IF YOU HAVE VISITED THE UPPER REACHES OF THE CLYDE, you are probably aware of the fantastic wrecks available to dive there, among them the Akka, Kintyre and Wallachia.Mike Clark dived with Clyde Diving Charters, which operates the Clutha and also a large, fast RIB, 01475 522930, www.clyde-diving.co.uk
I will never tire of diving these living time capsules, but when I had the opportunity to visit a couple of different wrecks for a change recently, I felt the spirit of adventure stirring.
These wrecks are not new - both sank in the 19th century - but they had one thing in common. They were both paddle-steamers and, as fate would have it, both now lie within a few miles of each other.
Though powered by paddle-wheels, these were very different vessels. The first was a paddle-tug, all brute force, short and squat. The second was long, sleek, beautiful to look at and very fast for her time.
As we cruised up the Clyde on the purpose-built charter-boat Clutha (which means Spirit of the Clyde), I wished for a view of the Waverly, which is the only surviving sea-going paddle steamer in the world and still plies the Clyde on occasions. But no matter how mild this January morning was, there would be little use for her services. The summer tourist season was still a long way off.
The sea was reasonably calm but a gale warning had been issued, so the race was on to take advantage of the calm before the storm and enjoy the wonders of this sheltered estuary before things started getting uncivilised.
Our first call was on the Champion. With that name you might be forgiven for thinking that this was the fast, sleek model but in fact it was the squat paddle-tug. Originally named the Flying Javelin, Champion lies a quarter of a mile south of the Gantocks Rocks, only 300m offshore from Dunoon and lying in 36-38m.
Built by J & T Eltringham of South Shields and launched in 1882, Champion arrived on the Clyde five years later after being purchased by the Clyde Shipping Company.
Looking at an old photograph of her, perhaps my initial description was slightly unfair. She is shown at full speed, white water breaking at her bow and churning under her port paddle-wheel.
Black smoke belches from her single tall stack. Three men stand in Victorian poses on her scant wooden bridge, which is open to the elements.
She looks very spartan with her lack of superstructure, but in the shadow under the bow Champion is emblazoned in large letters, and her name also flies high from her single mast, on a flag that appears to be slightly bigger than the bridge. A small ship with a big name and a big heart, she was obviously a source of immense pride for her new owner.
For nine years Champion plied the Clyde estuary, delivering mail to the small villages on its banks. Travel on land was difficult here, so the service was much valued by the surrounding communities.
You can understand the shock and despair as news filtered through on the foggy Wednesday morning of 12 December 1896 of Champions demise.
Another paddle-steamer, Caledonia, was the culprit. Steaming at her usual speed despite the poor visibility and regular soundings of Champions steam whistle, she ploughed straight into the other vessel.
The crew all survived by jumping onto the Caledonia, and an act of immense bravery occurred as Captain Carsell returned to the drowning Champion to rescue the mail and made it out alive.
We planned for a bottom time of around 15 minutes, long enough to view Champions remains at 30m-plus. Our line took us straight onto the large boiler.
I could clearly see the wooden remains of the port paddle-wheel illuminated from behind by other divers torches.
The two wheels were almost as wide as the ship, and while the port one still looked impressive, the less well-preserved starboard wheel required a bit more imagination to visualise.
Further aft was the base of the stack. A few circular openings here revealed a monster of a conger hiding from our bright lights. The little wooden bridge had disappeared, and I saw only the metal boiler and engine workings remaining there, and a toilet bowl partially buried in the collapsed structure.
The hull protruded some half-metre out of the mud and the bow was visible. I had assumed the stern to be the most intact area of the wreck from drawings I had seen, but this had collapsed into the seafloor. However, the intact heart of the ship and those remaining paddle-wheels should keep most divers happy.
The weather had deteriorated. We might have been able to dive the other paddle-steamer, Iona, as it lies well protected from the south-westerly gales that prevail at this time of year, but we decided to leave it for another day.
