Liddiards top 21 SOS dives
LOOKING FOR A DIVE to kick off the season, I’m thinking mainly about risk-reduction. There is always a rush of early-season accidents – rusty divers with rusty equipment diving sites they’re not quite ready for. But there is another kind of risk, that of the dive being called off because of bad weather.
If the weather is marginal, dives that are sheltered or not too far offshore are more likely to go ahead.
So, starting in the South-west and moving counter-clockwise around the coast, here goes:
Porthkerris Reef ticks all the boxes for an ideal dive to kick off the season. It’s sheltered from prevailing weather; a shore dive with easy access, so no boat- rides are involved; and it provides depth from 0-18m.
There are gullies, canyons, cracks full of life and even a small tunnel/cave. A gentle current sweeps the back of the reef, especially on spring tides, but never enough to require slack water.
The only big safety consideration, of which even some experienced divers need to be reminded, is that the way back to the shore is WEST (you know who you are!).
For complete convenience, Porthkerris Divers has an air station, dive shop and food van on site. The only thing missing from the shore dive is wreckage, but that is fulfilled by our next dive, the Volnay.
The 4610-ton Volnay was heavily loaded with a general cargo and 18-pounder shells destined for the Western Front when she struck a mine laid by UC64.
Fortunately for captain and crew, the cargo did not explode. Unable to make it on to Falmouth, the captain attempted to beach his ship in Porthallow, but she didn’t quite make it, sinking in 20m in the middle of Porthallow Bay.
Sheltered by the Lizard peninsula, the Volnay is only a few minutes’ boat-ride from the beach at Porthkerris, or a few minutes more from Porthoustock (Wreck Tour 24).
JAMES EAGAN LAYNE 3
With the James Eagan Layne and Scylla wrecks so close to each other, and both easy dives within a comfortable boat ride of Plymouth, I finally settled on the James Eagan Layne from the two because there is lots of cargo to rummage through if the early-season visibility is low.
The bow comes up to 8m, while the stern can be as deep as 25m on a high tide.
This Liberty ship was completed in 1944 and torpedoed by U399 on 21 March, 1945. Under tow to be beached in Whitesand Bay, the JEL sank with the masts and stack showing above water (WT 62).
Located within an easy boat ride of Torquay, Teignmouth or Exmouth, the 1439-ton Bretagne sank following a collision with the steamship Renée Marthe in fog on 10 August, 1918.
Wrecks along the East Devon coast all require slack water, but the Bretagne tends to have longer and more forgiving slack than most, so allows for a bit of early-season faff among divers kitting up and descending.
With the wreck upright and reasonably intact, you don’t need to go to the 30m seabed. Those few metres saved can make a big difference (WT 21).
Whilst the wreck site is not particularly sheltered, the 3073-ton Baygitano is only 1.5 miles from Lyme Regis, the maximum depth is 18m and the only time the tide can become a bit of an effort is on a big spring.
The boilers and engine still stand, as does part of the bow. The rest of the wreck is an outline on the seabed, usually patrolled by huge shoals of pouting.
The Baygitano was returning to Barry from Le Havre to pick up another load of coal when she was torpedoed by UC77, just 1.5 miles off Lyme Regis, on 18 March, 1918. She soon sank, taking two of the crew with her (WT 93).
ST DUNSTAN 6
If conditions are favourable enough to head further out from Lyme Regis or West Bay, or even good enough for a longer boat journey from Weymouth or Portland, the wreck of the dredger St Dunstan would be my early-season choice.
In World War One this 2000-ton dredger was pressed into service as a minesweeper, on 23 September 1917 falling foul to a mine laid by UC21. She was the U-boat’s last victim, as it turned out.
The seabed is at 30m, with the wreck broken but cohesive, rising to 5m in places. The big engine and bucket-chain machinery provide plenty of interest. Slack water can be a little more forgiving than closer in to Portland Bill (WT 40).
COUNTESS OF ERNE 7
From 1869, the paddle-steamer Countess of Erne served as a passenger ferry from Holyhead to Dublin. After being damaged in a collision she was repaired and sold to the Bristol Steam Navigation Co, but lasted only two years before being sold for scrap.
