Kindly tides of the Channel
But you need a dayboat skipper who knows the score - so we asked Eastbourne-based DAVID RONNAN to explain all, by taking us to dive six top wrecks in four days out!
Photos by SYLVIA PRYER
TO DIVE AN AREA WITH A HUGE number of wrecks from all eras in depths from 20 to 50m, the more slack water we have the better.
And operating in the south-east English Channel between Beachy Head and Dungeness, we’re lucky enough to enjoy special tidal conditions that we can use to our advantage.
This is because here, and from Fecamp to Cap Griz Nez on the French side, we are subject to tides from both the Channel and the North Sea, which are connected only by the narrow Dover Straits.
These two counter-flowing sets of tides meet at, and probably formed, the sandspit of Dungeness Point, and carved out the rocky headland of Cap Griz Nez.
This means that we can take advantage of a third mid-tide “East” slack in addition to the slacks at both low and high water.
This gives us opportunities for two-wreck dive days, and also provides an area with a long slack on big spring tides.
I’d encourage all divers to learn more about chartwork and tides, and it’s always worth talking to a diving skipper on longer passages to and from the dive-site. I know I’m always happy to discuss why and how certain wrecks suit certain days…
Eastbourne’s Sovereign Harbour Marina is an ideal base from which to exploit this “1 port, 3 slacks, 2 wrecks” feature, which gives rise to what are probably unique dive plans…
Two-Wreck Dive Days
East & Low Plan
(four-hour surface interval)
The first dive is 15-20 nautical miles SE of Eastbourne to catch the mid-tide slack, and the second due south of Eastbourne on the following low-water slack. The first dive can be as long as required, so this plan typically suits one in the 35-40m range.
High & East Plan
(two-hour surface interval)
The first dive is SW of Eastbourne at high-water slack and the second towards the east of Eastbourne on the mid-tide slack. First dives need to be limited to one hour, so this is best for wrecks shallower than 35m.
One-Wreck Dive Days
(Long Slack – Spring Tide)
To the SE of Eastbourne the mid-tide slacks range from HW+0.5 hours to HW+2 hours. The further east, the later the slack. These balance tides give a long diveable mid-tide slack of 1-2 hours high-water Dover at around mid-day, providing a good long “no-limits” wreck dive on a spring tide without divers being swept off the wreck or drifting for a long way on their decompression stop. It’s best suited to the wrecks in the 40-50m range.
Low Water Plan
(Long Slack – Neap Tide)
Though it’s not unique to find a decent slack on a neap tide, the area SW of Eastbourne is ideal for mid-Channel dives at this time. Again, slack is around mid-day and it’s also at low water, maximising bottom time. This is often used for offshore wrecks in the 40-60m range.
East & Low Plan:
War Monarch & Heathpool
Today we’re taking advantage of the two slacks from Eastbourne that are about five hours apart to get a memorable day’s wreck-diving
OUR FIRST DIVE IS the War Monarch, a huge WW1 collier lying in a maximum of 40m on the mid-tide East slack. With a longer surface interval there are no limits to dive durations, and we expect to be on site for around two hours.
It’s about 16 nautical miles to the wreck from Eastbourne’s Sovereign harbour, and we leave the marina locks just before high water. For the first 13 miles we follow the coast past Hastings and clear of Fairlight cliff in shallow water of about 20m.
Once clear of the Shingle bank the depth drops to 40m and the skipper can see how much the tide has picked up as we cross into the “east zone”, and let divers know whether to expect to dive on arrival or wait half an hour or so.
The shot lands towards the stern, and at about 30m we land on the wreck itself. The stern, a good 10m proud, is covered with soft corals and dead men’s fingers. The winches and working gear in this area are covered in white growth.
Atop the stern is the gun-mount with the rudder and propeller-shaft end below. Dropping inside the wreck, we follow the internal propeller-shaft forwards and come to what looks like a small boiler (in fact a condenser) with a huge duct leading to another cylindrical structure.
There is no sign of a typical steamship engine’s V-shape, however, because the War Monarch had a 2600hp steam turbine. This was a very hi-tec engine in WW1 and usually reserved for naval vessels but it was used to move this new 7887-ton collier, built in the USA in 1917 for war service and operated by Cunard.
Swimming forward of the turbine and squeezing though a small compartment with an engineer’s pillar-drill and vice, we again come into the open, right in front of the house-sized main boilers.
