|Visit any popular diving area and youll find that a small number of the wrecks there seem to receive a disproportionate amount of attention. |
Trouble is, when youre somewhere as busy with divers as Weymouth, these favoured wrecks can get very crowded.
Imagine arriving to find five hardboats already on the wreck, three more on the way, and club RIBs screaming in from all directions. Boats cant approach the shot to drop divers because earlier divers are popping up all over the place. The shot is dragged under by too many divers hanging onto it.
By the time you get down to the wreck, the sea is like diver soup and visibility is zero. It may be a good wreck, but is a dive under these conditions really that enjoyable or safe
This observation formed the theme for my mission to Weymouth. I chose four days, four skippers and four wrecks to present an alternative to the usual dives.
One of the best-known wrecks in the area is undoubtedly the M2, an experimental aircraft-carrying submarine which sank following a training accident on 26 January 1932 (Wreck Tour 5, July 1999), but there are actually quite a few other submarines from which to choose.
Rod Thompson, skipper of Out-Rage, suggested the P555. Rod has a particular interest in this sub because his father Leslie served on it as engine-room CPO during World War Two.
The P555 was originally the US Navy submarine S24, a design dating from WW1 and transferred to the Royal Navy under Lend Lease during WW2.
Rod found out about his fathers connection with the P555 only in 1992, many years after Rod had first dived it. It was a family Christmas and Leslie was browsing through a copy of Dive Dorset from Rods bookshelf when he exclaimed: I served on that boat. We used to call it the State Express, after the American cigarette brand.
It was only a short posting in 1944, just six weeks while Leslies usual submarine HMS Unbending was being refitted (when he later returned to shipbuilding work on Tyneside he witnessed Unbending being towed in for scrap).
The P555 was nominally returned to US ownership in 1945, but ended up being scuttled as a sonar target on 25 August 1947, about four miles west of Portland Bill.
Its a perfect diving day and Rod schedules our journey to get on site early, allowing plenty of time to shot the wreck. An intact submarine lying along the tide is not the easiest of targets to shot, because there isnt much for the shot to hook onto. Rod takes his time and makes three or four drops before he is happy.
We have a few minutes to chill out while waiting for perfectly slack water, then I get to dive first and make sure the shot is in. Rods efforts have paid off, and as my eyes adjust to the gloom I see the line draped perfectly across the conning tower.
I quickly tie it in and release the float so that the other divers know it is OK to come down.
The dive averages about 10m deeper than the M2, with the conning tower at 36m, the deck at 40m and the seabed at 45m. I take my time swimming the length of the wreck, knowing that even with an average depth of 40m I will have plenty of time to see it all without getting into silly amounts of decompression.
After 55 years sitting in the current off Portland Bill, the P555 remains in almost pristine shape. Some obvious bits like propellers and the 4in deck gun were removed before it was sunk, the wooden deck planking has rotted and some of the thinner metal trim has rusted through, but you dont get many wrecks in such good condition as this.
Hatches are intact, periscope housings in place, propeller-shafts and control rods stick out of the stern alongside intact hydroplanes and rudder. At the bow the forward hydroplanes are retracted, with a small anchor recessed on the starboard side and four torpedo tubes below, two on each side. A wedge-shaped section is missing from the upper tip of the bow; I would guess that this is where the sonar was removed.
Sessile life is a dense covering of hydroids with a scattering of small anemones, particularly at the bow and stern.
Just about every dive boat in Weymouth has a diver lift of some sort, and many have electric or hydraulic cage/platforms at the stern. Out-Rage has what I would describe as the KISS approach to diver-lifts, a hinged spine ladder with a line to the lower end taken over a pulley to the capstan.
I step onto the bottom rung and the ladder is hauled horizontal to the gunwhale, where I just step off into the boat. Simple, cheap and it works.
Grahame Knott, skipper of Wey Chieftain, also appreciates my interest in alternatives to the usual wrecks. It may sound strange, when I stay in the boat above the wreck, says Grahame. After all, one bit of sea should look just like any other, but its much more interesting taking divers to something other than the usual sites.
We head about 5 miles south from Portland Bill to the stern of the Black Hawk. The alternative connection is simple. The stern of the Black Hawk is an alternative to the bow of the Black Hawk.
