IT WAS UNMISTAKABLE. The wreck that towered high above us, as we swam over the seabed at 85m, had to be that of the Flying Enterprise.
     No torch was necessary, because the floodtide slack and the sun high in the sky gave Richie Stevenson and I the best conditions for viewing this historic wreck we were ever likely to experience. Our excitement at being the first to visit it was overwhelming. Before long, we found that we had swum almost its entire length.
     As we made our way back to our shotline, we stopped to look around the intact bridge. The telegraphs with their enamel faceplates remained bolted to the floors, and thats not something you often see on a shipwreck off Britain.
     Richie disappeared inside, while I spent a few moments mentally comparing the exterior construction to the photographs I had seen. These had come from when the Flying Enterprise had made international headlines back in January 1952, as one man battled desperately to save her during one of the worst storms in history.

During my research I had often wondered why that man had risked his life for an ordinary merchant ship and, as the drama had unfolded in the Atlantic, why the Americans had rushed destroyers to the scene to guard the ship day and night. What had been even more curious was why those involved in the rescue had been visited by FBI agents soon after the ship was lost.
     There was more to the story of the Flying Enterprise than met the eye. I followed Richie inside the wreck, but the excitement had all been too much, and our long swim to the bow and back had left us with little more dive time on that occasion.
     The wreck lay intact on its port side, its masts and crane jibs spreading themselves across the sand and gravel seabed. As I made my slow ascent off the top of the wreck, which rose almost 20m from the bottom, I asked myself whether we had just discovered, some 45 miles from Plymouth, Britains best shipwreck dive.
     Flying Enterprise may not be of ocean-liner calibre but it is making a name for itself as one of the classic deep wreck dives in British waters. Sadly I have not seen it in such clear conditions again since that first day. Subsequent visits to photograph it have been plagued by darkness and poor visibility.
     That first day, after a long decompression, Richie and I surfaced to find an impatient skipper waiting for us. Steve Wright needed to know that the position I had given him to locate the old girl had been the right one. For 50 years the wreck had been forgotten. Now the story could be told once again - though in a different way.
     Flying Enterprise, a C1-type cargo Liberty ship, had been caught in the terrible Atlantic storm while heading from Hamburg for the USA. She had set out on 21 December 1951, listed as carrying 1300 tons of pig iron and 900 tons of coffee, plus 10 passengers. She was some 400 miles off Lands End on Christmas Day when, after taking a battering from the sea, a severe stress crack developed across her main deck amidships, and some 4m down each side.

Continuous swells caused cargo below decks to shift, so that the vessel developed a 30 list. Distress signals went out, but all the Irish, French and English rescue tugs that might have made it to Enterprises position were busy rescuing other victims of the storm.
     A US destroyer arrived and all passengers and crew were taken off - all, that is, but stubborn Captain Kurt Carlsen, a man intent on saving his ship from the sea. Carlsen remained aboard for almost two weeks, securing towline after towline in an attempt to bring Flying Enterprise back to Falmouth in one piece.
     The vessels plight was brought home to the British public over their breakfast tables by a picture that took up more than half of the Daily Expresss front page. It was an image of an heroic ship and an heroic man. The worlds media pursued the story avidly, and Carlsen and the Flying Enterprise became overnight sensations.

But what about those destroyers Shipwreck expert Richard Larn, a 22-year-old Royal Navy diver at the time, confirms that governments do not normally invest time and money on doomed merchant vessels.
     I remember the sinking of this American freighter well, he says. The media was showing daily aerial photographs of Captain Carlsen and the rescue tugs First Mate Kenneth Dancy sitting on the starboard side of Flying Enterprises poop deck, calmly smoking cigarettes.
     The deck was listing to port at an angle of 45 or more by then, and thinking of her as an eventual wreck on the seabed, I wondered what she carried that enticed the two men to risk their lives by remaining with the ship.
     The tug Turmoil made good passage towards Falmouth, but the Flying Enterprise gave up the struggle before they could get there. As the funnel went under water, Carlsen and Dancy finally stepped off. I still remember Dancys leap across to the Enterprise and the radio news updates. We were all so disappointed when the ship was finally lost, recalls underwater photographer Mike Maloney, who was 17 at the time.
     Richie and I returned to the wreck to photograph various sections of it. Flying Enterprise had three deck levels, with fuel and liquid cargo carried at the lower hull level. The massive intact propeller and rudder gear make an obvious landmark at the stern.

Looking up from the seabed, the bridge section towers high above. All the deck machinery remains in place and the hatch combings of the five holds are plain to see.
     The bridge can be a little confusing when conditions deteriorate, as it is draped in trawl net, but a diver can see and swim inside many parts of it.
     Not only do telegraphs remain bolted to the interior decks. but so does the binnacle and steering gear. What was not fixed lies scattered around the seabed, including the radio direction-finder and the brass helm wheel at which Carlsen once wrestled against the odds.
     Swimming forward of the bridge, the wreckage resembles that of the stern decks, except that the anchor machinery and forward masts have fallen to the seabed.
     Although Carlsen and Dancy had been the last people to touch the freighter physically before we arrived, it was clear that it had been the object of some kind of commercial activity.
     Soon after the sinking there had allegedly been a grab salvage attempt on the Flying Enterprise by the Italian salvage company SORIMA, the outfit that had salvaged the Egypts gold (Seventy Fathoms Deep, October 2001). We could see the salvage area on the wreck aft of the bridge, where there was a huge break. But again, why had a salvor taken such an interest in an ordinary merchant ship

My recent research may have shed a little more light on the matter.
     According to Kaianders Sempler, a Swedish adviser to, and writer about, the chemical industry, there is evidence that the ship was carrying a consignment of zirconium. This chemical element is still used in nuclear reactors to this day, and in the early 1950s was considered more precious than gold. Any zirconium aboard Flying Enterprise was said to be destined for the worlds first nuclear pressure water reactor - the prototype for the one that would propel the worlds first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, launched in 1954.

At the time of the Enterprise drama all this was a well-guarded secret, but shortly after the sinking, during the Atoms for Peace programme, many nuclear secrets were revealed. Claims that a cargo of zirconium had been salvaged by an Italian diving company were made in 1953, and evidence to suggest that the US navy may have been involved in the recovery is also now emerging.
     Dick Moody was aboard the tugboat Turmoil when it towed Flying Enterprise. Had he heard of any secret cargo He told me that it came as no surprise to him that there was more to the story than met the eye, especially as he said he had been visited by the FBI soon after the sinking.
     None of the many dives we have made on the Flying Enterprise have shed light on whether there was any secret cargo or not. But our most recent visit did allow me to shoot stills of Richie on the very starboard safety rail on which Captain Carlsen had so famously been photographed.
     This was wreck-diving as it should be, and the sort of diving that neither of us will ever forget.

  • Flying Enterprise is a dive for qualified and experienced trimix divers, and regular trips from Plymouth are available from Deep Blue Diving, 01752 491490, www. deepbluediving.org. You can find more information about the Flying Enterprise wreck on www.deepimage.co.uk

  • Leigh
    Leigh Bishop is interviewed for a documentary about the wreck - you can see it on the National Geographic channel
    A bridge window with closed storm door
    the ships wheel has fallen from the bridge above
    Richie Stevenson on the very safety rail on which Captain Carlsen was so famously photographed