commercial scallop diver; its so much kinder to the marine environment than dredging behind a trawler.
Kieran, who had been minding the boat, later took the opportunity to drift across a scallop ground, filling a sack in 15 minutes.
Back at the small harbour, children are jumping from the wall and snorkelling from the beach. Its the sort of holiday I would have loved as a kid. We load dive gear back onto the tractor and clatter up the hill to Andys place, dog galloping alongside.
Tractors are the only motor vehicles allowed on Sark, other transport being a choice of horses, carriages and bicycles.
I am offered the loan of a bike, but elect to walk to the pub. I reason that its only 20 minutes away, and Im less likely to lose my way in the dark lanes if I walk.
Its a stark contrast when I get back to Guernsey and collect my car the next morning. St Peter Port is hectic with traffic. Where does it all go to, on an island only nine miles long
I had been warned, but am surprised all the same that the hard part is finding my way out of town. After getting lost a few times, I eventually find the road to St Saviours and the Auberge du Val guesthouse.
FOR TWO DAYS THE FORECAST says blowing up later in the day, when slack water for the offshore wrecks is late in the afternoon, so effectively putting them out of bounds. The choice of dives is between inshore wrecks and reefs.
Just outside St Peter Port in 30m is the armed trawler V209 Dr Rudolf Warhendorff, sunk by Fleet Air Arm Avengers while escorting a supply convoy into the harbour in July 1944.
Despite my known affection for a good armed trawler, I have dived this one before and would prefer new sites.
The same goes for the Oost Vlaanderen, also known as the Cement Wreck, a 421-ton coaster sunk 1.5 miles out with its cargo. Again sunk by air attack and again in 30m, the Oost Vlaanderen is slightly larger than the V209 but lacks the guns.
Though he would have liked to get further out to sea for the deeper wrecks, local diver and boat skipper Richard Keen has a plentiful supply of reefs from which to choose. I suggest the sort of pictures I would like to take and Richard knows the spot, though in fact I could have enjoyed taking photographs with any lens on any of the scenic dives.
For some macro pictures of anemones, Anfre Wall a couple of miles south of St Peter Port delivers the goods. A mile or two further on, Gabrielle Rock has similar scenery on a smaller scale.
BETWEEN MY DIVES, Richard and long-time diving partner Jeffrey take turns to dive for scallops, drifting over sand and gravel at anything from 30 to 50m three times a day to fill a sack each dive. Their dive kit for scalloping has changed little in 40 years - wetsuit, weights, a rope with bag on one end and a string of buoys on the other.
An air cylinder is strapped to the back without any BC or octopus.
Nowadays they use nitrox followed by a hanging cylinder of oxygen for decompression. Three years ago, Jeffrey had to move to a single-hose regulator because he could no longer find spare parts for his old twin-hose. Richard uses a drysuit through the winter, while Jeffrey just wears a less-worn wetsuit.
I mentally compare their minimal kit to the technical and photographic clutter I carry these days, then think back to how my first few years of diving employed kit not that much different.
There is a lot to be said for the simple approach - not so much the minimal kit of DIR and such, but real basic minimalism. If Jeffrey can survive some 40,000 working dives without incident on suck kit, why do we complicate it
For fish pictures, Richard drops me at Parfond, a pretty shelving reef at the south end of Herm that is inundated with cuckoo wrasse; then at Forein, just outside the harbour, where the fish include big silver sea bass and cuttlefish.
Following his directions, I also find a couple of old anchors at the base of the reef. St Peter Port has been used as a natural harbour since before the Romans. Anchors lost among rocks are common, as are hints of ancient wrecks, many of which Richard has discovered.
Surveying the foundations of the current ferry dock, for example, he found a Roman wreck beneath the mud of the harbour and helped excavate and survey the remains before the site was destroyed. Richard also found the M483. When I tour the island, half the exhibits in the shipwreck museum seem to have been donated by Richard Keen.