The machinery and fittings were removed and the hull became a coal hulk in Portland harbour, sinking after breaking its mooring and running against the harbour wall on 30 September, 1935.
The Countess of Erne is not a fantastically exciting wreck, and with more than one boatload of divers it can soon become crowded. It does however have the advantage of being accessible in conditions that would rule out most other dives.
It’s only 8m down to the deck and 14m to the seabed, so is accessible to new divers. The location is sheltered and out of the tide.
If the wreck becomes too crowded, you can always explore the blocks of the nearby harbour wall, though be careful not to stray too far into the strong currents at the nearby entrance.
ALEX VAN OPSTAL 8
The 5986-ton Belgian cargo and passenger liner Alex Van Opstal was sunk at the start of WW2 on 15 September, 1939, striking a mine laid by U26.
It’s not the closest sizeable wreck to Weymouth and Portland – that honour goes to the nearby Dutch steamship Binnendijk, also sunk by a U26 mine and at a similar depth of just less than 30m – but I prefer the Alex. I like the way the wreck has opened up at the stern.
It’s a slack-water dive, but it’s less than an hour from the harbour and doesn’t involve getting round Portland Bill. It can even get a little shelter from the west, so a boat dive can proceed when the wrecks of Lyme Bay are unreachable (WT 152).
SWANAGE PIER 9
Swanage Pier is the second shore dive to feature among my early-season recommendations. It’s such an easy, sheltered, pretty and convenient dive, and with air, dive shop and school on the pier and the shops, cafés and pubs of Swanage within a few minutes’ walk, it could hardly be more convenient.
The only disadvantage comes when the parking on the pier fills up and you have to use the council car park up the hill. So get there early to secure your space.
Staying in the Swanage area, on 26 May, 1917, the 6953-ton liner Kyarra was torpedoed off Anvil Point by UB57.
Dive-boats shuttle out from Swanage Pier twice a day for slack water, and the wreck is also conveniently accessible from Poole.
Large parts of the hull are intact, and the only area where navigation becomes confused is near the bow. The main risk for early-season divers is the wreck’s popularity. Under water, keeping track of which diver is your buddy can be difficult.
After surfacing, you have to make sure you get back on the right boat.
If you’re diving from Swanage, look at the collection of perfume bottles and other trinkets from the wreck in the Divers’ Down shop (WT 47).
BETSY ANNA 11
Located about half way between Swanage and the Needles, the wreck of the 880-ton Betsy Anna lies in 25m and is a similar distance to the Kyarra from Poole, while from Lymington it avoids having to go round the Needles.
The Betsy ran aground at Prawle Point and was sold to a salvage company from the Isle of Wight. Patched up, she was under tow for Cowes when, on 12 October, 1926, bad weather and leaking patches overcame the salvage pumps.
It was Lymington skipper Dave Wendes who identified the wreck from a nameplate on the donkey boiler and the salvage pumps still on board (WT 109).
From the West Sussex coastline there is no shelter except from the north, so cautious plans for early-season dives are best made for wrecks that are closer to port. The 1552-ton Ramsgarth is not quite the closest wreck to Littlehampton, but is close enough and gets my recommendation.
On 27 November, 1916, the Ramsgarth was first shelled, then boarded and scuttled by UB39. It now lies broken into three parts that remain in-line with the boilers and engine spread out from the starboard side of the hull at 29m (WT 135).
TR THOMPSON 13
The TR Thompson was torpedoed on 29 March, 1918, by UB57, while carrying a cargo of iron ore from Algeria to Middlesbrough.
About halfway between Brighton and Newhaven, the wreck of this 3538-ton steamship rises well above a 28m seabed. While the boat-ride is not too far from either port, here my early-season recommendation comes because of the amount of background information available.
Millennium Divers began accumulating information about the wreck in a blog in 2004. The blog includes video taken on a day of once-in-a-decade visibility, giving divers a good idea of what they should have seen.
FD LAMBERT 14
The 2195-ton FD Lambert was another WW1 steamship casualty, striking a mine laid by UC47 on 13 February, 1917.
Located just outside the Royal Sovereign shoal in 25-30m, this wreck site has nothing to tie it into the start of the season other than that I’m keen for someone to confirm its identity.