Continuing forward, though aware of our bottom-time and decompression penalty, we go though the huge hold.
Most of the hull-plating has gone, leaving a mass of steel beams that resembles an oversized jungle gym. The massive mast lies to one side.
We reach a more substantial hull section, with patches of different-coloured jewel anemones reflecting our torchlight.
Finally we visit the bow on the starboard side. Finning over to the exposed side and backing away from the wreck, you can make out the letters WAR MON from the tip of the bow before the hull splits open.
With such an easy way to identify the wreck, it’s a puzzle as to why we all used to dive her as the Rydall Hall, a large ore-carrier sunk two months earlier in the same area. It’s taken more than 20 years of diving to see the obvious, and now if we’re at the bow we give the letters a bit of a polish so that everyone can see them.
We leave the bow and deploy our DSMBs. On the decompression stop we can hear traffic in the South/West Dover TSS shipping lane but know that the slight tide runs parallel to it – we have the separation zone and three Trinity House buoys directly between us and the lane, so no worries there.
Back on board, we have about a four-hour interval before the next dive at low water, and a 12 nautical mile steam to the second site. There’s plenty of time to get drinks made and cylinders hooked up for filling before leaving the site, and a leisurely journey towards the Sovereign Light Tower means that we arrive about 30 minutes before slack, and can take our pick of wrecks in the area.
We can even do the largest wreck in Sussex, the Cunard Line’s Alaunia, as a second dive, but on this occasion we pick the older and shallower Heathpool about half a mile away.
THE SHOT LANDS CLOSE to the collapsed bow, and we arrive on its starboard side and explore beneath it, where there are a number of lobsters and crabs, and one now slightly dazzled conger eel.
The wreck seems a bit small for a 975-ton collier. Ah, wait, here’s the anchor again – we’ve gone round in a circle!
Heading back along the hull, we come to a split and follow a trail of debris. After a few metres a dark shape appears – the rest of the wreck.
Inside the main hull is the single boiler and tall rectangular shape of the early two-cylinder compound engine. As usual the exposed boiler-tubes are high-density accommodation for crustaceans and there’s a small eel too, but slowing to look we can see that the boiler is full of tompot blennies. Despite their jovial appearance they are extremely territorial – not so good in a high-rise block!
One swims from its hole and is soon facing off with another larger blenny. It is pushed away and is now in someone else’s back garden and is pushed off again.
So it goes on, round and round, as if there’s one too many tompots for the area and one has to be evicted. I could watch for hours!
On the less-crowded side of the ship, we find a four-bladed iron propeller, presumably the spare. We soon find our way to the stern, with the main non-ferrous prop still attached, two blades exposed and the others well-buried.
Picking a shallower and smaller wreck means that this time we’ve seen the whole ship in a dive and don’t need a long hang. But there are many other pairs of wrecks, including some recently surveyed unknown marks, that suit the East & Low plan.
The 40m seabed range gives access to the most impressive wrecks in the area, and a bit of local knowledge can tailor the day to suit the group.
High & East Plan:
HMT Dagon & Ladoga (Miraflores)
Today we’re taking advantage of the two slacks from Eastbourne that are only about three hours apart to do two great wreck-dives and be home for tea – or a cheeky one in any of the harbour pubs.
OUR FIRST DIVE is HMT Dagon, a 250-ton WW1 armed trawler lying in a maximum of 30m. High-water slack is ideal to make the most of the maximum one-hour total dive time, allowing us to reach the second wreck in time, and with a decent surface interval.
Dagon is only 38m long but has everything you want to see in a dive – bow and anchors, boiler, engine, gun, stern and propeller. Descending the shot, the bow, lying on its starboard side, comes into view. It’s open and there’s space to look inside. Our torch-beams disturb a lobster, which retreats further into the bow.
We move a few metres sternwards though a cloud of bib and pout, and the boiler comes into view. The Dagon had a beam of 7m, so the boiler filled most of the vessel, with room only for a few pipes and presumably a skinny ship’s engineer to fit down either side. There certainly isn’t space for a fully equipped diver.
Swimming over the boiler, we can see the gun-barrel. It looks like another steampipe until you make out the breach facing upwards and the barrel pointing down towards the port side.
Just behind the boiler we come to the small 85hp triple-expansion engine, its typical V-form flaring out towards the stern. We drop over the end of the stern down the rudder to the propeller.
