Challenging with a small sea
THE NORTH SEA IS NOT RENOWNED for being deep! You wont find it on a list of must-dos for the average technical diver.
Diving the North Sea does, however, throw up its own technical challenges, The sort that come from hanging out miles from shore, diving unknown wrecks for days on end.
The weather can become as serious as in any sea, so making the most of calm days with extended-range diving skills can transform the North Sea into a technical-diving location.
This is the first day of an offshore expedition, and we hope to dive more than 12 wrecks, with the really good stuff coming later.
Our first dive is to explore the wreck of the ss Tubantia, positively identified by recovery of china bearing the name of her shipping company. The wreck is in just 34m of water, but my rebreather will allow me additional bottom time in which to get myself around this once-proud 14,000-ton Dutch passenger vessel - possibly several times over.
The wreck at first appears no different to any other British wreck, with dead mens fingers covering much of an upturned hull that stands no more than 5m above the seabed.
But what makes this wreck stand out are the many dozens of stone gin bottles marked E EN Lucas Bols Het Lootseje, Amsterdam scattered around it.
Most of the wreck lies with a 75° list to port, and the starboard side is completely crushed up to the seabed superstructure, and projects not much more than 5m above the seabed.
Two rows of twin boilers dominate the centre of the wreck site, with a pair of triple-expansion engines towering above the seabed and leaning to port.
Forward, the wreck is very broken. Parts are covered by the clean sand, and the large bow lies on its port side.
Dead mens fingers are found in huge colonies across the exposed superstructure, many white but with orange varieties mixed in. Include the slimmer and more striking red fingers, and the wreck becomes quite colourful.
THE TUBANTIA WAS LOST IN 1916, after being torpedoed by the German submarine UB13. There were stories that she was carrying gold.
With a direct hit into the engine-room followed by several attempts to salvage her over the years, the wreck is not the best-preserved site youll find in the North Sea, but its well worth a visit, as my 90 minutes of bottom time indicates.
I am picked up by the crew of the support RIB tendering the Belgium expedition ship Cdt Fourcault.
Our home for the next week, the Fourcault is a 56m ex-Navy vessel with 32 cabins, and sleeps 50. There is a lounge, a library and, of course, a large kitchen, set up to spoil every diver with fine Belgian cuisine.
Fourcault even has its own water-maker, producing some 5000 litres every 24 hours. For dive support it is second to none, and has two onboard RIBs, one for four divers and the other for 12! The RIBs are lifted in and out of the water by one of two 18-ton cranes.
There is a fully functional recompression chamber and, for technical divers making the most of their gas reserves, an oxygen booster, with thirteen 60-litre oxygen cylinders available any one time.
The vessel even has its own onboard ROV, five generators and two compressors - oh, and there is a landing pad at the stern for its own Jet Ranger helicopter! Just when you thought dive charters couldnt get any better, the mother ship turns up.
Mother Natures vagaries apart, this expedition has been prepared down to every detail. The expedition departed from the Cdt Fourcaults base in the centre of Antwerp and brought us through the night into the North Sea.
Water temperature is around 17°C in the summer, and in combination with closed-circuit rebreathers and restricted depths, were good for at least two dives a day.
The rest of this day is spent steaming out to sea, until we arrive well offshore at the site of the Konigin Wilhelmina. The Fourcault moors up for the night, and we spend the evening planning the dives and fettling our gear.
The morning brings a warm breeze, and a calm North Sea bathed in sunshine. After a Belgian breakfast, we get ready to dive.
The Konigin Wilhelmina was a Dutch paddle-steamer, built in 1895 and sunk after hitting a mine in 1916. The ship went down similarly to the Titanic, in that she broke in two with her aft section rising out of the water.
The crew floated the lifeboats, and most of the 244 passengers survived.
The relatively intact wreck lies on a 48m seabed, and stands up some 7m or so. Most of the upper superstructure has now gone, but both paddles are firmly in place, and very impressive.
BETWEEN THE PADDLE-WHEELS, I discover the exposed triple-expansion engine and the ships boilers.
The stern section is very intact, with the huge rudder lying straight.
The bow section has twisted, however, and rests almost inverted, nose down in the sand. Two-thirds of it is buried, creating the impression that the bow hit the seabed first.
This is a great dive, and divers can swim down through the upper decking and into the wreck to discover all sorts of items, such as bottles and sanitary ware.
This expedition is led by two Belgian divers, Glenn Tessens and Danny Huyge. They certainly know a lot about wreck-diving off Belgian shores. On this occasion they have chosen divers to join them from all over the world.
The team has been assisted in choosing our route by the founders of the European Society for Shipwreck Research (ESSR). These Belgian North Sea divers have undertaken a lot of research and are happy to share it. The resulting route combines classics with lesser- and unknown wrecks.
The Belgian part of the North Sea covers some 1330sq miles, barely 0.5% of the whole.
