Happy days off Dartmouth

SKIPPER ANDY THROTTLES BACK on the RIBs twin inboard diesels and the GPS goes bleep. The echo-sounder is already on and the seabed is sloping down, from 42m to past 50m. The wreck of the Elsa rises back to 38m, a jagged hollow echo of red and white, then we drop over the other side and the seabed starts rising again, soon back at 42m.
Its a peculiar aspect of the wrecks off Dartmouth. On a silty seabed with strong tides, they all sit in enormous scours. In the case of the Elsa, its a 12m-deep scour at the stern that dips to 54m from a quarterdeck at 40m.
Given the bare numbers, it would be easy to get the wrong impression and think that the Elsa only just pokes out of the silt. But on the wreck I soon forget about the figures, because its massive and intact. Looking over the side, the hull disappears down to the limit of our lights and visibility.
Second skipper Tom is crewing for the day and has hooked the shot nicely over the side of the wreck, just aft of amidships. Landing close to a small deckhouse at 39m, it takes me a while to get my bearings.
The wreck is broken in two and I begin by working past a hold and winch gear to find it dropping away. Thinking this is the break, I then turn the other way to find the wreck dropping away again at a far more obvious break.
So it is back to the first direction to realise that the original drop is just 3m to the main deck at the aft hold, and that I had been crossing a shelter deck built above the next-to-aft hold.
Having been less than efficient with the first few minutes of the dive, I settle down to explore and sketch the stern, dropping deep to the propeller, but generally staying shallower than 42m.
By the time we get back to the break I am well into decompression. I am tempted to see if I can complete the forward half, but more realistically it will have to wait for another dive.
I settle for hitting the seabed again to find a pair of boilers half-buried where they had fallen out through a remarkably clean break, then pop my delayed SMB to ascend.
Thirty minutes later we are heading back to Paignton Harbour for lunch and lazing about in the perfect sunshine. At half-throttle it is only 15 minutes away.
I settle for a small ice cream, my stomach still full from the substantial fried breakfast my host Simon had served at the Westgate Hotel.
On the next tide we are heading south past Berry Head again to the Benton Castle, the first of a pair of armed trawlers and the original reason for my being in the area.
Last year when diving the Glocliffe, I had remarked to local diver Steve Mackay that I was quite fond of armed trawlers, and Steve responded that there were a couple of good ones off Dartmouth that I needed to dive. From this seed of an idea, Steve worked with Andy to put together a plan for the brace of trawlers and a few other wrecks in the Dartmouth area.
Being a smaller wreck, the scour round the Benton Castle is not as deep, bottoming out at 43m with the wreck generally at 38m.
Visibility on the Elsa on the other tide had been a low average, but on this tide it is better. Its good enough for my dark-adjusted eyes to see across the wreck and makes navigation easy.

Squidgy blobs
Everything is covered in humongous plumose anemones. With the trawlers smaller features, I am finding it difficult to work out what lies beneath the deep coating of squidge. A blob hanging off the bow is obviously an anchor. Further back, it takes me longer to work out another squidgy blob, which turns out to be a pot-hauler.
The overall wreck leans slightly to port, but the wheelhouse and the trawl winch have collapsed to starboard.
A blob above is the steering engine, minus the ships wheel.
Next afternoon, the Picton Castle has Tom worried. Its a small target, and last time he shotted this wreck it had taken a few drops to get it hooked in to his satisfaction. We spend the journey out winding him up about it, though I am sure any diver would rather a skipper took whatever time was needed to make sure the shot was on the wreck than be too casual and end up missing it. This time the shot is in solid on the second attempt. We have plenty of spare time to kit up before slack.
A couple of metres shallower than the Benton, the Picton Castle has a much greater list to port. From the stern to the wheelhouse is reasonably intact, then forwards the wreck is broken twice before the bow, which has fallen all the way to port. Right at the tip of the bow
I find a lobster that looks old enough to have been there since the wreck went down. Perhaps it is the original ancestor of all the other lobsters on the wreck.
Both Admiralty trawlers were sunk within half a mile of each other, the Benton Castle on 10 November, 1916 and the Picton Castle on 19 February, 1917. Both struck mines while out sweeping and both are liberally covered in anemones.
Yet they are very different wrecks. The Benton Castles wheelhouse is much further forward and there is a second deckhouse aft of the engine towards the stern. Both were listed as armed, though I find no sign of guns.
A day and a bit ago I enjoyed the dive on the Benton Castle; today I am enjoying the Picton Castle. Or perhaps by now it is the helium in my mix making the dive so easy.
In the morning we had been diving further south on the Medina, a huge 12,350 ton P&O liner torpedoed 3 miles east of Start Point on 28 April, 1917. With the seabed at 65m I had swapped from air to more than a third helium in my rebreather diluent. I needed both the helium and the good visibility to get my bearings on a wreck this size.
Taking into account the depth, size and complexity of such a liner, I didnt even attempt to sketch it, settling for taking photographs and simply enjoying the dive, slowly working from amidships past the break to the stern.
Sixty metres above, Andy and Tom enjoyed an oily calm sea - and a sunfish alongside the boat.
Anyway, I was back from the Medina with 160 bar of my diluent left, so an air top-up gave me just under a third helium for the Picton Castle. Finishing late, it is dark by the time I grab some dinner and get back to the Westgate Hotel.
Last night I had time to join host Simon for a barbecue. As an ex-Navy chef, he certainly knows how to feed divers. Simon is also a very enthusiastic diver, though not yet into the deeper decompression stuff. He had been off diving the James Eagan Layne for the day.
Tonight, with just the Picton Castle sketch to finish and a late start planned, I am tired enough to vegetate for a couple of hours before turning in. I leave camera maintenance and scrubber change to the morning.
Departure for the Greatham is a lazy mid-day start. Looking at the chart, Dive South Devon, and World War 1 Channel Wrecks, there is a remarkable density of wrecks along this coast, but the choice of the Greatham is not arbitrary. It is one of Steves favourites, and also ties in nicely with our other large wrecks.
The Medina was torpedoed by UB31 on 28 April, 1917. Elsa was torpedoed by UB31 on 24 January, 1918, and the same U-boat had sunk Greatham just two days earlier. South Devon was a favoured stalking ground of Oberleutnant Bieber.
The shot hooks onto the side of the deck at 38m, just forward of the wheelhouse. Any further forward and it would have fallen into the gap where the torpedo demolished number 2 hold.
Visibility is good enough, but by no means stunning. Orientation is easy, or perhaps its that after another air top-up I still have 25% helium in my diluent. All this helium is spoiling me. I normally wouldnt think twice about using air when most of the dive is at 40m.

