AS BLUE TURTLE HEADS SOUTH from Lyme Regis on a perfect diving day, I realise that it has been a few years since I have been diving with skipper Douglas Lanfear. We have one of those conversations: Has it really been that long It doesnt seem so.
Douglas has a regular mid-week schedule, and I have been looking out for wrecks on my to-do list.
But alas, it seems that every year
I am either off doing other things when wrecks of interest to me crop up or, when Im free, Douglass schedule seems to alternate wrecks I want to do with those I have already dived.
The more wrecks I dive, the worse it gets. Never mind, as problems go its a nice fluffy one.
Then one of Douglas emails arrives, showing the Ailsa Craig and the Gibel Hamam scheduled on succeeding days - a brace of World War One coasters from 1918, both just beyond 30m deep and both on my list. Turtle time had arrived.
Conditions could hardly be better. Tides are among the best neaps of the year. The sea is oily-calm, though that belies what had happened the previous day. Other divers on the boat, mostly from Dudley Nautilus BSAC, had experienced a sudden worsening of conditions on their way back that left some feeling ill enough to go home, expecting today to be as rough.
Last night Douglas had phoned to say that the weather looked awful, and that I should stay in Bristol. I was already in Yeovil visiting relatives, amidst a gusting wind and pouring rain, so I decided I may as well continue to Lyme Regis, and see what was happening in the morning.
It was a good job I took the chance, as had the balance of the Dudley team. Why is success always so much sweeter when snatched from the jaws of defeat
As is Douglass usual strategy, we arrive above the Ailsa Craig in plenty of time, and the shot goes in early.
We can see from the trace that the tide is already slacking, so we may as well go in early as well.
The 601-ton Ailsa Craig was carrying coal from Cardiff to France when she was torpedoed by UB80 at 7.10am on 14 April, 1918. The explosion took the bottom out of the ship amidships, and
it sank so rapidly that the crew barely had time to climb into the remaining lifeboat and row clear.

WHILE SURFACE CONDITIONS AND TIDE are perfect, I descend to discover that visibility is a little disappointing; about 7m, but snotty with plankton.
Nevertheless, as my eyes adjust I can see well enough to navigate my way round the wreck and back to the shotline without needing a dive light.
It helps that the Ailsa Craig follows the classic small coaster layout, with the usual two-cylinder compound engine aft, big single boiler and two holds forwards. The obvious variation between ships of this size and layout was the location of the wheelhouse, either amidships between the holds or aft behind them, above the stoke hold and bunker space.
On the Ailsa Craig its hard to work out which of these patterns it followed.
I find the helm just to port, about halfway along the second hold, where the keel was blown out by the torpedo explosion. The helm is upright and beautifully intact, except for the wooden wheel having rotted away.
Its one of the best features of the wreck, but has it fallen aft from forward of the hold, or forwards from behind the hold There is a fair bit of open deck forwards of the winch that could have supported a wheelhouse.
There is also a fair bit of bunker and stoke-hold, and space that the wheelhouse could have been above.
I think the helm and hence the wheelhouse must have been between the holds amidships. The winch behind here is set up only to serve the second hold, while the forward winch looks to have served a dual purpose of hauling the anchor and serving the forward hold.
Back on Blue Turtle, lunch of hot dogs followed by chocolate rolls is taken as we potter back inshore. Including lunch with a days charter is something more skippers are doing, and its a nice touch. With early-morning departures and late-night returns, it saves us having to go shopping, and provides hot food rather than the sandwiches or pasties I would otherwise have brought along.
For a second dive we return to an old favourite, the Baygitano, dived by the Dudley crew a couple of days previously and requested again because they enjoyed it so much. I last dived it for the December 2006 wreck tour, the last time I had been on Blue Turtle.
Some divers explore the wreck, while others drift off to collect scallops to take home.
I pass a pleasant 40 minutes amidst the hordes of pouting that habitually swirl about the wreckage, though it is a particularly inquisitive cuckoo wrasse that really catches my attention.

OUR SECOND DAY IS ALTOGETHER DIFFERENT. The wind has picked up and the sea, whilst not near the limit of a seaworthy boat, is certainly near the limit of some of the divers - and beyond the limit of one.
The Gibel Hamam was another small coaster, slightly larger at 647 tons and also carrying a cargo of coal from Wales to France, though she began her voyage from Swansea. At 9.30pm on 14 September, a torpedo from UB103 struck amidships on the port side. The explosion was so big that only the helmsman survived, washed ashore at Abbotsbury and found on the beach the next morning.
It would have been good to compare the two coasters, as the Gibel Hamam was unusually fitted with a triple-expansion engine. Alas, after braving the seas to get to the wreck site, we find a local commercial boat fishing for bass over the wreck.
As the crew are busy earning their livelihood, they dont want us in the water below them. The situation would have been reversed had we arrived first.
Douglas points Blue Turtle east for the Moidart, another WW1 casualty, this one torpedoed by UC77 at 2am on 9 June, 1918. The torpedo struck the starboard side and demolished number 3 hold. The crew were left swimming for scraps of wreckage as the Moidart quickly sank. Only six survived.
I had a fairly thorough dive on the Moidart with Scimitar from Portland a year ago, but am still uncertain about the missing stern. On my previous dive I had seen pretty much everything, then set out aft of the break to look for it, unsuccessfully. Various guides and other divers have given seemingly conflicting information.
Its 15m off the main part, Its fallen to port, I followed the starboard side and a chain of wreckage all the way to it, I followed the port side and a chain of wreckage all the way to it and It lies parallel and alongside the main body of the wreck were just some of the descriptions.
Today, with a whole dive to find the stern, I have plenty of time to be more systematic. From the shotline near the bow I head aft and prepare to tie my reel to the remaining stub of propeller-shaft and run a sweep.
It turns out that I dont need to. Some other kindly diver has lost a reel right next to where I want to tie off, so I use this to run my sweep.
I begin by following the line of some scraps of wreckage out and to port. The answer to the stern location puzzle soon becomes clear - it is all of the above.

