Return to the Waitara
IT’S NICE TO RETURN to the Waitara with the expectation of a far more reasonable bottom time than on my previous visit. I’m using my Inspiration rebreather – last time I was on open circuit. That’s how much time has passed since I was last here.
My bottom time today will last as long as slack water lasts, at least 45 minutes. At 60m on open circuit, my time had been limited to well under half an hour.
I’m excited, because I haven’t heard of charter-boats bringing divers to this wreck for some years. If the sand dunes that previously lay across it have shifted, some interesting artefacts that were once covered may now be exposed.
I’m not going to discover the main ship’s bell, because that was recovered 17 years ago. However, I do know that sailing ships often had a second more intricate and ornate bell, and have been lucky enough to find such a bell before now. Who knows this time
The wreck lies well out into the Channel and is often blessed with good visibility, but today it’s dark, and with much sediment stirred up by a recent storm, good photo opportunities could be limited.
I place a strobe a few metres from the anchor to mark my return point, and set off to revisit the wreck I once knew so well. The sands have indeed shifted, and I can see that more of the wreck has collapsed since my last visit.
My new high-powered LED torch soon picks out some interesting porcelain: decorated dishes, ornate 19th century glassware, jugs and chamber pots. There are still plenty of artefacts along with cargo aboard the vessel, even though much was recovered soon after her discovery.
Portholes that I remember as fixed in position now lie in the sand. Because of the conditions, I decide simply to leave my camera turned off and enjoy the dive.
Continuing along the port gunwale, I finally reach the stern. The rudder has fallen below. I make my way back along the starboard side of the wreck.
The dive is over all too soon, but I have enjoyed the dive as if this were a new wreck. Would this be the case with other wrecks I haven’t dived in years
BACK AT THE SURFACE and after a cup of tea, I check the skipper’s schedule. I’ll almost certainly revisit this fabulous wreck when the weather conditions improve – I can hardly wait!
The Waitara was a fully rigged British iron sailing ship of 883 tons and, as I had been reminded 17 years after first diving her, one of the most interesting and elegant 19th-century ships to be lost in the English Channel.
Built in 1863 at Port Glasgow by J Reid & Co, the Waitara was almost 60m long with a beam of 10m, and would sail general cargo with a company of some 25 men under her original name of Hindostan between the northern and southern hemispheres.
On 22 June, 1883, Waitara was making good progress down the Channel in the early stages of a journey that would take her from London to Wellington in her home country, New Zealand.
On the same day the Hurunui, owned by the same company, also left London, heading the same way.
A little bigger than the Waitara at 1012 tons, Hurunui was another fully rigged sail vessel but a little younger, having been built in 1875 at Jarrow-on-Tyne.
A little after 10pm both vessels were roughly 26 miles south of Anvil Point, Dorset. Waitaras lookout signalled that he could see a red light from a distant vessel off the starboard bow. Conditions were now slowly deteriorating, and both vessels were heading into a rainstorm with little visibility.
Waitara’s Captain Webster had gone below deck to fix a position on his chart, and had fallen asleep. The apprentice boy had to hammer at his door to inform him of the closing vessel.
According to the subsequent Merchant Shipping Acts board of inquiry, Hurunui was close-hauled to the wind on the starboard tack, having seen Waitara a mile or so before.
Hurunui’s Captain Hazelwood ordered his helmsman to keep the vessel luffed up to the wind, and told the chief mate to go forward to blow the horn.
By now the vessels were close together. Captain Hazelwood ordered the helm hard down and the yards backed in the hope of stopping the ship. Moments later, however, the two vessels collided.
The Hurunui struck the Waitara a little aft of the main rigging on the starboard side, before rebounding and striking her a second time just forward of the break of the poop.
While the vessels were locked together, Captain Webster, who had been standing on deck with some of the crewmen, managed in the confusion to scramble over Hurunui’s bows.
Within four minutes the Waitara had sunk, taking all those below decks down with her. Fourteen crew and 12 passengers (including two stowaways) were lost, with only 12 crew and four passengers saved.
HURUNUI WAS TAKING ON WATER but very slowly, so she stood by until a tug was able to tow her back to London for repairs the next morning.
The inquiry blamed the collision on the Waitara’s second officer, who had drowned in the incident.
Captain Webster was also held to a certain amount of blame for leaving the deck. He should have been in sole charge of navigation until midnight, when a new course had been set.
Waitara became a footnote in the long history of Channel disasters – until 112 years later, on 8 August, 1995.
A team of local mixed-gas divers based in Poole was operating from the charter vessel Murco, skippered by Geoff Way.
They were aware of the loss of the Waitara in the area, and finally found the old ship in 60m of water, exactly 21 miles due south of Anvil Point.
The Trimix Team DEEP (Dorset Extreme Exploration Projects) was one of the UK’s pioneering mixed-gas dive teams. Its member Alan Yeend was responsible for much of the research that helped to locate the wreck.
