Divernet

I REMEMBER BRIGHTON BEACH FROM DAYS AT THE SEASIDE AS A KID. Any time I got taken to the beach, I insisted on swimming in the waves. Meanwhile my dad would paddle in the shallows. He was never an enthusiast for the water, but would keep a watchful eye on me just in case I got into trouble, all the time, I suspect, cursing that I stayed in for hours and never seemed to get cold.
The only thing that got me out was sand appearing at low water so that I could build a sandcastle.
Nowadays you wouldnt catch me in the sea without at least a wetsuit, if not a drysuit. How things change - though I still enjoy the occasional bit of sandcastle engineering.
All these fond childhood memories, together with later reminiscences of teenage beach parties with friends from school, come back when Diver receives an invitation from Brighton dive-boat skippers.
There are four boats involved, Girl Gray, Grey Viking, Spartacat and Nauticat, with Mike Snelling, skipper of Girl Gray, co-ordinating things. Mike and I compare diaries but, try as we might, we can find dates only where I can dive with three of the four. So I travel to Brighton in the July sunshine for a weekend on Girl Gray, Monday on Spartacat and Tuesday on Nauticat. Grey Viking remains the silent partner in the team.
Loading dive gear at marinas is rarely easy. It usually involves carrying or pushing trolleys along mazes of pontoons to get to the boat. But Mike moves Girl Gray from his berth to a point just below the main ramp. With his key to the barrier, we can drive to within 10m of the boat. The car is then moved back to the multi-storey car park in the corner of the marina complex.
Ashford Dive Club, with which we are sharing the boat, gets off to a bad start. The M20 is closed following an accident and some of its divers are stuck in the traffic jam.
Its perverse that those who were late are warned in time to avoid the jam, while those who would have arrived in plenty of time are stuck on the motorway.
Mike re-checks the tides and delays our departure as late as possible. A couple more cars turn up, and the members still in the jam report that they will be stuck there all day.
The last thing before departure is a boat safety briefing. Skippers are generally up to date on giving a briefing that complies with the latest Maritime & Coastguard Agency procedures, but Mikes briefing is spotless. I suppose its what you would expect of the National Federation of Charter Skippers representative on all the diving safety committees.
He clicks a mouse on the PC display built into the console, and a printer coughs out a briefing sheet detailing the dive site, time, tides, weather, sunrise, sunset, departure time, arrival time and all the general information about life-rafts and emergency procedures.
Mike talks everyone through the briefing notes, finishing with diver exit from the gate in the transom, and recovery on the power-ladder-style lift on the starboard side.
The net result is a thorough briefing, fully documented, both prepared and delivered with minimum hassle. I am inspired to get my own professional diving procedures smartened up.

Our target is the City of Brisbane, a World War One wreck fortunately sheltered from the east by Beachy Head. Though bringing the warm air and bright sunshine, high pressure over the north of the country has also raised a brisk easterly wind straight down the English Channel, pushing dirty water westwards and leaving diving conditions less than ideal.
My preference is always to start at one end of a wreck. It generally makes it easier to get my bearings and enables me to be more systematic in the way I photograph and sketch it, but it can make things more tricky for the skipper.
For the Brisbane, Mike places the shot close to the stern, though with 7138 tons of well-broken steamship and visibility of only 3m it still takes me a few minutes to get my act together.
Everything becomes clear when I meet the rudder post, steering quadrant and stern gun just off the edge in 27m.
Amidships I find a row of three boilers just poking out of the wreckage, though theres no sign of the engine. It could easily have collapsed and been buried beneath steel from the superstructure, or perhaps it is obscured by the tangle of net just behind the middle of the three boilers.
Kendall McDonald reports in Dive Sussex a net draped right across the wreckage, so perhaps this is the same net now tangled amidships, or else the one that I find draped across the broken but still upright bow. No longer pulled up by floats, it simply dangles to the seabed from the starboard side.
It takes me 75 minutes to see all this, and I know that all I have is an overall impression. The Brisbane is a big ship and well-broken. The stern has the gun and steering, the bow is more picturesque, and amidships offers the better opportunity for ferreting around. I suspect that concentrating on one area would be more interesting for most divers.
Our second dive is the almost traditional Sussex coast inshore drift, some shallow chalky ledges at Sailor Rock. Its quite a peasant bimble along, with lots of fish, crabs and plenty of clinging life, though I confess that I cant get as excited about it as I would a wreck.