The Black Hawk was a liberty ship, one of many 7100 ton mass-produced freighters which formed the backbone of the Atlantic convoys in WW2. On 29 December 1944, U772 put a torpedo into the aftmost hold, blowing the stern off the ship.
The slowly sinking forward section was taken under tow and beached in Worbarrow Bay on 30 December.
The forward part was subsequently partially salvaged, dispersed by the navy, then blown in two to make way for the outfall from the Winfrith nuclear power station. It now lies as two smashed sections in 12m and is a well-known inshore dive.
The stern lies where it was blown off by the torpedo in 47m - altogether a much more serious dive than the bow.
Once on the wreck, I soon get an impression of just how big it is. A fifth of 7100 tons is still far more wreckage than many complete smaller wrecks. The hull about No 5 hold has collapsed, but the stern is easily recognisable, resting on its starboard side and rising 8m from the seabed.
The main 4.7in gun platform has fallen to the side of the wreck, the gun now pointing aft beneath it. Looking closely, a much smaller gun rests on its pintle alongside.
Another gun platform and pintle are just forward, this time upright with no sign of the gun itself. Inside the stern are crates of ammunition, presumably for the gun rather than cargo, as the Black Hawk was outbound from Cherbourg.
My 25 minutes on the wreck is barely long enough to swim once round and gets overall disposition worked out while taking photographs. Other divers are more into ferreting around among the cargo.
Wey Chieftain has a more conventional diver-lift. A platform at the stern lowers into the water. I climb on. Up it comes and I step off onto the deck.
The U772 didnt survive its victim by long. It was sunk the next day just over a mile from the stern of the Black Hawk, also in 48m.
The concept of diving both an Allied wreck and the U-boat responsible for sinking it makes another interesting theme - one not wasted on the other divers aboard Wey Chieftain, who had dived the U772 the day before I joined them.
When I explain my project to Woody, skipper of Our W, he answers in a way only those who know him can fully appreciate You dont want to ******* ask me! he says. You wont be able to print a ******* thing I say!
Woody takes me to the wreck of the 840 ton Admiralty tug Buccaneer, a wreck of which Im quite fond, but which is often overlooked because it is almost within spitting distance of the very well-known and popular Salsette (Wreck Tour 11, January 2000).
It has been a few years since I last dived the Buccaneer and I welcome the chance to get some new photographs and catch up with an old acquaintance.
Others on the boat are all regular Weymouth divers, but very few of them have dived the Buccaneer before.
Its another difficult wreck to shot, lying along the tide with a smooth keel exposed, so the grapple has little to catch on. After a couple of tries Woody gives up on the soft iron grapple and ties a 25kg weight to the line. The first pair of divers take a bit of waster line to tie it in.
The Buccaneer was towing a gunnery practice target when it was accidentally hit and sunk on 26 August 1946. A nice strong tug hull sunk in deep water by the relatively benign method of gunfire, the Buccaneer is, not surprisingly, another quite intact wreck. (By benign, I mean that gunfire generally causes less extensive damage than torpedo, mine, bomb or collision).
I make my way quickly to the bow, checking that both anchors are still in place and the 3in gun still pointing forwards on its platform. Further aft the wooden upper part of the superstructure was already long gone when I first dived this wreck 15 or so years ago.
The engine-room ventilation hatches are open and I poke my head inside, counting five cylinders on the steam engine below.
The most noticeable change is at the stern. The deck here used to be intact but now it has peeled off and fallen to the seabed, leaving a tangle of debris from below the deck and exposed ribs poking up from the hull.
Back at the surface, Our W has a stern lift-platform similar to that on Wey Chieftain. I will have forgotten how to climb a ladder by the end of this trip.
Other wrecks often overlooked because they are so close to the Salsette are the Minerva and the Grane.
The Minerva, a 286 ton clipper-rigged iron steamship, was scuttled after being captured by a U-boat on 10 May 1917, and is reported to be nice and intact.
The Grane was a 1122 ton Norwegian collier, torpedoed by UB80 on 9 March 1918 and more broken up. It is sometimes referred to incorrectly as the Crane.
My final dive is from Autumn Dream, skippered by Len Hurdis. Aware that my previous three selections have all been fairly deep, I am grateful for something a bit easier when Len suggests the wreck of the Scaldis, a Brixham beam trawler lost some time between 25 and 29 January 1974 and now resting in 34m.
