FEBRUARY IS ALWAYS A LITTLE EARLY for deep wreck diving in England, but although the water was cold, the visibility was darkly fantastic.
My powerful torch had picked out a row of the keel-pins once used in the construction of the deep wreck before me. Their unusual size and appearance, as they protruded from the gravel seabed, reminded me of an old fence in need of serious repair.
I was hunting for a bell, because we needed positive identification of this ship. I paused to photograph the area of construction before moving on, my torch beam picking out a huge anchor.
I had to be in the bow area, which was where the ships bell would lie. A quick check of the partial pressure shown on my Inspiration Visions handset, and a glance at my VR3 computer, indicated that, even at 57m, I still had time to search the gravel.
I delved for some time in and beneath the ships keel, now half-buried in the deep gravel banks, until eventually my dive time drew to a close.
I surfaced none the wiser as to the wrecks identity - as so many divers have done over the past 13 years.
During the summer of 1996, Weymouth boat captain Graham Knott investigated a possible unknown wreck site in the English Channel, almost 20 miles south-east of Portland Bill.
Divers recorded that they believed the wreck to be that of a vessel dating as far back as 1850. It was a sailing ship, and thought to be ocean-going, judging by the iron knees and columns used in its construction between decks.
There are still a dozen or more sailing ships unaccounted for off this part of the Dorset coast, but none of them fitted the bill, primarily because of size and the cargo, which included much in the way of munitions.
Noted divers have identified dozens, of shipwrecks within a radius of almost 50 miles of the wreck area over the past two decades. But with this one, though clues to its identity appear to be present, time after time they simply lead back to the drawing-board. Could it be one of Britains most important wrecks Some researchers who have dived the site believe it may be.
An early investigator was one of the UKs original mixed-gas divers, Allan Yend. He and Graham Knott both thought they had at last found the missing Forest, a ship that had collided with what has become a popular Portland wreck called the Avalanche, lost during a violent storm in 1877.
The mystery wreck matched the period, and china recovered bore the Ashworth Ironstone hallmark and was dated to around 1862.
We only suspected that it was the Forest because of a yachtsmans eyewitness report of the navy trying to sink her in that approximate position, says Graham Knott.
The cargo was not crucial to our thoughts, as she was probably carrying some that the crew had organised.
KINGSTON DIVER ALAN DUNSTER had researched and dived Portland wrecks since the 1970s. After one look at this particular one, he dismissed the original theory.
The Royal Navy, he claimed, had sunk the Forest after the collision because she was a hazard to shipping. If this wreck was the Forest, it would present itself in quite a different way.
As Alans notes state, the entire bottom of the Forest had been blown out to effect the sinking, and would now lie scattered across the seabed, rather than in one complete section.
However, the divers noted that a large section of cargo consisted of munitions, and that various sections of the wreck were scattered with grapeshot.
Another clue came in the form of wooden barrels. The wood had rotted away, but the hoops remained, and they were made of brass. Could the barrels once have contained gunpowder, and were the divers dealing with a military vessel of some description
Neither Graham nor any of the investigating divers could find any military vessel listed as having been lost in this area of coastline during this particular period.
Further clues were provided by several belt-buckles recovered from the wreck, embossed with the name of a regiment, Staffordshire Volunteers 80.
The South Staffordshire Regiment was an infantry unit formed from the 38th Foot (raised in 1702 and becoming the 1st Staffordshire in 1782) and the 80th Foot (raised in 1793). Could this wreck have carried troops of that regiment to or from an historically important battle
I decided to get involved in trying to identify the wreck, and contacted the Staffordshires regimental secretary Major E Green with this information.
Major Green was excited about the wreck. However, though the task took researchers at the regiments Lichfield museum months to conclude, they could find no trace of anything among their masses of documents to suggest that any of the regiment had been lost through shipwreck between 1860 and 1880.
ALLAN YEND HAD ALSO RECOVERED a broken piece of china from the wreck. It bore the Union Castle line crest.
It was almost certainly not from the wreck, because the Union Castle line at the time owned no sailing vessels within its service, so it had probably been taken aboard from another vessel. However, this didnt stop us spending hours searching the Union Castle archives - just in case.