Sunday is blowing from the east again, possibly a little bit stronger. This could be a problem, as we are heading for the wreck of the Ashford, a little project of the Ashford club (and, incidentally, the subject of next months Wreck Tour).
Lying further offshore, it does not have the shelter of Beachy Head and conditions may be a little too rough to dive.
As a fallback, Mike suggests the Admiralty trawler Lancer or the Clan Macmillan, an armed merchant ship, both World War One casualties. A couple of clicks of the mouse and alternative briefings are printed just in case. In the end, conditions above the Ashford are good enough to allow us to dive.
Visibility is as bad as it was the previous day on the descent, but it clears below 30m to give us a reasonable 7-8m on the wreck.
The 1211 ton Ashford was built in 1881 and sank following a collision in 1906. I always enjoy wrecks of this age, because the engineering is much less uniform than on later ships.
This one has a two-cylinder compound engine and the boilers are an unusual upright design, rather than the almost scotch-type boilers that became pretty much the standard.
Considering that another hardboat and a well-loaded RIB are also diving the site, the wreck is remarkably uncrowded. Save, that is, for a pair of divers from one of the other boats who seem to be in the way no matter in which direction I swim and point my camera. They are barely in control of themselves, taking turns to float up before dumping all buoyancy and crashing back into the wreck in a cloud of silt and debris.
They even land on top of my buddy Helen. Twice. After the dive I thank her for sacrificing herself so valiantly to preserve the visibility.
Still, at least they are obviously not set up for a long dive and are there for only 10 minutes. I know all divers have to learn somewhere, but perhaps this pair should have been somewhere shallower than 40m.
Helen awards Girl Gray the Diver Loo of the Year award. Its spotless, like the rest of the boat, with electric flush, hand-basin and even Classic FM.
Second dive is a 10m drift at Seaford Gullies, 2-3m deep canyons running perpendicular to the shore and current. Marine life is very similar to that at Sailor Rock. There are fewer fish but the overall relief is more interesting.
Back at the marina, we transfer our kit to the pontoon at Girl Grays berth before Mike takes the Ashford club back to the main ramp for easier car access to unload.
Tim Bennetto and Spartacat soon arrive. His weekend divers unload at the berth and our kit is stashed away for the night.

Monday sees quite a relaxed start. The tides are getting later, slack water is after mid-day and our target, the City of Waterford, is less than an hour out from the marina.
Many dive skippers are opting for boats bigger than the usual 10m monohull. A group of 12 divers with twin-sets and deco bottles needs the space. Girl Gray is a 13.1m Aquastar and Spartacat is a very spacious South Boats 11m catamaran. Tim is a popular skipper with the technical groups which make up about 50% of his charters. With just the two of us diving, I almost feel lost on the deck.
I am reminded of an old car advertising campaign about the better equipped starship - I cant remember what it was for. The wheelhouse of Spartacat is reminiscent of the Starship Enterprise. Two large flat-screen displays are set flush into the console, with everything else peripheral to them. The journey out is mostly on autopilot, Tim just keeping watch and nudging the course now and then to avoid other boats.
Arriving over the City of Waterford, the perimeter of the wreck is already recorded and mapped out on the chart-plotter. The shot lands nicely in the middle of the bow.
The 1334 ton City of Waterford was built in 1921 and sank in a collision in 1949. I examine a photograph in Tims boat file. The whole shape of the ship contrasts with that of the earlier Ashford and City of Brisbane. The bow is flush, with no raised forecastle. It looks like two holds forward and one aft, with quite a long superstructure in-between.
Under water, more differences become apparent. Rather than masts, derricks and winches between the forward holds, there is a pair of cranes. I couldnt make these out on the photograph, so perhaps they were fitted after the photograph was taken.
Visibility hasnt changed and the City of Waterford lies just below the murkiest water. Better visibility comes in spurts, though the main limit to visibility is the huge shoals of pout that swarm about the wreck.
While examining the toilet amidships, I almost miss the engine because fish are blocking the view. Helen is closer and draws my attention to it, a smoothly enclosed triple-expansion engine that illustrates the huge advances made in the 40 years since the simple compound engine of the Ashford.
There is less sign of advanced machinery by the remains of the aft hold. A collapsed mast and winch indicate a more conventional derrick system for handling cargo.
Returning amidships, forward again from the engine the superstructure has collapsed and the boiler is just broken tubes with a huge Admiralty pattern anchor splattered in the middle of them. Tim later tells me that the steel superstructure used to be intact 10 or so years ago.