The Scaldis is easy, intact, all the machinery is in place and there is some good marine life on the exposed hull.
Its a nice wreck for a group with newly qualified sports divers who want to build up some deeper experience without getting into decompression.
Having toured the wreck, I stay down to explore further. The Scaldis had been dragged under when it caught the remains of a WW2 German bomber in its nets. We know this because, when it was first located, divers had followed the trawls out to the parcelled-up remains of the aircraft.
A number of cables lead off the wreck, all soon disappearing beneath the sand. With nothing to follow, I loop out and back, hoping to sight a cable emerging further out from the wreck.
Its a long shot and Im not surprised that I dont find anything. Nevertheless, relocating the bomber could be another interesting project.
Back to the subject of diver-lifts and Len has a business on the side, building them for other skippers. The lift on Autumn Dream is another variation I have never seen before and can best be described as a power ladder.
I step on to the bottom rung and hold the handles. Len pushes a button and the whole rung slides up the ladder until I am standing level with the deck.
Many boats serve a lunch of some kind. Lens wife Maggie serves up a very tasty pasta and chicken bake with jacket potatoes.
The other skippers have already suggested further wrecks best suited to advanced divers, so I ask Len for some ideas in the average sport divers range.
He begins by suggesting one of my favourites, the bucket-dredger St Dunstan, sunk by a mine on 23 September 1917 (Wreck Tour 40, June 2002) Everyone I take there enjoys it, says Len. Its at an easy depth and theres lots of life and interesting machinery.
For something a bit unusual, Len suggests the pin wreck, a wooden-hulled trawler most likely used as a diving platform, as bits of standard diving dress have been found on it. It is called the pin wreck because the wooden hull was held together with heavy bronze pins.
Another of his suggestions which I have also dived, though not for a long time, is the Gibel Hamam, a 647 ton steamship torpedoed by UB103 on 14 September 1918.
I look back through old logbooks and find my comments from the only time I dived it, in 1987. Covered in anemones. Very colourful. Upright. Broken amidships.
Perhaps I should make a special effort to dive it again some time soon.
|The front of the P555s conning tower |
|the anchor is tightly recessed in the side of the bow |
|skipper Rod Thompson (facing the camera) aboard Out-Rage |
|Upright gun pintle on the Black Hawk |
|small gun and pintle on the seabed |
|main 4.7in gun |
|Wey Chieftains skipper Graham Knott |
|The Buccaneers 3in gun points along the bow |
|its starboard anchor is tight against the anchor |
|engine-room ventilation hatches |
|Our Ws skipper Woody |
|A shoal of bib above the collapsed rigging of the Scaldis |
|plumose anemones on the propeller guard and rudder |
|patches of jewel anemones on the bow |
GETTING THERE: Follow the A37 or A354 to Dorchester, then the A354 to Weymouth. Avoid the seafront and continue on the A354 along the back of the harbour. Turn left just before the fire station. Boats pick up from the marina floats in front of the fire station, from across the bridge at Weymouth Quay by the Sailors Return pub or further along the cobbled Old Harbour area by the Old Rooms Inn. Wherever you are boarding, it is worth arriving early as you may have to wait for space to unload and then find somewhere to park and walk back to the boat.
DIVING: Autumn Dream (01305 786723, www.deepsea.co.uk/ boats/autumn_dream). Our W (01963 370 597). Out-Rage (01305 822803, www.deepsea.co.uk/boats/outrage). Wey Chieftain (01305 771371, e-mail: email@example.com).
AIR: Old Harbour Dive Centre, 01305 760888.
ACCOMODATION: There are many B&Bs and small hotels. Some skippers operate their own B&Bs and hostels. Campsites are out of town, usually smart and a bit expensive. Contact Weymouth tourist information 01305 785747.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2610, Bill of Portland to Anvil Point. Ordnance Survey Map 194, Dorchester, Weymouth and Surrounding Area. Ordnance Survey Map 195, Bournemouth, Purbeck and Surrounding Area. Dive Dorset, by John & Vicki Hinchcliffe. The Divers Guide to Weymouth & Portland Area, Weymouth & Portland BSAC. Dorset Shipwrecks, by Steve Shovlar. Shipwreck Guide to Dorset and Lyme Bay, by Nigel Clarke.