While it has for years been dived as the FD Lambert, the wreck has two boilers and the FD Lambert is listed in the Shipwreck Index as having only one. So either the listing is wrong, or the wreck is not the FD Lambert. The wreck site is about an hour straight out from Eastbourne.
The advantage of being in the North-east is that until you get well offshore the coastline provides some shelter from the usual direction of wind.
From Seahouses, divers are spoiled for early-season choice with all the rocks and wrecks of the Farne Islands in easy reach. Nevertheless, my early-season pick is in the opposite direction to the Somali, a 6809-ton victim of an attack by Heinkel 111 bombers on 27 March, 1941.
Away from the islands, there will be no complicated diving instructions about tide, rocks and current to confuse minds full of winter cobwebs.
Slack water is a little more forgiving, and the dive plan can be as simple as go down, wander about the wreck, come up (WT 13).
ST ABBS 16
I could probably have picked 21 start-of-season dives just in the St Abbs & Eyemouth area, from pretties under the cliffs and just out of the harbour to wrecks up and down the coast.
You can even expect good visibility early in the season without being deluded.
In the end I will opt for the most convenient site possible, Big Green Carr, just out from the end of the St Abbs harbour wall. The inside of the reef is an overhanging wall with white and yellow dead men’s fingers and stampeding sea urchins and resident wolf-fish. Off to the south on a longer dive is the natural arch of Cathedral Rock.
Air is conveniently available from Rockhouse in the harbour, with boat charter available for those wanting to venture further afield.
When looking for a safe bet for the early season, I can think of nowhere with a better guarantee of diving than Scapa Flow. With the remains of the Kaiser’s Grand Fleet, blockships and other assorted wrecks, picking an early-season dive leaves me spoiled for choice again.
In the end I have opted for the Geleitboot or escort boat F2, handed over to the Royal Navy following WW2 and sunk at mooring in Gutter Sound on 30 December, 1946. The depth is
16-18m, and Gutter Sound provides additional shelter within the already sheltered Scapa Flow.
It’s just a pity that in these days of silly fuel prices it costs so much for most of us to get there (WT 122).
While you could head up the Sound of Mull from Oban to many wrecks and walls, the wreck of the Breda is closer, out of the tide and the biggest, so provides plenty of room for early-season divers.
Rising as shallow as 12m from a 30m seabed with buoys attached to the top of the wreck, it’s a good compromise for a typical start-of-season group.
The 6941-ton Breda was bombed and sunk by Heinkels on 23 December, 1940 (WT 9).
In Northern Ireland you can’t find a more sheltered wreck than the Alastor, a motor yacht requisitioned by the Admiralty in WW2. It caught fire and sank at its mooring on 11 March, 1946.
The wreck is in 21m directly out from the quay at Ringhaddy at the back of Strangford Loch. The sea conditions are diveable whatever the weather throws at you, though after heavy rainfall you can expect mucky visibility.
Although close enough to the quay for a shore dive, shore-diving here is a bit advanced. It is much easier to dive by boat (WT 80).
About five miles out from Traeth Bychan on Anglesey, this wreck was identified as the Kincorth only a few years ago by members of Chester BSAC.
There are wrecks and scenic dives closer to shore, and even in the sheltered water of the Menai, but the Kincorth offers a good compromise between shelter and better offshore visibility.
If sea conditions are good, it’s only 15 minutes further out to the Cartegena, another trawler wreck identified at much the same time by Chester BSAC.
The Kincorth was blown in two by a mine on 10 December, 1941. The wreck rises a few metres from a 28m seabed. In an unusual twist, the bow half of the wreck is 50m behind the stern (WT 145),
While in west Wales, the inlet of Milford Haven provides plenty of targets for sheltered diving.
My parting shot is the 6426-ton Dakotian, because it is not as far into the haven as other wrecks, so offers the best prospect of good visibility, especially towards the top of an incoming tide.
The Dakotian was one of several victims of air-dropped mines in Milford Haven, sinking on 21 November, 1940. The wreck rises to 7m from 18m in Dale Roads. The forward part of the wreck was dispersed with explosives, while the stern part is more intact, though it has collapsed significantly in recent years (WT 19).
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