The world of diving is fuelled by shipwreck legend. The legendary status of a particular wreck develops over time, but what is it about certain wrecks that turns divers on to the extent that they have to keep going back The fact is, individual divers either hear the call or they dont.Boats operate from the tidal port of Looe but a charter from Plymouth is more practical. Regulars include Deep Blue Divings Seeker, and skipper Steve Wright welcomes experienced groups and individuals alike, 01752 491490. Also visit Leigh Bishops website, www.deepimage.co.uk
The Afric, a White Star liner, lies in deep water not a stones throw from Plymouth. Each summer brings the prospect of new wreck discoveries, but also the chance to return to classic dive sites, and for me the Afric is a wreck that always demands to be visited. I first heard the call more than a decade ago.
The central themes of legend are fiction, exaggeration and romance, and these dont sit comfortably with modern wreck-divers. The Afric was one of those wrecks of which the old-school deep-air community whispered, always there but rarely visited.
For a period between the late 80s and mid-90s it was all but lost to divers. Then the mixed-gas revolution occurred, and it became possible to find charter-boats willing to make the journey past the Eddystone Lighthouse.
Seeing the Afric is like seeing a shipwreck in a string-bag, because it has been victim to many lost trawl nets during almost 90 years on the seabed. The wreck rests upright on an even keel, its decks at 75m, so wise visitors make good use of a shallow narcotic depth in their breathing mixture.
And they find that navigation over, under and through all that lost trawl net makes a dive on Afric all the more worthwhile, because beneath those heavy curtains the perfection of a turn-of-the-20th-century White Star liner waits to be revealed.
Its best to dive onto Africs deck, because little if any wreckage remains on the surrounding seabed. I have scoured the featureless bottom on a scooter but with little reward. Last summer, my annual pilgrimage took in the decks and holds that contain first- and second-class dishes displaying the White Star hallmark.
Built in 1899 at the Harland & Wolf shipyard, Afric and her four sisters were the first of a new generation of liner designed to carry freight and thousands of frozen carcasses. Dropping into the forward cargo holds, even today, divers can expect to see animal bones.
These fine vessels set new standards for the White Star line and offered accommodation for 320 cabin-class passengers as well as capacity for general cargo in the forward area. The passenger area of the wreck is clear and extends from amidships to stern.
The 12,000 ton ship arrived short of the Eddystone light in February, 1917, and the captain morsed for a pilot to see him safely into Plymouth city harbour. There was no reply, but these waters were no place for such a huge vessel to linger in wartime.
Through the hours of darkness, Afric made her way between Eddystone and Lizard Point. When day broke she would be a sitting duck for any U-boats lurking nearby.
She was making 10 knots east-north-east when, from the bridge, the Chief Officer spotted the white streak of a torpedo 60m away, coming at 45Ã‚ to the starboard bow.
The torpedo slammed into the steamer. The crew were able to abandon ship before another torpedo sent the Afric to the bottom. UC54 surfaced and picked up the survivors, including the captain, for questioning.
It was a quality kill for the German commander, and he demanded full details for his log. The Afric would not see another living soul for 70 years.
Having heard so much of this legendary shipwreck, friends and I were eager to see a White Star liner so close to home. One memory from that first summers dive 10 years ago was the huge slack period we found, especially compared to the eastern approaches.
Visibility was superb, and we drifted little if any distance from the anchor line during decompression. The trimix we used back then was still regarded as voodoo, and there were murmurings of discontent about our approach among the deep-air boys.
Today, the 550ft wreck lies east to west over an 80m-deep seabed of fine sand, broken shell and gravel with no scour, 15.5 nautical miles south-east of Dodman Point. Approaching it, you notice striking emerald-green water. Viz is very good, especially on the wreck, despite seasonal plankton blooms.
Afric has no more than a 15Ã‚ list to port. Apart from its shroud of nylon trawler net, there are several sections of monofilament drift net on the stern and amidships portside. This and thin layers of covering silt are the main hazards.
The starboard anchor remains in place, while the port anchor hangs about 5m from the seabed. The superstructure of the main section is still in place, though the teak sides and decks have now rotted to a degree, causing them to collapse on themselves and form a near-V-shape to the hull.
The centre and aft bridges are the highest points of the wreck at about 70m, with 75m to the lower levels of the collapsed teak decks. The centre fly bridge has almost certainly long since collapsed, and on the starboard side the bow also shows signs of inward collapse.
The forward teak mast has broken away at the base, and from the seabed at 80m you can look up at the stern, with its two bronze props and huge rudder.
Photography is frustrating because the nets obscure so much, but as they degrade Im sure many interesting finds will be made. Even now, each season I come across a part of Afric that I have not encountered before.
Of course, its so big that unless you have a scooter you need to make several dives before you can say youve seen its entire length in all its glory.
Afric is privately owned but no diving restrictions have ever been in place. Many fine Victorian artefacts have been recovered over the years, and the wreck was positively identified in 1987 by Malcolm Brock and a group of local Plymouth divers who recovered the bell, which for many years was on display at Sound Diving.
Afric is regarded by the deep-wreck community as one of the Top 10 classic wreck dives of the English Channel, and is becoming a popular destination for qualified technical divers. But this wreck has cost the lives of divers in past, mainly because of those nets. Enjoy Afric and witness its perfection - in safety.