FOR ALMOST 90 years the luxury ocean liner Tuscania has lain on the deep seabed between the islands of Rathlin and Islay between Scotland and Ireland.For charter information, visit www.geministorm.co.uk
Time marches on, as did the thousands of US troops who boarded the Tuscania for her final voyage at the tail end of the Great War.
Today Tuscania, once owned by the Cunard steamship company and converted to a troopship in 1916, shows its age. Its superstructure has collapsed and it lists in darkness to its starboard side, where the fatal torpedo struck.
Tuscania is one of the toughest wreck dives around, if only because it lies in a very tidal location right in the middle of whats known as the North Channel.
With a huge amount of water from the north Atlantic squeezing into a very small area on the daily tidal movement, it can be dived only at certain times of year and on certain tides.
This is why so few people have visited the site. The only charter skipper to go there these days is Scotsman George Mair.
Mair runs Gemmarine liveaboard charters off Scotlands west coast, often catering for serious technical divers. He was one of the UKs original trimix divers, and theres something to be said for having a mixed-gas practitioner at the helm, because he knows only too well whats going on below.
I first learnt of Tuscania in the 1980s, while reading Steve Blackburns dive guide to Islay. The wreck was then described as being lost in water far too deep for divers.
Special mixed gases would be required, the sort of thing typically reserved back then for military divers.
In 1990, Irish diver Tommy Cecil published the stories of Rathlin shipwrecks in The Harsh Winds of Rathlin, and again described the Tuscania as lying in water too deep for sport divers.
Then mixed gas was introduced to mainstream sport diving in the early 90s and Tuscania, like many other deep wrecks, was suddenly a possibility.
Tuscania lies west to east on a 105m seabed, so when the slack water turns it runs from bow to stern, and vice versa. Being on the right side of the shotline when the slack does turn is essential, because the current picks up so fast and is so strong that without the aid of a scooter its impossible to reach the line home.
Being upcurrent when it changes means that you can drift back to the line with the current, but even then divers would be pushing their luck. Why Because the current picks up so quickly, so its best to be nearing a decompression lazy line at a respectable depth before its too late.
Delay, and theres every chance youll be using all your strength to hang on the line like a flag on an 80m deco stop, while above you an unreleased lazy decompression station is slowly being pulled under water by the weight of other divers hanging on it.
George Mair first visited the Tuscania with the Dark Star UK deep wreck diving team led by Mark Dixon. With little knowledge of local tidal movements, their first attempt at shotting the wreck resulted in all four buoys disappearing under water the moment they hooked the wreck!
Reminiscent of the scene in Jaws when the shark pulls four barrels under water, they never saw their buoys again.
However, they have spent several years successfully exploring, documenting and videoing the wreck, and I was able to join them on several occasions. Diving Tuscania is a treat for any technical diver, and considering its many years on the seabed it is in relatively good shape. The main superstructure may be gone but the hull, bow decks and machinery all remain.
Aft of the bridge, most of the decks have caved inwards, giving better stability to the remains of the hull, but there is still a lot to see. Landmarks such as davits and mooring bollards are evident.
The bow section is as intact as the day Tuscania went down, and a wave-breaker across the width of the ship divides the bow tip from the working well deck. It is here that all the forward machinery can be seen - anchor-chains, hawsers and stairways leading below, with surrounding safety rails intact.
As you reach the lower section of the bridge, it becomes shallower, at about 90m, and you work your way up and over the remains of the top bridge deck.
The main helm steering position can be seen clearly here, as can the bridge telemotor and, lying upside-down alongside it, one of the huge 21in-diameter Cunard telegraphs.
AFT OF THE BRIDGE, remains of the teak decking that made up the lower covered promenade deck walkways can be seen, both to port and starboard.
Swimming over the remains of a skylight that once covered the forward passenger staircase, you head amidships and to the stern.
You cross the remains of the first-class lounge, then the first-class smoking room, and reach the veranda café, marked by two large freshwater tanks. Neither of Tuscanias two funnels remains, of course. They were probably swept clean off on the first flood tide the day the liner sank.
Nor is there evidence of their remains on the seabed, although there are many lifeboat davits to be seen in the gloomy green light.
What is interesting are the number of unusual artefacts lying among the wreckage, items you wont find on many wrecks, such as beautifully preserved stained-glass windows.
Shine your HID torch through these and you will be stunned by the amazing array of colours spread across the delicate design.
Every few metres you travel along the wreckage you will find something interesting, such as intact tip basins and brass shower units from first-class bathrooms.
Tuscania lay silent for 78 years until the wreck was discovered by a group of technical divers from Northern Ireland in August 1996.
One of them was Norman Woods:
I first discovered the site using the old Decca navigation system, he says.