Further afield, he was also one of the divers who found the Stella off Alderney, a steam ferry that struck the Casquets reef in 1899 with almost complete loss of life. It is likely that the Stella was racing other ferries on the crossing, a practice that was officially denied but common among captains and crews.
THE WEATHER TURNS PERFECT for diving again, and the wreck of an earlier paddle-steamer is the site of my last dive. The Brighton had been ferrying back and forth from Weymouth since 1859 before running at full speed onto Braye Rocks in January 1887. All the passengers survived, and the Brighton drifted loose to sink in 48m on a flat sandy seabed.
I had dived the Brighton on my first visit to Guernsey 20 years ago, back when I was wearing dive kit similar to Richards current set-up. My logbook from then noted Lots of fish, big congers, intact paddle-wheels.
Richard is off with a full group in his real charter boat. I stick with Jeffrey in the smaller scalloping boat. Two local divers join us to help out, take in the wreck and catch a few scallops Its a working day, so Jeffrey gets a scallop dive in before slack water. Then, having shotted the wreck, he starts to feed his pet seagull. One fat bird lands on the gunwale beside him and snatches at the bits of guts and gore offered.
The others keep well clear - its a trick that seems to work. By feeding one bird until it is so big that none of the others stands a chance, the pet seagull stakes his claim and keeps the rest away.
Each day Jeffreys pet stays with us, and there are none of the screaming thousands that seem to follow most fishing boats.
Its funny how my memory plays tricks. I knew that the Brighton was a small wreck, but my inexperienced diving youth had remembered it as being bigger than it actually is.
The shot is just off the port paddle-wheel, and from that I can see both the starboard paddle-wheel and the upright boiler, with stubs of two stacks side by side. A monstrous shoal of pout circles about the three.
I do a couple of lengths of the wreck sketching, then pick my camera up. Click and no flash. Its a problem occasionally experienced with previous cameras. On hitting the water, the flash shoe can jolt enough to be just out of position, and I had learnt to fix this with a strip of PVC tape. But with my new digital SLR, PVC tape has lapsed from my set-up procedure.
The problem is less serious than it used to be. With good visibility and light, I just dial the film speed to 1600 and take with natural light.
Another advantage of digital is that I can fill in a long deco schedule by scrolling through the results. I suspect that the loose connector has done me a favour. Grainy natural light gives a better impression of the Brighton than flash-guns would have done.
|The main 105mm gun at the stern of the minesweeper M483 |
|Andy unloads dive kit from his tractor. |
|Canyons of anemones and fans at Grune de Nor. |
|Everything seems to be in pairs on the M483- there are two boilers, two generators, two engines, two propellers and, here, two toilets. |
|Jewel anemones on Anfre wall. |
|Jeffrey feeds his pet seagull. |
|Fluke of an old Admiralty pattern anchor on the Forein. |
|Port paddle wheel on the Brighton. |
|St Peter Port at dawn, as the sun rises over the island of Herm. |
GETTING THERE: Ferry from Weymouth, Poole or Portsmouth to Guernsey. Condor Ferries, 0870 243 5100, condorferries.com.
DIVING & AIR SARK: RSark Diving Services, 01481 832565, sarkci.com. Guernsey: Richard Keen, 01481 265335, email@example.com
ACCOMMODATION GUERNSEY: Auberge du Val Hotel, 01481 263862.
FOR NON DIVERS: Sark is quiet and children can run loose. Guernsey has the full range from wild and lively to out-of-the-way. Both have fantastic beaches and lots of local history.
QUALIFICATIONS:Diving suitable for all levels, though to make the most of the wrecks you need to be qualified to 30m or more.
PRICES SARK: for groups of 10, allow £420 per person including six days diving, self-catering accommodation and Condor ferry. Sark Diving Services charges £32 for two dives. B&B at the Auberge du Val Hotel, Guernsey costs from £30 a night.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Visit Guernsey, 01481 723552, visitguernsey.com, sark-tourism.com