He delved deep into Hydrographic Office data and ran exact tidal and wind situations for the date of the collision back in 1883. This information enabled the team to pinpoint the Waitara’s likely position, so it was just a matter of time as they dived several wrecks close by until the sailing ship was found.
Leading technical diving instructor Phil Short was part of the team the day the wreck was discovered and remembers that magic moment well. Phil has enjoyed 20 years of adventures in the diving industry, but the day the Waitara was discovered remains one of the highlights.
“The first dive on any virginshipwreck is special but this was different, quite magical,” recalls Phil. “This was a wreck of a calibre our team hadn’t witnessed before.
“I descended to the wreck and identified quickly that this was a triple-masted ship on its side, with obvious cargo and contents spilled from the vessel itself and everywhere to be seen.
“On that first dive and towards the end of her bottom time, Alison Mason, a member of our dive team, found the ship’s bell wedged under a girder.
“I remember assisting Alison and then continuing on my own after she left for the surface.
“I worked hard, and efforts to release the bell became frantic, but I kept calm and worked at freeing it until the bottom time of my last set of tables ran out!
“It was then that I called Steve Connelly and Nick Carter over (using light signals) and they worked until it was free and were able to send it to the surface.
“Disaster then struck, and some serious bad luck set in. On its way to the surface the lift-bag burst and never reached daylight!
“As disappointed as we were, the team agreed to spend the next two booked dives searching the seabed in the vicinity of the wreck to find the lost bell.
“In the end Alan Yeend did locate it and was able to recover it – this time securely and safely.
“After that dive and back aboard the Murco the team with their dive knives scraped away at the marine growth until the name ‘Waitara’ appeared! Magic moments,” concluded Phil.
DIVING THE WAITARA TODAY is a privilege. Few global locations could offer a dive relatively close to shore (but still open-channel) to a vessel of this era.
One dive makes clear why this site went top of the list for many deep-wreck divers visiting the area.
Waitara sits upright, listing to starboard only a little, and the great majority of its hull is intact.
The broken-off bow is now tilted forward and heeled over to about 45°, while the 1m-diameter bowsprit remains intact in position.
It’s possible to swim around here and through the wreck at the forecastle, within which can be seen the remains of the chain-locker and an anchor with a scour around the bow at around 61m.
Some lovely old portholes are still fixed to the hull structure around the bow, giving reason to believe that there may have been an accommodation area there.
Aft of the bow the forward mast becomes obvious, lying out across the seabed. Further aft from here you come across a hold that’s well broken up.
Fine sand covers much of the cargo. In various sections of the wreck are piles of what look like insulators. Many fine mid-19th century china artefacts have also been found, recovered and restored.
Each dive will uncover more of the Waitara’s hidden secrets, as sand may well still cover the majority of cargo. If the site were left undived for a number of years it might well shift further.
China and glassware lie scattered under and around most sections, particularly amidships, where the cargo was mostly stored.
From the bow to amidships and beyond, the wreck’s starboard side is raised some 2m above the seabed, enabling divers to swim beneath to where more crockery has been found.
Within this section can be seen machinery of some description and, past the centre-mast, more crockery still.
Moving on towards the stern, more machinery appears and a large wheel on Waitara’s port side, where part of the compass gimbal was recovered.
The stern section is fairly intact and stands some 7.5m off the seabed, although for years a trawl net has been draped across it. Looking down and below here, the rudder can be seen fallen away from its fixing.
Vis within the area has been known to be outstanding, and an abundance of marine life has made its home at the site, bringing the old ship back to life.
It was positively identified with the recovery of that magnificent bell dated 1875. Hindostan must have become Waitara 12 years after being built.
All credit to Jeff Way and the Trimix Team DEEP divers Alan Yeend, Alison Mason, Andy Judd, Steve (Del) Connelly, Nick (Rodney) Carter and Phil Short.
The Waitara lies 31.5 miles from Weymouth, 33 miles from Lymington (28 miles south-west of the Needles). Its exact position is held by skippers who venture out to the wreck on request. Divers wishing to visit the site should contact either Ian Taylor of Skin Deep off Weymouth or Dave Wendes of Wight Spirit, Lymington. Both skippers are veteran divers who can brief first-timers in detail about the wreck on the way out.
Waitara was the name of the New Zealand shipping company’s first vessel, but why
Waitara is a 65-mile-long river in Taranaki Province. A town of the same name stands at the mouth of the river, 10 miles north-east of New Plymouth.
An area of Maori settlement from ancient times, it was the centre of a land dispute with the Europeans in the 1850s that culminated in the defeat of Wiremu Kingi at Waitara in 1861.
Wai means water and tara (short for taranga) means wide steps, thus “river crossed with wide steps”.
Another explanation is that it simply means mountain stream and a further one that a young man searched for his father by successive throwings of his dart (whai, to follow, and tara, or dart). The young man seems to have made life hard for himself.
These possibilities are raised in The Sailing Ships Of The New Zealand Shipping Co 1873-1900.