Divernet


TRAVELLING ALL THE WAY FROM THE WARM clear water of Cairns in Australia to dive a U-boat wreck in the English Channel is not something many divers would contemplate. As far as I know, Rob Graafsma is the only diver to have done such a thing.
Robs motivation is a family connection with the wreck. Heinz Steffens, Robs uncle, was serving on the German submarine U480 when it failed to return from patrol in 1945.
With the help of British diving friend Mark Lavington and DIVERs former Wreck Q&A advice column (January and April 2002), Rob was put in touch with Lymington charterboat skipper Dave Wendes.
Dave had not dived U480 himself, but he had put divers on the wreck, received feedback from these divers, and researched the wreck for his book South Coast Shipwrecks off East Dorset and Wight. More importantly, he was happy with the identification of the wreck to his usual high standard of evidence.
With Daves advice about the diving conditions and appropriate techniques, Rob prepared for the trip. His brother Heinz (named after their uncle) would be diving with him, but they both needed to build up experience before diving to 58m in the Channel.
Rob used a mountain lake near Cairns to practise deep low-visibility diving.
It came complete with a freshwater crocodile, he smiles. Back in Germany, Heinz practised in the cold waters of a quarry near Hamburg.
Learning to use a delayed SMB and drifting decompression was straightforward, but learning to use a drysuit while living in Cairns proved impossible for Rob. Despite all his contacts in a big diving community, he couldnt find anyone who even owned one in the tropical north of Australia.
Rob and Heinz decided to stick with the familiar, and dive in wetsuits.
Five years on from the Wreck Q&A enquiry, in August 2007, Wight Spirit journeyed lazily down the Solent and out past the Needles. Rob and Heinz settled easily into the routine, setting up their kit, then finding somewhere comfortable to admire the scenery and enjoy the rest of the journey.
They brought mum Karin with them to visit the wreck site. Karin was only seven when she said her last goodbye to her elder brother Heinz in 1944.
Now a sprightly 70, she had jumped into the boat and landed lightly on her toes when offered a hand on board. Karin and Heinz had shorter journeys than Rob, travelling from Holland and Germany respectively.
Considering the magnitude of the occasion, both from a personal and a diving point of view, Rob and Heinz looked remarkably calm.
Through the last couple of days of warm-up dives I had watched them settle in and make final preparations.
A quick 7m dip in Alum Bay to familiarise themselves with borrowed kit had seen them understandably awkward, but without any problems.
They had surfaced with one or two clips moved about, and made their first ride up in the diver-lift, which takes all the effort out of getting back on board.
Two hours later, a 30m dive on the wreck of the Asborg off St Catherines Head had given them a better idea of the conditions to expect, except that they were at only half the depth towards which they were working.
They had started the dive by hauling themselves down a shotline in a current, with slack water on the wreck and then the tide turning before the ascent on a delayed SMB, with a short drifting decompression stop. Visibility had been a grainy 8m.
I was surprised by the size of the eels and crabs, remarked Heinz. They were huge.
Apart from needing some minor adjustments to weightbelts, everything had gone to plan. The decision to stick with wetsuits had simplified things.
At 40m, the deeper wreck of the Clarinda had shown what a difference an additional 10m could make. Visibility was about the same, but the light was flatter and overall it was gloomier.
Narcosis was becoming an issue.
A similar bottom time resulted in considerably longer deco stops.
The journey back to Lymington had been quieter, more contemplative. Or perhaps it was just the cold, after more than 90 minutes in wetsuits.
From the Needles, it was another 18 nautical miles to the U480 wreck site. The sea was oily smooth, with just a wisp of cloud in the sky - perhaps the first day to display such perfect conditions following the stormiest June and July on record.
The perfect surface conditions no doubt helped settle everyone into the right frame of mind for the dive. Dave throttled back, to make sure that we didnt arrive too early.
The first diver down released a pellet to signal that the shot was securely tied into the wreck.
A special moment for me was the two minutes before going into the water, Heinz said later. Sitting on the bench and thinking about a war going on, warships cruising around, death everywhere, brave men about to die.
I felt a strong bond with my uncle.
The deck of the U480 is at 55m. The ambient light had almost gone, and dive lights were essential.
I was surprised by the darkness, said Heinz. This was quite different to the warm-up dives. I was afraid we would not find the wreck, despite the shotline.
Seeing the wreck for the first time, I felt that we finally made it, and that all the preparations were now successful.
Robs first impression was also one of fulfilment: I had spent many hours reading logs from previous patrols. I had formed a picture in my head of life on board, not unlike parts of the movie Das Boot. When the wreck loomed from the dark it became reality, and a shiver went down my spine that this was the grave of my uncle and all his mates.
On an intact U-boat, orientation is straightforward. I had heard rumours that the wreck had broken in two, said Rob. To my surprise the pressure hull seemed still intact, and the hatches were closed. I couldnt help wondering how they had all died, 58 young men. The captain was only 24 years old.
Rob had a copy of a 1998 report by the naval Historical Branch of the Ministry of Defence which concluded that U480 was most likely sunk by a deep minefield, Brazier D2. The position of the wreck certainly lies close enough to one of the lines of mines.
Yet there was none of the catastrophic damage that one would expect from the contact explosion of a mine big enough to sink a ship. Damage to the external part of the stern looked more as if it had snapped against the seabed. Dive Dorset notes that the stern was intact in 1994.
Other damage is just decay from being under water.
On the other hand, closed hatches suggest an event catastrophic enough that none of the crew tried to escape. Perhaps there is mine damage beneath the hull, buried in the seabed.
Towards the bow, some of the deck has decayed, and the trim tank above the forward torpedo tubes has broken away, but everything else is where it should be.
Amidships, the cladding from the conning tower has fallen off the starboard side with the gun mounts.
On the conning tower, the search and attack periscopes are intact and retracted and the snorkel is securely stowed.
Due to the poor light, and maybe some narcosis, I had difficulties recognising things, said Heinz.
I was surprised about how thin the Alberich rubber coating was. I had expected a thicker layer. It was only a after a while that I managed to fully concentrate on the fact that my uncle, the man I am named after, was in there, together with many others.
He was only 20 years old.
During the long decompression hang, Rob reflected: For the first time it dawned on me what we had undertaken, the years of research from Australia and finally we were here on behalf of the whole family.
I felt proud to have taken on this responsibility.
The relief when we surfaced was evident on Karins face. It had been her greatest fear that she would also lose her sons. But shes a mum; its her job to worry.
I told her how we had placed the memorial stone on the wreck with a Buddhist mantra, in the hope that it will ease the karma of the crew.
Dave Wendes held Wight Spirit above the wreck. Karin, Rob and Heinz shared a moment looking out on the featureless sea, marking the occasion by scattering yellow roses.
Overall it was a happy occasion, says Rob. Both of us would like to return and dive the wreck again. We would like to do more research and look for clues to what happened.
It was heart-warming how helpful and respectful everyone in the UK was towards our project. A heartfelt thank you to all of you.
If it hadnt been for the generosity and help of Mark Lavington, Dave Wendes and Derek Bridle, we would never have pulled it off.

