Commerce, County & collision
THE ONLY RECOGNISABLE FEATURES of this part of the wreck that I can make out at first are the anchors and a large heap of chain, directly in front of me. They lie within what’s left of the well-broken and clearly visible forecastle superstructure.
The extent of the damage is not surprising when you consider that this is the area that was stoved-in to a depth of 4m by a larger vessel almost 130 years ago – causing the British Commerce to sink in just three minutes.
My depth gauge reads 52m. A few metres away from the large Admiralty-pattern anchor, towards the end of the wreckage, lies a much smaller anchor. From there I can also see the huge forward bow mast, which has at some point fallen directly across the tip of the bow wreckage.
I have finned from the stern section, where our downline hooked into the wreck, and across the amidships to the bow. I’m using an APD Evolution closed-circuit rebreather to give me a longer bottom time at this depth, but have allocated myself a time window of only 40 minutes on this dive.
This part of the English Channel is very tidal; if I wait until slack water ends it will be difficult to get back to the line.
On my ascent I meet fellow-divers, and we let go of the line at the same time to drift and decompress together, allowing the boat captain to monitor our whereabouts.
Returning to classic wrecks such as the British Commerce after many years has been a real treat. We’ll be back on the wreck tomorrow for the second ive of the weekend.
I first dived the British Commerce after divers from High Wycombe discovered the wreck while diving from Ivan Warren’s Littlehampton charter vessel Michelle Mary in 1993.
It was an exciting dive, with many artefacts spread among the wreckage.
I recall being taken aback by just how big a sailing vessel could be. This was back in the heyday of British wreck diving, and new wrecks seemed to be discovered by trimix teams every weekend.
News rapidly spread across the community that the British Commerce had been discovered. It had been one of those wrecks sought-after by deep-air divers for years.
The High Wycombe boys had done it, and had even raised the ship’s bell, marked “British Commerce 1874”, as positive identification.
I’M EXCITED ABOUT tomorrow’s dive, because I intend to spend more time around the amidships section. This is where the cargo, intended for Melbourne, Australia, was stowed.
I hope to get more photographs of the huge millstones and explore more of this area, which has collapsed further and appears more exposed than I remember.
The British Commerce was built in 1874 by Dobie & Co of Glasgow and was a 1417-ton steel-plated sailing ship 75m long, owned by the British Shipbuilders Co. Her fate was one typical of shipping losses during that era – the result of a collision.
This one, with the larger iron sailing vessel County of Aberdeen, could easily have been avoided had better seamanship been applied.
There were only two survivors when the British Commerce sank in April, 1883 – one of them her captain.
The incident was investigated under the Merchant Shipping Acts at Westminster over four days in May.
According to the Board of Trade wreck report findings, the court held the 1943-ton County of Aberdeen, operated by Robert Craig of Glasgow, to blame.
The cargo vessel had been homebound from Calcutta via London.
According to representatives of the British Commerce, the collision occurred shortly after midnight of the 24th, the watch having been mustered.
However, the County of Aberdeen’s side claimed that it happened shortly before midnight, because the watch on that vessel had yet to be changed.
This apparent contradiction between the two parties can be readily explained. They were nearing the point of collision from opposite directions, the Commerce making 4-5 knots from the east, the County making 5-6 knots from the west.
They were therefore approaching one another at about 10kph, and at noon would have been some 120 miles apart.
On merchant vessels, the clocks are always set at noon, so at midnight the time on board a vessel coming from the east would always be in advance of the true time, while the vessel coming from the west would always be behind.
WHATEVER THE TIME, the British Commerce took only three minutes to fill with water and sink, because the oncoming vessel cut so deeply into her bow.
Captain McLean’s County of Aberdeen managed to make it back to Portsmouth the following afternoon, however, although her fore-compartment was stoved in and full of water, and her jib boom smashed.
Two witnesses from the County, her bosun and Stanley, the donkeyman, who were both forward at the time, swore that the blow was stem-on, leading aft; that it occurred at the break of the forecastle, just forward of the fore rigging, and about 3m abaft the collision bulkhead; and that the County cut some 4-6m through the deck into the British Commerce’s forehatch.
