UNUSUALLY FOR NORTH CORNWALL, my first dive out of Rock, on the wreck of the Sphene, has less than perfect visibility.
A good deal less than perfect visibility, in fact – it’s awful.
The problem, as my host Steve Hutchinson of the Harlyn Dive School explains, is that Port Quin Bay has some patches of soft and silty seabed, and the Sphene is just outside the middle of it. Some conditions of waves and tide immerse the wreck in cloudy water.
We can see that the water is murky from the surface. Coming here was a chance we took and, committed to slack water, it’s too late to change our minds.
After a week sheltering from storms behind Lundy, the 815-ton coaster Sphene resumed the voyage from Barry to London with a cargo of coal. At 4am on 6 February, 1946, she struck the Mouls, just to the east of Padstow Bay.
The crew safely abandoned ship, and the Sphene drifted off with the incoming tide, to sink just over a mile back along its original course in 22m.
On the high-water slack, my dive is closer to 26m to the seabed, and planned so that we can benefit from low water on another wreck later in the day.
The bow used to stand high, but was pulled off by a careless trawler a few years ago, so the highest point forward is now the chain-locker. Aft, in the scour below the stern, I can just about pick out my buddy next to the iron propeller.
The two boilers, triple-expansion engine and steering gear stand well enough above the seabed for the visibility to noticeably improve as the tide changes.
Back on the RIB, I get to peel down my suit and chill out in the sunshine. Steve and fellow-instructor Andrew are taking it in turns to dive today, just for fun, but they also use the boat for all their teaching dives, and offer escorted dives for those who prefer it.
Both are BSAC and PADI instructors, and offer the full range of courses from beginner upwards.
With their divers and students being a seasonally adjusted mix of locals, dedicated divers and holiday divers, the escorted diving is a service that is understandably popular in summer.
Somewhat perversely for the unusual visibility, I quite enjoy the dive. Perhaps it’s the ease and simplicity of just loading up and going diving. Perhaps it’s the perfect surface conditions that make it simply a nice day to be out on the boat.
Perhaps it’s that the Sphene is shallower than most of the wrecks I dive, allowing me to carry minimal bail-out with no concern for decompression.
Or perhaps it’s that I can imagine what a nice little dive this would be on the right day, and why it’s so popular with the dive school.
By waiting to dive at the end of slack I might have experienced better vis.
I would certainly give the Sphene another go – but not on this trip, because Steve has bigger and better and slightly deeper wrecks planned for me.
Meanwhile, we head back in for lunch.
Padstow Bay and the Camel estuary are lined with the sort of beaches I would have loved as a kid. Beautiful golden sand, firm enough for some fantastic sandcastle building. The beaches are packed with families and surfers.
Steve slows the RIB down to wait for the right wave to cross the Doom Bar, the sandbar in the estuary after which the Sharp’s beer is named. The dive school is happily located just around the corner from the brewery.
Steve has the chance to point out St Enodoc’s Church, where Sir John Betjeman, the late Poet Laureate, is buried. Sited in the dunes behind Trebetherick beach, the church dates from the Middle Ages, but was buried up to its roof by drifting sand until it was dug out in 1864. Before its restoration, parishioners used to climb in through a hole in the roof.
Approaching Rock, we slow down again to dodge the passenger ferry from Padstow and tie in to the pontoon.
With parking scarce by the water, other divers have left their cars at the dive school and travelled down to the beach in the school’s minibus.
Familiar with the system, they have all brought small dry-bags along with flip-flops so that they can change out of their suits, and have money to buy a pastie or sandwiches for lunch.
Pre-warned by Steve about the parking difficulties, I opted for a different strategy and arrived sufficiently early to claim a space in the road. Now I walk back to my van to get lunch, and some loose change for an ice cream.

