PICTURE A NEAR-PERFECT DIVING DAY. A flat sea and blue sky, with a few clouds and a hazy horizon; a nice big Offshore 125 with so much deckspace that most dive boats could be parked on the back of it, though getting a boat up on the diver lift would be more of a challenge; and a compressor on board for topping up between dives.
The number of other boats, yachts and divers around underline that its a nice day. Were packed fender to fender in the lock leaving Eastbournes Sovereign Harbour. Dave Ronnan,
who bought Our W from well-known Weymouth skipper Woody in 2004, takes us on a leisurely cruise out to the Carlisle Castle.
Looking over the side, its soon evident that the murky green-brown inshore water is not clearing. In mid-May it would be foolish to expect algae-free visibility, but this is something more. The strong north-easterly winds of the past few days seem to have blown most of the silt from the Thames Estuary down this way, and the algae have been whipped into a frenzy.
Yesterdays north-easterly had already blown out my first day in east Sussex. I had been planning to dive from Sussex, another Eastbourne boat skippered by Mike Keane. Sussex is
an Offshore 105, though Mike has an 11.8m Safehaven Wildcat catamaran on the way.
Mike had planned a day of liner dives, featuring P&Os 6610 ton Oceania, which sank following a collision with the barque Pisagua in 1912, and the 13,405 ton Cunard liner Alaunia, which struck a mine in 1916. It wasnt to be.
Overnight, however, the wind has dropped to zero. With perfect surface conditions and shipping well regulated to the Channel shipping lanes, there is little risk of collisions. The nearest vessels are a tug and barge bringing in rock for the Hastings sea defences.
Dave takes the opportunity to quiz Sylvia about the signals shown and the length of the tow. Sylvia is taking the skippers exam next week, and taking every chance to practice.
Its the sort of question I would have to look up in the RYA booklet. Sylvia gets it right at over 200m, because both tug and barge are showing diamond shapes on their masts.
We arrive at the Carlisle Castle 40 minutes before slack - plenty of time for Dave to line up the echo-sounder and for Sylvia to hook the shot in.
The 2709 ton steamship was carrying troops and munitions up the Channel when she was torpedoed by UB-57 on 14 February, 1918. The captain received only a slap on the wrist for steaming ahead and leaving his escort behind.
Our fears about the visibility are soon realised. Descending the shot, I cant even see my own fins. Its pitch black by the time I am on the wreck at 36m.
The shot is hooked over the side, so I have no trouble orientating myself. With the bow to the north-east and the line trailing west, turning left will lead me to the bow.
In such viz, my strategy for an enjoyable dive is to find some recognisable features small enough to photograph from as close as possible. The bow is a good bet.
On the way, I pass others with a different strategy, visible from the glow of their HID lights deep among the wreckage. Rummaging to see what can be found is an equally valid approach. After all, its not as if it will mess up the visibility for anyone else.
I soon begin to find bits of bow fitting - bollards, anchor winch, chain and anchors. They are all a bit too big to see in one go, but I can get in close enough to parts of them.
Then, for the sake of it, I start work
on a sketch. I know I wont achieve much today. Thirty-five minutes flies by. Despite the conditions, I have actually been enjoying myself.
Decompressing at 3m, I get the occasional patch of marginally better viz. The tide has turned, and brings slightly cleaner water from the west.
On the surface, another pair of SMBs are right behind me. I thought I had felt something while decompressing; perhaps their bubbles on my fins.
Divers recovered, Dave hands over to Sylvia again for the leisurely journey back to Eastbourne. It seems I am not the only person aboard with a perverse enjoyment of the odd low-viz dive - or perhaps we are just enjoying the boat trip on such a nice day.
The surface conditions hold good for my next dive from Newhaven, 10 miles west of Eastbourne and the other side of Beachy Head. Skipper Ray Leriche runs The Mistress, a clean and well-fitted Offshore 105 with a new engine.
Getting out from the marina pontoons we run into a slight hitch as a dredger is blocking the way, heaving up buckets of silt. The delay is brief and there is plenty of slack in the schedule to allow The Mistress to cruise gently out along the Seven Sisters to Beachy Head for slack water.
Ray has recommended UB-130, a U-boat that sank while under tow to the scrapyard after World War One. Its something of a project of his with divers from Tunbridge Wells BSAC. In 2001 they recovered the gun and preserved it for the Newhaven Museum. They have quite a lot of background information on the wreck, print-outs from the Hydrographic Office, sketches of the layout, photos of the gun being recovered and one of the similar
UB-118 washed up on the beach at Hastings after breaking its tow.
Such a fate for subs on their way to the scrapyard is so common that Im sure the insurers began to smell a rat.
The decision to dive UB-130 was lucky. Exploring a small wreck with its small detail is a good way to make the most of limited visibility.
I dive with Jamie, one of the divers involved in salvaging the gun and instantly recognisable by the tartan hat with ginger fringe fixed to his hood.
I dont think the visibility is significantly better than yesterday at 29m down, though there is a little ambient light.
Jamie guides me round the wreck, finding breaks in the hull and open hatches through which I can examine batteries, valves and other interior fittings. At the stern we find one of the propeller shafts. It was removal of the propellers that positively identified the wreck in 1975.
