SHE came zig-zagging down the Channel on a mad March day. The sea was hardly rough, but every few minutes a small squall with pelting rain would sweep across her deck and race away to the north to blot out the distant Devon coastline.
Those rain showers also hid from the lookouts the periscope of UC-17. Kapitanleutnant Ralph Wenniger had been following the Maine since he had spotted her soon after dawn on Friday, 23 March, 1917.
The Maine was bound for Philadelphia from London carrying 500 tonnes of chalk and 50 tonnes of general stores, including cowhair, horsehair and fenugreek seeds, which farriers use as medicine for horses. It was not much of a cargo but her owners, the Atlantic Transport Company, had high hopes of a valuable war supplies cargo on the return run.The Maine lies at 50 12 45N; 03 50 53W. It is essential to dive 21/2 hours after high tide or 21/2 hours after low. Dive charter boats can put you on the wreck out of Salcombe or Plymouth. Closest launch site for RIBs and inflatables is Hope Cove, using the slip at Inner Hope, by the Old Lifeboat House
On the bridge was Captain Bill Johnston and his First Officer. Lookouts were stationed on the forecastle head and the poop, and the 12cm gun on the stern was manned. All 43 of the crew knew they were in one of the U-boats favourite killing grounds. They were 21km south of Berry Head when, at exactly 8.05am, a torpedo from UC-17s bow tube struck the Maine in the port side, level with no. 2 hold.
The blast blew Captain Johnston off his feet, ripped the hatches off no. 2 and no. 3 holds, smashed the port gig and wrecked the bridge. But the worst damage was the great hole in her side. Water poured in and within moments her engines were flooded. Captain Johnston got off his distress signal immediately. The first ship to arrive was the Royal Navys torpedo boat 99, commanded by Lt-Cmdr Percy Taylor. He took the Maine in tow until the first Admiralty tug arrived at noon to take over. However, the power of the tug was too much for the Maines bulkheads. They collapsed and at 12.45pm the ship sank - in Commander Taylors words, gracefully, upright and on an even keel - between Bolt Tail and Bolt Head.
The Maine was first dived in 1961 by Torbay BSAC, which now owns the wreck. The club salvaged her propeller, which amounted to more than 6 tonnes of solid bronze. In 1983, club members raised the spare iron propeller for display in Paignton, and the bow bell was recovered in 1987. Unfortunately, the gun that should be on the stern was taken without permission by an unknown group of divers.
Over the years, the wreck has gradually broken up, but this has not detracted from the quality of the dive.
One of the most impressive sights was at one time the overhanging counterstern. Now partially broken off, it is still connected to the wreck and has hinged downwards to rest on the seabed at 35m. The huge rudder is also here, lying flat on the sand. Shoals of pollack, pouting and poor-cod are prolific, and beneath the rudder itself you can see crab and lobster, and occasionally a ling.
Moving carefully, it is possible to enter several small compartments in the part of the stern still attached to the main wreck. Be warned that the entry holes are quite small and some of the edges razor-sharp.
Inside the poop space are two neatly stowed anchors. Between this compartment and the starboard side is an area where the ships carpenter had his workshop, and across to the port side there is a lamp locker and paint store.
If you ease carefully through a hole in the bulkhead, you can get into afterhold no. 4 without going all the way back to deck level. Shafts of light filter through the cargo hatches and holes in the deckhead, down into the gloom. Lumps of white chalk are scattered about, left over from the wartime cargo, and a shoal of large pouting circles endlessly through the holds. When you reach this point, do not be surprised if a conger eel suddenly appears at your shoulder - it means no harm!
Between no. 3 hold and the engine room, you come across vertical ladders covered in plumose anemones in various shades of orange, green and white. The engine room itself is fairly open, as the bulkhead has collapsed and most of the deck plates have fallen inwards. The huge triple expansion steam engine is upright and in place, and beyond it two massive boilers sit side by side, taking up most of the ships 14m beam.
It is possible to continue through the wreck via a small passageway along the starboard side of the boiler room, but it is easier to exit from here to deck level.
Now, with limited dive time, a decision has to be made. You can choose to stay in the engine and boiler rooms, which are worth a closer look, or you can descend to the seabed off the starboard side, just level with the boilers. Here you will find the remains of the Maines bridge, captains cabin, funnel and superstructure.
The contours of the seabed tend to change from year to year. A few years ago several intact portholes and the ships wheel and helm were recovered from this area. The bridge bell has never been found, so it might be worth having a quick search in the sand or beneath the wreckage.
Forward of the boilers, the wreck is badly broken - both forward holds are completely open and filled with sand. It used to be possible to swim through the torpedo hole in the port side, but the side of the ship has now collapsed.
The bow section is a fine sight indeed, rising 12m off the seabed with port and starboard anchors still in their hawse pipes. Here the ships bow bell was recovered, just ahead of the anchor winches, where the focsle deck has fallen into the crews quarters.
Now you reach possibly the best part of a dive on the Maine. Descend from the bow slowly to the seabed, past ballan and cuckoo wrasse grazing along the ships side. Look up and see her bow silhouetted against the light - it is a fantastic sight.