Mike Ward and his team undertake a Red Sea wreck-hunt of epic proportions. No, really!
THE DAY WAS COOL AND WINDY, as the Red Sea often is so early in the season. Outside the reef, the sea was an unsettled mass of water, angrily rolling against the coral and throwing spray high into the air.
The metre-plus swell would have made the boat heave and lurch queasily if we hadnt been in the lee of the reef called Mahmoudat, but it was still possible to feel the continuous movement underfoot.
Kitting-up was suddenly a challenge, and the walk across the deck to the dive platform became a treacherous journey, alive with the threat of injury.
For almost 10 minutes wed been discussing the possibilities, and we were all agreed that just a short time from now we might have made that rarest of discoveries, an intact, undived wreck!
First team into the water that day were Chris and Peter. Peter kitted up slowly, and checked his twin-15s carefully. It was the 10th time hed made the checks, but he was nervous: this could be the Big One, and even though the warm-up dives had gone without a hitch, he wanted to be sure.
As soon as the signal was given, Peter made his way to the dive-platform, flanked by two willing tenders helping to support the weight of his steel cylinders. He stepped into the water.
Across the deck, Chris finished his fag and slipped into his BC.
The pair swam gracefully down, gliding across the slope of the reef towards their target depth. They were ready to start their search, their eyes darting here and there, desperate for a first glimpse of the dark shadow that might betray the presence of the wreck.
The vis wasnt great, no more then 20-30m, but it was long, long seconds before they saw it, the white hull contrasting eerily with the blue water, and the darker shapes of the rock and coral heads on the seabed.
Wed done it. Wed found the wreck!
WE HAD EMBARKED ON OUR QUEST when rumours reached the team in late 2009 of a sinking somewhere in the Mahmoudat system.
Our first thoughts were for the crew and passengers, and there was general relief when it became clear that there had been no casualties. Reassured, we started to plan our expedition.
The first decision was the team. Ideally, divers needed to be experienced and capable professionals, but we couldnt get any, so we took anyone willing to join up.
Next question was kit. Look at a chart of the area, and youll see that the water is deep, as much as 30m in places, and by the time youre a mile or so from the reef the slope can take you much deeper, maybe as much as 900m, so full technical capability could be required.
Probably not, however, so we didnt worry much about it.
Finally, we needed a boat. It had to have a Jacuzzi, of course, and decent grub, so Whirlwind it was.
Now that the hard decisions had been made we were good to go, and launched our search full of enthusiasm that even the harsh conditions couldnt dampen.
Even if it was a bit windy, the water a mere 23° and the vis below 20m at times, we could cope - but we were lucky, and got the wreck first try.
Now the real work began. Wreck identification is rarely easy, and its important to assemble the clues carefully until a positive ID can be confirmed.
Yes, we knew of the recent sinking, but it was possible that our wreck was all that remained of an unsuspected and much earlier tragedy. We had to be sure.
Our first clue was the words Emperor Fraser painted on the bottom of the wreck in half a dozen places, but its easy to leap to the obvious conclusion, and not always correct.
Not wishing to make such an amateur mistake, we needed to find corroborative evidence. Over the course of the next few dives, we were able to explore the wreck thoroughly, looking for anything that might provide a clue to its true identity.
The huge sign at the stern reading Emperor Divers was discounted; it could have come from anywhere.
And then, finally, a discovery was made. While waiting out an endless deco stop, a glint of metal flashed on the seabed. Ignoring the danger inherent in a redescent, down went the divers, and a fingertip search quickly uncovered a single fork.
Back on Whirlwind, the precious artefact was passed eagerly from hand to hand. It was a distinctive design, with swoopy curves vaguely reminiscent of fish, and in great condition.
Even better, clearly visible on the back, was a single word, Solingen, though in truth this merely confused matters. Far from confirming the identity of the wreck, it opened another avenue of research. Were we dealing with Emperor Fraser, or the wreck of the my Solingen
Out of time, and no nearer the truth, we returned to port. Despairing of ever making a confirmed ID, we found a run-down bar in old Sharm.
We were sat around our post-trip beers, with the fork on the table between us, when a man seated in the corner and nursing a small diet-cola broke into our conversation.
With a tremor in his voice, he asked us where the fork had come from. When we told him, and with his hoarse throat lubricated by an endless flow of diet-cola, he told us the full story.
As a young man, just after the turn of the century, he had come out to Egypt to seek his fortune, and perhaps find a little adventure. Instead, he had found himself working aboard a liveaboard dive-boat using exactly this design of cutlery!
The name of the vessel It came slowly from the depths of his memory: Emperor Fraser. We had our confirmation.
So, had all the time, trouble and effort been worth it Oh yes. Even if, when we dived the wreck, we found that everything that was worth taking had already been stripped from the wreck; every cubby-hole, cupboard and drawer had been opened and the contents removed, and the superstructure itself had fallen off.
So there you have it. At Mahmoudat, aka Beacon Rock, and about a quarter of a mile from the wreck of the Dunraven, lie the remains of the liveaboard dive-boat, Emperor Fraser.
|Emperor Fraser was lost on 16 December, 2009. Her guests were off diving the Dunraven when the winds shifted suddenly, pushing her onto the reef despite the crews best efforts. |
Red Sea winds blow almost continually from the north to the west quadrant, but very occasionally from the south. Skippers keep a constant lookout for these aziab winds.
Once Fraser was on the reef the waves bounced her off, but by then she had been holed in several places below the waterline on her starboard side, and was clearly sinking.
Guests returning from their dive in the inflatables could only watch. Despite attempts at reboarding her, few personal possessions were recovered.
Over subsequent days, Emperor staff returned to salvage the wreck, though clearly other liveaboards had already put divers on her. Much was recovered, but far more lost.
Fraser was timber-built and quite substantial, though small by modern standards, but in Red Sea conditions she wont last long. The reef nearby is in excellent condition and has some great topography, so the wreck makes a good second or third dive, and lies in a maximum of 30m, at the very south-eastern end of Beacon Rock.
The cutlery aboard really was that distinctive, swoopy design, and the fork was found on the seabed just below where Fraser must have been moored when the winds changed.
The way we really located the wreck was to ask Whirlwinds skipper, Mohammed Rageb, who knew Frasers skipper when she went down, and obligingly moored above the remains!