Once there is a little current the larger fish, usually pollack, line up into tide until spooked by our torch-beams.
There is plenty of time to circumnavigate the wreck and return to the bow down either side, and those on either an appropriate nitrox or rebreather can use the extra bottom-time to focus on the details of this small but perfectly formed wreck, or take in a larger view of either bow or stern.
The one-hour duration now seems a bit short, but adding our decompression penalty to our current bottom-time, we decide it’s time to go.
With all divers onboard and the shot/grapple recovered, it’s all go during the 12-nautical-mile steam to the Ladoga.
Those with second cylinders swap them over while the others are being filled. CCR divers drink their tea and look smug (as long as all’s OK with the unit), lunchboxes are found and the deck resounds to “Did you see..?” and “Guess what X did…!” – the usual post-dive banter.
We arrive with a surface interval of about 90 minutes already. The shot is deployed, and the line and buoy indicate that the wreck is already diveable, but slack will last for the next hour or so.
There’s no rush if we want to get to the “traditional” full two-hour interval.
THE LADOGA OR MIRAFLORES collided with another Spanish steamer in 1903. For many years we dived it as “The Spaniard” or unknown DS355, from its number in my edition of Dive Sussex. Then in May 2010 we thought we had managed to find some more clues to its identity from a cup found by a diver on his first sea-dive.
The bottom was marked “Wedgwood of Etruria & Barlaston – Made in England – Specially made for the New Zealand Shipping Co Ltd”.
As the Wedgwood Barlaston factory opened in 1940 and the Etruria factory closed in 1950, the cup was made between those years, leading us to think that the wreck was a WW2 casualty.
New Zealand Shipping Co records revealed no WW2 losses in the area or unaccounted-for vessels, but the mystery was solved in 2012 when the bell was recovered.
So how did a cup made for a shipping line in the 1940s ends up on a wreck that sank in 1903? Was it some sort of time-travel paradox; was the cup dropped on the wreck; or was it placed there by a buddy to make a diver’s first sea-dive memorable?
All we know is that at just over 20m deep this wreck makes the ideal second dive for the short surface interval.
Descending the shot, we make out the outline of the wreck, which has collapsed and sits 1 or 2m proud of the seabed.
Boilers, condenser-linings and engine are the most recognisable features, but there’s lots to explore on and around this 85m, 2260-ton vessel.
Its location high on an offshore sand ridge makes it a magnet for sea life and a nursery area for many fish species, which all seem to come to shoal in tiny-, small- and medium-sized versions. Off the sides we have tubeworm seafans, hermit and swimming crabs and some hard coldwater Ross corals.
A half-hour into our dive, as we explore the bow identified by the anchors and their hawsers, we feel a little bit of tide pick up. It drops again, but we know when it picks up for a second time, running back west to Eastbourne, that it’s time to deploy our DSMBs.
It’s about two hours back to Eastbourne, time to reflect on two great wreck-dives instead of a wreck and a drift.
There are may other pairs of wrecks, including some recently surveyed unknown marks that suit the High & East plan in the 25-35m seabed range.
Arriving at just after midday, the wreck is shotted. The tide running east starts to slacken, and by 12:30 it’s ready for the first divers.
The shot has landed in the stern hold at round 40m, just behind the engine and among a huge pile of ammunition crates. We don’t see any phosphorus, but are mindful not to touch anything that looks like a cheese-wedge.
We head to the stern first, down to 45m, then work our way back up to the deck and bow at 35m to the top.
There is little current and good visibility, with overhead natural light from the midday sun reflecting off the sandy seabed next to the wreck.
This devastated area is where a torpedo fired from UB57 struck on the morning of 14 February 1918, sinking the Carlisle Castle. We once thought that the stern had been totally blown off, until under the wreckage we found the remains of the propeller and rudder.
We head though the pout, bib, larger pollack and a few cod towards the back of the engine. It’s triple-expansion but we count four cylinders on this 421hp power plant.
Going over the engine to around 35m rather than the long swim-through, we’re on the upright deck where the bridge and accommodation have collapsed over the years.
There are still lots of small items, broken crockery and cutlery bearing the Union Castle logo. There are also cargo-winches, the remains of masts and a ladder to nowhere.
As we move towards the bow, the wreck twists and starts to lean down on the port side. The bow area is open and, swimming inside, the whole area is lit through the holes where the hull-plates have rotted away from the structural ribs.
