Divernet

Northern Ireland occupies a particularly warm spot in my diving memories. The last time I was here was almost 10 years ago, when some friends and I spent a week on Rathlin Island with the late Tommy Cecil. One of them wrote about feeding the conger eels on the wreck of the Templemore, borrowed some of my photographs, and sent it in to Diver.
Friends had been suggesting that I try to get photographs published for a while, but I had never got round to it. The editor liked the article and the rest, as they say, is history (Invasion of the Goody Snatchers, April 1996, Simon Williams).
Anyway, on the end of that trip we had a free day between finishing at Rathlin and catching the ferry home, so we drove south to Strangford Lough and did a couple of dives with Dave and Tony Vincent, who run DV Diving.
It was good enough to convince me that I wanted to do more in the Strangford area, but thats diving - sometimes it takes a while to get round to getting back.
Fond memories return as Dave Vincent drives the RIB further into Strangford Lough, past a familiar wreck that pokes out of the water. Its known locally as Lees Wreck, after the breakers yard to which it was heading when it ran aground. Further into the lough is another wreck I had dived last time round, though its name has changed over the intervening years.
Until a few years ago it had been known as the Alasdair, a classic 1930s motor yacht owned by the Guinness family and requisitioned by the Admiralty during World War Two (readers may have been wondering how long it would take me to mention the black stuff). After the war, the Alasdair lay rotting at its moorings for a while, then caught fire and sank.
Well, that was the story until April 2004, when members of Queens University SAC, who had been surveying the wreck, proved that it was in fact the Alastor, a slightly larger yacht originally built for the aircraft designer Sir Thomas Sopwith in 1929.
From that point on the story is much the same. The Alastor was requisitioned by the Admiralty, then caught fire and sank at its mooring in Ringhaddy Sound in March 1946. The Alasdair ended up somewhere in the Mediterranean.
In such sheltered water, the Alastor is remarkably intact. Even the funnel stands upright, though wooden decks have decayed and the wheelhouse has fallen in to the main salon below.
With a maximum depth of 21m, I get a good long dive without having to mess about with decompression and see all the wreck. Its an enjoyable and pretty warm-up with lots of colourful marine life clinging to the hull.
The Alastor is also accessible as a shore dive, which overall makes it quite a popular training location with local clubs and dive schools.
Back at Portaferry we unload. The flatbed ferry runs a haywire course across the swirling narrows to Strangford, skewing against a current that tries to spin it out of control and out to sea. I had caught another ferry, the very convenient Norse Merchant, from Liverpool to Belfast the day before - but only just. First, I had set my alarm clock for 5pm rather than 5am, though luckily had woken up at 5.30 anyway. Then I had missed my turning on the M6. Then I had taken the wrong turning off the M53 and wound my way through the centre of Birkenhead before finding my way to the dock. Its an eight-hour crossing, but much the easiest option (depending, of course, on whereabouts your journey begins).
Heading out of Strangford Lough and offshore, our next wreck is the Bangor, a name burned into my memory by Mat and Adam, divers who have been coming here for years. Didnt We Have A Lovely Time The Day We Went To Bangor was a song Mat that says marred his education; his schoolteacher left to front the band that made it a hit, though maybe she was singing about the Welsh rather than the Irish Bangor.
Mat or Adam sing the first few words now and then. Its a song we all hate and one of those that sticks in your mind. Just a few bars before the dive and it rattles round my brain for the next hour.
Didnt we have a lovely time... I get to the bottom of the line, which is tied to the end of the crankshaft. Others are doing training exercises beside the engine, stirring up the silt, so I head forward past the boiler to the holds, and blocks of Portland stone that had been destined for the building of Stormont.
The bow used to be upright, but is now bent and broken to port. A beautiful day, we had lunch on the way... I suspect the final straw was a trawler dragging into it, as a lot of net is still tangled over a winch a little further back.
The silt has cleared from the two-cylinder compound engine. Further back, the wreck disappears into a few scraps of metal on a low rocky reef. Dave had mentioned that the stern had been broken apart to salvage the propeller.
Then it dawns on me that at 340 tons the Bangor was a rear-engine coaster, so there wouldnt be much behind the engine to find. And all for under a pound... I find the line tied to the end of the crankshaft and ascend.

