Lost lady of a golden age
IT’S BEEN 20 YEARS since the wreck of the Smyrna was discovered off Dorset at England’s southern tip. As one of the small team that first explored the wreck, I was little aware of its historical significance at the time.
I was a naïve youngster of 24, surrounded by veteran wreck-hunters.
I wanted to be like them, but I was the apprentice. I made the tea, sat where I was told and was regularly patted on the head like a small dog. Of course, I was always the last to enter the water!
Returning to an old sailing vessel after so many years, it’s as exciting as the first time. The wreck looks a little different, but I recall the layout and the visibility is as good as it’s ever likely to be, especially for shooting photographs.
I’m also amazed by the number of artefacts still lying around the Smyrna. The sand has shifted dramatically and revealed much that was originally hidden. As I swim across the wreck I recall the original dive, on a beautiful, flat-calm day with clear visibility.
I remember the tension before that dive on 24 June, 1993, and the excitement, particularly when we finally surfaced after decompression.
I knew we had done well and I went with the flow, but I hadn’t appreciated the full significance of the discovery.
Now I do, and in some ways feel disappointed at having been so callow and lacking in shipwreck knowledge.
Still, it had been a privilege to be there, to witness the discovery of a clipper that had shared the oceans with famous rivals such as the Cutty Sark and Flying Cloud.
Competed in October 1876, Smyrna had been launched as a wool clipper for the Australian trading market.
Her fastest voyage had been in 1886, when she left Sydney on 18 January and reached London on 30 April – 96 days at sea.
28 April, 1888
The Moto, a six-month-old iron-screw steamer crewed by 13 hands, left Bilbao in Spain bound for the Tyne.
Decked fore and aft with iron, and with watertight compartments, the 1449-ton vessel had been built by RB Fenwick & J Reay of Newcastle.
For her captain Henry Digman and his brother the chief mate, all seemed well as they made good progress through the Channel in a good sailing breeze. There were many eyes on look-out as a large sailing vessel approached Moto’s port bow in full sail.
Fearing a collision, Captain Digman ordered engines to be reversed, and after three or four minutes the Moto came almost to a standstill, but the fully rigged clipper was still approaching fast.
The 1305-ton Smyrna had been built in 1875 for the Aberdeen White Star Line. Under Captain Thomas Taylor, she had left London with 28 crew and holds full of general cargo bound for Sydney, New South Wales.
Digman could see that a collision was unavoidable, and the Smyrna struck near her main rigging, tearing a great hole in her side. She foundered in a very short time, though accounts varied between four and 10 minutes.
Alexander Walker, the Smyrna’s second mate, jumped onto the Moto, but only two others of the clipper’s crew could be pulled aboard at that point.
24 June, 1993
Five divers looked on as a shotline was hooked into an unknown vessel. The charter vessel James Alexandra of Poole circumnavigated a single red buoy and skipper David “Crusty” Saywell appeared more than happy: “She’s tight and fast!” he told us.
Dressed in oil-stained jeans and yellow wellingtons, James gathered us for a briefing on the small foredeck.
He had never put divers into water this deep before and he was as concerned as we were!
He wiped the sweat from his forehead in the heat of the sun before speaking. With no mixed gas or closed-circuit rebreathers available, we would be diving deep on air. Down at 57m, the wreck was cutting-edge for wreck-divers at that time
James’ brief included safety advice, and his raised voice and liberal use of the F-word indicated that he meant it. It was an oily flat-calm day with a light breeze, the Channel at its best, as we rolled off the gunwale into the clear water and descended through the rays of penetrating sunlight.
Partnering veteran diver “Uncle” Nick Legras was an English gent called David Wendes, sometimes referred to as the Master. A master of English shipwreck research, identification and location, he had been searching in these waters off the back of the Isle of Wight between Portland and Christchurch since he was my age. This was his patch, and he knew that the Smyrna was here – somewhere!
The divers and local shell fishermen were happy to pool their knowledge of the wrecks below.
Divers would release lost tackle in exchange for fresh information on recent finds. Dave Wendes had received confidential numbers for a possible new wreck and had chartered the James Alexandra to take his small team of divers to the site.
Positive identification of the Smyrna wouldn’t come until later in the year, but what we believed to be the clipper lay elegantly on the sandy seabed, a wreck-hunter’s dream come true!
At around 40m, the divers could see almost the entire wreck of the Smyrna below them without needing a torch.
It lay in a hollow, whether scoured out by the tide or not, although the hard chalk seabed could account for a natural feature.
The many tons of cargo filling the holds to the brim remained on display for anyone daring to venture as deep as the decks. The manifest was of a typical Australia-bound cargo, including packs of corrugated iron, grindstones, single and two-gallon flagons, marmalade jars, bottles of cider, bottles of acid and poisons, teapots, milk glass, codd bottles which included the rare half-codd size, elegant vinegar bottles, ink bottles, chamberpots and a wide variety of crockery.
We had said that we would not let narcosis distract us from making the best analysis of the wreck that we could. Certain that we had found the Smyrna, we returned again and again through what remained of the season to explore the wreck in greater detail.
In order to do this, the team became one of the earliest in the country to use trimix. Returning with more colleagues, they began to recover items of general cargo, and in late September Danny Purchase recovered a single plate bearing the crest and title “Aberdeen White Star Line”.
Company records confirmed that only one vessel belonging to that company had been lost in the Channel. The Smyrna had been positively identified.