I was intrigued by the Ionas history. In the 1860s Clyde-built paddle steamers were in great demand, though not in Scotland. When the American Civil War erupted and President Lincoln demanded that Confederate ports be blockaded, this created a need for blockade-runners. Clyde paddle-steamers were fast and, in the case of the Iona, had a very shallow draught of only 3m, well-suited for this risky but potentially profitable business.
Confederate agents in Scotland were paying top dollar, using fronts and fictitious companies to disguise their activities.
Iona was purchased, painted grey and stripped of most of her fittings before she set out on her final journey to the States on 2 October 1862. Disaster struck quickly - Iona didnt even get past the prominent landmark of the Cloch lighthouse.
The cause of the sinking is disputed. The other vessel involved was the newly launched steamship Chanticleer, which had been undertaking sea trials at the measured mile at Skelmorlie. Just after darkness had fallen, Chanticleer was heading past the lighthouse and heading straight for Iona at 8 knots.
Iona was almost sliced in two after being hit just aft of her paddle-wheel box. The crew of the mortally wounded vessel all escaped onto Chanticleer, the crew of which claimed that some of these men who were not locals were drunk. A stowaway was also found scrambling from his hideaway to the safety of Chanticleer. The Iona crew in turn claimed that the Chanticleer had displayed no lights and came out of nowhere.
Chanticleer tried in vain to push Iona ashore but she had soon disappeared beneath the waves to her resting place in 28m of tidal water.
Ionas captain had refused assistance and a line from another vessel until he received confirmation that Chanticleer would accept responsibility for the collision. Such an admission proved not to be forthcoming, so Iona missed her chance of salvation and now lies on the muddy sea floor off Gourock.
You need to seek permission to dive the wreck from the Clyde shipping authorities, as Iona lies just inside the shipping lanes, some 100m south-east of the Whiteforeland buoy.
The river is quite narrow here and, like us, you might experience strong tidal movement above the wreck.
Diving at high tide provides the best conditions because the maximum amount of clearer water from downstream displaces the murkier water found here at other times. We found the viz to be around 3m, which isnt bad. At 17m the green water turned darker but the viz was maintained.
The strong tidal movement abated as we landed on the wreck just forward of the front funnel. I had expected to discover the usual hole in the deck but was surprised to see the internal remains of the funnel rising a couple of metres out of it. Further forward was a bulkhead, and the sea floor was a field of large pieces of coal - fuel for the long Atlantic crossing.
The hull had disintegrated here and the bow was fairly broken. Retracing our steps and passing the funnel again, two of the Ionas four boilers could be noted in their horizontal position, side by side.
The most impressive features of the wreck were the engine workings, the massive brass counter-weights and the driveshaft connected to the two paddle-wheels.
I followed the shaft across the wreck, which felt strange as I am accustomed to following a propshaft along the length of a wreck - and arriving at a prop.
This time I moved out over the hull and felt the tide catch me, but before me was the starboard paddle-wheel, fairly well-preserved although the housing had gone. This was the area I had came to explore, and I wasnt disappointed.
Iona had more to offer, however. As we finned further aft, the second pair of horizontal boilers came into view, and just behind these the aft stack, rising a good 2m out of the deck. There was a small hold, and the severely damaged stern section had either collapsed under the mud or been severed in the collision and landed elsewhere.
All that remained visible now was another huge carpet of coal. The hull had broken off at deck level and lay under the mud.
Over the years the wreck and its brass fittings have been well pillaged. There have been interesting finds, too, including jars of preserved fruit and a pair of binoculars. All too soon, the shotline had to be found and our brief visit was over.
As I hung on the line, my thoughts turned to those brave men who had been about to cross the mighty Atlantic in this small craft. Her 3m draught would certainly have made for an exciting journey. I was happy that the wrecks of Champion and Iona were still there, giving divers the chance to see a method of propulsion that is now almost extinct.