AS THE MOIDART SANK BACKWARDS, the stern had dug into the seabed and broken from the rest of the wreck as it swung about 135° in the tide.
The stern fell to its port side, while the rest of the wreck remained upright, so the stern with the remains of number 4 hold lies almost hinged forward off the port side of the main body of the wreck.
The rudder probably is 15m from the main body as the crow flies, but further forward or aft, depending on how you look at it, is a path of wreckage that can be followed.
Now I know it, getting from one part to the other is easy. Nevertheless, as it has been donated, I leave the reel tied between the two parts to make the route easier for others to follow.
It was a reel of a type I have always found to jam, so I am probably doing the owner a favour to leave it. He or she now knows where it is.
Feeling lazy, and with no decompression accumulated, I ascend the shotline. Diving on open-circuit rather than a rebreather, the other divers have all decompressed by now.
From the top of the waves I can just about see Blue Turtle in the distance, picking up divers who have been drifting on delayed SMBs. I just have to hold on while everyone else slides up the power ladder before Blue Turtle heads my way and its my turn for a ride.
Showing pity on a very green-at-the-gills diver, we head back in to Lyme to put him ashore. Protecting his hard-man-of-the-sea public persona, Douglas lets us know that this is something he wouldnt normally do, but these are exceptional circumstances.
The rest of us happily dunk rolls into the mugs of chunky vegetable soup he serves for lunch, a wise choice of snack considering the conditions.
We dont tie off, just put our seasick diver on the steps and head straight out again to the wreck of the Heroine. It takes only 15 minutes, and we are all ready to dive again.
The Heroine was a wooden sailing barque carrying immigrants to Australia when she foundered in a storm on 27 December, 1852. Hearing the ships guns firing in distress, the folk of Lyme Regis rushed out to watch. In the stormy seas three local fishermen died trying to row out to assist, but Heroines crew managed to launch the boats and get all the passengers safely ashore,
The wreck was first dived the following summer, when a salvage team recovered valuable cargo.
The Heroine was then forgotten about as a wreck until 1991, when Richard Greenaway and divers from Swindon BSAC came across it while drifting for scallops. Over the next few years they surveyed and excavated the wreck with the help of local skipper John Walker. The artefacts recovered are on display in the Lyme Regis museum.
On a neap tide there is no waiting for slack. We are straight in and down the shotline with as little pulling as possible. Even so, by the time I get to the bottom it is halfway along one side of the wreck.
I turn to see it drag further as the next pair of divers reach the seabed.
A grapple may have worked better, but it would have damaged the wreck.
The wreckage comprises a pile of bricks from the cargo bundled on top of the remains of the wooden hull. Here and there, big copper pins protrude from the debris and shreds of copper sheeting are peeling from the hull.

FOR A HEAVY-METAL WRECK-DIVER there isnt that much to see, but as an artificial reef the Heroine is fantastic. Above the wreck are the usual pouting and pollack. Closer to it are more than the usual quota of wrasse.
Then, among the wreckage, you see hordes of gobies and blennies. And by way of a bonus, the vis seems better on the Heroine.
The scour beneath the timbers provides an ideal home for congers, who must appreciate the sheer quantity of lunch swimming above. Sharing these holes are crabs and lobsters.
The Heroine is not an archaeological site, so anyone can dive it, but please do not move or take anything, and leave the inhabitants alone, as they make the dive.
If you want a crab, lobster or scallop, there are plenty to be had on the rough ground nearby. All you need to do is drift off the wreck.
By the time I am ready to surface, the shot has dragged further from the wreck. I follow the trail in the sand, spotting the occasional scattered fragment of wreckage, scallops and flatties, then follow the line up for my final ride on the power ladder.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Leave the M5 at junction 25 (Taunton) and take the A358 past Chard to Axminster, then the A35 and B3165 to Lyme Regis. Follow the signs to the Cobb.
DIVING: Blue Turtle, 07970 856822, www.blueturtle.uk.com. Douglas Lanfear can arrange air and nitrox fills, cylinders being collected and returned to the quay. If you are there for multiple days, get a three-day parking permit for £8.40, rather than paying £8 per day. Only some of the pay and display machines do these tickets and they are not well advertised, so look around for the right machine.
ACCOMMODATION: Douglas can put you in touch with diver-friendly accommodation, from bunkhouse to hotels.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 3315, Berry Head to Bill of Portland. Ordnance Survey Map 193, Taunton & Lyme Regis. Dive Dorset, by John & Vicki Hinchcliffe. WW1 Channel Wrecks by Neil Maw. Lyme Regis tourist information, www.lymeregis.com and www.lymeregistourism.com