red wine good
Tony takes the boat out for a late dive on Lees Wreck. I had dived the stern section last time here and it was a pretty dive that I would like to repeat, but I really need an early night. So I stay in the flat above the dive centre for a lazy evening.
In the morning I am bright and breezy again as we head offshore to the Hunsdon, a regular 2900 ton steamship torpedoed in October 1918, right at the end of WW1.
At low-water slack the seabed is at 38m. The buoy line is tied to the cross-piece of the forward mast which, having fallen forwards, puts me next to the bow.
The wreck is generally the right way up, though the bow and some sections of hull are folded to port.
It takes me 35 minutes to work my way back past the engine to the gun at the stern and then return to the forward mast and the line to ascend.
During 30 minutes of decompression I muse over another tongue-in-cheek gem from Mat and Adam. If red wine is good for the blood pressure and the heart, why shouldnt it be good for decompression
Last night they had been enjoying just a glass or two - in Bangor. Then on the sand we heard a brass band... Too late, its that song again for the rest of the stops.
Saturday is Cup Final day and DV Diving has no divers booked, so Tony arranges for me to join Aquaholics dive centre on the north coast for a day at Rathlin. Before I depart, he advises me of the best route to avoid the traffic - north to Bangor, then follow the coast road to the motorway and then north.
Elsie and me had one cup of tea... forms an annoyingly familiar pattern in my mind as I drive.
At Ballycastle, club RIBs are launching one after another, a chore I avoid as Richard arrives and collects Aquaholics RIB from its berth in the marina. Surface conditions are perfect, and above the Lochgarry there are even a couple of boats over from Scotland.
The Lochgarry was a MacBraines ferry serving the Western Isles of Scotland before being requisitioned as a government transport in WW2. Its sinking in January 1942 resulted from navigational error rather than enemy action. The Lochgarry drove straight into rocks off the Mull of Kintyre, then drifted across to Rathlin Island before sinking.
The Mull of Kintyre is visible on the horizon as buddy pairs take turns to kit up and haul their way down the buoyline. I go in last, so that more of the other boats divers will be finishing by the time Im on the wreck. With the current starting to pick up, any silt they have stirred up should be clearing by then.
But it turns out that the buoyline isnt a buoyline. We put together a likely scenario after the dive. Since Aquaholics had last dived it earlier in the week, someone must have tied up to Richards buoy and broken the line near where it was tied in to the wreck.
Ever considerate, they had attached a small shotweight onto the broken end and dropped it back accurately onto the wreck. But no-one on our boat had known that a well tied-in line had been replaced by one which the slightest tug would dislodge.
I follow a seemingly endless snail-trail which the shot has left in the sand to the jagged dent below the bow of the Lochgarry. On the way I find an Aladin dive computer, so check the display to see what sort of dive its been having. With barnacles growing on it, I am not that surprised to find the battery is dead. (If its yours, I left it with DV Diving).
Visibility is good without being stunning, the sun is out and there is plenty of colour. I refresh my mind about bits I remember from previous dives and learn more. The main difference is at the stern. It used to stand intact with gun mount, minus gun, pointing to the surface, but has now broken and collapsed to aft and starboard, the gun-mount skewed at a wild angle.
The afternoon dive is less crowded. We return to Ballycastle for air and to let a couple of divers off to catch the football. Leaving the harbour, two RIBs are diving the Templemore, but on Rathlins North Wall no other boats are in sight.
Richard briefs us on how to find a pair of submerged arches, then drops us in just right to follow the wall down to the shallower arch at 25m, then drift 10m or so west to the deeper arch which opens out at 35m.
Its the shallower arch that is more impressive, a flying buttress extending from the wall covered in dead mens fingers, anemones and hydroids. Below the second arch the visibility, which had been a bit planktony, begins to clear.
The wall looks as if it could go on forever. On the chart the seabed is at 188m, making this one of the deepest submerged walls in the British Isles.
For a diver, as long as it drops 10m deeper than you can see or dive, it may as well be bottomless.
Back south, just past Lees Wreck, its time for a scenic dive. A small peninsula continues out to form a shallow reef over which the current would normally be boiling. At the end of this is a drop-off that slopes to 60m.
Inshore, divers are getting ready on the beach to dive the bow section of Lees Wreck as part of a BSAC Open Water Instructors course. We have a half-hour wait before the outgoing current drops to a trickle and Tony judges the time to be right. During the dive the current will turn, and by the time we release delayed SMBs to ascend, we will be drifting with the incoming tide.
The marine life covering the steep rocky slope is similar to that at Rathlin: dead mens fingers, anemones and hydroids. Patrolling this are plenty of small wrasse, but only a few of the larger species. Perhaps the current is just too strong for them, with nowhere to hide between periods of slack water.
Finishing my film on a butterfish, I pop my delayed SMB and surface pretty much where we started. Other divers SMBs are all up within a small area, except for one which is as far away as Lees Wreck, though drifting towards us as the surface current is now coming in.
It seems that the diver went deep and was caught by a strong outgoing current below 50m, although the water above was slack.