One of Alan Dunsters long-time friends, and an excellent researcher in his own right, is local historian and diver Nick Chipchase. Nick had recovered a silver spoon from the wreck, and a silversmith dated it for him - to approximately 1895!
Alan Dunster disagreed with the estimate. If the ship had been this recent, it would not have been in military service, because steam propulsion had taken over by this time.
I informed the Receiver of Wreck about the finds although, as it happened, this Government department had no record of the wreck either, let alone any idea of a potential legal owner!
The old wooden sailing ship lies within a depth range that makes for a shallow technical dive. It rests over a seabed of fine stone and shingle, which provides an area of acceptable visibility in which it has been possible to survey almost the entire wreck.
The timbers and planking have long since rotted, or even been eaten away. Possibly the poison that seeps from the copper keel-pins speeded up this process. These were the pins I had seen - they once held the ship together, and still stand in long rows, sticking up from the seabed.
The frames also seem to have rotted away, though occasionally there are signs of hull planking lying on the seabed. The hull must have been made of very durable wood, probably denser than that used for the frames.
The stern end of the wreck is to the east, where an obvious rudder gudgeon can be seen. A mast lies out to the north-east, and just behind this is an area where various items of crockery, including bowls and bottles, were discovered - possibly the galley.
The wreck has a rounded half-moon counter-stern, which is intact and rises 15cm above the shell/gravel seabed. What look like 8in-diameter shells can be seen here as well. They appear solid, and are possibly made of pig iron.
Going forward, the wreck rises to a height of about 3m, and consists of what almost certainly would have been cargo.
A mound of munitions is obvious, as is a huge pile of Martin Lee manufactured furnace bricks.
The main section shows a huge mound of 5cm-diameter steel hawsers, coiled up in rolls about 2m across. Some of these rolls have fallen outwards onto the remains of a section of hull.
IT HAS BEEN SUGGESTED that the cargo has shifted, because it appears to flow down the starboard side, breaking down to the seabed at an angle, but appears in steady bulk over to port.
Most of the wood here has again gone, leaving steel hawsers supported on rows of copper pins. Despite their weight, this has left a clear space underneath.
Aside from the hawsers is a collection of copper strips, about 3m long and about 50 x 6mm in cross-section. There is also some thin copper plating, which might have been carried separately to repair the hulls copper sheathing. Wood near the keel-pins appears to have survived.
About a third of the way along the port side from the stern is an Ariel depth charge, about 2m long.
One of its flights has broken, but otherwise it is intact, and obviously live. We can only assume that the wreck was used as a practice target for naval anti-submarine patrols, and perhaps this has led to its bad state of collapse.
FORWARD OF THE HAWSERS are several millstones, which are surrounded by stone bottles and jars manufactured by Powels of Bristol.
Further forward again, the wreck begins to peter out where three hatchways can be seen a few inches above the seabed. It is here that divers will find a fishermans anchor lying flat to the bed, with a huge pile of chain.
Swimming round to the port side, they will find two more classic anchors, upright and side by side. On this side the wooden hull shape is fairly recognisable.
Everywhere around the wreck are beer bottles, drinking glasses and stoneware bottles, some with an intricate twist-neck design.
Along each side of the wreck are deadeyes, still in excellent condition. There are lots of scattered greenish hoops of varying sizes, possibly those used in the construction of barrels.
At one point DIR-UK group members spent a week systematically surveying the wreck, after identifying a stable point of reference central to it. They made line references in order to video each section and study the evidence topside.
Maritime historians who could not dive to the wreck then studied the footage. Their expert eyes brought a new dimension to the project - though still no identity.
The Shipwreck Project team, led by Graham Knott, is currently experimenting and honing its skills with airlifting and water-dredging equipment on the wreck of East Indiaman the Earl of Abergavenny in Weymouth Bay.
Towards the end of this season the divers will move onto the mystery wreck, with the intention of air-lifting two key areas. They will be looking for clues that they hope will conclude this long-running saga.
Its expected to be a tricky operation, given the depth, strong tidal flow and short slackwater periods with which the English Channel is blessed.
This wreck is one of the most historically interesting and picturesque in the Weymouth area.
More diving activity will undoubtedly lead to further clues - if not the discovery of the bell which, tantalisingly, may well be hidden a few centimetres beneath the shingle bed.