TRACKING DOWN U480
The U480 was once thought to have been sunk south of the Isles of Scilly, by depth charges from the frigates HMS Duckworth and HMS Rowley on 24 February, 1945 (Dive the Isles of Scilly and North Cornwall, wreck 117).
This proved to be an incorrect identification when, in 1994, fishermen snagged a string of pots on an unknown wreck some 18 nautical miles south of the Needles.
Being also divers, they went down to free the lines and found a U-boat, subsequently identified as the U480 from the serial number of the conning-tower range-finder (Dive Dorset, wreck 292; South Coast Shipwrecks).
Further confirmation comes from an Alberich rubber coating found on the wreck. This experimental coating was fitted to only 12 U-boats, U480 being the first type VIIC to have it.
Immediately after the war, records of missing U-boats were paired off with attack reports for the assigned patrol areas, sometimes corroborated with other evidence, but often just an educated guess. As a consequence, the identification of U-boat wrecks was in many cases inaccurate.
The wreck off the Isles of Scilly is now identified as U1208, previously thought sunk on 20 February, 1945, off Waterford by the sloop HMS Amethyst. The submarine off Waterford is U1276.

WARM-UP DIVES
Alum Bay: A random patch of sandy seabed at 7m to check kit.
Asborg: 2751-ton steamship torpedoed by UC75 on 3 January, 1918. The wreck stands upright, but considerably broken, right down to the 30m seabed in the forward holds.
Joannas Millas: 2071-ton steamship, ran aground off Chilton on 11 January, 1986. The wreckage lies broken and spread across gullies in 7m.
Clarinda: 1075-ton steamship, sunk in collision with the steamship Tern on 17 October, 1885. The wreck is mostly broken to the seabed in 40m, with the boilers and engine rising 5m. The Tern survived and made it to Southampton under its own power.
War Knight: 7951-ton steamship built to the WW1 standard ship design. Initially it caught fire following a collision with the tanker OB Jennings on 24 March, 1917. It was taken under tow and struck mines laid by UC17, beached in Watcombe Bay and was sunk by gunfire to kill the fire. The wreck is mostly collapsed to the 12m seabed, with the chain-box and boilers standing high.

A
A conger has found a home on the Asborg wrecks engine in the speed control
shackles
shackles secured to the deck by winch gear between the aft holds on War Knight.
The
The memorial tablet to Robs uncle, Heinz Steffens.
The
The foundation for U480s gun-mount is exposed where the conning-tower cladding has broken away or decayed.
Port
Port propeller and rudder frame.
U480s
U480s sky search periscope, retracted
close-up
close-up of the periscope
control
control mechanism for the forward hyroplanes, where it enters the pressure hull.
Another
Another conger eel, this time in a diesel exhaust silencer.
Karin,
Karin, Heinz and Rob Graafsma with flowers aboard Wight Spirit.
FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: From the roundabout at the M27 junction 1, turn south on the A337 through Lyndhurst and continue on to Lymington. Head towards the town centre until the road takes a sharp right turn uphill to the high street. Rather than go up the high street, continue straight on and follow the road downhill to the river and marinas.
DIVING: Wight Spirit, skipper Dave Wendes, 02380 270390, www.deepsea.co.uk/boats/wightspirit
ACCOMMODATION: The New Forest is a popular tourist area, with all levels of accommodation from camping to hotels readily available. Call 01590 689000 or visit www.thenewforest.co.uk.
AIR: TAL Scuba, Christchurch, 01202 473030. Forward Diving, Poole, 01202 677128, www.forwarddiving.co.uk
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2045, Approaches to the Solent. Admiralty Chart 2615, Bill of Portland to the Needles. Ordnance Survey Map 196, The Solent & the Isle of Wight. Dive Wight and Hampshire, by Martin Pritchard and Kendall McDonald. Dive Dorset, by John & Vicki Hinchcliffe. South Coast Shipwrecks of East Dorset & Wight by Dave Wendes.