|THE James Eagan Layne must be one of Britains most often dived wrecks. Some experienced divers choose to mock it because it is not exclusive enough for their liking, but there are just as many who consider it a special site that is always worth a visit.|
Whether you are interested in exploring holes, looking for souvenirs, learning a bit about marine biology, photography, or if you just want a little basic training, the
James Eagan Layne is the place to go.
The wreck lies in Whitesand Bay, just west of Plymouth. It was one of the mass-produced American Liberty vessels built to bolster allied merchant shipping during World War Two. She was torpedoed in March, 1945, carrying 4500 tonnes of US army stores, plus a cargo of military motor boats and timber.
An attempt was made to beach her in Whitesand Bay, but water overcame the ships pumps and she sank about three-quarters of a mile from shore.
Today the bows lie in 22m of water, the stern is at 26m, and she rises over 10m from the seabed. On a spring tide there can be a bit of a current around the bows, but not enough to get in the way of diving, so there is no need to get up at the crack of dawn to catch slack water.
Over the years, much of the cargo has been salvaged and the structure of the ship has been crumpled by storms. What remains is in a state of deterioration but is not yet flattened. This is what makes the wreck such an interesting dive.
The James Eagan Layne is a great place for novice wreck divers. You can tie a descent line to the bows at 5m or 6m, or to a convenient bit of decking at about 10m. This gives the novice some security on the way down, but if you drop a shot or anchor, take care not to hit divers already on the wreck.
From the line, you can descend into the holds, which gives a sense of being inside the wreck without any risk of overhead obstruction preventing a safe ascent. Visibility is usually quite good, allowing scenic views through the remains of the bulkheads between the holds, where shoals of bib and poor cod are lurking.
For the dedicated wreckie, there are still souvenirs to be found in the remains of the cargo, in the engine room area, and especially among the assorted wreckage that has collapsed outside the hull. There are some fairly easy routes through the remains of the engine room, and it is possible to squeeze along the prop shaft tunnel to the point where the wreck is completely broken up at the sternmost hold. At this point, you have to be careful not to disturb a few loose girders.
About 10m from the aft end of the main body lies the rudder and a detached section of the stern. Here, at 20m, you will find an air bell which has formed out of divers bubbles. Some sections of the stern are covered by open ribs and are deceptively inviting, but they can be difficult to get in and out of.
The detached stern section is a good place for wreck photography. The ribs and girders are covered in anemones, and on a sunny day you will get light shining through the gaps. You should also find several shoals of fish here, including a few large ballan wrasse.
The bows of the wreck can also be good for photography. Anemones and deadmens fingers cover the sides of the wreck and there is some interesting girder work on the seabed to the west of the bows.
There are always opportunities for macro photography on the wreck, even in poor visibility. You do not have to look hard to find small anemones, nudibranchs, and the always-smiling tompot blennies occupying many nooks and crannies.
With most of the wreck in less than 18m of water, divers are unlikely to get into decompression. Nevertheless, if you get to the end of a long second dive and decompression is needed, the top of the bows provides a good place to chill out and watch the fish go by.
The James Eagan Layne is accessible by inflatable from Plymouth, and she is easy enough to locate on the water as there is a big red marker buoy lying 50m from the stern. You can launch at Bovisand or one of the numerous slips in the town, such as the marina slip at Queen Annes Battery. Alternatively, just pick a hard boat from the small ads, and away you go. The co-ordinates are 50 19 32N: 04 04 42W. If you get lost, look in a guide book for the transits!