On the Million Hope
THE MILLION HOPE WAS BUILT IN 1972 in Hiroshima, originally called the Ryusei Maru (maru means “circle” or “completeness”). She was a bulk-carrier (unpackaged cargo) with five holds and four gantry-cranes, displacing 26,181 tons gross.
The vessel was 175m long with a 25m beam and 10m draft. Fitted with twin six-cylinder diesel engines, she could reach a top speed of 17 knots.
In the space of 24 years, she underwent six name changes under various owners. Her final identity came in 1996, along with an insurance figure of £4.1m. Aksonas Shipping in Cyprus had paid just £1.36m for her six weeks before her final journey.
As the Million Hope the vessel left Aqaba in Jordan on 19 June, heading for Taiwan with 26,000 tonnes of potash and phosphate (chemical nutrients used to produce fertilisers and help plants to resist disease).
Early the next morning the ship hit Nabq Reef in the Enterprise Passage, several miles north of Sharm el Sheikh.
Lloyd’s List reported that the vessel “was ripped open by coral reefs… some of the crew accused the vessel’s master of failing to follow the area’s prescribed navigation routes and of maintaining speed despite poor visibility”. However a fire breaking out in the superstructure is also mentioned in some publications.
The sinking of cargo ships does not create such Boy’s Own reading as the demise of warships, so you won’t find an abundance of sources when researching the Million Hope.
However, the sheer size of the wreck speaks for itself, and I am one of the privileged few in Sharm el Sheikh who has explored it extensively.
It took only about 25 minutes to reach the Million Hope in a powerful 8.5m RIB that departed from the private jetty at Grand Rotana Resort & Spa, near Sharks Bay. The trip is, however, highly dependent on calm seas.
The wreck tour begins just off from the gigantic stern. In 2007/8, attempts were made to remove visible superstructure from the Nabq Reef. The all-inclusive resorts along this stretch of coastline preferred a naked horizon, so the Million Hope’s gantry cranes were cut short.
A Caterpillar crane manoeuvred too close to the edge of the barge carrying it while this work was being carried out, and tipped over the side.
The crane and its jib now sit upright on a sandy bottom at 22m, and this bizarre addition to the wreck-site is covered in colourful soft corals.
The rotten seat and flooded controls are contrasted by the many scorpion, lion and glassfish that have made their home there.
A large white broccoli coral hangs from the stern, failing miserably to fill the gaping void left by the salvaged prop and rudder. It is one of the places on the ship that make you feel very, very small!
It is tempting to hug the hull on your way towards the bow – it sports big fire sponges adorned with pyjama slugs on steroids, and there are numerous seastars and pipefish clinging to it. However, if you venture just 5m off to port you’ll find a surrealist’s dream sequence unfolding.
A digit-less telephone sits on the sand, its handset still on the rest.
A toilet seat has come to find itself framing a raspberry coral, and a gas cylinder that landed upright on the bottom somehow resembles a fire hydrant on a pavement.
The ship is cracked in two, and it is possible to swim under the damaged part of the port side. This swim-through brings you out at the bow, which is now twisted to starboard.
The hawsepipe points skyward like the eye of a defeated dragon. Enter the bow just beneath here and swim through a school of excited cave sweepers across to the starboard side, which rests against the reef on top of another, much smaller, shipwreck – the Hey Daroma.
Swimming across the holds through schools of grunts, you feel as if you are hovering over Olympic-sized swimming pools. If you are expecting cargo you will be disappointed – the potash and phosphate were removed after an algal bloom following the crash.
However, there are still interesting features to explore. Two gantry-crane control cars sit abandoned, their hydraulics cut to “tidy up” the horizon during the salvage. The windows of the cars are gaping holes, and their
personnel doors are closed to further loading requirements.
The top part of the bridge was deliberately cut and now sits in the fifth hold. It is easily accessed, but you will be disorientated and unsure which way is up and which down.
Raped of all its electronics, it looks like a giant Connect 4 frame.
AFTER THE VAST ABYSS of the holds, ascend to just 7m to enter a small door to the crew’s quarters. There is something odd about following in the footsteps of a seaman while wearing fins!
The maze of rooms is illuminated via portholes and thoroughfares by an eerie green light from holes in the ceiling.
Drawers are half-open in chests full of silt. A sink fallen from the wall sits on a carpet of shells, door mechanisms and a Wellington boot. A piece of cloth tied around a leaking radiator valve, tiles and a trolley are further reminders that this was once a working ship.
If a fire did rage on the Million Hope before impact, in this part of the ship you will find the fire-hose half snaked and half still tightly coiled, unable to do its job quickly enough.
Poke your head into the door of the workshop on the port side to see big spanners and gaskets still hanging on their hooks. A huge lathe takes up the centre of the room and a vice adorns the top of a workbench, with more randomly open drawers.
Swim to the starboard side to see the two boilers. Between these areas is the valve and rocker gear of the twin six-cylinder engines (the mechanism that allowed the fuel in and exhausts out).
Then swim up to the stern in 3m of clear water to see surgeonfish munch algae on the deck, and end your dive.
Further penetration of the Million Hope is for experienced wreck-divers only. I can’t stress this enough, because daggers of rust hang like stalactites from the ceiling and pipes above the engine-room. Their fragility causes them to crumble with every exhalation, leaving a cinnamon-coloured powder that obscures visibility for every diver behind the first. Your entry is also your only way out.
IF YOU DO HAVE THE EXPERIENCE and you take a private guide, you will find an Aladdin’s cave of wreck-geek gadgetry below the boilers.
Two stairwells give way to some of the most detailed machines I have ever seen in any wreck. Stickers still read “fw/sw” on small desalination plants; fluorescent strip-lights hang awkwardly from the ceiling; a minute chemistry set sits open on a wall, with immaculate test tubes, glass bottles, pipettes and hydrometer.
A seaman’s T-shirt has been thrown over pipes below the engine-room ceiling. Workmen must really have felt the heat down where the crankshaft and connecting rods were operating.
There were six pistons to each engine in the Million Hope. You can also find hydraulic pumps, refrigeration units and auxiliary engines of cranes and winches.
The Million Hope tells a very intricate story. Because of its distance from the centre of Sharm and the unpredictable weather in the Tiran Strait, it can never become a regular organised trip like the wreck of the Thistlegorm.
As such, you feel privileged to dive this big wreck. My longest dive on it so far has been 147 minutes, yet I feel I have barely touched the surface of this beast!
Only a few dive centres in Sharm offer RIB dives, typically for a small additional charge. Some also offer private RIB hire. If you have a technical diving qualification and wish to explore the wreck further, it’s worth booking a guided technical dive.