Back out from the bow, perhaps after a quick look at one of the anchors, it’s time to leave. The long slack tide isn’t the limiting factor, just our own kit, gas choices and human physiology.
Coming back into Eastbourne we see the boilers of the Barnhill on the approach to the now much narrower channel. The tide has exposed the lower mudbanks in the outer harbour, and a couple of resident seals are hauled up on the banks, marked out by their rusty red colour.
Spring or Neap Tide – Does it Matter?
The obvious answer is yes: Spring not so good, neap better. But diving from Eastbourne the answer is no, if you know where to go.
Spring: Go east and use the mid-tide slack ranging from Dover High Water +0.5 to + 2.5.
Neap: Go west, use the mid-day low-water slack and get out to the mid-channel.
Let’s compare two typical one-wreck-dive days from Eastbourne on a big spring and a small neap, which as normal will be about a week apart.
It’s a summer Saturday with a big spring tide with a range of more than 7m at Dover and high water at 12 noon. Why are we diving on such a big tide? Surely there will be little slack and poorer vis? Perhaps in some parts of the Channel, but diving from Eastbourne skippers know better.
We plan to dive the Carlisle Castle, a WW1 liner and troopship that marks the start of the mid-tide East Slack, expected at 12:30pm there. Further down the coast off Dungeness Point it would be up to two hours later.
We leave Eastbourne in the 10:30 lock, busy at this time of day and year. We rise from marina level about 2m to sea level and steam out of the channel almost at its widest and deepest.
Missing ---Arriving at just after midday………………………
A week and a day later on a Sunday, it’s a neap tide with a range of only 3.3m at Dover. Low-water slack is at around 1pm towards the south and west of Eastbourne. We take advantage of the small tide and the mid-day low-water slack to head for the wreck of the Persiana, some 18 nautical miles out in the central separation zone.
CROSSING THE SHIPPING LANE, we arrive at just after mid-day in good time to shot the wreck. The diving skippers know that the tide turns earlier on the wreck than on the surface, so it’s good to be here a bit early, The first divers are dropped in with the current on the surface still running a bit to the west.
When she sank, this 105m, 4000-ton cargo ship was named the Rio Parana, but was positively identified by a bell bearing its previous name of Persiana. This is one of my favourite wrecks, standing upright at least 10m proud in 45m depth.
Dropping down the shot from about 25m we can see the wreck laid out below us, and can make out the huge spare propeller on the deck just behind the engine.
There is the usual mid-Channel prolific fish-life – pollack the size of me, quite a few cod and, this time, a shoal of skittish bass in the stern.
We drop below the deck to explore the cavernous rear hold. Under every piece of wreckage and from anything pipe-like protrudes the head of a conger, some bigger than you’d think possible.
We pop over the stern down the rudder and can fin between the hull and the propeller blades, going with, rather than against, the slight current head-on into the fish.
Swimming off the wreck and alongside the vertical hull we’re struck by the colours illuminated by our torches – patches of jewel anemones, with yellow giving way to green to purple to blue and back to red and clearly defining the boundary of each type. This has to be one of the Channel’s most vibrant wrecks.
The hull side abruptly stops. The bow is completely flattened in 45m, and you can only tell that it’s a bow by the anchors and hawsers on the seabed.
Turning at the bow we take the swim-through back inside the wreck and past the top of the boiler back up to the deck to start our ascent.
So, spring or neap, it doesn’t matter in this area as long as you know which way to go. Both will give you huge impressive upright wrecks and diveable slack of at least 1.5 hours and enough bottom-time for even the keenest CCR diver. We can get two waves of divers, each doing 45-50 minutes total run-times, with ease.
However go west on a spring or east on a neap, and it’s a different story!
Dive Operators: Dive125, www.dive125.co.uk. Sussex Shipwrecks, www.sussexshipwrecks.co.uk. Channel Diver (visitor), www.channeldiving.com
Dive Shops: Sovereign Aquatrek, www.sovereignaquatrek. co.uk. Newhaven Scuba Centre, scubadiving-brighton.co.uk
Marina: Premier Marinas, Sovereign Harbour Eastbourne, www.premiermarinas.com. RIB launching/recovery by boat-hoist at Sovereign Marina (Tue- Sat). Alternative launching at Simpson Marine, Newhaven, www.simpson-marine.co.uk
Dive Club: Sovereign Divers, sovereigndivers.org
Chart: GB536 Beachy Head to Dungeness.