The County was deemed to have carried out a wrongful act in bringing herself onto the Commerce’s starboard bow and then suddenly porting her helm. She should have kept out of her way, either by continuing on her existing course and passing to windward, or by porting her helm early enough to go clear.
The British Commerce’s captain was in his cabin examining his charts when the other vessel was first reported.
He at once came on deck and, seeing the County on his starboard bow bearing down on his ship, and a collision inevitable, ordered the helm to be starboarded, with a view to diminishing the force of the blow. The court attached no blame to this action.
The master of the County of Aberdeen had also been in his cabin consulting his chart, which he was right to do as he was bound up-Channel, and he had left the deck in charge of the second officer. So the blame for the collision was attached not to the captain but to this officer.
From the time the British Commerce was first reported, the court said, he should have kept a look-out, and not jumped to the conclusion, after seeing no lights, that she was going the same way as the County of Aberdeen.
The night was dark and hazy, and he didn’t have much time, but had he been vigilant he would have foreseen the outcome and taken evasive action. Such collisions continued to happen for almost 100 years more, until discipline was introduced to the Channel, the busiest waterway in the world, in the form of dedicated shipping lanes.
The Channel is 350 miles long and varies in width from 21 to 150 miles. On a typical day more than 400 ships pass through the Strait of Dover at its eastern end. Technology these days tracks their relative movements and reduces the risk of collision.
In the 1970s an eastbound and a westbound lane, each five miles wide and five miles apart, were introduced. But many hundreds of wrecks that lie beneath these shipping lanes were the victims of earlier indiscipline.
For years we dived these wrecks, and would often charter two boats, so that one could act as a scout-boat and divert large container ships getting too close to decompressing divers for comfort!
THE BRITISH COMMERCE WRECK was long thought to be that of a similarly sized vessel in shallow water just off Selsey Bill, but the deep-wreck divers from High Wycombe put an end to those stories once and for all.
The wreck lies more than 40 miles south-east of Littlehampton along the tide over a seabed of shingle and stone.
It rests upright with a slight list to port, possibly due to a small rift in the seabed.
It’s the second day, and the weather is holding out. Sunlight penetrates the surface of the Channel, giving good light levels at depth.
I’m exploring the amidships section, where most of the decking has rotted away, leaving the general cargo exposed and lying across the seabed.
Along the length of this section the iron hull has billowed out and is exposed to both starboard and port, with girders and plates among the spilled cargo.
Swimming here from the bow, I note large amounts of copper piping almost 4m in length, and huge amounts of crockery. Glassware lies in and among twisted sections, as do brass beer-taps, cod bottles and various fittings.
Also noteworthy are the great number of old millstones of varying sizes, and what were once barrels of clay, though only the clay remains.
Millstones were used in gristmills, for grinding wheat or other grains.
They come in pairs, the bedstone being stationary and the turning runner stone above it creating the grinding action.
A runner stone is generally slightly concave, while the bedstone is slightly convex, as can clearly be seen on the wreck. The differing shapes helped to channel the ground flour to the outer edges of the stones to be gathered up.
The stern is the most intact part of the wreck, and the rudder remains in situ and is clearly visible. A lot of bottles lie below a large capstan that rises high.
The cargo seen while covering the length of the ship is certainly varied.
One reason why the British Commerce went down so fast is that included in that cargo were large sections of masonry in the form of stone blocks and plinths. These may well have been parts of a church to be erected in Australia.
MARINE LIFE IS PLENTIFUL on the wreck, and you find yourself swimming among shoals of both blue corkwing and cuckoo wrasse, and ocean pout. Large crabs have made their home there, as have many large conger that hide within the twisted wreckage. A lot of mussels are present, too, especially around the bow.
So far offshore, the vis on the wreck can be excellent and has been known to exceed 20m, with 18m common. When the sun is high in the sky, natural light is present even on the bottom.
I’ve enjoyed diving the British Commerce over the years – this is a classic wreck dive that should be on the list of every advanced wreck-diver visiting the area.