|It all began with a Chinese meal and an idea scribbled on a beer mat. Since then weve sunk four warships and it wont be long before this one joins them, declares Jay Straith, looking out at the gun battery on the forecastle of the destroyer HMCS Yukon. If all goes to plan, well sink her in less than three minutes.|
This isnt some covert operation being fought by a gang of renegade divers. They have the full blessing of the Navy. Jay Straith is the president of the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia (ARSBC), which turns warships into dive sites. Hes giving me a guided tour of the HMCS Yukon to show me what is involved in preparing a warship to become an artificial reef.
Jay explains how the society was formed in 1990 by a group of underwater archaeologists while sharing a beer and putting the underwater world to rights. A dive boats anchor had just destroyed the paddle wheel of a steamer sunk in 1868. If such historic wrecks were to remain intact, something had to be done to take the pressure off them.
And what better way than to create your own wrecks
That sinking feeling
In 1991, the society sank the 54m coastal freighter GB Church in a marine park off Sydney, Vancouver Island. The site soon became popular with divers, generating valuable income for the local economy.
Next came the HMCS Chaudiere, sunk by the society in 1992 in Sechelt Inlet and now one of the most popular dive sites in British Columbia, boasting more than 100 different marine species.
But the sinking of the Chaudiere didnt quite go to plan, as it landed on its side at an angle of 80. We didnt know that a destroyer is designed to sink in a certain way once its main decks are flooded. We get round this problem now by pre-flooding and using explosive charges in specific places. Its a matter of learning by experience there are no manuals.
I ask Jay why the societys work has been so successful. Its because the programme is run by divers, as opposed to government officials. We know exactly what we want and now were showing that we can make it work.
Looking round the Yukon, I notice that large panels have been cut out of various parts of the ship. Were big on diver safety, comments Jay. No matter where you are in the wreck, youll never be more than 10m from an exit hole. In five years and thousands of dives, we havent had one incident.
We also cut out all the hatches and widen some of the spaces by removing cables and piping. This makes the ship safer for divers, and we sell the bits we remove to raise funds.
I had recently dived the HMCS Saskatchewan in Nanaimo and the HMCS Columbia in Campbell River. Outside every entry point there are signs warning divers not to venture into the wreck unless they have had proper training. Inside, there are arrows pointing to the exit holes. Without these safety measures, the ship would be undiveable by all but the most experienced divers.
Continuing my tour of HMCS Yukon, we come to the engine room. This will all be diver accessible, explains Jay. Past attempts to secure engine rooms for diver safety havent worked, so were going to Swiss cheese it to give six ways out.
No matter where you are in the wreck, if you turn your torch off youll always be able to see which way the ambient light is coming from. Some divers have criticised us for doing this, claiming that the wrecks arent technically difficult enough. We dont agree safety is everything.
The clean-up operation is also extremely important. We remove all the hazardous contaminants from the ship, including PCBs, hydrocarbons and refrigerants, explains Jay. Over the past three sinkings there has been no evidence of any surface sheen from pollutants. We always work very closely with environmental agencies to make sure were getting it right.
Marine life is quick to take up residence in the wrecks. The HMCS Saskatchewan had been on the sea bed for just 10 months when we visited her. Already there were shoals of fish inside the bridge and gun compartments. Sponges were starting to grow on the outer hull, masking her original camouflage.
Her sister ship, the HMCS Columbia, has been under water for almost two years. Diving her after the Saskatchewan was like stepping forward in time. The sponge growth was thicker and more widespread, and plumose anemones were thriving where the current caught the hull.
As we reach the galley of the Yukon, I ask Jay how much of the ship is going to be left intact. We try to leave as much as possible, but we remove a lot of fittings and sell them to raise money for the society. All this galley equipment will go weve got people literally queuing up to buy this stuff.
We raise enough money from salvage to go towards a large proportion of the costs. As well as using volunteers to help prepare the ships, we try to do something for the community by employing people on back-to-work schemes.
A dignified end
But how does the Navy feel about its warships being turned into a playground for divers Weve been very careful to respect the traditions and history of each ship, explains Jay. When we sink a ship, its not a carnival atmosphere, although we do have the guns fire a last shot. Its all done with great dignity.
We invite all the old crewmen back for one last salute on board with a glass of champagne. When they disembark, some are in tears.
I remember a captain thanking us for what we had done. He knew his ship would have been turned into razor blades, but this way it would have a new life as a living reef bearing its name.
The Navy now understands that we are not desecrating the ships in any way. They are better known now than when they were afloat.
The services and expertise of the society are now being called on internationally. In 1997, the Australian Artificial Reef Society sank the HMAS Swan off its west coast. In its first four months, it was visited by 5000 divers, giving a huge boost to the local economy.
The Australian government is now preparing to hand over more warships, recognising that it makes more economic sense to sink them than sell them for scrap.
The society estimates that each of its ships generates more than a million dollars a year in revenue.
The Canadian government has also recognised the value of the programme to its economy. Soon, decommissioned warships will be sunk in the Great Lakes and on the east coast, and the first has already been sunk in Nova Scotia.
Work will also continue in British Columbia the HMCS Restigouche is going to Port Alberni and the HMCS Courteney to Powell River.
In the States, the San Diego Diving Council is currently negotiating the purchase of the HMCS Yukon to add to its artificial reef programme in Wreck Alley, San Diego.
The society has also discovered that warships can be a Hollywood goldmine. Remember the X Files episode in which Mulder and Scully mysteriously aged while on board a ghostly American destroyer Ill let you into a secret: the ship was the HMCS Mackenzie in disguise. The society rented it out to the television company, then when filming was finished the ship was sunk off Sydney, Vancouver Island, complete with its X Files make-up.
Now its your turn
So, I wonder, has the society had any enquiries from the UK Jay laughs, Not yet, but I guess if you asked us nicely we might consider helping the mother country! Do you know anyone who might be interested
That certainly sounds like a challenge to me. Our quarries are full of old helicopters, trucks, cranes and boats, but which club or organisation is going to be the first to sink a warship
Creating this kind of artificial reef in Britain would make an ideal Millennium project and would generate a great deal of positive publicity for the diving world in general.
So what are you waiting for Somewhere out there in a restaurant near you is a beer mat waiting to be scribbled on.
GETTING THERE: No travel operators currently run all-inclusive diving packages. British Airways, American Airlines, Canadian Airlines and Air Canada fly into Vancouver Airport. Fly-drive packages can be obtained through most airlines.
DIVING DETAILS: Ocean Explorers Diving Tel: 001 604 753 2065 for diving on the HMCS Saskatchewan; Abyssal Diving Charters Tel: 001 604 285 2420 for diving on the HMCS Columbia; Tourism British Columbia Tel: 0891 715000 for accommodation information and guide to local diving.
ARTIFICIAL REEFS: Jay Straith, Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia Tel: 001 604 257 8303.
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