With depths in the 20-30m range, our plan is to capitalise on the big dive vessels capabilities and try our luck with unknown wrecks offshore if we can get to them.
The afternoon dive is on HMS Amphion. This 3440-ton British scout cruiser sank after striking two mines in quick succession during the Great War.
I find the general depth of the wreck to be around 40m, with the shallowest point at 32m. Most of it is intact and upright.
Just aft of the bow foredeck, the vessel has been completely blown away. Some 50m of wreckage litters the seabed before the wreck rises off it again.
This is the bridge. A large amount of the upper structure is still pretty much ship-shape, although covered in marine growth, and I spend some time nosing around the bridge area.
From bridge to the prop at the stern, the wreck is quite featureless. With a lot of divers down, two shotlines have been dropped at the site, the first wave of divers exploring the stern and the second the bow area.
Rebreathers allow us to explore the entire wreck, but we all manage to return to our respective uplines!
Diving in the North Sea is very interesting. Summer days can be hot, and off-gassing periods are spent lazing around on deck, sharing diving stories.
On warm evenings my cabin porthole is wide open, and all I can see are the glaring lights of the gas rigs that always seem to surround us, wherever we decide to anchor.
THE NORTH SEA IS AN ARM of the Atlantic Ocean, 600 miles long and 400 wide. It washes Britain, Norway, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the northern tip of France, with the Strait of Dover connecting it to the Channel to the south.
Its deepest point - 660m - is off the Norwegian coast, but it also contains several shallow areas, the largest of which is the Dogger Bank, midway between England and Denmark.
This sea may be a small, shallow pool compared with the oceans, but it teems with a wide variety of life-forms.
Surrounded by densely populated and highly industrialised countries, it is a sensitive eco-system under pressure from intense human activities such as fishing, sand and gravel extraction, shipping and the oil and gas industry.
Now well out to sea, the next wreck on our tour is the Copenhagen, a turbine steamer owned by the Great Eastern Railway Co when she was torpedoed and sunk by UC61 in 1917.
Passenger accommodation was spread over three decks amidships, with sleeping berths for 320 in First Class, over 200 of which were in double cabins. Public rooms included
a smoking room on the awning deck, and below this a ladies room, while the full-width 62-seat dining saloon was situated on the lower deck.
At a maximum depth of just 50m, I really enjoy this dive. The wreck is bolt upright and very long but appears swept, with little if any superstructure, though I can identify lots of areas central to the wreck.
Most of the deckhouses appear flattened, but open deck superstructure provides access to the lower decks and inside the wreck. Here, and especially at the bows, I locate some interesting porcelain, while others discover clocks, barometers and more porcelain displaying the shipping company logos.
The stern is very intact, with three propellers coming off an exposed propshaft. This is one of the best wrecks on our tour, and many divers want to stay to explore it further, but we have to move on to the next wreck.
As we do so, the blow is softened by the fine cuisine - the food on board Cdt Fourcault is second to none.
THIS SEA IS A HAPPY hunting ground for unknown wrecks, and we spend several days diving some of them.
The Belgians are still working to identify them, based on clues we brought to the surface.
We do however know the identity of the Konigin Luise, a German auxiliary minelayer of 2163 tons that was sunk by the HMS Amphion we had dived a day earlier. Ironically, Amphion itself was sunk by a mine that had been laid a day earlier by the Konigin Luise!
This is an exciting wreck, if only because somewhere on board lies the equipment of at least five of the ships divers. But we fail to locate any of this gear on the wreck, which lies intact in 47m, but partially buried in a sand wave.
I record a general depth of about 40m, with depths increasing in the sand scours. The wreck appears to be lying on its port side at 45°. Much of it is full of sand, but there is still plenty to see.
I ride my DPV right round the wreck several times. My dive partner Mark Bullen discovers what we think is the ships safe, in an area where some beautifully decorated tiles are exposed.
Artefacts protrude from the sand all over the place, and divers discover many portholes and pieces of china.
US diver Dan Bartone, a dive-boat captain himself, is accompanying us, enjoying spending his European holiday discovering portholes!
As we head back to Belgium we explore other unknown wrecks, as well as the ss Pluto and the ss Mass.
Pluto is an intact British cargo vessel, its bows facing south-east. Depth range is 37-46m. Here a single triple-expansion engine is visible, though again partially covered by sand dunes. The bow stands a good 8m high, and not far aft we can see whats left of the broken mast stump.
The Mass, a Dutch steamship lost after striking a mine in 1916, lies in 40m. Though broken it is well worth a visit, wonderfully decorated in marine life, including colourful dead mens fingers.
Back in Antwerp, we sample legendary monastery beers and reflect on a great weeks diving. With so much to explore in the North Sea, Id like to say Ill be back sooner rather than later.
For more on diving from the Cdt. Fourcault in the North Sea, visit www.fourcault.be