I speculate about the anchor. Its definitely from an era before that of the wreck. Could it have been part of a deliberate move to open up that part of the wreck
Tim thinks it was more likely dumped there by a fishing boat. If a trawler had pulled up an anchor in its nets, the safest place to dump it would have been on a known foul area such as a wreck.
As befits a state of the art dive boat, our return is by a lift platform at the stern.
Back in the marina, Nauticat is a couple of berths further along the pontoon from Spartacat. Its a slightly shorter, though equally spacious, 10m catamaran.
I catch skipper Steve Johnson below deck in the port hull, busy installing plumbing for an on-board compressor. Steve explains that as he is doing more and more cross-Channel trips a compressor on board will give him more flexibility and scope for extended trips off the French coast.
Steve has a planned schedule of midweek dives and Tuesdays is an unknown wreck off Beachy Head in 36m. The boat is full with a mix and match of divers from all over the place, mostly midweek regulars.
The trouble with unknowns is that I cant write anything about their history. This ones dive number is 269 in Dive Sussex and it is often called the Crab Wreck, for obvious reasons.
I am glad that its below 30m again, and hence below the murkiest water. There are definitely two holds forward, well-broken into the sand but clearly separated by a bulkhead.
Next to the bulkhead, a pair of winches are separated by another Admiralty pattern anchor. The habit of dropping unwanted old anchors on wrecks to lose them must be prevalent off this bit of the Sussex coast.
The stern is upright and mostly intact, separated from amidships by, I suspect, just one hold. Some estimates give its size as about 2500 tons, though it feels about half that size to me, about the same as the City of Waterford.
The machinery gives some indications of age. The engine is nicely faired-in, like that of the City of Waterford, though the boilers look older. Being unknown, it is quite likely to have been a WW1 casualty, though there is no sign of a gun.
A wild guess would be a ship from 1900-1918, but I would gladly be proved wrong by a positive identification.
On the way back in we stop for a second dive on the reef south of the Palace Pier. It is part of the general ledges that run all the way along the Sussex coast, the same system as Sailor Rock that I dived on Saturday and have drifted along numerous times while diving from Littlehampton.
About half the divers choose to sit this one out. I must admit that with the prospect of unloading and the journey home, I cant work up enthusiasm for it either - preferring to allow my kit to continue drying.



Mike
Mike Snelling at the controls of Girl Gray
toilet
toilet on the port side amidships on the City of Waterford
Tim
Tim Bennetto, preparing Spartacat for departure
Steve
Steve Johnson is fitting an onboard compressor to Nauticat
pipework
pipework broken apart in the engine-room
The
The bow of the City of Brisbane is upright and broken open
examining
examining the Ashford
a
a tompot blenny by Sailor Rock
A
A shoal of pout swim through the railing on the bow of the City of Waterford
The
The unknown wreck has a four-bladed iron propeller
Edible
Edible crab at Seaford Gullies

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Brighton Marina is east of the town centre, off the A259 to Newhaven and Eastbourne. Check with skippers for loading directions within the marina.
DIVING: Girl Gray, 01273 585000, www.girlgray.com. Spartacat, 01273 586445, www.spartacat.co.uk. Nauticat, 01273 301142, www.channeldiving.com. Grey Viking, 01273 300388, www.grey-viking.demon.co.uk.
ACCOMMODATION: Anything from camping to the Grand Hotel. Tourist information on tourism.brighton.co.uk.
AIR : Wittering Divers Brighton, 185 Portland Road, Hove, 01273 737718. Newhaven Scuba Centre, The Yacht Harbour, West Quay, 01273 612012.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1652, Selsey Bill to Beachy Head. Admiralty Chart 536, Beachy Head to Dungeness. Ordnance Survey Map 198, Brighton & Lewis, Worthing, Horsham & Haywards Heath. Dive Sussex, by Kendall McDonald. World War One Channel Wrecks, by Neil Maw.