I JOIN MARTIN JONES, OWNER OF SWANAGE BOAT CHARTERS with the charter boats Mary-Jo and Sidewinder, for a few days diving on anything and everything but the Kyarra (which, incidentally, is covered in Wreck Tour 47, January 2003).Swanage Boat Charters, 01929 427064, www.kyarra.com
Sidewinder is off with a full-day charter to the Aeolian Sky (Wreck Tour 27, May 2001) while Mary-Jo is running a shuttle for the day. The first slack is already booked for, surprise surprise, the Kyarra. I am tempted to take the last space, but resolve not to give in so early in the project, and two hours later I join Martin on Mary-Jo for a drift off Durlston Head.
Some divers board the boat fully suited. Others board in shorts and T-shirt, because the day is just too nice to be suited any longer than necessary. The 20-minute chug out is just right for changing and kitting up ready to flop into the water.
Its an ebb tide, and approaching springs. The current is ripping along. I start with some other divers to get some pictures. With their SMBs and the surface current pulling them along, its all I can do to swim ahead and turn to face them before they zoom past.
At least we are all moving at roughly the same speed. The seabed is ripping past below and there is no way I could hope to hold on and look at the marine life in detail.
There is certainly plenty of it. Patches of mussels; bryozoan and hydroid turf with rampant nudibranchs; crabs; scallops; anemones; blennies and wrasse. Its all a blur in my eyes at the time and a blur in my memory later.
As planned, I soon leave the other divers and pop my own SMB, keeping an eye out for lobster-pot lines. Martins briefing had been very specific on the procedure for the eventuality of an SMB catching a pot line. Cut the SMB and abort.
At least that way both SMB and reel would end up on the surface, and the line could be knotted and used again. The alternative of ditching the reel would be more likely to end up in
a tangle that could not be recovered, and the whole lot becoming lost.
The dive gets even faster, and I zoom across canyons and ledges etched into the rock. By the time everyone has surfaced we are getting on for St Albans Head, four miles downcurrent from our starting point. All the reels and SMBs survived. I just love a good spring tide.
Now punching the tide to get back to Swanage, Martin brings Mary-Jo tight in to the cliffs, where the current is not quite so strong. Among seagulls, cormorants and razorbills, pigeons roost on the cliff, and a family of peregrine falcons preys on them.
Back at the pier, it is diving as usual. RIBs and hard-boats are loading and unloading divers, dive schools are teaching open-water classes, and an enterprising university club has set
up camp halfway down the pier, avoiding the crowding of dive school vans in the main parking area.
As the next slack water approaches, I board Mary-Jo for the Carantan, a French submarine chaser serving with the Free French forces during World War Two. On 21 December 1943, the Carantan was providing escort to the British submarine Rorqual from Falmouth to Portsmouth when she fell foul of high winds and tides off Durlston Head.
A top-heavy and unstable boat, the Carantan was rolled by the waves, capsized and sank. Three of the crew swam clear and were rescued by the Rorqual. Another three climbed onto the upturned hull and were rescued by the Swanage lifeboat. The rest of the crew went down with the ship, so visiting divers need to treat the wreck with the respect due a war grave.
The Carantan is only a few hundred metres from the Kyarra. Martin drops what could best be described as a designer shot on the wreck, and we wait for slack.
As with most shotlines, a large buoy on the end of the line throws out a wake, and a smaller buoy a couple of metres up the line is pulled under, rising slowly as the current drops. At the working end of the line, the shot weight is a compact bullet of stainless steel with very short grapnel prongs.
On a highwater spring, slack arrives late. We wait 20 minutes or so before the small buoy pops to the surface.
While the Kyarra is easily big enough for several boatloads of divers, the tiny 135-ton Carantan would be crowded with any more than a single boatload. The wreck rests on its port side in a shallow scour. The shot has certainly performed to specification, with one of the prongs hooked on a ledge of rock in the scour.
By the time I have unclipped my dive light, my eyes have adjusted and the light is unnecessary. I can see the A-frame for the starboard shaft above me. Most of the hull has decayed to leave the fittings and machinery exposed. As is the case with many warships, small is beautiful. The PADI group on Mary-Jo are breathing nitrox, and at 28m they have plenty of time to see everything within a no-stop dive.
At the stern there are depth charges and an anti-aircraft gun, then diesel engines and more depth charges amidships. The World War One-vintage main gun fitted to the bow deck has
been salvaged, though the main point of interest at the bow are the ASDIC (sonar) fittings on the keel.
Its a piece of engineering I find particularly interesting, because I have never seen one before.
Where a wrecks position was known during the war, the ASDIC equipment was removed to preserve the secrets of its design. On upright wrecks, any remains of the external housing for the ASDIC are buried in the seabed. The Carantan is an exception to both considerations.
Returning to Swanage, one of the divers volunteers to clear the water inlet for a tripper boat. Its only a bit of weed clogging the pipe, but before he has surfaced a call comes in from the Swanage Lifeboat.
It is towing in a yacht with its propeller tangled by fishing net. Our volunteer diver is, in his absence, volunteered again. He shuffles from diver lift to gunwale, ready to roll in again as Mary-Jo heads for the unfortunate yacht.
The Carantan isnt the Kyarras only close neighbour. Also within a few hundred metres is the Castle Reagh.
