Divernet

We round the Needles lighthouse and change course towards the south-east. About a mile on, it looks as if another boat half a mile off the starboard bow is heading for the same wreck.
One of the attractions of the area to the south of the Isle of Wight is that it is probably the least-dived stretch of our English Channel coast. All that sea, all those wrecks, so few dive boats, and the only other dive boat in sight on this bright and sunny Sunday afternoon is heading for the same dive site. Perhaps Loki, the Norse god of mischief, is also the god of diving.
We are on the dive boat Wight Spirit, motoring out of Lymington and west along the Solent. Our target is the wreck of the Molina, a 1122 ton Norwegian steamship torpedoed by UB35 on 22 January 1918.
I busy myself reading the wreck file of skipper Dave Wendes, quizzing him on specific details and making some notes of my own before the dive. I am interested in the general disposition of the wreck and what to look for and photograph, so that I dont miss anything important.
Dave consults the members of the group, who all come from the Hampshire Police diving club except me and a couple of divers from Yarmouth. We can either dive with another boat on the wreck, or change plan and get a nearby wreck to ourselves. Knowing that I have already dived the salvage tug Witte Zee (Wreck Tour 24, January 2001), he suggests the armed trawler Warwick Deeping.
It is at 34m, pretty much the same depth, so dive plans dont need to change. None of us has dived it before, and the promise of guns and depth charges is alluring.

Sometimes on a new wreck it takes me a while to get a feel for where I am. This isnt a problem on the Warwick Deeping, as the shot is across the remains of the superstructure, and just below it is the greenhouse-like structure of an obvious engine-room ventilation hatch. But it does take me a while to work out that the canted pillars with cups on top and pistons on the side are depth-charge catapults.
The Warwick Deeping was a steam trawler taken over by the Admiralty in World War Two for anti-submarine duties. Throughout the dive I find depth charges lined up beside the superstructure and scattered about the ship.
Overall the wreck is in pretty good condition, considering that it was sunk by gunfire from German destroyers on the night of 11 October 1940 - testimony to the strength of the trawler hull, designed to withstand the worst of weather.
Other armaments include the pedestal and mount for an anti-aircraft gun fallen beside the superstructure, and a complete 4in gun lying on one side across the bow.
Its an ideal dive for the usual mix of club experience: small enough that a quick tour can be achieved within a no-stop dive, yet with plenty of detail to interest those who want to stay longer.

For a second dive we head inshore to the War Knight, a massive 7951 ton steamship sunk on 25 March 1918. The wreck has since been extensively salvaged and broken further by storms. Nevertheless, the outline of the ship is still obvious on the seabed and the point of interest for me remains reasonably intact, a pair of steam turbines geared to the propeller shaft.
Turbine-driven merchant ships are unusual, turbines being more powerful but less fuel-efficient than more conventional reciprocating steam engines. I would guess that in the War Knights case, built in wartime as an armed merchantman, efficiency was sacrificed for speed.
The sinking of the War Knight was a confusion of errors that only loosely involved a U-boat at the very end.
Steaming in a convoy with 16 other ships, an order from the lead ship to change course was confused and the War Knight turned directly into the side of the tanker OB Jennings. Naphtha oil streamed from the side of the Jennings and poured over the War Knight before bursting into flames.
Both ships were abandoned by their crews and taken in tow. Off the Needles, the War Knight then struck a mine laid by UC17, eventually sinking in 12m just outside Freshwater Bay.
The OB Jennings was towed to Sandown, where the Royal Navy used a torpedo to sink her and extinguish the fire. She was subsequently salvaged and joined a westbound convoy, only to be torpedoed and sunk 100 miles out from New York.
Other points of interest on the War Knight include three large boilers forward of the turbines, then the intact chain-locker at the bow, with anchor winch and hawse pipes lying to either side. In the other direction the intact propeller shaft leads through a thrust bearing and tunnel to the stern, where the rudder can be found just clear of the wreck.

The next mornings wreck is something of a mystery. A couple of miles south of the Needles, it is most likely the Clyde, a small 307 ton 1880s vintage steamship carrying lead ore.
The Clyde struck the breakwater at Portland while leaving harbour and subsequently sank off the Isle of Wight on 25 May 1902.
Daves reasoning behind this identification is based on a bell recovered a few years ago. It had five indistinguishable letters where the ships name should be, and the two-cylinder compound steam engine and single boiler correspond to the machinery fitted to the Clyde.
From Daves research, other less likely possibilities are the Flaxmos, which was carrying granite, and the Spyros, carrying coal. Both were also built in the 1880s and similarly sized, but there are no traces of granite or coal in the holds, while lead ore could easily be dispersed on the gravel seabed.
Before this identification the wreck had also been referred to as the Reindeer; somewhat confusing as another wreck in the area referred to as the Reindeer turned out to be the armed trawler Albion II, which sank after hitting a mine on 13 January 1916, and was again identified by the ships bell.