A dive was attempted, but due to the strong tidal water we abandoned it after reaching a depth of 80m.
We returned on 8 September and dropped the grapnel, which caught the portside seabed. I followed Oliver McIlroy down and we discovered that we had passed the side of the wreck, which was then to our side at a depth of 105m. We came back up the hull past two rows of portholes to the top of the wreck around amidships at a depth of about 90m. Total dive time was 113 minutes.
Woods and his team were true pioneers of British technical diving. Although the dive was brief, it was one of the first explorations of a wreck deeper than 100m in Britain - yet the entire operation was conducted from a RIB launched from Ballycastle!
One of the most memorable dives for Norman Woods was the one on which he recovered the huge bell from Tuscanias bow, in August 1997.
I was only on the wreck for about 10 minutes and it was the visibility that struck me, he says. This was one of the only times I have ever known the wreck blessed with such conditions that you didnt need a torch. I was right on the bow forward of the hold, next to the gangway of the forward crew quarters.
Of course, at that time we didnt know that the wreck was the Tuscania. The bridge bell was sitting on the deck. It must have fallen from the bracket above the gangway.
Miraculously, Woods managed to recover the big bell - a mammoth task. It must have taken a lot of gas to send it to the surface from 90m.
ON SURFACING, Woods diving pal Nigel Martin was able to shout the name of the ship to him. At long last they had identified the sinking location of the Tuscania.
Woods immediately drove to Rathlin Island to show his mate Tommy Cecil and have photographs taken. In agreement with the wrecks owner, Tim Epps of Port Charlotte on Islay, he would later donate the bell to Islay Museum, where it can still be seen.
Sadly, just a month after the recovery of the bell Tommy Cecil lost his life during a dive on the Tuscania.
Of the 200 US and nine British soldiers who died, many met their fate on the rocky coastline of Islay. Tuscania finally plunged below the waves four hours after being torpedoed.
Still standing today on the cliffs overlooking the site is the huge American monument raised by the Red Cross in the 1920s, a reminder of those who lost their lives when the ship sank.
The German submarine responsible was UB77, commanded by Lt Wilhelm Meyer. In 1928 Leo Zimmerman of the Wisconsin Survivors Association wrote to Meyer requesting his account of that trip and the sinking of Tuscania.
Meyer sent his own personal account, which was read at a survivors reunion on the 20th anniversary of the sinking.
My thanks to Steve Schwartz of Washington State, USA, for opening up his immense research for this article.
The liner Tuscania, built by A Stephen & Sons of Glasgow, was launched on 3 September 1914, shortly after the outbreak of WW1. Gross tonnage was 14,348, length 549ft and capacity 2400-plus passengers.
In early 1918 she was docked in New York at Pier 54 - formerly reserved for the Lusitania, which had sunk at the start of the war. Tuscania had been assigned to transport
US troops and supplies for the war effort to Le Havre in France, and was painted in olive drab to camouflage her from preying U-boats.
The US Army marched 2179 troops aboard, and they went below decks while the cargo was loaded. On 24 January Tuscania left port, arriving in Halifax in Canada two days later.
Here the vessel was assembled into convoy HX20, alongside nine other merchant troopships, an oil-tanker and a single escorting British cruiser, HMS Cochrane. Their destination was Ireland, England and then France.
The convoy reached the west coast of Ireland almost a week later, and eight more British cruisers joined them as an escort through the British Isles, known then as the Danger Zone.
On 5 February the seas became heavy, and the sight of land made many troops keen to stand on solid ground.
At 5.42pm, with the dining rooms full of soldiers, an explosion blew across the starboard side of the ship. She immediately began listing to starboard, and as the lights went out it was clear that a torpedo had struck.
Captain Peter MacLean ordered the watertight doors closed and the lifeboats to be launched. Acting on orders, all the escort cruisers made haste to search for the U-boat, leaving Tuscania motionless in the heavy seas.
Enforcing discipline throughout the chaos, her officers took control of the situation. By 7pm all lifeboats had been launched, leaving 1350 men still aboard.
Having failed to locate the enemy, three British cruisers returned to begin rescue operations. Ropes were thrown across to Tuscania's decks for the men to slide down.
At 7.15 the U-boat fired again, missing Tuscania but striking the cliffs and shattering the glass in the Altacarry Lighthouse above.
Two cruisers broke away from the rescue operation to drop depth charges, each one sending a concussion of water pressure against the bodies of the men in the water. Those still alive in the darkness were left to freeze to death in the heat of battle. In all, 200 men died.
The second torpedo added to the panic aboard Tuscania until HMS Mosquito and HMS Pigeon bravely moved alongside the ship to take off the remaining men. By 8.45, aided by several fishing boats that were helping to pick up survivors from the water, the rescue was complete.