28 April, 1888
Captain Digman ordered three of his boats into the water and his crew began to work hard, succeeding in rescuing another 15 crew. Three of the Smyrna’s men – Smith, the steward; Johnston, the chief mate; and Urquhart, an apprentice – had gone down with the vessel but, amazingly, came back up again.
Twelve lives were lost, including that of the Smyrna’s Captain Taylor. However, Digman and his crew kept the Moto at the sinking location for more than an hour in hope of rendering further assistance.
Moto too had her bows badly stoved in, both above and below the waterline. The steamer could thank her designers for the watertight compartments that saved her from the fate met by the Smyrna.
After the intense period of search and rescue the bulkhead was strongly timbered as an additional precaution and the Moto steamed slowly for Southampton. The Smyrna wouldn’t be seen again for the next 105 years.
Each year the sand and shingle banks move, uncovering more of Smyrna’s artefacts, and the divers believe that there’s much more under the sand to be revealed. Dave Wendes says he hasn’t finished researching the wreck, and knows that there is more to discover.
In late 1993, one diver claimed to have discovered an item resembling a Viking shield, with three holes in its edges.
It was too heavy to lift unaided and he had run out of lift-bags so, swimming against the tide, which had by then turned, he had hidden it with the intention of recovering it later.
The only problem was that, heavily narked, he couldn’t remember where he had hidden it.
Each time Dave dived the wreck, he searched in vain for the “shield”. Then, in 2002, a fellow-diver saw the edge of a round plate sticking out of the sand
(a considerable distance, as it turned out, from where it had originally been found). He didn’t know what it was, but it resembled the shield description in every way.
It turned out to be the Smyrna’s builder’s plate, clearly spelling her name!
As I dive today, the wreck lies completely across the tide in a large shallow depression, upright with a slight list to port.
Other than expected damage to the bows and a few sections of the iron hull, it remains in remarkable condition.
The stern section is completely upright and the classic champagne-glass shape is obvious. Some debris lies to port stern, and the teak rudder is very much intact.
Large numbers of differently shaped bottles and vases in a great variety of colours can be seen at the stern.
Swimming forward on the port side, I can see iron masts and spars on the seabed, and their stumps at deck level are also obvious.
Amidships, even more crockery and glassware is littered around, and there is more of an obvious lean to port. There are excellent picturesque examples of lignum vitae rigging deadeyes, still in rows and attached to the gunwale. Then, swimming forward, I see another mast stump and various capstans.
Like most of the wreck, Smyrna’s classic clipper bow lies to port. It is here that a lot more of the general cargo can be seen. Here and across to the starboard side lie those fabulous Victorian soda siphons known as seltzogenes.
Divers have recovered plates edged in gold leaf here and, amazingly, picture-frames with brasswork in the shape of blackberry leaves and berries. Dave Wendes is uncertain as to whether these were general cargo or a crewman’s personal belongings.
As on many wrecks of this design and age, breaks in the hull, especially on the port side, have allowed cargo to spill out onto the seabed. Year by year these become more exposed, though some may still be buried in the sand, which has built up particularly on the starboard side aft of amidships.
Divers will also discover early ship’s machinery, including a small steam donkey boiler located amidships.
An area of earthenware flagons of different sizes lies scattered about the wreck, lids still firmly in place. Their inscriptions are clearly visible – Elliot Bros, Sydney and Brisbane, manufactured by Smith Co Canal potteries, Old Kent Road, London.
Smyrna is a classic Channel dive and one of the only clippers known to lie in these waters. It rests in an area known as the Rips (so called because of overfalls and eddies swirling over rough ground) that often produces great visibility.
It’s about 15 miles south-east of Anvil Point, south of the Needles off the Isle
David Wendes, Nick Legras, Danny Purchase, Mark Ekins and I were the first to set eyes on this fabulous shipwreck, but the sands are still shifting and every season something new could be revealed. And in case you were wondering, I did eventually pass my apprenticeship with the Master!
Dave Wendes runs dives to the Smyrna aboard Wight Spirit – and even throws in apprenticeships free of charge! Check www.wightspirit.co.uk, or contact Ian Taylor of Skin Deep Diving, who also visits the wreck from Weymouth, www.skindeepdiving.co.uk
There is no precise definition of “clipper”, but the term usually refers to a ship designed for speed rather than economic cargo-carrying. With fine lines and sharp hulls, clippers were sensitive to light air, and in the hands of a talented captain they would ghost through smooth seas when heavier, bulkier ships lay becalmed.
To maintain high speed, a clipper required huge spreads of canvas and large crews. Most were three-masters that, unlike barques, carried both square-rig and spanker sails on the mizzen.
Clippers could make 16 knots in good conditions, and their average speed on a long haul could be surpassed only by the meanest steamship.
The record 71-day passage of the Cutty Sark from Australia to England represents an average of only 8 knots.
The golden age of the clipper coincided with the Crimean War, when most available steamers went on lucrative government time-charter. Clippers built for the China tea trade were finer and faster than Australian wool-carriers.
In 1848, Californian gold strikes drew people from all over the world to stake their claims. Complete crews deserted their ships in San Francisco and made for the gold mines. Every conceivable type of ship was diverted to brave the storms of Cape Horn to reach the West Coast, and passenger and freight rates rose to levels that justified owners sending their ships empty from San Francisco to China to load tea for London.
Clipper-building in America reached its zenith in 1853, when 48 ships were completed for the California trade. “China Birds” fared poorly on the Australian run. Iron construction enabled the existing fuller-bodied design to be stretched, increasing capacity to some 3000-tons and improving sailing characteristics by the addition of a fourth “jigger” mast.
When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, it struck the greatest single blow to sail in the face of the march of steam.