Fish stumble into us, then dart away. In a few places the features Jamie is showing me are not immediately obvious, such as a handwheel mounted on the ceiling that I can see only by wriggling my shoulders through a hatch and looking upwards. In more normal visibility the UB-130 would be an excellent dive, but again, I enjoy myself anyway.
Back in Newhaven Roger has brought the last part of the gun along to show me. Its the brass fitting for the gun sight and is ready for display. The only question remaining is whether the Newhaven Museum should keep it inside or attach it to the gun outside, where it may be too tempting for light fingers. I would keep it inside with all the other maritime memorabilia.
In Eastbourne again, at Sovereign Harbour, my next boat is Inspiration, a black and mean-looking 8.5m Humber RIB jointly skippered by Bill Marinner and Markus Griggs.
Sovereign Harbour has changed hugely since I was first there 10 or so years ago. What used to be a bare dock surrounded by gravel and grass is now full of marina pontoons and boats, surrounded by expensive-looking flats, waterside bars and restaurants,
a retail park and plenty of free parking, and it is still growing.
We get the 6 oclock lock to ourselves. Waiting for the lock to cycle, the banter starts between the regulars on the boat and soon spreads to everyone.
Heading out past the Royal Sovereign Light, its a beautiful evening. Once again its the sort of weather that makes it nice to be out on a boat.
Our target is the FD Lambert, a 2195 ton collier torpedoed in February 1917. Bill and Markus drop the shot and we have a few minutes to enjoy the sunshine before slowly kitting up.
On the wreck at 26m, the shot has obviously landed in a well-flattened area of hold, but other than that I dont have a clue where I am.
I cross the wreckage a couple of times before deciding which way to turn.
No idea why, but I have a feeling that the shot is on the front part of the wreck and I am turning forwards. Whatever happens, as long as I bump into bow, stern or boilers and engine, I will know where to go from there.
One of the advantages of a late dive is that we are on the other slack, at the end of cleaner water coming up the Channel rather than dirty water coming down. It is still dark and grainy with plankton and silt, but if I look back and shine my light in the right direction, I can actually see my fins.
This comes in useful a few minutes later, when I get to the bow and find that one of my legs has become wrapped in some trailing rope from a lobster pot or old shotline. Rather than having to mess about cutting the line, I can see what has happened and unwrap it.
While most of the FD Lambert is upright, but broken close to the seabed, the bow is more intact, though sunk far enough into the seabed to be not too far above the rest of the wreck.
I work back to the boiler and engine, then continue aft along the starboard side of the wreck. Out of the gloom, I meet a tangle of fishing net. I dont get caught up, but it makes me wary of going further while visibility is low.
Divers back on board, Markus puts it to the vote. Do we want tea and cakes now Or alternatively, if we get moving straight away we will make the 8.30 lock and can have the tea and cakes while waiting for it to fill. Its an easy decision. We are unloading by 9 and in the pub by half-past.
Driving to Newhaven again for the final part of my east Sussex round-up, I dont hold out many hopes for the dive. Having enjoyed a few days of calm sea, it is blowing up from the south-west and starting to rain. Offshore looks distinctly hostile - its not the sort of weather in which anyone would want to go diving.
Its a shame, because Newhaven Scuba Club, a PADI club attached to the Newhaven Scuba Centre, has adopted the TR Thompson and invited me to put together a Wreck Tour. They have already done a lot of background work (weblog at trthompson.blogspot.com).
I arrive at Newhaven Scuba Centre to find the RIB returning from a quick recce out of the harbour. Into the breaking sea and the rain it would be a hard, slow and unpleasant ride. Surface visibility is deteriorating and that underwater is unlikely to have improved. With all three factors combined, cancelling the dive is as much to do with safety as comfort.
We adjourn to the classroom, where I extend my planned survey briefing into a more extended seminar on wreck diving, surveying and sketching. We end up in the café for a fried breakfast.
Visibility off East Sussex is usually far better than I experienced at the height of the algal bloom, combined with a north-easterly wind blowing silty water from the Thames. There are plenty of wrecks suitable for the average diver.
While I wouldnt go seeking low viz, I still enjoyed the trip. Besides, it gives me an excuse for a return visit some time, ideally with better visibility, to see how things are getting on.
Jamie, with his unique diving hat.
Propeller shaft on UB-130.
Valve and wheel against the ceiling of the same wreck
Control linkage where it passes through the hull of the UB-130.
Electrical cable from the motor room.
The Royal Sovereign light tower
Recovered gun-sight bracket from UB-130
End of the FD Lamberts anchor winch.
Dave Ronnan keeps an eye on Our Ws autopilot
Sylvia takes the helm
Ray Leriche at the helm of The Mistress
returning from the dive with Bill Marinner at Inspirations helm
Markus Griggs gives a safety briefing
Dave ties Inspiration alongside Our W in the Sovereign Harbour lock
|Eastbourne: Our W, Dave Ronnan, 07764 585353, www.dive125.co.uk (compressor on board); |
Sussex, Mike Keane, 07711 570294, www.sussexshipwrecks.co.uk; Inspiration, Markus Griggs, 07973 291939, www.trojanmarine.co.uk. Newhaven: The Mistress, Ray Leriche, 07973 498078, www.the-mistress.
co.uk. Newhaven Scuba Centre, 01273 612012, www.newhaven-scuba.co.uk (air and nitrox). There are slips at Sovereign Harbour and Newhaven for launching.