singing a few of our favourite songs
Its always nice to finish a trip on something really good, and the 3800 ton Neotsfield fills the role. Rather than keeping the RIB in the Portaferry marina overnight, it is recovered and launched from Ballywalter, directly inshore from the wreck.
As is the norm for wrecks on this trip, the Neotsfield is buoyed, the line attached to the starboard side of the wreck just aft of the superstructure.
At 48m to the seabed, I am enjoying a bit of helium in the mix, though the wreck is diveable on air.
I work my way aft to have a look at the stern and gun, then forward along the port side until it becomes broken by torpedo damage. The Neotsfield was torpedoed in September 1918, just a month before the Hunsdon. Crossing the break to the superstructure, I give it a quick onceover before continuing to the bow to take in the detail.
Hanging on my delayed SMB, I add a few more notes to my slate. I have the overall wreck, but need some more detail of the central part of the superstructure.
Singing a few of our favourite songs as the wheels went around... My mind wanders back to that wretched song. There must be a rugby version that would be more fun to decompress to.

Loading
Loading the RIB at Portaferry
The
The archway of the North Wall of Rathlin
The
The Bangor was carrying Portland stone, destined for building Stormont
Dave
Dave Vincent at the end of a dive
The
The forward hold of the Lochgarry was filled with chain to prevent recovery of munitions.
The
The lighthouse at the north-west corner of Rathlin is built halfway down the cliff. Any higher on a bad day, it would be obscured by low cloud
Railing
Railing at the bow of the Lochgarry
Tony
Tony Vincent at the helm

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: John Liddiard travelled with Norse Merchant Ferries Liverpool (Birkenhead) to Belfast service, 0870 600 4321, www.norsemerchant.com.
DIVING, AIR & ACCOMMODATION: DV Diving, 02891 861686 /464671, www.dvdiving.co.uk; Aquaholics, 028 70832584, www.aquaholics.org.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Charts 2156, Strangford Lough; 2093, Southern Approaches to North Channel; 2798, Lough Foyle to Sanda Island Including Rathlin Island. Shipwrecks of the Irish Coast, Vols 1 & 2 by Edward J Bourke. Shipwrecks of the Ulster Coast by Ian Wilson. The Harsh Winds of Rathlin by Tommy Cecil. Underwater Ireland, Irish Underwater Council. Irish Wrecks Online by Randall Armstrong, www.irishwrecksonline.net.