The dive lives up to the skippers promise. It is certainly a very pretty wreck, generally intact, with many ribs exposed where hull plates have rotted or fallen away, all covered in dead mens fingers and big shoals of bib patrolling the gaps.
The compound engine is intact and upright. The single boiler is of a correspondingly old design with a dustbin-sized steam reservoir above, the rotted sides providing home for more bib.
At the bow a pair of traditionally shaped anchors rest inside the ship where the deck has collapsed, the anchor winch having fallen sideways and almost standing on one end. At the stern the propeller is still in place, though only one of the four blades remains. The rudder post is just tacked onto the back, with none of the overhanging stern common on more modern ships.
Whatever the name, at least Dave will know which wreck youre on about if you want to dive it.
For a second dive we again head inshore, this time for a drift along a reef from High Down to Old Pepper Rock. There arent any wrecks, but this stretch used to be a torpedo test range and in the past divers have found brass remains of torpedo motors. Needless to say, on any single dive the chances of finding shiny torpedo parts are negligible.
I find the edge of the reef quite relaxing for a one-off dive, but wouldnt be first in line to dive it again. Most of the other divers surface very happy, with dinner in their hands.
If I was diving it again I would take a macro lens. There is certainly plenty of small marine life encrusting the rocks.
For day three a deeper dive is planned on the Cuba, an 11,420 ton liner torpedoed by U1195 on 6 April 1945. Alas, the weather conspired against us. Overnight the wind picked up and there was no way we would be diving that far round the Isle of Wight. With the sea state deteriorating, even prospects of a dive in the Solent didnt look that promising.

The target for my final day is the Fenna, a wooden schooner overcome by a storm on 10 March 1881. Dave had been planning to dive this wreck when I was on Wight Spirit the previous year, only to be turned back by heavy seas as we passed the Needles, then forced away from our fallback site in Alum Bay as the tide turned.
The sea is still a little bit lumpy from the previous days bad weather, but overall it has calmed down remarkably well and we have no trouble reaching the wreck.
Its a most unusual one. The wooden structure of the ship has completely rotted away, leaving nicely stacked cargo spread within the outline of the ship.
Amidships is a big stack of railway lines, layered along and across the wreck, several layers deep. Immediately forward and aft of this are stacked panes of glass, surviving remarkably well without the original wooden packing cases.
The other main cargo was cement, carried in small barrels. Again the wood has rotted away, but not before the cement had set into solid blocks which now lie tumbled forward and aft of the glass, and again at the bow.
The only bits of original ship remaining are the anchor winch at the bow and a few heavy planks just showing through the silt. Perhaps there is more of the hull buried and preserved, but this is not a likely site for a full-scale excavation.
An isolated structure on a muddy seabed at 23m and exposed to strong currents, the wreck is an oasis of marine life. Enormous shoals of bib swarm above the cargo, with numerous conger eels and lobsters filling the holes between and below. Its not a big wreck or a long dive, but makes for a nice relaxed half-hour. Its ideal for newly qualified divers.
To wrap things up, I dive the wreck of the steel-hulled sailing ship Irex, located at a shallow 6m just along from the Needles.
The Irex is a classic story of crew and ship battling against the elements for days on end. The Irex began her maiden voyage from the Clyde, bound for Rio on 10 December 1889. Storms continued with only a short respite over the New Year period. On 23 January, storms slacking slightly, the Irex turned back towards England for repairs. After weeks without proper rest, the Needles lighthouse was mistaken for a pilot light and the Irex sailed into the since-named Irex Rock in Scratchells Bay.
In the subsequent rescue 29 men were hoisted across the sea to the cliff-tops by breeches-buoy, though the ships boy froze to death in the rigging.
The remains of the Irex are flattened. The steel of the wreck, the cargo of pig iron and the ledges of rock are all covered in a dense red kelp, making it difficult to tell just where wreck or cargo ends and the reef continues. Nevertheless, I feel my way round it, scratching away to provide a visual check when I am unsure of whether I am handling metal or rock.

Other than on that first day we meet no other dive boats. Angling boats are few and far between, and even the yachts for which the area is renowned stay clear of the back of the Isle of Wight. On every dive we have the wreck to ourselves, so perhaps we can put that forced diversion on the first day down to the exception that proves the rule.
For a wreckaholic like me, there is plenty of scope to return.

a
a conger living on the Fenna bares its gums
unloading
unloading at the marina floats in Lymington
The
The War Knights propshaft and tunnel
looking
looking up at the bow of the Clyde from the seabed
a
a lobster at home in a barrel of cement on the Fenna
a
a dustbin-sized steam reservoir at the top of the Clydes boiler
Depth-charge
Depth-charge launcher on the Warwick Deeping
one
one of the depth charges
a
a chain locker on the War Knight
panes
panes of glass stacked on the Fenna

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: From the roundabout at the M27 junction 1, turn south on the A337 through Lyndhurst and continue to Lymington. Head towards the town centre until the road takes a sharp right turn uphill to the high street. Rather than go up the high street, continue straight on and follow the road downhill to the river and marinas.
DIVING:Wight Spirit, skipper Dave Wendes, 02380 270390, www.deepsea.co.uk/boats/wightspirit.
AIR:TAL Scuba, Christchurch, 01202 473030.
ACCOMMODATION: The New Forest is a popular tourist area with all levels of accommodation from camping to hotels readily available. For details call 01590 689000, www.thenew forest.co.uk.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2045, Approaches to the Solent. Ordnance Survey Map 196, The Solent & the Isle of Wight. World War One Channel Wrecks, by Neil Maw. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles Vol 2, by Richard & Bridget Larn.