Forecastle ferreting
We cross the break forward on the starboard side, then make a quick circuit of the bow. Others stay ferreting about behind the forecastle while Steve and
I cross back to the larger stern part of the wreck.
To our knowledge the bell has never been found, so identification of the wreck is more by location, the damage to the hold and the general size and configuration. A bell would be nice proof.
Somewhat perversely, it is the overall intactness of the Greatham that hides other possibilities for conclusive identification, such as makers plates from the engine or boilers. All are well buried beneath the silt that has collected inside the wreck over the past 88 years.
I suppose it is a combination of depth and the shelter the Devon coast provides from deeper-reaching storm waves.
Like the trawlers, the Greatham is fully decked out in anemones, though with a generally bigger structure it is easier to make out what lies beneath. After checking the propeller and rudder, we finish on the gun platform at the stern, minus the gun which has been salvaged.
Wrecks this intact at the other side of Lyme Bay are celebrities, yet although in in easy reach of many South Devon harbours, the Greatham is hardly dived.
We finish with an evening dive on the forward half of the Elsa. After the rest of an ambitious schedule working so well, it almost doesnt happen. The wind is picking up from the west, though the coastline provides some protection. On the journey out it is squally and raining.
Andy and Tom try to hook the shot onto the bow-half of the wreck, though with the Elsas angle to the current and an intact hull and deck, the shot just keeps pulling loose. Several tries later and running short of time, we head for their usual mark on the stern.
Here we run into a different problem. The line from a string of pots crosses the wreck and lifts the shot clear, then tangles it. After a few more tries the tide is starting to turn and the potline is still fouling the shot on every attempt.
Cutting it would make life easier, but would no doubt upset a local fisherman. We are left with a desperate option, to dive the potline in the hope that it is actually caught on the wreck.
After a long haul down, we hit the seabed at 48m. It is not on the wreck, but at this depth we must be close because we are in the scour. We head back under the line, then follow the direction of the steepest slope downward. In the end it couldnt have been better. A few minutes later, at 51m, the bow looms above us.
On the forecastle I can see most of the way across the wreck. The evening light is better than expected. It doesnt take long to work back across two holds to the superstructure, then past the wheelhouse and a deep hold to a more broken area near the break.
I guess that the front part is 60% of the wreck.
The break is clean, almost as if the wreck snapped in two rather than being blown in two by a torpedo.
As the broken ship sank, the boilers fell out and the two halves settled just out of line, less than 10m apart. We surface into late evening sunlight, with precautionary strobes tied to our delayed SMBs. Smiles all round - its so good to finish on a high.
Yet the location of the break leads us to ask questions. While the identification of the Greatham is as good as it could be without finding a bell, that of the Elsa is based only on it being at the reported location of the sinking and about the right size - and there are no other plausible candidates.
The torpedo is described as striking 35ft aft of the engine-room, demolishing number 5 hold. This doesnt tie in with my dive on the very intact stern. Could someone in 1917 have mistaken a handwritten 3 for a 5 35ft forward of the engine room or 35ft aft of the wheelhouse would both be reasonable descriptions for where the wreck splits. A plausible scenario, but by no means certain.
With my sketch, we have another way to check. Steve tracks down a photo of the Elsa from the Wilhelmsen shipping group. We study the size, configuration, bridge and wheelhouse. There is no longer any doubt. The wreck is that of the Elsa.

through a hole in the gunwales at the stern of the Picton Castle
a lobster as old as the Picton Castle
pulley to route the steering cable of theBenton Castle
anchor winch on the Benton Castle
Propeller of the Elsa at 51m
Railing just forward of the aft hold where the Medina breaks
Decompressing after diving Elsa - a temperature rise from 14° to 18°C made the shallow stops cosy
Fallen spar close to the gun platform of the Greatham
Winch brake on the Greathams anchor winch


GETTING THERE: From the M5 then A38, turn left on the A380, then take the A3022 for Torquay and Paignton. Awesome Explorer boards at Paignton Harbour. There is plenty of convenient parking in the nearby multi-storey.
DIVING: Awesome Explorer, 07860 635773, www.deepsea.co.uk/boats/awesomeexplorer
AIR: Venture Sports, 01803 523023, www.venturesports.co.uk. Nautique, 01803 550278, www.english-riviera.com/ nautique.htm
ACCOMMODATION: Westgate Hotel, 01803 295350, www.westgatehotel.co.uk.