This unfortunate coaster disappeared in 1925, last seen off Prawle Point in Devon, and was discovered by accident in 1967 by a group of divers who had just purchased the Kyarra.
On a spring tide and high water, the slack is again late. For 20 minutes, we watch as the small buoy pulls under and the large buoy streams a wake.
Then Martins practised eye gives a 10-minute warning and we are all ready to go when the tide slackens and the smaller buoy pops up.
I had dived the Castle Reagh many years back before the history of the wreck was established, and it was known from the name on the bell as the Firth Fisher. That was the name under which this 432-ton coaster sailed when launched, though Castle Reagh was
the name at the time of sinking.
When I first dived the wreck it was in zero visibility. Today the 8m viz is just enough to see across it.
As I head first to the bow and then the stern, I pick out all the classic features of a coaster of this era. Winch gear for each hold, to speed loading and unloading. Engine at the stern, so no hold space is wasted on a propeller-shaft tunnel. Wheelhouse amidships, long gone but identified by the steering engine.
A two-cylinder compound engine way after they had gone out of fashion for larger ships, because two cylinders is shorter than the more efficient three-cylinder triple expansion, so again there is more room for holds for a given size of ship.
Like the Carantan, the Castle Reagh is ideal for groups limited to a no-stop dive on nitrox, though perhaps the shallower low-water slack would be more appropriate for such a dive plan.
Between my dives, the Scubadoo PADI group had run a beginners trip to the Fleur de Lys, a wooden trawler wreck from 2000.
Its certainly not the sort of wreck for hardcore wreckaholics, but they had dived it the past few weekends, seemed to enjoy it and kept returning, so I decide to give it a go. The Fleur is only five minutes across Swanage Bay in the direction of Old Harry Rocks, so I start kitting up as soon as Mary-Jo leavesthe pier. Off slack water it is a bit of a haul down the line attached to the wreck, but on the bottom the current is manageable.
Local instructor Mike Potts, who buddied me on the Castle Reagh, has all the information on his briefing sheet for the wreck. The Fleur originally sank 18 miles off Portland, when a hotwater tank exploded. The suspicious insurance company raised the wreck and had it towed towards Poole for evaluation, but there were complications and the Fleur was returned to the seabed in Swanage Bay to be surveyed underwater.
The outcome of the insurance claim is unknown, but the wreck was not worth recovering again, and is now a regular training site. Only six years submerged, the oak beams of the hull have barely begun to rot, the most obvious damage being at the bow and stern, where the curved beams have sprung straight to leave open maws lined with nails.
At slack water I would have been tempted to look inside. With a current running, the risk of impalement keeps me well clear. I have a fun time working along the edge of the deck, peering into each and every hole while curious tompot blennies peer back. Then, with time to spare, I venture off the wreck to potter about on the surrounding rocks.
Blennies and gobies occupy every rock, with small crabs bullying them out of the larger cracks. Among a shoal of juvenile pouting I pick out the barely recognisable and almost transparent outline of a cuttlefish. I run through my repertoire of fish-stalking techniques, but the wary mollusc remains too shy.
The weekend over, the pubs and restaurants of Swanage are quiet, with a half-dozen diners and drinkers here and there. As I wander through town wondering where to eat, a young lady approaches me and asks, in a foreign accent: What price would you pay for a salad in an Italian restaurant
I look puzzled. Despite my examining of menus, this is not the sort of tourist information I am prepared to serve. She clarifies: Would you pay70 to take me for a salad in an Italian restaurant.
The euphemism becomes clear. My theme of Anything but the Kyarra does not stretch that far. I make my excuses and head for the chip shop.
I round off a long weekend with the Betsy Anna, another wreck I have dived in the dim and distant past, when it was thought to be the Dagmar.
The real Dagmar has since been located further west, between St Albans Head and Portland, and the wreck eight miles east of Swanage identified as the Betsy Anna from a boilermakers plate and serial number.
The Betsy Anna was wrecked more than once. After running onto the rocks at Prawle Point she was re-floated and beached for temporary repairs. She then foundered on 17 August, 1926, while under tow to Cowes.
While the Castle Reagh and the Carantan can fit into the tight shuttle schedule, the longer ride out to the Betsy means that it is dived only when slack water suits the last shuttle of the
day, or during the week when the shuttle-boats are not so busy.
Martin has planned the dive for highwater slack, as it should give better vis. A bonus is that we will also get a free push there with the tide, and back again when it turns.
It doesnt quite work that way. Ten minutes out of Swanage, one of the divers finds that he has left his undersuit behind. Martin does a quick calculation on the time to slack and is sympathetic.
Taking the tide into consideration, the diversion takes another 25 or 30 minutes, and we arrive at the Betsy with no time to spare. The shot goes in on the first pass, and divers follow.
From the bottom of the shot, I can immediately see how the Betsy Anna was confused with a more modern wreck. A petrol- or diesel-driven pump just to starboard of the donkey boiler looks out of place on an 1892 vintage ship. It was left on deck by the salvage company.
From its Dagmar days, I remember the boilers being high-rise accommodation for congers. This time I find only two residents, but Im not really searching. All the machinery is exposed, and there are plenty of fish and lobsters.
Its the least intact of the alternatives to the Kyarra, but it still makes for an enjoyable dive.