WITH THE TIDE DROPPING, we leave early to get out past the Doom Bar before it becomes impassable, waiting at anchor behind Stepper Point for a while, and biding our time in the sunshine.
Our journey onward round Trevose Head to the wreck of the 1370-ton steamship Poldown is sedate. The wreck was originally recorded as being the 2577-ton Anna Sofie, torpedoed by U55 on 23 July, 1918. However, once found by divers it was discovered to be the wreck of the Poldown – the Anna Sofie is closer to Trevose Head.
Four days before sinking the Anna Sofie, U55 had sunk the Carpathia, the liner that rescued survivors from the Titanic in 1912.
Like many of the wrecks along the northern Cornish coast, the Poldown was carrying coal from South Wales. On 9 October, 1917, she struck a mine laid by UC51 and her bow was blown to bits, the Poldown sinking beneath the crew.
On the wreck, I can easily see the consequence of this. The wreckage of the bow is much more spread out than further aft, with the contents of the chain-locker dumped out with the anchor-winch, and one of the anchors some 10m off the main line of the wreck.
Amidships, the wreck has a single main boiler with a donkey boiler across the front of it; further evidence that this is the Poldown and not the Anna Sofie, which had two main boilers.
Aft, there is just one hold before the remains of the stern. A wreck the size of the Anna Sofie would have had two holds aft. The last item of wreckage is a 12-pounder gun lying out on the sand.
Considerably improved visibility makes it easy to see everything without racking up too much decompression.
I surface to find myself only 100m from the boat. Steve has dived, then Andrew has dived. It’s still slack, and Steve is going down again to free a jammed shot.
UC51’s previous victim was the St Jacques (Wreck Tour 60), torpedoed off Pembrokeshire on 15 September, 1917. On the same day as the Poldown, HM Drifter Active III struck another of this U-boat’s mines while sweeping the approaches to Milford Haven.
Then, on 20 October, the steamship Ionian struck another UC51 mine, also off Pembrokeshire.
UC51 didn’t last much longer. On 17 November, 1917, after damaging the steamship David Lloyd George, she ran into a U-boat trap minefield off Start Point, and sank with all hands.
Back in Rock, the RIB is recovered and towed a couple of miles up the hill to the boatyard in Pityme, where the dive school is based in a pair of cabins by the entrance. Boat and kit washed and cylinders pumped, it’s a great evening for refreshments at the nearby Pityme Inn, a St Austell brewery pub, which seems strange with the Sharpe’s brewery just around the corner.
The morning slack is now late enough that I arrive ridiculously early in Rock to get a parking space. I have three hours before Steve and Andrew bring the RIB and other divers down the hill.
I could have begun later and left my van at the dive school, but today I plan to catch the ferry across to Padstow and have a look around.
I can see why the dive school launches from the Rock side of the river. Rock may be busy, but Padstow is heaving, jammed almost solid. The harbour is crowded with tripper boats, including a small fleet of beautiful classic speedboats, the sort of thing Sean Connery as James Bond used to drive in the 1960s.
The RIB ride out to the Saphir is brisker than yesterday afternoon’s leisurely outing; with high water approaching, there is no need to depart early to cross the Doom Bar. Again we head out past Trevose Head.

THE 1406-TON NORWEGIAN STEAMSHIP Saphir was another coal-carrying victim of World War One, torpedoed by U94 on 25 May, 1918.
The Saphir was U94’s last victim, although the U-boat survived the war to be surrendered on 11 November.
The wreck lies alongside a reef, so is difficult to locate. Steve takes his time with the echo-sounder, and approaches from the right direction to ensure that the shot is on the wreck.
We don’t have to rush, but by the time we’re kitted up, it’s time to dive.
The wreck is similar in size to the Poldown, with a single boiler and donkey boiler, but two holds aft and no gun. The bow is broken up, but not strewn out.
I have a relaxing dive at 34m, compared to the Poldown at 38m.
I am always pleasantly surprised what a difference those few metres make, a difference appreciated all the more by the other divers, as they are on open circuit with nitrox. On the other slack at low water the Saphir could just be reachable within the magic 30m.
With a late start we can’t wait for low water. After a trip back to Rock to grab some lunch and exchange divers, we’re soon off again for a drift along Newland Island, one of several rocks and islands between Trevose Head and the Mouls.
Closest to Trevose Head, on the Quies rocks, the wreck of the steamship Runswick is a dive that Steve sometimes combines with the Sphene when the RIB has a mixed load. The Runswick bottoms out at 21m, and slack is just over an hour earlier, enabling less-experienced divers to get a wreck in before the more advanced dive on the Sphene.
With yet another cargo of coal from South Wales, the 3060-ton Runswick almost survived a torpedo from UB109 on 18 April, 1918, and was under tow before the cables parted and the Runswick drifted onto the rocks.

THE BACK OF NEWLAND island is busy with other boats. It seems to be the turning point for most tripper boats from Padstow, and also popular with charter angling boats.
Fortunately the anglers are further offshore, so we can drop in on a mark and drift past walls decorated with gorgonians and anemones, mostly sheltered from the current by gullies that run across the tide.
It’s a drift where, on a good day, no SMB is needed. Steve predicts where we will pop up, and after half an hour we’re close to the predicted location.
To finish the day, we’re not alone in appreciating beer and pub food at the Pityme Inn. Another group of divers, across from Falmouth for the day, have been exploring a recently discovered wreck further along the coast.
Details of the wreck are still a secret – but not the tales of dolphins circling for 20 minutes as they decompressed.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Follow the M5 to Exeter, then the A30 to Launceston, then the A395 to Camelford and A39 to Wadebridge, then the B3314 to Rock. Harlyn Dive School is almost two miles up the hill in Pityme, by the Rock Marine boatyard.
DIVING & AIR: Harlyn Dive School, 01208 862556, www.harlyndiveschool.co.uk.
ACCOMMODATION: There are plenty of options from camping to self-catering cottages, B&B and hotels. During the main season many are reluctant to accept bookings for less than a week.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Charts 1149, Pendeen to Trevose Head; 1168, Approaches to Padstow and 1156, Trevose Head to Hartland Point. Ordnance Survey Map 200, Newquay, Bodmin and Surrounding Area. Dive The Isles of Scilly and North Cornwall, by Richard Larn and David McBride.